At the turn of the 15th century, large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Bohemia, Moravia, and Germany were arriving to Poland seeking refuge from persecution in their home countries. The transit route went through Oświęcim and Zator.
PThe Jews came to Oświęcim in the first half of 16th century. The first historical record of their permanent settlement dates back to 1549. Before that, the only Jews who appeared within the area of Oświęcim and Zator until the end of 15th century were most probably traveling merchants. Czech Jews, who made up most of the newly established community in Oświęcim, settled in the northern part of town below the castle. Other areas of Jewish settlement included today's Berka Joselewicza Street and the northern suburb of
Oświęcim. The town was located on an ancient salt trade route leading from the salt mines in Bochnia to Wrocław and distribution of salt became the main occupation of its Jewish residents. Others also became involved in making alcohol.
As far as their legal status was concerned, local Jews were subject to the duke as servi camerae (Latin: servants of the royal chamber) until 1564, when the Duchy of Oświęcim was incorporated to Poland. The legal position of the Jewish communities in Poland was also determined by royal privileges. The first known privilege for the Jews of Oświęcim was issued by King Władysław IV on March 10, 1636 in Kraków...
Following the signing of partition treaties by Austria, Prussia and Russia, the territory of Oświęcim and Zator were included in the Habsburg Empire. The area of Poland that Austria acquired was to be called “the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria with duchies of Oświęcim and Zator” (with the exception to 1820-1850 when the area belonged to the German Confederation).
The partitions marked the beginning of a new era also for the Jews in Oświęcim and the changes in their legal, social, and financial status. In 1793, Emperor Franz II confirmed all previous royal privileges and granted Oświęcim permission to hold 12 markets a year.
However the economic situation of the town and its Jewish community remained unfavorable. With new taxes imposed upon the Jewish community, many of its members left Oświęcim. As a result, Jews only made up 0.7% of the total population of the Oświęcim and Zator areas and the local Jewish community was heavily in debt. The Jews in Oświęcim signed a petition asking the emperor to forgive the debt, but to no avail. In 1803 there were 100 Jewish families in the town.
Between the Wars
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.
On September 3, 1939 the German troops captured Oświecim. The town was renamed Auschwitz and incorporated into the Third Reich in October, as part of the Bielsko county (Kreis Bielitz, Oberschlesien) province Katowice. The German occupation authorities called the Christian members of the town council to convene and excluded the Jews. The council itself was soon dissolved and on November 25 German civil commissar Rudolf Skaletz replaced the military administrators. For the Jewish community of Oświęcim and nearby towns, it was the beginning of the most tragic chapter in their history.
By the Nazi decree all Jewish merchants were banned from operations. As a result, their economical status as well as food supplies and sanitary conditions decreased drastically. The Polish mayor of Oświęcim Dr. Emil Golczewski was ordered by the Germans to issue a decree which allowed Christian stores to remain open but forced down closing of Jewish ones. The peak and most symbolic event of the initial phase of anti-Jewish persecution was the burning of the Great Synagogue in Oświęcim by the Germans on November 29-30, 1939. Less than a month later all Jews were forced to wear white armbands with the blue Star of David.
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.
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.