In the shadow of Auschwitz, Jewish life once flowed with spirits

OSWIECIM, Poland — Although its name later became synonymous with the Holocaust, the Polish town Oswiecim — or Auschwitz, in German — once brimmed with Jewish culture. The rise and fall of the community’s buildings left behind evocative relics, a few dozen photographs, and many tales of the town’s special place in Polish-Jewish history.

Jews first settled in Oswiecim, west of Krakow, about 400 years ago. By the eve of the Holocaust, they comprised half the town’s population of 10,000 people. The community put up more than 20 synagogues, famous schools, and one of Poland’s first factories. Oswiecim was known as “not a bad place” to live for Jews; indeed, the Yiddish name for the town was Oshpitzin, which comes from the Aramaic word for guests.

Today, only the so-called Auschwitz Synagogue remains of that vanished Jewish landscape. Built in 1913, the modest shul located off town square has changed hands many times. As the synagogue closest to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the Nazis murdered more than one million Jews during World War II, visitors usually come on the same day as a tour of the former extermination center.

During the Nazi occupation, the Auschwitz Synagogue served as a munitions depot for the German army. The deportation of Oswiecim’s 5,000 Jews was accomplished in one week, during a particularly well-photographed “aktion.” Many townspeople positioned themselves at windows to watch SS men march the Jews away forever, and Oswiecim’s main landmarks — such as churches and stores — appear in snapshots taken by the neighbor-witnesses.

Following Liberation in 1945, a few Jews returned to Oswiecim and held services at the shul again. However, by the early 1970s, the town’s Jews had all emigrated, and “the last synagogue of Auschwitz” became a carpet warehouse. Later, post-Communism restitution laws returned the property to a local Jewish community, which purchased the adjacent building and created the Auschwitz Jewish Center, an impressive synagogue-museum complex.

Although relatively few of the two million annual visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau make their way into the historic core of Oswiecim, there are tantalizing objects from the town’s Jewish past on display at the shul-museum complex. The collection includes ritual objects from the destroyed Great Synagogue, where — legend has it — the souls of departed Jews performed a “death dance” with the living.

A distillery on the Sola River

Among artifacts presented at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a selection of liquor bottles from the world-renowned Haberfeld distillery stands out.

In 1804, Jakob Haberfeld opened a “steam vodka & liquor factory” near a bridge crossing the Sola River. An early factory in Poland, the Jewish-owned outfit produced vast amounts of vodka, rum, and juices. Next to the distillery was a 40-room family mansion, Haberfeld House, one of the town’s architectural icons.

Years before World War II, the Haberfeld family had a railroad spur built to a marshy region outside town, where river gravel for the distillery was plentiful. Later, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the tracks were used to bring Jews to the very end of their journey, the “old Jewish ramp” outside Birkenau, where SS doctors conducted “selections” for the gas chambers.

In 1939, with Alfons Haberfeld at the distillery’s helm, Germany invaded Poland. At the time, Haberfeld and his wife, Felicia, were returning from the World’s Fair in New York. The couple had left their 2-year-old daughter, Francziska, behind in Oswiecim, in the care of her grandmother. Two years later, with Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld trapped abroad, little Francziska was murdered at Belzec, the first of six Nazi death camps to operate with stationary gassing facilities.

In 1967, more than two decades after rebuilding their lives in the United States, Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld made a return trip to Oswiecim. The distillery was under state ownership, and Haberfeld House was in disrepair, they noted with sorrow. Disturbingly, a new wave of anti-Semitism was forcing Shoah survivors and their children to flee Poland only one generation after the Holocaust.

The trip to Poland was too much to bear for Alfons Haberfeld. “Emotionally devastated” by the encounter, he died three years later, age 66.

During the 1990s, long after the death of her husband, Felicia Haberfeld attempted to reclaim family ownership of the mansion and factory. The widow’s case did not convince authorities, and she lived to see the demolition of both buildings in 2003. With the structures gone, plans to open a Jakob Haberfeld distillery-themed hotel inside the old factory fell through.

‘One ought to die in Oshpitzin’

A few months after demolition balls erased Haberfeld House and the distillery, archeologists broke ground at the site of the former Great Synagogue. Among more than 400 objects pulled from the grassy slope in 2004, decorative motif fragments evoked the the vast, storied complex, burned down by the Nazis in 1939.

According to one tale from Jewish Oswiecim, the Great Synagogue was a place where worshipers could commune with souls of the dead who occasionally gathered to pray there.

One night long ago, it was said, the souls of Oswiecim’s deceased Jews returned to the synagogue for Simchat Torah. Hearing strange noises coming from the fortress-like building after midnight, people went to investigate. Suddenly, the Great Synagogue filled with light, and a revelation was made.

“[The Jews] were informed that all of the worshippers were the purified souls of former Oshpitzin [Oswiecim] Jews who have long been in Heaven,” according to the memoirs of Yakov Seifter, who grew up in the town and recalled the tale in his memoirs.

“Later when the Torah Scrolls were returned to the Holy Ark, they were instructed that when leaving the synagogue no one should face the exit, but all were to exit walking backwards, so that they should not, God forbid, be harmed,” wrote Seifter.

That Simchat Torah “death dance,” and the occasional visit of departed souls on Shabbat, were part of Jewish Oswiecim’s flavor, cultivated during 400 years of struggle and accomplishment.

“It is really good to live in Vienna, but one ought to die in Oshpitzin,” according to a Yiddish saying. Because so many esteemed rabbis were buried in Oswiecim, Jews from throughout the Galicia region attempted to earn a final resting place among them.

“Anyone who merited to be buried [there] would not suffer travails at the time of resurrection,” wrote Seifter of his boyhood home, once called “a city of Israel” in Poland.

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