During the 20 years of Poland’s independence between the two world wars, the Jewish community in Oświęcim enjoyed the greatest development in its history. In 1921 the town’s population counted 12,187 residents of whom 4950 (40.6%) were Jews. Although no census for 1939 is available, estimates show that at the outbreak of World War II, 8,200 Jews lived in the town of 14,000, comprising almost 60% of the total population. Another available estimate for that year lists 7,000 Jews in Oświęcim.
During the interwar period the town developed rapidly as a result of industrialization, excellent road systems, proximity to advanced Silesia regions, and the county status between 1910 and 1932.
Jewish life in Oświęcim flourished, which manifested itself in the richness of social activities as well as dozens of charitable, religious, and cultural associations, synagogues, sport clubs, and political parties. Oświęcim’s Jews were largely represented in professions such as lawyers, clerks, doctors, and insurance agents. Most of them were Zionist progressive intellectuals. Others were involved in small family business: trade and services. These included selling clothes, food, cattle, horses, timber, leather, spirits, shoes, and making baskets. Jewish citizens in Oświęcim also worked as cobblers, tailors, watchmakers, goldsmiths, and restaurant-keepers. Public transportation was another area of their activity. In 1925 Pinkus Weiss opened a motor vehicle line between Oświęcim and Katowice. In the same year a private company, Autobus, was established for public and freight transportation by three gentlemen: Dr. Maurycy Goldberg, a Zionist activist from Oświęcim, Stanisław Radwański, a doctor from Oświęcim, and Wincenty Stolarski, an industrialist from Brzezinka. Most of the transportation licenses were granted by the Oświęcim town council to local Jewish businessmen. The town also had a small but very active group of Jewish industrialists. Their products from the Jakób Haberfeld’s Factory, Agrochemia and Emil Kuźnicki, among others, were known and valued in Poland and abroad.
Two arenas of Jewish political life in Oświęcim were the Jewish community and the town council. The former was dominated by traditional circles (Orthodox and Hasids) with representatives of Agudat Israel and followers of various tsadiks in the first place. Most of the Hasids in Oświęcim were following Bobover and Sanzer rebbes, however supporters of tsadiks from Radomsko, Góra Kalwaria, Bełz, Chrzanów, Bracław, and Komarno were also present. Often times these groups were in conflict with each other. Zionists of various affiliations including General Zionists, Mizrahi, Revisionists, Hitahdut, and League for Labor Palestine also played an important role. The socialist and non-Zionist Bund and Jewish communists were also present but their influence was minor. Between 1918 and 1939 the presidents of the Jewish community in Oświęcim included Naftali David Bochner, Rudolf Haberfeld, Abraham Gross, Selig Kurz, Izaak Schnitzer, and Alfons Haberfeld, the last president before outbreak of the World War II.
The town council of Oświęcim was another sphere of political activity for the local Jews. Among the main issues discussed by the council were numerous charity and self-help projects. Both Christian and Jewish welfare associations were equally subsidized by the town council. Many times the council supported impoverished Catholics before major holidays eg. Easter. Likewise, poor Jews received support for baking matzah bread for Passover between 1926 and 1927. The council also distributed weekly and monthly benefits as well as food and household products for the needy. In February 1929 the town council purchased four trainloads of coal for the poor residents of Oświęcim. During the time of economical crisis, local coal mines became involved in charity and in 1934 the State Coal Mine in Brzeszcze also sponsored four trainloads of the fuel. The town divided the coal equally between Jews and Catholics. Abraham Gross, an Israelite member of the council conveyed his gratitude to the board of the coal mine. In 1936 two soup kitchens for Catholics and Jews were established under mayor Dr. Emil Golczewski and deputy mayor Emil Reich. Funds for the kitchens came from private sources and the town council of Oświęcim.
The most prominent and long-serving Jewish members of the town council included Józef Natansohn, Józef Thieberg, David Naftali Bochner, Józef Schönker, Dr. Iro Druks, Henich Henneberg, Dr. Emil Reich, Dr. Maurycy Goldberg, Juliusz Szmelz, Abraham Gross and Dr. Emil Samuel Reich. The latter was unanimously elected deputy mayor of Oświęcim in January 1934. Many of these members played key roles in the Jewish community and belonged to the elite of Oświęcim.
Jewish members of the town council of Oświęcim (1925-1939)
|Year||Members in total||Jewish members||Percent of Jewish members in the council|
Christian-Jewish relations in the town can be characterised by both conflict and peaceful coexistence. Conflicts between Christian and Jewish residents of Oświęcim flared up during two different periods: first in the early years of Polish independence from 1918 to 1921 and then during economic crisis of the 1930s.
Most of the early incidents happened in the autumn of 1918. Authorities aimed to harm Jewish merchants under the pretense of fighting smuggling and speculation. The police confiscated groceries from Jewish stores. During this period, economic problems stemming from World War I played a large part in the conflicts. Other issues included changes in local and state governments, confusion in the political arena, changes in political boundaries, and shifts in the social order. The most tragic events took place on 4th and 5th of November and were described in the Krakow daily Nowy Dziennik as the Oświęcim affair.
As a measure of protection, the Jews of Oświęcim set up a local branch of the Jewish National Council, which was composed of two Socialists, two Zionists, and two Orthodox members. In 1918, as part of their activities, the Council created a Jewish security unit composed of 12 trained members and intended to protect the Jewish population against anti-Semitic attacks in the face of inaction on the part of the local authorities.
In the second period from 1935 to 1936, right wing and nationalist political parties and organizations accused Jews of being the major factor behind the state’s economic crisis. During these two periods, anti-Jewish incidents occurred, included robberies and beatings. Further, in the 1930s, the Jewish press reported on anti-Jewish slogans that appeared in the streets and on the broken windows of Oświęcim’s synagogues.
A major force behind the relatively good everyday atmosphere between the Jews and non-Jews of Oświęcim was Catholic priest Jan Skarbek (1885-1951). Jews and Christians in the town worked together in charitable, educational, and patriotic organizations. These included Fire Department Committee, Polish Union of Defenders of the Country, Association of the Red Cross, League for the Anti-Aircraft, and Anti-Gas Defense among others.
The local authorities also participated in projects of the Jewish community of Oświęcim. A great example is the nationwide project called Yaar Pilsudski for the creation of a forest named after Marshal Józef Piłsudski. The local committee in Oświęcim consisted of the president of Oświęcim county Dr. Stanisław Alberti, the mayor of Oświęcim, Father Jan Skarbek, Dr. Maurycy Goldberg, the president of the Jewish community Izaak Schnitzer and two CEOs of the Emil Kuźnicki Factory, Joachim Adler and Joachim Liebermann.