When Auschwitz Was a Jewish Town

Town Was a Polish Center of Orthodox Life Until Nazis Came

Shopping in Auschwitz: Many homes and shops near Oswiecim’s market square were owned by Jews. During the German occupation, Rynek (ring square) was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz.
Collection of Lukasz Szymanski
Shopping in Auschwitz: Many homes and shops near Oswiecim’s market square were owned by Jews. During the German occupation, Rynek (ring square) was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz.

By Anna Goldenberg

Published May 21, 2014, issue of May 23, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Of all the things and places to give an endearing Jewish name, Auschwitz would seem the most unlikely. Oshpitzin — which comes from the Aramaic word for guest, ushpizin, and is the name of a traditional Sukkot prayer that welcomes guests — was how Jews once referred to Oswiecim, the Polish town that would become the location of the Nazis’ deadliest camp.

Oswiecim, as we learn in a small, new exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, was home to a thriving Jewish community from the mid-16th century until the Holocaust. Jewish life in the Polish town flourished from 1867, when Jews in the Habsburg Empire were awarded full religious rights and Galicia became a de facto autonomous region, up until the outbreak of World War II. Estimates show that the Jewish population reached an all-time high in 1939, when the majority of the town’s 14,000 residents, was Jewish.

Located at the confluence of Poland’s main river Vistula and its tributary Sola, Oswiecim had been a market town since the 1200s, known for its arable land and a medieval castle that still stands today. Germans were among the early settlers, calling the town Auschwitz, which is thought to be derived from the name of one of the early settlers. The first Ashkenazi newcomers from Central Europe arrived in the mid-16th century. According to a reproduction of a document displayed at the exhibit, Polish nobleman Jan Piotraszewski donated land to the Jewish community to build a synagogue and a cemetery.

In the mid-19th century, Oswiecim was connected to several major railway lines. On the eve of World War II, the town had between 20 and 30 synagogues, and a wide variety of Jewish organizations: Photographs show a gathering of more than 100 members of the socialist and Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement next to an image of an Orthodox Purim celebration. The town was also a center of hasidic life, with three synagogues maintained by the Bobov sect.

“It’s easy to look at Jewish life through the lens of what was coming,” said Shiri Sandler, the curator of the exhibit and U.S. director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. For this reason, the show focuses on the town’s vibrant Jewish life, which was completely eradicated once the Germans took over on September 3, 1939. By 1941, the entire Jewish population had been deported to three ghettos; 90% of Auschwitz’s Jews perished during the Holocaust. Most of the Polish population was forcibly moved to displaced person camps and the area inhabited by ethnic Germans, many of whom worked in the concentration camp.

Judging from what is on display, the interaction between Jewish and Polish inhabitants seems to have been mostly peaceful. One striking photo, for example, shows visibly observant and secular Jewish men as well as Poles working together to dig anti-tank trenches to prevent German troops from moving forward in the summer of 1939. Another shows a school class on a field trip to the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau). Some of the boys have their heads covered, others don’t. “The Jewish and Polish kids went to school together,” Sandler said. As she guides me through the exhibition, she mentions two periods of anti-Semitism, one at the end of the World War I, and another during the economic recession in the 1930s — but neither of them receives much attention in the exhibit.

Seventy-seven Jewish survivors returned to Oswiecim after the war. Most of them left the region by the 1960s, their lives made difficult under Soviet rule. The last Jew of Oswiecim, Szymon Kluger, a mechanic and electrician, died in 2000.

Jewish life in Oswiecim resembled that of many other towns in the region. Visitors with background knowledge about European Jewish history might find the story being told highly familiar. But the novelty, Sandler said, lies in the name: “It tells a story that is a new one to most Americans who didn’t know that the name Auschwitz could stand for anything else but a concentration camp.” Or who didn’t know that Auschwitz once had a Jewish nickname.

Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern. Contact her at goldenberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.