A town called Auschwitz: Exhibit examines pre-war Jewish life in this Polish community

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

From the horror of the Holocaust, a few names stand out in particular — perhaps none more so than Auschwitz. Within the sprawling network of camps that Nazi Germany constructed in Europe for slave labor and industrialized killing, the Auschwitz complex, in southwestern Poland, became a particular symbol of brutality: some 1.3 million people, most of them Jews, died there.

But long before World War II began, the town that became the setting for the Auschwitz camps — Oswiecim — had been home to a rich and diverse Jewish community that in 1939 numbered roughly 7,500 people, who lived mostly harmoniously with their Christian neighbors. The coming of the Nazis destroyed that part of Oswiecim: the last Jewish resident in the town died in 2000.

To celebrate the town’s pre-war legacy, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst has opened a new exhibition, “A Town Known as Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community.” On loan from the Auschwitz Jewish Center at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the exhibit includes a wealth of photographs and other displays on Oswiecim’s history and the Jewish community, with special emphasis on the early 20th century and the prewar years.

Curator Shiri Sandler says the show, which runs through March 27, is designed to show visitors that there was a human face, so to speak, behind the Nazi camps — that places like Auschwitz didn’t just spring up out of nowhere.

“[Oswiecim] had this rich history, but the camp erases the town,” said Sandler, the U.S. director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, where the show was first displayed. That viewpoint tends to be true both for American Jews and non-Jews alike, she noted.

In addition, the exhibit examines the variety of Jewish life in Oswiecim before WWII, from Orthodox Jews to those who saw Judaism more as a cultural identity.

“The image we have of Jewish life in Poland and Europe before the war is problematic,” Sandler said. “We tend to see it centered in the shtetl — simple village life — or we imagine more cosmopolitan Jews living in major cities. In reality, there were a wide variety of experiences in many towns and smaller cities.”

The exhibit’s photos come from a number of sources, including a small Jewish center in contemporary Oswiecim with which the Museum of Jewish Heritage is affiliated. Some come from families who donated their collections to the New York museum, and as such they show a slice of life that’s now just a distant memory: young female gymnasts mugging for the camera, schoolchildren on an outing to a forest, rabbis outside a synagogue.

Those photos are juxtaposed with some of the more familiar, grim images from WWII, from a German soldier interrogating two Jewish men on a Oswiecim street, to a trainload of Hungarian Jews by the Auschwitz camp gates in 1944 — about to be sent to their deaths, according to the caption.

There are also images from after the war, when a handful of Jewish survivors tried to pick up their lives again in Oswiecim. In addition, iPads feature family photos and audio testimonies that tell the stories of five Jewish families from the town before, during and after the Holocaust.

“It was a really moving experience putting this together,” said Sandler, whose grandmother survived an internment in Auschwitz. “There were so many wonderful photos, it was hard to choose. ... My coworkers joked that I was married to all the things in the exhibit.”

Cultures converge

The display includes pieces of Oswiecim’s history dating back to the 1300s, when Polish dukes invited German settlers to the area; the Germans called the town “Auschwitz” in their own language. By the 1500s, Ashkenazi Jews had begun to move to Oswiecim, which had become a center of commerce because two rivers, the Sola and Vistula, converged there.

The town was under the domain of different rulers and kingdoms over the years, such as in the late 18th century, when it became part of the Austrian Empire after Poland was carved up between Austria, Prussia and Russia. “There are periods when Jewish life becomes more difficult, when different people are in power, and Jews have to adjust,” Sandler said. “But in general the Jewish community becomes stronger over the years.”

Indeed, the period from 1867 to 1939 became known as a “Golden Era” for Oswiecim’s Jews, according to exhibit notes, as Jewish residents were deeply involved in the town’s civic, social and economic life (even owning a majority of the town’s businesses) and lived peacefully with their non-Jewish neighbors. They called the town “Oshpitzin” in Yiddish, which means “guest.” About 60 percent of the town’s population was Jewish at the time WWII began, Sandler says.

Several photos attest to the good feelings of the pre-war era, even as anti-Semitism sometimes flared in other parts of Poland. There’s one of a Catholic priest, Jan Skarbek, who arrived in Oswiecim in 1925 and was dedicated to maintaining good relations between the Catholic and Jewish communities. Another, from 1934, is a portrait of two teenage girls and best friends, Marta Swiderska and Olga Pressler, who were Catholic and Jewish, respectively.

After the Germans overran western Poland in 1939, Olga and her family were sent away to do forced labor, Sandler said; Marta was able to visit her friend once. Most of the family members, including Olga, would eventually be sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed — but Olga’s brother survived and was nursed back to health after the war by Marta, Sandler added.

Among a number of images, one in particular, from 1933, showcases the era’s good tidings but also foreshadows the horror to come. Perhaps 90 schoolchildren — Orthodox Jews, less-observant Jews, and non-Jews, all identified by the type of hat they wear — are shown on a trip to a wooded area outside of Oswiecim. Those woods would be cut down about seven years later to become part of the site for Birkenau, the extermination camp that was part of the Auschwitz complex.

That complex, which used a Polish army barracks as its starting point, began in 1939 as a single concentration camp (Auschwitz I) for Polish political prisoners but was greatly expanded to include Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III), a camp for slave laborers at a chemical factory the Germans built nearby. There were also 45 smaller satellite camps in the region; the Nazis selected the area because it had many rail lines, the same lines that had helped business prosper in Oswiecim before the war.

A photo from 1939, in fact, may show the earliest trace of Auschwitz-area prisoners, as several men are shown piling up bricks and clearing rubble from the site of the first synagogue the Nazis demolished in Oswiecim. Over the next several years, approximately 90 percent of Oswiecim’s Jewish population would perish at Auschwitz, Sandler noted.

Lingering anti-Semitism

Aside from the wartime photos — including a portrait of Nazi guards and other Auschwitz personnel having a sing-along during a work “retreat” — “A Town Known as Auschwitz” includes some haunting images from after the war, when about 77 survivors returned to Oswiecim. The Auschwitz camps had been liberated by Russian troops in January 1945.

In one, a woman searches for her grandfather’s grave in a Jewish cemetery in which the Germans had knocked over all the tombstones. Another shows resident Jacob Hennenberg with family members; they, like most of the town’s surviving Jews, would eventually emigrate, burdened with their memories and with lingering anti-Semitism in parts of Poland.

But Hennenberg, it turned out, also collected many images of Oswiecim’s lost Jewish community. Sandler says his granddaughter wheeled a suitcase into the Museum of Jewish Heritage some years back with more than 800 photos from the 1920s and 1930s, and a number of those are part of the exhibit.

For Sandler, whose job includes leading educational workshops on the Holocaust — she travels every year to Auschwitz with U.S. military cadets to examine the issue and its implications for other genocidal movements — the exhibit is a key way of remembering European Jews as people who led meaningful lives, not just as murder victims.

“That’s something we never should forget,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“A Town Known as Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community” is on view through March 27 at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St. in Amherst. The center is open Sundays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, visit www.yiddishbookcenter.org.


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