Museum recalls Jewish community on fringes of death camp

In a typical, pre-pandemic year, about 2.3 million people a year visit Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp where nearly one million Jews were murdered.

About 30,000 — or roughly one per cent — of them also visit a nearby museum that represents the last vestige of how Jews in the area once lived.

The Auschwitz Jewish Centre opened in 2000 in Oswiecim, the sleepy town less than a mile from the notorious concentration camp.

It includes a museum with thousands of artefacts, a small café that also functions as a community centre and a synagogue that is the only one remaining from Oswiecim’s Jewish heyday.

For centuries before the Holocaust, this town of around 40,000 situated about 30 miles east of Krakow had a large and vibrant Jewish community, with no fewer than 20 synagogues.

About 8,500 of the town’s pre-Holocaust population of 14,000 was Jewish.

Now, not a single Jew lives in Oswiecim. But the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue, built in 1913 and a gathering place for the few dozen local Jews who survived the Holocaust, hosts services for the visitors who depart from the typical Auschwitz itinerary and venture into town.

While there is no resident rabbi, the synagogue does keep a kosher Sefer Torah in its ark.

“The sort of prayer you see here, by Jewish people who had just visited Auschwitz, is often intense,” added Tomasz Kuncewicz, the centre’s director, who is not Jewish.

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