Site: Auschwitz Jewish Centre (Coach D: 2 groups) Approximate time: 20-40 minutes Resources: Historical notes; Father Skarbek, Exhibition & Deportation photos; Exhibition photos – educator version; paper; pens

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Site: Auschwitz Jewish Centre (Coach D: 2 groups)

Approximate time: 20-40 minutes

Resources: Historical notes; Father Skarbek, Exhibition & Deportation photos; Exhibition photos – educator version; paper; pens


The Auschwitz Jewish Centre (AJC) has been, and continues to be, instrumental in preserving the memory and history of 500 years of Jewish life in Oświęcim. The small square in which the AJC sits (previously called Hospital Square) was one of the points of Jewish deportation in 1941 and thus looks back to the pre-war Jewish community, brings us into the story of the Holocaust and places us very much in the present of Holocaust memory, remembrance and absence. What is particularly important about the Jewish Centre are the questions it raises: about Holocaust memory in the town and how this has changed over time; the implications of having Auschwitz-Birkenau in the town; the (non)impact of tourism; the presentation of the Holocaust and Holocaust education.

In 1992 the square was renamed Priest Jan Skarbek Square, to honour the man who was instrumental in forging ties between the Jewish and Christian communities of Oświęcim. Father Skarbek was transferred to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1926. Thanks largely to Father Skarbek, Christians and Jews remember inter-war Oświęcim as a place of peaceful coexistence between these two communities. In 1934 he was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Oświęcim by a unanimous vote of both Christian and Jewish members of the council. During the German occupation, Father Skarbek and other priests were involved in helping prisoners of Auschwitz, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. He returned to Oświęcim in 1945 and helped care for liberated prisoners at PKC Hospital in Oświęcim. There is an opportunity to touch upon, amongst other things, community relations and helping (and by extension, bystander) behaviour.

What are we trying to achieve?

Oświęcim is a complex place of memory and it is not possible in the short space of time that we have, and with the range of knowledge and abilities of those in our groups, to engage with all the questions and issues that could be raised by visiting Oświęcim. Instead we will try to achieve three things:

  • An understanding of the place of the Jewish community in pre-war Oświęcim

  • From that, a clearer awareness of Jewish life and communities across Europe

  • A recognition of the rift and absence created by the Holocaust.

Some groups may discuss these themes at a high level and thus touch upon issues such as post-war memory, but this is not essential. Themes will be picked up later in the day, but sometimes only tangentially, therefore it is important that everyone gains a basic level of understanding.

Historical background

The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot was established in 1893 for religious and educational purposes. During its operation the number of members ranged between 90 and 120 and meetings originally took place in the Chrzanover shtibl on Hospital Square (today Priest Jan Skarbek Square). Construction of the synagogue began in 1913 and it was in operation from 1918 to 1939. During the German occupation the interior was completely destroyed and the synagogue was turned into a munitions depot. In 1941 in was one of the places where Jews were gathered prior to deportation to ghettos. The few returning Jewish survivors prayed there after the war, until 1955. In 1977 the synagogue was nationalized by the Communist government, and from 1992 to 1997 it was used as a carpet warehouse. In 1998 the building was returned to the Jewish Community of Bielsko-Biała which donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Centre. Apart from the building itself, which is historical, the other pre-war content is a plaque on the dividing wall with names of the gabbaim (similar to churchwardens) dated 1928, the plaque next to the aron hakodesh (the ark containing the Torah scrolls) dated 1907 and there is also the original furnace. In the women’s section are pieces of the original wall paintings. The wooden dividing wall is a modern addition.

Discussion points & activities

The time spent on each element of this visit should be judged according to how long we have in Oświęcim. If time is short, points 4 & 5 can be omitted. If very short of time the photos can be dispensed with and each pair simply asked to choose any exhibit they want, note what they can learn from it, and then gather together for the whole group discussion (point 3). Point 6 must not be omitted. The Historical Background notes can be used to provide contextual information where necessary.

