The significance of 1989 extends beyond a turning point in politics. In much of Central and Eastern Europe it was the division between totalitarian regime and democracy. This was also the beginning of a drive to rediscover the history distorted and suppressed by the Communist governments. The Jewish history of Poland was one such chapter.
In Oświęcim, there was no Jewish community at that time. Szymon Kluger, a well-known figure, was regarded as the last Jewish resident of the town. The few other survivors were dispersed throughout the world. There were hardly any material traces of the long Jewish presence in Oświęcim.
With freedom came questions about local identity and history. The Jewish history found its place in the awareness of the residents of Oświęcim, especially those from the younger generations. The Oświęcim branch of the Association for Polish-Israeli Friendship established by Mirosław Ganobis in 1992 played an essential part in this regard. The association’s office was first at the International Youth Meeting Center and later was moved to the former Bobover yeshiva at Berka Joselewicza Street. Thanks to their efforts, the Jewish history of Oświęcim became known and further explored. Exhibitions, klezmer music concerts and art contest for youths were held. The Association collected historical objects and cared for the Jewish cemetery where cleaning works were carried out, mostly by young Germans. Members of the organization established contacts with the Jewish community of Bielsko-Biała and former Jewish residents of Oświęcim around the world. Thanks to the Association, the Jews from Oświęcim living in Israel gathered at a reunion in the town in 1994.
In 1995 Fred Schwartz established the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation in New York with the mission of creating a Jewish Center in Oświęcim. The surviving synagogue building in the town, which belonged to the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Association before the Holocaust, was chosen as its location. The synagogue was nationalized by the Communist regime in 1977. In 1997 the building was returned to the Jewish community of Bielsko-Biała. A year later the community donated the synagogue to the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC). On September 12, 2000 the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue was reopened with a festive ceremony. In 2001 a commemorative plaque founded by the town residents was placed on the former Herz Hotel, honoring Jewish citizens of Oświęcim who perished during the Holocaust.
However, the recent period was also marked with deterioration of the remaining Jewish sites in Oświęcim. The Haberfeld family house and factory were torn down due to the risk of collapse. One of the key historical landmarks of Oświęcim was lost from the landscape. Among the many missing buildings are the Bobover yeshiva and other unique pre-war houses of the Old Town. Shortly before the opening of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, Szymon Kluger passed away.
Much has been said and written since 1989 about the Jewish past of Oświęcim. Press articles, books, documentary films, and educational projects contributed to the widespread awareness of this chapter in history. The activity of the Auschwitz Jewish Center with its Jewish Museum, Synagogue and Education Center plays a major role in this change.
The main exhibition of the Jewish Museum presents the nearly 500 years of Jewish history, tradition, and culture in Oświęcim. Visitors to the Center have the opportunity to connect with Oświęcim’s pre-war Jewish life through the exhibition of photographs and artifacts. The photographs of individuals and families, documents and artifacts from local Jewish organizations and businesses, and the Judaica excavated in 2004 from beneath the site of the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim, bring to life the vital Jewish town that Oświęcim once was. A documentary with archival photos and survivor testimony is also available for viewing in English and is subtitled in Polish, Hebrew, French and German.
Personal stories of Holocaust survivors from Oświęcim, who live in Israel today, are featured in the special exhibition New Life: www.new-life-exhibit.com.
An integral part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center is the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue (in Hebrew, the Association for the Study of Mishna), the only Jewish house of prayer which survived the Holocaust in Oświęcim. Although today, the synagogue has neither a rabbi nor a local congregation, it is under careful protection of the Auschwitz Jewish Center and its staff. It is the only Jewish presence in the vicinity of former camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and serves as a sanctuary for prayer, reflection, and solace.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is dedicated to public education about the richness of pre-war life, the Holocaust, and the dangers of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
The AJC’s Education Center offers a wide range of programs including workshops, lectures, seminars, meetings, tours, and cultural events.
The Center also organizes tours of the synagogue, cemetery, and town for family, school, and adult groups.
Since 2006 the Auschwitz Jewish Center has been affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, USA.