The town known as Auschwitz

The Beginnings (1500s-1800s)
From the beginning, both welcome and prejudice marked the relationship between Oświęcim and its Jewish residents. Jews arrived in Oświęcim in the second half of the 16th century, founding a Jewish community with a synagogue and cemetery. Jewish communal and commercial life thrived, but economic competition with non-Jewish neighbors and religious conflict resulted in a 1563 prohibition on further Jewish settlement in Oświęcim. In response, local Jews established a Jewish district and the community continued to grow despite the ban.

This document records a transaction between a Christian citizen, Jan Piotraszowski, and the Jews of Oświęcim. Piotraszowski donated his house and a plot of land to the Jewish community in Oświęcim so that the Jews could build a synagogue and have land for a cemetery. Following this act, a formal Jewish community, or kehilla, was created.

A chapter from Przecław Moiecki's pamphlet, "Jewish Cruelties, Murders, and Superstitions," describing accusations of host desecration against Jews in Oświęcim. Accusations of host defilement are one of the ways that popular anti-Jewish prejudice manifested itself in medieval Europe.

This is the oldest tombstone, or matzevah in Hebrew, found in the
Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim. It adorned the grave of Abraham Aba, a rabbi.

The Hebrew inscription reads:

Abraham returned to his place
Here lies
A righteous among philanthropists, who walked the paths of good men
A respected man and rabbi Abraham Aba son of Asher Zelig
Died in good glory on Thursday, 7th of Cheshvan.
May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life

Excerpt from the document reestablishing the privileges of the Jewish community of Oświęcim, issued by King Stanisław Poniatowski on May 5, 1766, which reaffirmed the Jews’ right to reside in the town, trade, and rent real estate in and outside of Oświęcim, as well as use the synagogue and Jewish cemetery.

Galicia (1772-1918)
In 1772, Oświęcim came under Austrian rule. Renamed Galicia, the region embarked on an era of change. Oświęcim’s Jewish residents, like other Jews in Austria, were burdened by anti-Jewish taxes and laws. Yet, in 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor granted Jews equal rights, and the first Jewish members of Oświęcim’s Town Council were elected. Simultaneously, Oświęcim became an important railway junction, prompting economic development in the area. Jewish merchants and industrialists played a crucial role in this process. The Galician period also saw a clash throughout the region between the traditional ideas of Hassidic and Orthodox Jews and the more progressive ideas of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and later Zionism, the belief in the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. By the late 19th century, traditional Jews outnumbered progressive Jews in Oświęcim, defining the Jewish community.

Jacob Haberfeld, founded the Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory in 1804, which was the first factory ever established in Oświęcim. The business developed rapidly and the vodka, rum, liquor, and juice made in the factory conquered new markets. Their marketing efforts entailed worldwide travel to present their products in international food fairs.

Liquor bottles produced in Oświęcim by the factory of Jacob Haberfeld (Brazilian Rum and anise spirits for Shabbat).

Awards received by the Jacob Haberfeld's Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory in Oświęcim from international fairs in Paris and Temesvar (present day Timisoara, Romania), 1908.

Rudolf Haberfeld (1874-1921), a member of the Oświęcim Town Council and the Kraków Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Oświęcim Jewish Community.

Marble plaque of the Rudolf Haberfeld Banking House est. 1906. Rudolf Haberfeld (1874-1921) was also a member of the Town Council and the Kraków Chamber of Commerce. The plaque was made in Oświęcim by Jewish stonemason S. Wulkan.

Workers of the A.E. Schönker Factory in 1905. Established by Abraham Eber and Józef Schönker, the factory specialized in pesticides and other chemicals and was later renamed Agrochemia.

The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue was the largest and most important Jewish house of prayer in Oświęcim. Built in the late 19th century, it served the local Jewish community until November 1939, when the Nazis destroyed it.

This late 19th century photo was most likely taken at the groundbreaking of the rebuilding of the Oświęcim Great Synagogue. The synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1863 and was reopened between 1870 and 1872.

The Ner Tamid (Hebrew: eternal light) was found with other objects during the archeological excavation of the site of the Great Synagogue in 2004.

