The Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC) is the only Jewish presence in Oświęcim – the town the Germans called Auschwitz – which is primarily known as the site of the darkest tragedy of the 20th century. Presently at the Synagogue, there is an Auschwitz Jewish Center, a museum and a cultural center, focused on Jewish heritage, reconciliation through art and intercultural dialogue.
In the centre of the town of Oświęcim, this institution has permanent exhibitions about Oświęcim’s thriving Jewish community in the years before WWII. Within the restored synagogue (1913) are photos and Judaica found beneath the town’s Great Synagogue in 2004. It’s hard to forget you’re looking at the last remnants of Polish Jewry, an all but exterminated culture.
The Oświęcim Synagogue, also called the Auschwitz Synagogue, is the only active synagogue in the town of Oświęcim, Poland. It is now part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which includes a Jewish Museum and an Education Center.
The Oświęcim synagogue was the first building restored to the Jewish community under the Polish government’s post-Communism law governing the restitution of Jewish communal property seized by German occupiers during World War II, and retained by the post-war Communist government. The building was claimed by, and is now owned by, the Jewish community of nearby Bielsko-Biala.
The synagogue was built circa 1913. During World War II, the Nazis demolished its interior and used the building as a munitions depot. After the end of war, a small group of Jewish survivors restored the synagogue to its proper function. However, the custodians soon left Poland and the synagogue ceased to operate.
In the 1970s, under communist Poland, the empty building was used as a carpet warehouse. The synagogue reopened on September 11, 2000, completely restored to its pre-war condition by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation of New York, at the cost of one million dollars. It is an active synagogue used for prayers by groups and individuals visiting Auschwitz. The adjoining house was purchased by the foundation and turned into a contemporary museum called the Auschwitz Jewish Center (Żydowskie Centrum Edukacyjne). It depicts the life of Jews in pre-war Oświęcim. Both the synagogue and the Jewish center are affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
The Auschwitz synagogue was not the largest synagogue in Oświęcim. The better known Great Synagogue of Oświęcim was destroyed by the Nazis on November 29, 1939, and its remains were demolished. At the time of the Nazi invasion, more than half the population of Oświęcim was Jewish. The community was over 400 years old and there were then more than 20 synagogues in the city. Oświęcim has an old Jewish cemetery open to visitors.
The last native Jew of Oświęcim died in 2000. Szymon Kluger (January 19, 1925 – May 26, 2000), son of Symcha Kluger and Fryda Weiss, was born in Oświęcim and was the last resident Jew there; the only survivor of the Holocaust to return to the town after World War II. His death in 2000 brought to an end the old Jewish community of Oświęcim.
During World War II, Kluger was deported to the Ghetto in Bendsburg (Będzin) and to one of the Blechhammer forced labor camps in 1942, and he was marked with the number 179539. (During this time, his parents were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they died). From Blechhammer he was brought to the KZ Groß-Rosen; later to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was a forced laborer in aircraft construction.
In April 1945 Szymon Kluger was rescued by the American Army near Halberstadt. Through the help of the Swedish Red Cross and the UNRRA, he came to Sweden in July. Until 1946 he was in hospitals in Malmö and Kalmar. He attended a technical school in Uppsala, Sweden, and learned a profession as a mechanic and electrician. Kluger worked with Radio Svenska AB as a piece worker.
In 1962, Szymon Kluger returned to Poland and started work at the Oświęcim chemical factory, living in a hotel for workers on Wyspiański Street. He eventually returned to his parental home next to the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, where he lived alone and was known as the “last Jew in Oświęcim,” often introducing himself to people by showing the tattoo on his arm. Soon after moving there, he retired due to bad health and remained there until his death in 2000.
The house of Szymon Kluger now houses a cafe. It served previously as a museum, preserving its state as of Kluger’s death.
At present, a lone Jewish woman from Belgium lives near the camp, dedicating her life to memorializing the Shoah.
In September 2000, the Auschwitz Jewish Center opened its doors to honor the former residents of Oświęcim and to teach future generations about the destruction caused by the Holocaust.
Since 2006, the Center has been affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial