Historians estimate that close to 90% of the nearly 3.5 million pre-war Polish Jews perished. Thus, only about 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Despite the tragedy, Jews in Poland attempted to rebuild their lives both individually and as a community.
Oświęcim was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. Of the several thousand Jews in the pre-war town only a handful survived. The first survivors returned to Oświęcim in early 1945. Among them were Chaim Hirsz Wolnerman, who returned to his hometown directly from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in March 1945 as well as Samuel Natowicz, Lola Silbiger-Haber, Regina Grünbaum, Salomon Kupperman, Maurycy Bodner, and five members of the Schönker family. The survivors took upon themselves a tremendously difficult task to revive Jewish life in the town as soon as they came back. A local branch of the Central Committee of Jews in Poland was established in April 1945 with Maurycy Bodner as chair, Samuel Natowicz as vice chair, and Ignacy Lerner as secretary. The Jewish Committee in Oświęcim was located at 10 Krakowska Street. The umbrella organization, Central Committee of Jews in Poland, was a secular, democratic organization. The representatives of the Jewish political parties and organizations that made up the committee determined its character. The main task of the Committee was to aid Jewish survivors in adapting to the new situation in post-war Poland.
The religious aspects of Jewish life were overseen by the Jewish Religious Assemblies created by a minimum of 10 Jews in each town. The Communist government of Poland did not plan the re-establishment of Jewish communities in their pre-war shape.
In Oświęcim, the first elections to the assembly were held in May 1945. The board of the assembly comprised Chaim Wolnerman as chair, Samuel Natowicz as vice chair and three members: Israel Mandelbaum, Juda Eisen and Moses Wachsman. The most important tasks facing the board were taking possession of a prayer house and rebuilding the cemetery, which was devastated by the Germans. The only surviving religious site was the building of the Lomdei Mishnayot Association at ul. Kościelna 7 (Priest Jan Skarbek Square today). The county office in Biała confirmed the board of the Jewish Religious Assembly on August 2, 1945. Chaim Wolnerman was made responsible for the Jewish records until the appointment of a rabbi.
During this period the Jewish community of Oświęcim was very small. According to a census from May 1945 there were 28 Jews in the town of 6,742 residents. Four months later, in September, the number of Jews in Oświęcim rose to 186. It was the only town in Biała county able to establish a Jewish Religious Assembly.
The Jews who came back to Oświęcim quickly left again. Their families, their homes and, above all, the life they remembered from before the Holocaust were gone. Some of them could imagine what the future political situation in Poland would be, as a totalitarian state dependent on the USSR. One consequence of these facts was a high turnover of personnel on the board of the Jewish Religious Assembly in Oświęcim. The first chair, Chaim Wolnerman, left the town, as did all the other members of the board. Wolnerman travelled first to Germany and then to Israel, settling in Jerusalem. For many years, he was engaged in collecting material for a memorial book called Sefer Oshpitsin: Oświęcim-Auschwitz Memorial Book, which was published in Jerusalem in 1977 by the Association of Former Residents of Oświęcim in Israel (Oświęcim Landsmannschaft). Wolnerman died a few days after its publication, at the age of 65.
A new board of the Jewish Religious Assembly in Oświęcim was created in late September or early October 1945. The director of Agrochemia, Leon Schönker, was elected chair, with Maurycy Bodner as vice chair. Efraim Auerbach was appointed as the assembly’s rabbi. During this period, usual rabbinical duties were also performed by Salomon Kupperman, who was not formally trained as a rabbi.
Following his return to Oświęcim Leon Schönker was involved in efforts to rebuild the family business, the well-known Agrochemia chemical factory that he ran before the war with his father Józef. This initiative initially proved unpopular with the postwar political powers. In 1948, however, it seemed that the situation was returning to normal, as on May 14, 1948, the town council even approved a motion by its chair to give Leon Schönker the honorary keys to the town, for his community-minded approach to the needs of the city, his help operating a soup kitchen for the poor, and his financial support of schools and the cultural centre. The motion was approved unanimously. A year later, the situation took an unexpected turn. In May 1949, a prosecutor from a special commission in Krakow arrested Leon Schönker as part of a supposed crackdown on economic abuses, disguising the real aim of liquidating a private business. After spending 20 months in prison, Schönker was found guilty in a brief trial and sentenced to two years imprisonment, with time reduced for the period he had already served. The memoirs of Leon Schönker’s son, Henryk, indicate that his father was convicted on charges of failure to register works of art in order to facilitate confiscation, as Leon Schönker was a well-known collector.
The family left Oświęcim in 1955, travelling first to Vienna, and then to Israel in 1962. Leon Schönker died in Holon in 1965 at the age of 62. His son Henryk recalls the family’s departure from Oświęcim: the last ride from our house at ul. Jagiellonska 41 to the train station. It was a short but moving ride. We rode down Jagiellonska Street in coach and, to our amazement, the windows of the buildings on both sides of the street began opening and people waved farewell to us. These were total strangers. We all had tears in our eyes.
In November 1946, the number of Jews in the city fell to 40. There were fewer chances for the restoration of Jewish life and the re-established religious congregations dwindled. The Jews who had arrived in Oświęcim after the war were rapidly emigrating, although there were a few Jewish families who remained in the town until the early 1960s.
Szymon Kluger was an exception to the rule. Following his liberation in August 1945, Szymon went to Sweden where he worked at a laundry in Stockholm until 1961. That year he decided to return to Oświęcim. Between 1961 and 1963 he was employed at the local Chemical Plant. Szymon Kluger lived in his pre-war family house next to the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue. As the last Jewish resident of Oświęcim, Szymon Kluger passed away on May 26, 2000 and was buried at the Jewish cemetery in the town.