This chandelier fragment showing the crowned Polish eagle was found during the excavation of the site of the former Great Synagogue at Berek Joselewicz Street in May and June 2004.

Fragment of marble bearing the Zodiac signs. This object was found during the excavation of the site of the former Great Synagogue at Berek Joselewicz Street in May and June 2004.

Rabbi Leser Landau (1869-1938). Landau held the prestigious post of Deputy Chief Rabbi of Oświęcim for 21 years.

Title page of a religious tract, “Libanon Nuta”, by Rabbi Natan Landau. It was published in 1901 in Podgórze, near Kraków, and deals with the subject of ritual purity. Natan Landau was president of the rabbinic court in Oświęcim. The stamp of Rabbi Leser Landau, his son, appears on the page.

Young Zionists, pioneers from the Halutzim kibbutz in Oświęcim ca. 1918. Zionism came to Oświęcim in 1898 and had a significant influence on Jewish social life in the town.

Jaskółka (Polish: Swallow), a novel by Gustaw Daniłowski from the Jewish Library in Oświęcim. The Jewish Library, est. 1902, was one of the oldest Zionist organizations in town. The bilingual Polish-Yiddish stamp of the library is visible on the novel’s first page.

A poster promoting a lecture at the Herz Hotel about the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, a new arts and crafts school, 1909. The Herz Hotel, in Oświęcim’s Main Market Square, was owned by Oświęcim Jew Wiktor Leibler and frequently hosted political and cultural events for both Jews and Christians.

Between the wars (1918-1939)
The Jewish community of Oświęcim enjoyed its most dynamic development during the interwar period. Local Jewish citizens were involved in almost all areas of political, social, and cultural life. The Town Council had strong Jewish representation, including the deputy mayor, and Jews and Christians worked together in numerous charitable and patriotic organizations. However, the early 20th century also saw two waves of anti-Semitism: the first in the autumn of 1918, shortly after Poland regained its independence, and the second during the economic depression of the 1930s. In the Jewish community itself, various religious and political groups continued to vie for control, with traditional Jews playing the most prominent role in Oświęcim, followed by the Zionists.

A 1918 article about the anti-Semitic events in Oświęcim in Nowy Dziennik (“New Daily”) followeingWorld War I. These events caused widespread panic and suspicion; in this environment, Jewish merchants were accused of speculating and hiding their stock. Anti-Semitic violence was often preceded by these accusations.

Best friends Marta Świderska and Olga Pressler (L-R). The photo was taken by Marcin Pressler, a well-known photographer in Oświęcim and Olga's father, on the first day of school, Sept. 1, 1934.

Members of the Zionist-left Hechalutz movement and Kibbutz Borochov in Oświęcim, interwar period. The movement’s mission was to prepare young halutzim (Hebrew: pioneers) for future settlement in Palestine.

Handwritten Polish-Hebrew dictionary found in Oświęcim, the property of Ester Posner, most likely member of a Zionist youth group, interwar period. One of the aims of the Zionist movement was to promote the use of modern Hebrew among Jews.

The soccer team of the Jewish Sports Association, Kadima (Hebrew: forward) in Oświęcim, ca. 1930. Kadima was founded in 1921 when Jewish sports clubs were emerging throughout Europe as part of the Zionist and Jewish labor movements.

Nathan Gerstner’s membership card of the Mizrachi Association in Oświęcim, an organization of Orthodox Zionists, 1934/1935.

An orthodox Jewish boy in front of Abraham Gross’sprinthouse in Oświęcim, 1930s.

Traditional hat of a religious Jewish boy, found in Oświęcim in 2003.

The Ner Tamid (Hebrew: eternal light) in honor of Pesach Hollander, owner a wine store on Kolejowa Street in Oświęcim. He was a long-time member of the Town Council and the son of a local rabbi. He passed away in 1936.

Chanukah dreidels, interwar period. Dreidl (Yiddish: spinning top) is a toy used during the festival of Chanukah. These dreidels were found in the attic of a house in Jagiełły Street by in 2006.

