OSWIECIM, Poland, Dec. 29 (JTA) — On a rainy afternoon this fall, Roman Catholic clergy and Polish, U.S. and Israeli officials joined Holocaust survivors and other Jews in an emotional ceremony that reflected changing attitudes toward Auschwitz and its legacy.
It was the formal ground-breaking for the restoration of the only surviving synagogue in Oswiecim, the town in southern Poland near the Auschwitz death camp — and the creation there of a Jewish study, prayer and information center.
Participants, including local Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy, former speaker of the Knesset and Holocaust survivor Shevach Weiss, and visiting American Jews, donned souvenir hardhats — and buried stones from Jerusalem in a corner of the sanctuary.
Joseph Hennenberg, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Oswiecim and now lives in the United States, sounded the shofar and, facing the east wall where the Ark will be reinstalled, the group joined in the Kaddish and other prayers.
The $10 million project was conceived and sponsored by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, founded in 1995 by philanthropist and businessman Fred Schwartz.
The project’s aim is to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and mourn their loss — not by showing how they died, but how they lived, focusing on the life, culture and history of the prewar Jewish community of Oswiecim as a microcosm of destroyed European Jewry.
More importantly, perhaps, the center hopes to establish itself as a positive, living Jewish presence near the place that is the world’s biggest Jewish cemetery and the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust.
“Out of more than 40 religious institutions in the Auschwitz area, there is no Jewish institution,” said Daniel Eisenstadt, executive director of the foundation.
“There is neither a center dedicated to studying Jewish life nor a synagogue where Jewish visitors can pray and mourn,” he said.
To this end, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnaot synagogue will be restored to how it looked in the 1930s, when the town’s 7,000 Jews made up more than half of the local population and Oswiecim was widely known among Jews by its Yiddish name, Oshpitsin. Last summer the synagogue already received a Torah, donated by a congregation on Long Island, in a joyous ceremony.
In the building next door to the synagogue, a study center will include seminar rooms, a library, a memorial wall, historic photos and an auditorium. There will also be kosher eating facilities.
“We want to represent Jewish life here before the Shoah, not the anonymity of mass death,” said Schwartz, who gained fame in business as “Fred the Furrier.”
Michael Lewan, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, which has supported the project, said, “The synagogue is a testament to those vibrant souls who prayed, studied, sang and danced within its walls.”
Creating a center for Jewish life, education and prayer at Oswiecim represents a sea change in Jewish attitudes toward Auschwitz, a change that Eisenstadt says is increasingly necessary as both the Shoah and the destroyed prewar Jewish world recede further into history.
At least 1.5 million people, 90 percent of them Jews, were killed at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz I camp and nearby Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, were dedicated as a museum/memorial soon after the end of the war.
Hundreds of thousands of people — Jews as well as non-Jews — visit each year, to pay homage to the dead and to learn about the mechanism of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”
“Because of the immensity of the horror and the depth of the pain, previous generations have primarily visited Auschwitz to express grief,” Eisenstadt told JTA. “While that process continues, current and future generations that have had less direct contact with the ‘world that was’ before Auschwitz want to bridge the gap of the Holocaust and understand the Jewish victims not as victims but as people; as fathers and mothers, as teachers, merchants and scholars.”
Indeed, by the time the center is expected to open next Rosh Hashanah, World War II will have been over for more than 55 years. Today’s teen-agers already are removed from the Shoah by three or four generations. Eyewitnesses to the horrors, and to the prewar Jewish experience, are fading from the scene.
The planned function of the center, Eisenstadt said, will help people come to terms with past tragedy, placing it into the sweep of history and incorporating the experience into life.
“In a sense, changing attitudes make visits to Auschwitz about grief and transcending grief,” he said. “As such, future visits to Auschwitz are likely to be more and more akin to a shiva call that focuses both on the profound sadness that accompanies a death and the process of sharing stories of life,” he said, referring to the Hebrew word for the period of mourning.
Creating a center for Jewish life and education can also, organizers hope, fulfill other positive functions.
While for most of the world, Auschwitz has grown to be the chief symbol of the Shoah, Poland’s postwar Communist regime made Auschwitz the chief symbol of Polish suffering under the Nazis and all but ignored the fact that most of its victims were Jews.
In the decade since the fall of communism, much has been done to rectify this. But, particularly between Jews and Polish Catholics, Auschwitz still remains a bitterly emotional lightning rod for controversy over conflicting memory and commemoration.
Auschwitz has also taken on other, more universal symbolism, becoming for many the utmost symbol of evil in general. In this context, a German Protestant organization and the Roman Catholic Church have both set up centers near the death camp aimed at fostering dialogue and reconciliation among religions and peoples.
“There is a need for a Jewish presence near Auschwitz,” Eisenstadt said. “First, as a place where visiting Jews and others can go to reflect, and second, for Jews and others to go to transcend grief by incorporating the life, traditions and culture of prewar Eastern Europe into their own lives.”
Education will be a major emphasis, he said.
“Because the name of the synagogue means Friends of the Study of the Mishnah, we thought it appropriate to design a Mishnah study program under which visitors would be given the opportunity to respond to Auschwitz in both a defiant and affirmative way,” he said. “By doing what Jews did in the synagogue before the Holocaust and studying a mishnah, visitors could make the statement that Jewish learning continues.
“Moreover, by studying a mishnah focused on universal lessons of tolerance, visitors could be affirming the particularlistic and universalistic aspects of Jewish learning that were so central to Jewish communities before the war and which remain central to our communities today.”
The synagogue, a small, compact building with arched windows, was built around 1900 and — as one of about a dozen prewar synagogues in Oswiecim — was used until 1939.
The Nazis brought thousands of Jews to the synagogue before they deported them to ghettos in 1941. After World War II, the Communists seized the synagogue, which was used for decades as a warehouse, most recently a carpet warehouse. In March 1998, it became the first building returned to the Jewish community under Poland’s restitution law.
Local Polish Jews have welcomed the Auschwitz Center project, as have Polish officials, who are eager to improve Poland’s image by backing dialogues and fostering Jewish institutions.
“Everybody, from the Polish government to the U.S. ambassador, to Polish Jews to the Polish church is happy that it is possible to do something constructive at Auschwitz,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a local Jewish leader and Warsaw consultant for the American Jewish Committee.