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Jewish Families from Oświęcim, Poland

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Oshpitzin

History of Oswiecim

Profile photo attributed to Ed Wight, MailOnline, Jan 27, 2015 Photo of Auschwitz assembly square - Jack Hazut, Jewish Virtual Library

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Background

The town's name is of Slavic extraction, likely deriving from the name of the owner of a Slavic gord which existed there in the Middle Ages. Across centuries, it was spelled in many different ways, and in many languages – Polish, Czech, German, Latin: Ospenchin (1217), Osvencin (1280), Hospencin (1283), Osswetem (1293), Uspencin (1297), Oswentim (1302), Wswencim (1304), Auswintzen (1312), Oswiecim (1314), Oswencin (1327), Auswieczin (1372), Awswiczin (1372), Uswiczin (1400). In the Latin language, Oświęcim was spelled Osswencimen or Osviecimensis.

As the town was an important center of commerce from the late Middle Ages onwards, German-speaking merchants called it Auswintz (14th century), which by the 15th century was changed into Auschwitz. From 1772–1918, when Oświęcim belonged to the Austrian province of Galicia, both Polish and German language names were in official use.

During World War II, when the town was annexed into the Third Reich, the name Auschwitz was used, to be replaced by Oświęcim after 27 January 1945, when the Wehrmacht was pushed out by the Red Army.

History 1200 - 1800s

Oświęcim has a rich history, which dates back to the early days of Polish statehood. It is one of the oldest castellan gords in Poland. Following the Fragmentation of Poland in 1138, Duke Casimir II the Just attached the town to the Duchy of Opole in ca. 1179 for his younger brother Mieszko I Tanglefoot, Duke of Opole and Racibórz. Rich natural resources and geographically well-situated, Oświęcim attracted settlers and occupiers throughout its history.

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By 1300, Oświęcim was a midsized market town with more than a hundred homes. Many early residents were Germans, who called the town Auschwitz.

  • The town was destroyed in 1241 during the Mongol invasion of Poland.
  • 1281, the Land of Oświęcim became part of the newly established Duchy of Cieszyn, and in ca. 1315, an independent Duchy of Oświęcim was established.
  • 1445, the Duchy was divided into three separate entities – those of Oświęcim and Zator, as well as the Duchy of Toszek.
  • 1457 Polish King Casimir IV Jagiellon bought the rights to Oświęcim.

Like other towns of Lesser Poland, Oświęcim prospered in the period known as Polish Golden Age. Good times ended in 1655, during the catastrophic Swedish invasion of Poland. Oświęcim was burned and afterwards the town declined, and in 1772 (see Partitions of Poland), it was annexed by the Habsburg Empire, as part of the province of Galicia, where it remained until late 1918. After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the town was close to the borders of both Russian-controlled Congress Poland, and the Kingdom of Prussia.

In the second half of the 19th century, Oświęcim became an important rail junction. In the same period, the town burned in several fires, such as the fire of 23 August 1863, when two-thirds of Oświęcim burned, including town hall and two synagogues. In 1910, Oświęcim became the seat of a starosta, in 1915 a high school was opened, and in 1917–18 a new district, called Nowe Miasto, was founded.

After World War I, the town became part of the Second Polish Republic's Kraków Voivodeship and until 1932, the County of Oświęcim was divided between the County of Wadowice, and the County of Biala Krakowska.

Jewish Settlement

Ashkenazi Jewish settlers began migrating eastward from central Europe in the thirteenth century, arriving in Oświęcim in the mid-sixteenth century. Although Oswięcim’s Jews weathered accusations and prohibitions, they also enjoyed privileges and economic freedoms. By the 1860s, half of the town’s residents were Jews. https://s3.amazonaws.com/photos.geni.com/p13/0e/cb/b2/2a/5344483f38d3dbe6/auschwitz_camp_original.jpg On the eve of World War II there were about 8,000 Jews in the city, over half the population.

In the years between the World Wars, Jews and non-Jews knew one another as neighbors, business associates, and friends. While these years were largely peaceful, Jews were the victims of quotas that limited their participation in educational and professional life, and anti semitism intensified during times of economic strain and political tumult.

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War Years 1939-1944

When German forces occupied Oświęcim in September 1939, they renamed it Auschwitz, as it had been called by Germans in prior centuries. The Nazis annexed the area into the Third Reich, returning it to what they saw as its ancestral roots. German rule brought new regulations, unpredictability, and terror to Jewish life in Oświęcim.