Challah cover for Shabbat [Hebrew: Sabbath]. This challah cover was sold to raise money for Kolel Chibas Yerushalayim (est. 1830), a charity that supported Jews who had emigrated to the Holy Land from Galicia. The cover features the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Many Jewish homes in Oświęcim also had special collection boxes to raise money for their brethren in Palestine. This challah cover was found in the 1990s in a house on Berka Joselewicza Street in Oświęcim.

Bottle for concentrated raspberry juice made by the Jacob Haberfeld Liquor Factory in Oświęcim.

A promotional ashtray from the Jacob Haberfeld Liquor Factory in Oświęcim.

Paper bag from Markus Neumark's paint store. The store was located at 1 Kościelna Street in Oświęcim.

Advertisement of Chrzanów Bakery owned by Chaim Gerstner with prices of bread for sale on Oct. 15, 1936.

Omega watch in a case branded by Natan Scharf's watch store. Interwar period. The store at 8 Kościelna Street sold Omega, Roskopf, and Zenith watches as well as jewelry and glasses.

Holocaust (1939-1945)
On September 3, 1939, the German army captured Oświęcim, and its Jewish world changed irreparably. The Nazis renamed the town Auschwitz — as it had been called by Germans in prior centuries — and incorporated it into Germany. The Nazis required Jews to wear armbands, surrender their businesses, and work in forced labor units. They also created a Jewish Council (Judenrat), headed by men from the community, to enforce their discriminatory decrees. In November, the Nazis destroyed the Great Synagogue. Deportations to forced labor camps began in 1940 and conditions in the town continued to deteriorate as Jews from neighboring areas were concentrated in Oświęcim. In March and April 1941, all the Jews in Oświęcim were expelled to ghettos in Będzin, Chrzanów, and Sosnowiec. In 1943, ghetto inhabitants were deported to concentration camps. The majority were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most were murdered.

Street sign for Tischlerstrasse (Carpentry Street), 1939-1945. When World War Two broke out, Oświęcim was incorporated into the Third Reich. The town was renamed Auschwitz and Polish street names were replaced with German ones. This street sign was located at Stolarska Street, which was renamed Tischlerstrasse, meaning “Carpentry Street” in German.

The Jewish Street (fall 1939)

Auschwitz prisoners removing the rubble of the destroyed Great Synagogue, 1940.

On the night of November 29 1939, the Nazis burned down the Great Synagogue, the largest and most important Jewish house of prayer in Oświęcim. In this document, the Germans ordered the Judenrat, the Nazi-created Jewish Council, to demolish the remains of the Great Synagogue themselves, under threat of strict penalty.

Henryk Enoch's notebooks from the 1940-1941 school year. Henryk Enoch was born in 1932 in Oświęcim and lived with his family at 8 Legionów Street. During World War II, he attended secret classes for Jewish students, taught by Jadwiga Marciniak, a non-Jewish teacher at Queen Jadwiga Public School in Oświęcim. In 1941, Henryk was deported with his parents to the ghetto in Będzin, where he died.

A list of 34 members and other staff of the Nazi created Jewish Council (German: Judenrat) of Oświęcim shortly before the Nazis began to deport the Jews of Oświęcim. The Judenrat was headed at the time by Józef Gross, 1941.

Photographs taken during the deportation of Jews from Oświęcim, 1941. The Jews from Oświęcim were sent to Będzin, Chrzanów, and Sosnowiec. The photos show German police escorting Jews. The photographs were taken by a German informer, Andreas Kasza.

Article about the deportation of Jews from Oświęcim to Będzin and Sosnowiec in the German-controlled Polish-language Jewish newspaper, “Gazeta Żydowska”, 1941. The propaganda article stresses the speed and good organization of the process, which deported over 5,000 people in 7 days.

Sabina Leser, Chrzanów ghetto, 1942.

Excerpt from the list of imprisoned of the Sosnowiec-Środula ghetto in 1943, which includes names of members of the Hirschprung family, originally from Oświęcim: Mojżesz, Maria, Krusa (known as Tusia), Ela, Ida, and Minda. Only Tusia and Ela survived.

A group of girls in the Będzin ghetto, including Ela Hirschprung, second from right and her sister, Tusia, at left, 1941.

