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Auschwitz and Oswiecim: Split personality

OSWIECIM, Poland, Sept. 20 (JTA) — In its 800 years of history, this town in southern Poland has been called by three names.

Two are well-known: the Polish name, Oswiecim, and the infamous German name, Auschwitz.

The third name, almost forgotten, appears on no current map.

But it was the name probably known best to most of the town’s residents in the years before World War II: the Yiddish, Oshpitsin.

Jews first settled in Oswiecim during the 15th century. By the eve of World War II, some 7,000 Jews made up well over half of the local population.

Most of these people — along with more than 1 million other Jews from all over Europe — were killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the murder factory set up by the Nazis a couple of miles away.

Auschwitz destroyed Oshpitsin and made Oswiecim synonymous with the Holocaust.

Today, at least 500,000 people from all over the world annually visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is now a museum-memorial.

Oswiecim itself is a depressed industrial city of 50,000, beset by unemployment and other economic ills.

Most of its residents are youngsters or postwar imports from elsewhere in Poland who chafe at the Holocaust stigma.

Only a handful of local Jews survived the war.

Szymon Klueger, the last known Jew to live here, died last May and was buried in the tree-shaded Jewish cemetery.

The recent opening of two new meeting places in Oswiecim has spotlighted the town’s uneasy triple identity.

Both new places aim to demonstrate — in radically different ways — that Oswiecim the town is something more than, and something different from, Auschwitz the death camp.

Their opening, however, has laid bare the difficult coexistence of memory, history, commemoration — and workaday urban aspirations at the beginning of the 21st century.

“A major issue is how to preserve the sanctity of the camps along with the requirements of a significant population trying to live respectable lives and feeling that they are bearing the burden of a past that they did not take part in,” New York businessman Fred Schwartz told JTA.

Schwartz was the prime mover behind one of the new meeting places, the Auschwitz Jewish Center — a prayer, education and study center inaugurated Sept. 12 in Oswiecim’s newly restored, sole surviving synagogue. The center is the only active Jewish institution in the Auschwitz area.

The aim of the $10 million complex, established by the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, is to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and mourn their loss by focusing on the life, culture and history of Oswiecim’s prewar Jewish community.

The complex also attempts to restore the city’s obliterated prewar history to the town’s — and visitors’ — contemporary collective memory.

The walls of the complex are hung with historic photographs of Oswiecim Jews and with prewar scenes, including postcards showing Jewish residents and the ornate synagogue destroyed in the war.

Counterbalancing the Auschwitz Jewish Center is the other new meeting place, the System discotheque, which opened in August in a vast building a mile or so from the Auschwitz death camp.

The opening of the disco, complete with loud music, flashing lights, semi-nude dancers and wet T-shirt contests, raised a storm of outrage from Jewish and survivor groups, as well as from the Polish government, which urged the disco’s owners to find a new site for the establishment.

“Places of amusement should not be situated at areas marked with the suffering of the inmates of former death and concentration camps,” the government said in a blunt statement issued earlier this month.

Though located outside of a “protected zone” in which activities that could be offensive to the memory of victims are prohibited, the disco is on the site of a tannery where the Nazis employed slave laborers and where luggage and clothes brought to Auschwitz by its victims were sorted.

“You don’t need a treaty to know that it was a wrong decision to open it there,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA before meeting with Oswiecim Mayor Jozef Krawczyk earlier this month.

“We are not here to tell the people of Oswiecim how to live their lives, but 1,000 people died in that building during the Holocaust,” he said.

The young patrons who crowd the disco each weekend reject the protests.

Dancing at the disco, said one 22-year-old girl, “is better than hanging out on the streets, doing nothing or getting into trouble.”

The disco owners said that because of the nightspot’s popularity, they had doubled their investment during its first six weeks of operation.

“This city has to live normally and develop,” said Zdzislaw Bieniek, a spokesman for the disco’s owners.

“With all due respect to history, Oswiecim should not die for Auschwitz.”

The disco controversy is the latest of several conflicts over attempts to make commercial use of sites associated with Holocaust suffering. In 1996, for example, plans for a mini-shopping center near Auschwitz were halted after Jews protested that it would desecrate the memory of Holocaust victims.

But officials in Oswiecim for years have been trying in a variety of other, less confrontational, ways to assert an independent identity for the city and pull the town, its history and its cultural associations out from under the dark shadow of Auschwitz.

A city guidebook published several years ago, for example, concentrates on the general history of the town and devotes less than a fifth of its 75 pages — and just one of its more than a dozen illustrations — to the death camp or World War II period.

Likewise, the cover of a city map features an idyllic view of Oswiecim’s castle overlooking the Sola River.

The need of Oswiecim to assert its own identity — and the hope that the new Jewish center could help do this by focusing attention on the city itself — was a prominent motif in the speeches of Polish authorities at the Auschwitz Center dedication.

“The synagogue has been resurrected after 61 years of nonexistence,” said local Bishop Tadeusz Rakoczy. “It is in Oswiecim, not Auschwitz. The history of Auschwitz and the crimes there was ended, I hope forever, 55 years ago.

“Today we are in Oswiecim. It is not only a place where there were victims, but the town itself also became a victim of history. It needs to break free from the vicious Auschwitz.”

Mayor Krawczyk welcomed the new center and new Jewish presence as a means of education and local reconciliation, but also as a way to draw outside visitors to the town itself, not just to the Auschwitz camp.

Indeed, the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s organizers said that in the past four months the center had about 5,000 visitors, even though it was not formally open.

They said they expected tens of thousands of visitors to eventually visit the site, which would make the center by far the most visited site in the town proper.

But Krawczyk urged Jews and others to be sensitive to the town’s identity problems and its day-to-day economic and social problems.

Indeed, as he spoke, a line of unemployed people waited to receive benefit payments from an office in a building next to the new Jewish center.

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