Jewish leaders dedicate renovated synagogue near Auschwitz camp

OSWIECIM, Poland - Pledging to preserve the spark of a once-vibrant Polish-Jewish culture decimated by the Holocaust, American Jews reopened a century-old synagogue Tuesday near the site of the Auschwitz death camp.

''The synagogue dedicated here today will return to being the place of learning,'' said Fred Schwartz, founder of the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, which financed the renovation.

''It will be a vibrant symbol of life regenerated and of the angel of death that passed over here.''

Sitting on a knoll in central Oswiecim - the Polish name for Auschwitz - about 1.9 miles from the Nazi death camp, the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue was among a dozen in the southern Polish city. Invading German troops turned it into a munitions warehouse in 1939. Before the war, 12,300 Jews lived in the city.

About 70 American Jews were joined at Tuesday's dedication by more than 200 officials from Poland, Israel, the Roman Catholic Church - even a prince from Jordan - in a sign of religious tolerance.

The ceremony under a green and white tent in warm sunshine also inaugurated an adjacent cultural center for the study of Jewish history in Poland.

The synagogue was briefly revived after World War II by local Jews, but was abandoned when most left communist Poland for the new state of Israel. It reverted to warehouse use and fell into disrepair.

Poland, now 95 percent Catholic, returned the synagogue to the Jewish community in 1998.

''I am very moved to see this place after so many years,'' said Adam Druks, an Israel resident who left Oswiecim in 1939 at age 10.

''When our youth come from Israel they will go not only to the camp museum, but also here to see how their grandfathers lived and to meet Polish youth, and it will help us all.''

More than 1.5 million people, 90 percent of them Jewish, perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. In all, more than 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.

About 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland before the war. Most of the survivors eventually left for Israel and other countries, and only about 20,000 live in Poland today.

The New York foundation raised $10 million to renovate the synagogue and an adjacent building.

''The goal is to allow hundreds of thousands of visitors to Auschwitz to come and see what Jewish life was like here before the destruction,'' said Daniel Eisenstadt, executive director of the foundation.

''We want to put them in the context of the horrific thing that happened,'' he said.

U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill read a letter from President Clinton praising the renovation as ''a living memory of the millions who died'' and the ''bright Jewish culture that flourished in central and eastern Europe before the onset of World War II.

Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, brother of the late King Hussein, joined Jewish leaders in nailing a traditional mezuza prayer scroll to the synagogue door.

''Our commitment is the reconciliation between the adherence to our faith and respect for what's human and sacred in each of us,'' the prince said.

Foundation founder Schwartz, noting a Catholic church nearby, was moved by the scene.

''To my right there is a Jewish synagogue, to my left a Catholic church, and before me a prince of Islam, and that's an awesome reflection,'' he said.

The new cultural center includes videotaped testimony of Holocaust survivors and documents tracing the history of Jewish life dating back to 1450 in Oswiecim. The city's last known Jewish resident died in May.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment