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Jewish center opens in death camp’s shadow

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OSWIECIM, Poland, Sept. 12 (JTA) — A prayer and study center honoring Jewish life has opened near the place that for more than half a century has been the paramount symbol of Jewish death.

Jordan’s Prince Hassan joined Roman Catholic clergy, Polish, U.S. and Israeli officials and Holocaust survivors in an emotional ceremony Tuesday dedicating the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim — the town outside which the infamous Nazi death camp was built.

The center complex, which includes study, prayer and educational facilities, encompasses the lone remaining synagogue in Oswiecim — the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue — which has been fully restored. It is the only active Jewish institution near the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

“There is in today’s ceremony a message of hope, of tikvah,” said Hassan, who attended the ceremony in his capacity as moderator of the World Conference of Religion and Peace.

“After survival comes revival,” he said. “The message here is that death is not the end of life.”

Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein, noted that he was aware of the “delicate nature” of his participation in the ceremony. But, he added, “further understanding through sharing in our common humanity is a duty of conscience.”

Former Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who is now the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, hugged Hassan warmly and welcomed his presence.

“The fact that you are here with us is a symbol of the continuity of making peace,” he said. “It means solidarity with the present time and understanding of what happened in the past.”

The $10 million Auschwitz Center project was conceived and sponsored by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, founded in 1995 by philanthropist and businessman Fred Schwartz.

Its 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 pre-war Jewish community of Oswiecim as a microcosm of destroyed European Jewry.

“The camps represent the anonymity and mechanics of death,” Schwartz — known from U.S. television commercials as “Fred the Furrier” — told JTA before the ceremony. “Our center counters this anonymity.”

The center also 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 Shoah. There are more than 40 Catholic institutions in the area.

“This synagogue is a testament to the vibrant souls who lived life to the fullest within its walls,” said Michael Lewan, chairman of the U.S. commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage abroad, a co-sponsor of the project.

“Today, Oswiecim has reconciled with its past in an act of love, an act of peace,” he said.

The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue was 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.

The building attached to the synagogue, once the home of local Jews, includes an auditorium, an exhibition on Jewish life in Oswiecim, and a family history center where people can trace their ancestry through computer data bases.

The walls of the complex are hung with historic photographs of Oswiecim Jews, and with pre-war scenes of the town.

“My grandparents came from Oswiecim and had a most marvelous childhood here,” said Lucia Goodhart of Baltimore, who attended the ceremony.

“Opening this center represents not only a rejuvenation but a restoration of relationships. During the ceremony I felt my heart beating out of my chest,” she said. “It is a justification that we lived here. From despair, I have serious feelings of hope.”

The opening of the center took place against a background of controversy over the establishment last month of a discotheque in a local building that had been used for Nazi-era slave labor.

The Polish government joined Jewish groups in criticizing the opening of the disco and urged the owners to move it to another location.

At the dedication of the Auschwitz Center, Oswiecim Mayor Jozef Krawczyk welcomed the new center and new Jewish presence.

He said he hoped that the center would serve as an aid to reconciliation and called on Jews to be sensitive to the day-to-day problems of the city and its citizens.

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