Emergence of the Camps

The Germans used former military barracks on the outskirts of town as the site for the concentration and death camp that became known as Auschwitz. The first Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz on June 14, 1940 in a transport with non-Jewish Polish dissidents.

For the nearby concentration and extermination camps, the museum, and the forced labour camp for the IG Farben plant, see Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and Monowitz.

Entrance to Auschwitz I concentration camp

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In October 1939, Nazi Germany immediately annexed the area to Germany in the Gau of Upper Silesia, which became part of the "second Ruhr" by 1944. In 1940, Nazi Germany used forced labour to build a new subdivision to house Auschwitz guards and staff.and a year later the German authorities decided to build a large chemical plant of IG Farben, in the eastern outskirts of the town.

Polish residents of several districts were forced to abandon their houses, as the Germans wanted to keep the area around Auschwitz concentration camp empty. A buffer zone with the area of some 40 square kilometres (15 sq mi) was planned around the camp, and expulsions of local Polish residents took place in two stages, in 1940 and 1941.

All the residents of the Zasole district were forced to abandon their homes. In the Plawy and Harmeze districts, more than 90% of all buildings were destroyed and the residents of Plawy were transported to Gorlice to fend for themselves.

Altogether, some 17,000 people in Oświęcim itself and surrounding villages were forced to leave their homes, and eight villages were wiped off the map. As a result, by April 1941 the population of Oświęcim shrank to 7,600.[citation needed]

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The town and the camp were seized by the Red Army on 27 January 1945. Soviets immediately opened two temporary camps for German POWs in the complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz Soviet camp existed until fall 1945, and the Birkenau camp lasted until spring 1946. Some 15,000 Germans were interned there.

  • A camp of Communist secret police (Urzad Bezpieczenstwa) was located near the rail station, in the complex of former "Gemeinschaftslager".
  • Most of its prisoners were members of the NSDAP, Hitlerjugend and BDM, as well as German civilians, the Volksdeutsche and Upper Silesians who were suspected of being disloyal to Poland.

After the territorial changes of Poland immediately post World War II, new housing complexes in the town were developed with large buildings of rectangular and concrete constructions. The chemical industry became the main employer of the town and in later years, a service industry and trade were added.

Post war

Tourism to the concentration camp sites is an important source of revenue for the town's businesses. In the mid-1990s following Communism's end, employment at the chemical works (former IG Farben, renamed Dwory S.A.) reduced from 10,000 in the Communist era to only 1,500 people.

In 1952, the County of Oświęcim was re-created, and the town until 1975 belonged to Kraków Voivodeship. In 1975–99, it was part of Bielsko-Biala Voivodeship. In 1979, Oświęcim was visited by Pope John Paul II, and on 1 September 1980, a local Solidarity office was created at the chemical plant. On 28 May 2006, the town was visited by Pope Benedict XVI.

People from Oswiecim

"Auschwitz has become an international byword as the place for extermination and as a death camp, a vale of tears, a Devil's Island of German Nazism, with all kinds of portrayals symbolizing the savagery and destructiveness of the idol of ultimate hatred of humankind. In the process, one forgets the story of Oshpitzin before the Holocaust and the Jewish community that flourished there at the highest level, in all aspects on a par with other cities and towns.

I cannot, nor would it be proper for me to, begin with the history of Oshpitzin from its very beginnings without referring to the actual end of the community, with which the old name Oshpitzin disappeared and was replaced with the draconian name Auschwitz, which implies destruction and doom, Holocaust and ruin, impending disaster, and calamities that mere words cannot describe – human catastrophe in full, the Hell of Auschwitz." -- Meir Shimon Geshuri

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Revival of Jewish Life in Poland

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, there have been signs of revival in Jewish life in Poland. While Poland’s Jewish communities of a few thousand members are tiny in comparison to its pre-war population of over three million, Jewish life has taken new roots in cities throughout Poland and younger people are joining these communities. Jewish studies programs and festivals abound, and among non-Jews, there has been a growing interest in Jewish culture and the longing for the multi-ethnic Poland that was destroyed by both the Holocaust and Communism.

A few sites about Jewish Life in Poland Today

  • The Auschwitz Jewish Center
  • Krakow Jewish Festival
  • Krakow Jewish Community Center
  • Beit Warsawa
  • Jewish Community of Warsaw
  • Museum of the History of Polish Jews
  • Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland

Source

Jewish Life in Poland