  1. Gather the group in the square (for 3-5 minutes) and show the photograph of Father Jan Skarbek, a symbol of Christian-Jewish coexistence, after whom the square was renamed. Father Skarbek (reproduced p. 5 below) was arrested by the Gestapo for helping prisoners at KL Auschwitz.

  • Why have we stopped here?

  • What religious buildings can they see? (The church is where Skarbek was priest. Point out the synagogue if necessary.)

  • Explain that the building behind the synagogue, Café Bergson, was the Kluger family house, where Szymon Kluger lived as the last remaining Jew in Oświęcim, from the mid-1960s until his death in May 2000. What thoughts does the group have about why Kluger returned and stayed?

  1. Before entering the Jewish Centre divide the group into six smaller groups (this will involve splitting pairs) and give each small group one of the six photographs from the exhibition. Provide a piece of paper for each small group if necessary.

  • The task is to find the exhibit in the photo and record information about the person or people shown, or the people related to the object in their photograph. Allow 5-10 minutes for this.

  1. Gather your group in a convenient spot, bearing in mind where the other group is and ask for feedback on what they have found out. Use the notes on the reverse of the educator copy (reproduced pp. 6-8 below) to give extra details as necessary.

  • Focus in particular on the variety of activities, political and social organisations, social classes and occupations.

  • Discuss the different experiences these people had during and after the Holocaust.

  • Spend 5-10 minutes on this discussion.

  1. Hand round copies of the deportation photographs (p. 9 below) and give some or all of the following information:

  • Oświęcim was occupied on 3rd September, 1939. Almost immediately, Jews were banned from trading and owning businesses. The town council was dissolved.

  • The great Synagogue was destroyed on the night of 29-30th September and in December Jews had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David.

  • Jews from the surrounding area were deported into Oświęcim and from May 1940 250 - 300 Jewish men were used to clean the soon to be concentration camp of KL Auschwitz.

  • The first deportation transport from Oświęcim went to Chrzanów on 9th March. The last group of 5,000 people was sent to Będzin and Sosnowiec during the week before Passover in April.

  1. Time permitting, discuss some or all of the points below. The depth and length of discussion will be dependent upon the abilities in the group and the time available.

  • What are their responses to the photographs of the deportation? (Responses may focus on the furniture in the carts, the seemingly orderly nature or the people watching from the windows. What were these people thinking? What, if anything could they have done. It is useful to remind the group that the Jewish and Christian communities in Oświęcim coexisted peacefully and worked together in many areas of town life (see Historical Background notes).

  • Given what they have found out about the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, what would be the impact on those left behind? (A potentially useful piece of information is that during the war approximately 2,000 non-Jewish Poles were resettled from Oświęcim. However, the resettlements were directly connected with the creation and extension of Auschwitz I and they happened in that part of Oświęcim, non-Jewish Poles were not deported from the Old Town (where we are currently situated) responses to the question will probably focus on absence, loss of trade and, possibly, the advantages opened up to gain property and trade opportunities.)

  • In the years after liberation fewer than 200 Jews returned to Oświęcim. What would they have found? Why did none of them, apart from Szymon Kluger, stay beyond the mid-1960s? (Responses will focus on absence, the loss of community and property and a town associated with mass murder. Szymon Kluger may have had a variety of reasons for staying, not least because it was home. Other possibilities include bearing witness or denying the Nazi’s a post-war, Jew-free Oświęcim.)

  • Do they have any thoughts on how the Holocaust is remembered in Oświęcim? (This is a difficult question as they will not have seen the Auschwitz Jewish Centre, nor any other forms of Holocaust memory in the town. Thus responses may focus on ideals of how the town should or could remember the Holocaust.)

