May 26, 2018

Oświęcim

19-22 May 2018

Oświęcim is a town in the southern part of Poland which is known as the place where Auschwitz is located. Apart from its connection to the notorious camp, this town has a seperate history of its own.

The history of Oświęcim dates back to the 12th century when it was an important centre of the salt trade. In the mid 16th century, Jews began to settle there, founding a Jewish Community with a synagogue and cemetery. In 1563, economic tensions with non-Jews resulted in a prohibition on further Jewish settlement in the town. Nonetheless, local Jews established a Jewish district, allowing their community to thrive and grow. In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted Jews equal rights. At the same time, Oświęcim became an important railway junction, allowing the town to become economically prosperous. It was actually at this time that Oświęcim’s first factory, the Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory, opened. Such prosperity began to turn in the interwar period as Jews in Oświęcim not only faced increasing antisemitism, but power struggles within their own community.

When the Germans invaded, they forced Polish residents to abandon the area. By 1941, the town’s population had shrunk to 7,600 people. Eventually, a buffer zone of 15 square miles was enforced around the camp and all residents were removed.

After liberation by the Red Army in 1945, surviving Jews struggled to reconstruct their community in Oświęcim. Uprisings against communist rule, continuing antisemitism, and economic hardship drove Jews out of the town. By 1960, Oświęcim, whose population was sixty percent Jewish on the eve of World War II, had and still has no Jewish residents. To commemorate its former Jewish resident’s history and contribution to the town, a museum now stands attached to its one and only remaining synagogue.

Today, Oświęcim is an industrial town home to around 45,000 residents. One of its main places of work is the same chemical factory where prisoners of Auschwitz-Monowitz were forced to work. While this may appear to be problematic, one has to consider the perspective of those living in the town. For them, life in Oświęcim is not a tourist trip or an act of commemoration.

Overall, it is crucial to note that the town’s residents live in Oświęcim, not Auschwitz. Many of its residents have never even visited the camps. Instead, those who live in Oświęcim drive past the former camp’s brick walls on their way to work or, maybe, on their way to the local pizza shop.