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Synagogue reopens in death camp town

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 2000


OSWIECIM, Poland -- In this small Polish town, whose German name -- Auschwitz -- became a synonym for Nazi genocide, a part of Jewish life returned Tuesday with the reopening of a synagogue, the first such place of worship here since World War II.

The restored early 20th century structure, which the Nazis used as a munitions dump and the Communists used as a carpet showroom, will offer a place of retreat for people visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex 11/2 miles away, site of the extermination of more than 1-million people.

"It's the synagogue I remember," said Cyla Sauerman Karlin, 73, a a prewar resident of Oswiecim who returned to Poland for the first time from her home in Israel for Tuesday's dedication ceremony.

She cast her eyes around the room where her mother prayed and, through arched windows, at the square where she played as a child. "My house," she said, pointing at a two-story building. On the wall beside her in the synagogue hung a picture from 1932 of the students in the congregation's girls school. And there, with a thick bob of hair and impish smile, was Karlin's sister, looking up at the camera, and there, her cousin, and there, another cousin.

Extinguished life.

"This is very important," said Karlin, who lost her parents, four sisters, a brother and 48 other relatives in the war, which she survived in a slave labor factory in what is now the Czech Republic. "This synagogue will be the sign that here, in this place, Jews once lived."

But Jews and Poles said Tuesday they had another wish. They hope the synagogue's very presence in the heart of the town -- and away from the camp on its outskirts -- will also help sever the name of Oswiecim, an ordinary place of 45,000 inhabitants where Jews once prospered, from Auschwitz, the locus of unimaginable murder.

Poles and Jews have struggled, often bitterly, over the spiritual ownership of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where both communities suffered enormously. Efforts at economic development in Oswiecim have often poisoned Polish-Jewish relations, as Jewish groups objected that restaurants and a supermarket were being built too close to the death site.

The synagogue's opening came a few weeks after that of a large discotheque, about a mile closer to the camp. Jewish organizations have protested that the discotheque amounts to an affront, but local authorities have said that they can do little because the club is on private property.

As dignitaries spoke at Tuesday's synagogue dedication, a line of Poles collecting welfare benefits snaked along a nearby building. "We are a dead town," said Teresa Opalinska, 41, an unemployed single mother. "No one wants to invest here, and it's very, very frustrating. This is not Auschwitz. I'm very happy about this synagogue, because now maybe people will also come into the town and see that there are ordinary people here."

The last Jewish resident of Oswiecim died in May, but the "narrow streets and charming alleys," as a Polish journalist described the town in 1920, once bustled with Jewish life. Of 14,000 residents, 8,000 were Jews, and their presence here as physicians and peddlers, artisans and merchants, dated to the 15th century.

"I still see the businesses and the people on the street and the bank by the river where the Jewish kids hung out," said Jacob Hennenburg, 76, who returned from Cleveland for the ceremony. "I took some people to see my old house, and they looked at it and some saw a big house and some saw a small house, but I saw my mother looking out the window."

On Sept. 6, 1939, the German invasion force reached Oswiecim, a spur on the European railway system. Over the next five years, before Soviet troops liberated the town on Jan. 27, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the epicenter of the systematic murder of European Jewry.

"A certain smell on the wind meant that people were burning," said Bronislawa Polanek, 68, a Pole from the Oswiecim region, who watched Tuesday's ceremony. "I feel happy to see the synagogue back. What existed before is not all gone."

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