  1. Final question: Why have we started our story of the Holocaust here, in a normal Polish town, rather than going straight to the camps? (This question MUST be asked, regardless of how much time has been spent on the previous activities and discussions) (Responses are likely to focus on (re)humanising – victims, “bystanders” (are the non-Jewish townspeople bystanders?) and perpetrators. Responses may also mention gaining an understanding of the void created by the Holocaust, or to help understand the Holocaust by focussing on one small town and extrapolating from there. Ensure that the group understands that the story of the Holocaust has many possible starting points and this site of a pre-war Jewish community is just one of them. It allows us to reflect on who the victims actually were.)

  1. Any time still available can be used to look around the exhibition.

Historical Key Points

Jewish Population - Oświęcim

  • Before the war approximately 58% of the town was Jewish.

  • The actual numbers vary but the suggestion is 7000 out of 12,000.

  • By 1941 the entire Jewish community had been deported to ghettoes across Poland.

  • By September 1945 186 Jews had returned to the town. (Not all were originally from Oświęcim.)

  • By November 1950 only 40 Jews remained

  • By 1959 only 3 Jews remained

  • 26th May 2000 Szymon Kluger (b. 1925) the last Jew in Oświęcim died.

Key Dates in the Jewish history of Oświęcim

  • Jews began to arrive in Oświęcim in the early 16th Century.

  • Land was given by Jan Piotraszewski, an Oświęcim resident for a synagogue and Jewish cemetery. The first synagogue was built in 1588 (on the site of what was to become the Great Synagogue).

  • In 1656 the main synagogue was destroyed by the Swedes.

  • In 1711 the synagogue was destroyed for a second time by fire.

  • In 1863 a town fire destroyed the main synagogue and another, as well as the town hall.

  • By 1874 the synagogue began functioning again.

  • Between 1890 – 1900 the Great Synagogue was finished.

  • 1st September 1939 Nazis invade Poland

  • Between 3rd September – 20th November 1939, artefacts were hidden in the Great Synagogue.

  • On 20th November 1939 the Great Synagogue was destroyed by fire.

  • An excavation on the Great Synagogue site, in 2004, found 400 artefacts.

Below are descriptions of the photographs/objects used during the small group activity together with their location in the exhibits of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre. Your group will have either Photographs 1 – 3 or Photographs 4 – 6.

Photograph 1: The oldest surviving Jewish gravestone

Location: Glass showcase next to the window in the first exhibition room (The Beginnings)

Description: The oldest surviving gravestone in Oświęcim, this is the gravestone of Abraham Aba, son of Asher Zelig, who died on October 21, 1757. This is the oldest tombstone, or matzevah, in Hebrew found in the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim. It was most likely standing in the oldest Jewish cemetery in town. The text in Hebrew reads:

Abraham returned to his place

buried here

A righteous among philanthropists, who walked the paths of good men

A respected man and rabbi Abraham Aba son of Asher Zelig

Died in good glory on Thursday, 7th of Cheshvan

May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life
Photograph 2: Photograph of Jewish sports club Kadima

Location: Gallery of photographs in the women's section of the synagogue

Description: Taken in 1930s, the photo is of footballers from the Jewish Gymnastics and Sport Association Kadima in Oświęcim, the best known Jewish sports club in Oświęcim. It was founded in 1921 by local Zionist activists including Dr. Maurycy Goldberg and Dr. Emil Reich. First row second left is Zygmunt Feiler. (Feiler's contemporary photograph and personal story of survival is presented in the New Life exhibit and there is information below.)

The official club outfit comprised white and blue t-shirts and black shorts with Star of David emblem. As well as football the club had sections for table tennis, gymnastics, ski, light athletics, and education.

Photograph 3: Bottle from the Jacob Haberfeld Factory

Location: Showcase left of the entrance to the women's section of the synagogue.

Description: This is bottle is from the Jacob Haberfeld Steam Factory of Vodkas in Liquors, which was located on Sobieskiego Str. (now Dąbrowskiego Str.) near the centre of Oświęcim. It was the first factory in the town, established in 1804 by its Jewish resident Jacob Haberfeld. Haberfeld's liquors won many international awards and the factory also produced fruit juices. The Haberfeld family was known for its involvement in the local community through membership in the town council and charity.

