In the shadow of Auschwitz, Jewish life once flowed with spirits


Ritual objects from the Great Synagogue of Oswiecim in Poland, on display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, October 2017. The Great Synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, and these artifacts were uncovered during excavations in 2004 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Before the Nazis erased centuries of Jewish life in Oswiecim, Poland, the town was called a ‚city of Israel,‘ with thriving Yiddish culture and one of Poland’s first factories

By Matt Lebovic | The Times of Israel

Although its name later became synonymous with the Holocaust, the Polish town Oswiecim — or Auschwitz, in German — once brimmed with Jewish culture. The rise and fall of the community’s buildings left behind evocative relics, a few dozen photographs, and many tales of the town’s special place in Polish-Jewish history.

Jews first settled in Oswiecim, west of Krakow, about 400 years ago. By the eve of the Holocaust, they comprised half the town’s population of 10,000 people. The community put up more than 20 synagogues, famous schools, and one of Poland’s first factories. Oswiecim was known as “not a bad place” to live for Jews; indeed, the Yiddish name for the town was Oshpitzin, which comes from the Aramaic word for guests.

Today, only the so-called Auschwitz Synagogue remains of that vanished Jewish landscape. Built in 1913, the modest shul located off town square has changed hands many times. As the synagogue closest to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Nazis murdered more than one million Jews during World War II, visitors usually come on the same day as a tour of the former extermination center.

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