OSWIECIM (VINnews) — The Polish town of Oświęcim, situated adjacent to the site of the infamous concentration camp Auschwitz, was once the home of a thriving Jewish community, which numbered some 8000 Jews before the Second World War. At a special ceremony Thursday in the town, the site which once hosted the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim was officially declared as the Great Synagogue Memorial Park. The synagogue was destroyed exactly 80 years ago during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
During the inauguration of the park, 80 candles were lit, symbolizing the anniversary. Dozens of descendants of former Jewish residents of Oświęcim came to the Thursday ceremony from Belgium, Sweden, Israel and the United States.
While the Auschwitz death camp is one of the best known historical sites associated with the Holocaust and receives many Israeli visitors, including official IDF and state delegations, few are aware of pre-war Jewish life in Oświęcim.
More than half the town’s population were Jewish. This fact led to a unique political arrangement which was that before the war, the position of vice-mayor was held by a Jewish-Polish person and that of the mayor by a Catholic Pole.
In the year 2000, the Auschwitz Jewish Center was established in the town. The land where the Great Synagogue stood is now part of the Jewish center, as well as the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, which is the only Jewish house of prayer to have survived near the death camp, and Café Bergson, which offers lectures and workshops on Jewish history as well as WW2.
In the new park, a replica of a chandelier which once lit up the interior of the synagogue has been suspended from trees.The original chandelier was found during archaeological work carried out in 2004 at the site of the synagogue. Recently, it has been renovated and placed in the synagogue belonging to the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot.
An exhibition at the site includes photographs of the original synagogue as well as a model of its interior. A plaque has also been erected to commemorate the history of this holy place. 40 sandstone slabs have been placed in the park, arranged on the ground to give the impression that they were randomly thrown. Benches have also been placed, the park was lit up and the background has been decorated with greenery.
The creation of the park was made possible thanks to the generosity of many people. Two collections were carried out, attended by about 200 people, including many from Oświęcim itself. The anniversary celebrations took place November 28, even though the actual anniversary is November 29th, since the Sabbath begins after sunset and celebrations would not have been possible then.
“The park commemorates the synagogue, its history and the heritage of people who co-founded Oświęcim nearly 500 years ago. Just before the war, Jews constituted more than half of the city’s population. They were later forgotten, “said Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center which initiated the park.