At the outbreak of the war the owners, Felicia and Alfons Haberfeld, were on their way back from the World Fair in New York. Their ship was diverted to Scotland and they could not return to war-stricken Poland. Their two-year-old daughter Francisca remained in Oświęcim. The Germans found her in hiding and she perished in 1942.

After the war the Haberfelds settled in the U.S. and the dilapidated factory building was finally demolished in 2003.

Photograph 4: Centrepiece of a chandelier from the Great Synagogue

Location: Glass showcase next to the window in the first exhibition room (The Beginnings)

Description: This is a piece of a chandelier from the Great Synagogue in Oświęcim, built in the second half of the 19th century on the site of the first Jewish house of prayer in the town. Jews and Christians from Oświęcim recall the celebrations of the Constitution Day (May 3) and Independence Day (November 11) held in the synagogues with Polish flags flying and prayers for Poland. The Jews in Oświęcim also decorated the interior of the Great Synagogue with Polish national symbols (see the crowned eagle on the top of the chandelier).

The Great Synagogue in Oświęcim was located on Jewish Str. (now Berka Joselewicza Str.) in the heart of the town's Jewish district. The neighbourhood was filled with other synagogues and schools as well as religious, charitable and social institutions.

Two months after the invasion of Oświęcim the Germans ordered destruction of the Great Synagogue. Today an empty square and memorial plaque is all that remains. The artefacts shown in the exhibition were excavated by archaeologists on the site in 2004.

Photograph 5: Greeting card for Elina Shaked

Location: Panel about Elina Shaked in the New Life exhibition. The exhibition is on show in the room next to reception of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre.

Description: This greeting card was sent by Mrs. Jadwiga Marciniak, Elina's teacher of Polish in a primary school in Oświęcim in 1971, with best wishes for Elina and her parents: Salomon and Regina. Elina's parents were among the few Holocaust survivors from the town of Oświęcim. Her future mother Regina was deported in 1941 to Sosnowiec and later to camps Annaberg, Gross Rosen, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated. Salomon escaped to the Soviet Union with his brother and remained in Siberia and Uzbekistan for the duration of the war.

Elina’s future parents returned to their hometown after the war and got married. In 1949 their daughter was born. Elina went to school in Oświęcim until 1962 when the family left for Israel. Following her departure she kept in touch with her teacher for many years.

Photograph 6: Marta Świderska and Olga Pressler

Location: Information panel for the documentary Wspomnienia z Oświęcimia / Remembering Oświęcim in the hall next to reception of the Auschwitz Jewish Centre.

Description: This photograph was taken at the beginning of school year on 1st September, 1934. Featured are Marta Świderska and her close Jewish friend Olga Pressler. Both girls went to Stanisław Konarski High School in Oświęcim. Most probably the photo was taken by Olga's father, Marcin Pressler, a well-known photographer in Oświęcim. The Pressler family lived in the Zasole district where their photographic workshop was located. Olga was born in Krakow as daughter of Marcin and Matylda.

In 1941 the family was deported to the Sosnowiec ghetto. From Marta's testimony we know that both girls met several times in Katowice where Olga was a forced labourer. According to Olga's brother Józef Olga was murdered at KL Auschwitz, most probably in 1943. Marta Świderska saved the photograph of her and her friend.

Zygmunt Feiler

Captain of the Jewish soccer team Kadima in Oświęcim, Zygmunt Feiler was born in 1911 in Oświęcim. Before the war Zygmunt worked as a stonemason and engraver at a stonemason’s company in Oświęcim and later in Bielsko. Zygmunt’s true passion, however, was soccer. He played in Oświęcim's Kadima as captain and Bielsko's ha-Koach.

During the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 Zygmunt fought in the Polish army near Lvov, and after his capture was transferred to various German labour camps in Lower Silesia. In 1945 he was liberated in Faulbrück camp and three years later he settled in Israel together with his wife, also an Oświęcim native.

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