Postcard sent by Władysław Thieberg from the forced labor camp in Kłomnice to his neighbors from Oświęcim, Wiktor and Hela Ledwoń, 1941.

Jacob Rosenbaum's ex-prisoner identification card, listing the dates of his incarceration in Dachau, 1945.

Communist Poland (1945-1989)
On January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Oświęcim and the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only a handful of Oświęcim’s more than 8,000 Jews had survived the Holocaust in concentration and work camps, in the Soviet Union, or in hiding. Those who returned to Oświęcim struggled to find living relatives and attempted to reorganize a Jewish community. But for the returning Jews, life was chaotic and lonely. A quasi-civil war caused by the imposition of Communist rule in Poland, anti-Semitism, and economic hardship ultimately drove the few surviving Jews to emigrate; in the 1960s, the last Jewish families left Oświęcim.

Lola and Mieczysław Bodner's registration card for the Jewish Committee in Oświęcim, 1946. In March 1945, Lola returned to Oświęcim, where she was met with hostility by her neighbors. She married Maurycy Bodner, a survivor of Gross-Rosen camp in 1945 and they adopted Mieczysław/Menachem, age five, a child victim of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz.

Register of Jewish residents of Oświęcim, created by the local Jewish Committee, which was established in April 1945. This notebook contains the names of several hundred Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to Oświęcim. Most remained for only a brief period. It lists both prewar residents of the town and survivors from other areas.

Rubber stamps of the Jewish Religious Congregation in Oświęcim, 1946-1949. The Communist regime in Poland renamed Jewish communities “Jewish Religious Assembly” and later “Jewish Religious Congregations.” The Communist government intended to control all religious organizations. In the immediate postwar years, the Jewish Religious Congregation of Oświęcim was chaired by Chaim Wolnerman.

Members of the first postwar Town Council of Oświęcim, including survivor Leon Schönker (no.18 on the list). The first session was held on May 9, 1945.

Henryk Schönker with his best friend, Roman Maksymowicz, on a bicycle trip to Zakopane, ca. 1947.

Communism brought major political changes to Poland; under the guise of fighting illegal economic activities, the government liquidated private businesses. The Communist government put Leon Schönker under surveillance and, in 1949, accused him of tax fraud and arrested him. His factory in Oświęcim was nationalized and he was imprisoned for over a year.

R-L: Rozalia Körbel and Zosia Körbel with Zosia’s daughter Frydzia and Zofia Mrozińska, Rozalia’s friend, Oświęcim, ca. 1949. Rozalia was born in 1942 and she survived the war with her parents, Maurycy and Maria.

Greeting card sent to Elina Kupperman in Israel by her former teacher, Jadwiga Marciniak, in Oświęcim, 1969. Jadwiga Marciniak kept in touch with her former student, Elina, and her parents, Salomon and Regina, who were survivors of the Holocaust. The Kuppermans also sent name-day and holiday cards to Jadwiga in Oświęcim.

Elinka Kupperman (fifth from right, in folk dress) with her school class, Oświęcim, May 1, 1960. Elinka was born in 1949 in Oświęcim to two survivors, Salomon and Regina. The family emigrated to Israel in 1962.

Work identification of Salomon Kupperman, who was employed at the Chemical Plant in Oświęcim as manager of production planning. In 1962, he emigrated to Israel with his wife Regina and daughter Elina.

Letter from Father Jan Skarbek to Iro Druks. Before the war, Father Jan Skarbek was known for having many friends among Oświęcim’s Jews. One of them was Dr. Iro Druks, a well-known attorney. They were both members of the Town Council. After the war, Father Skarbek helped survivors of Auschwitz, and stayed in touch with Oświęcim survivors who had emigrated, including Druks, 1950.

Jewish Museum in Oświęcim
Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by the Jewish Museum in Oświęcim

Director: Tomasz Kuncewicz

Project management: Maciek Zabierowski

Texts: Artur Szyndler, PhD, Maciek Zabierowski

Translation: Maciek Zabierowski, Shiri B. Sandler

Exhibit preparation: Piotr Gajek

Photographs of artifacts: Andrzej Rudiak

© Jewish Museum in Oświęcim

The Jewish Museum in Oświęcim is part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center

The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.