Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998
Auschwitz
 
Changes at Auschwitz
 
Jewish Center Foundation to Restore Pre-War Synagogue
The New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, founded in 1995, and its Polish affiliate, the Fundacja Edukacyjne Centrum Zydowskie w Oswiecimiu, created in 1996, plan to restore the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue of Oswiecim, the only surviving synagogue building in Oswiecim, better known as Auschwitz, site of the Nazi Death Camp.  The synagogue and an adjacent property were recently returned to the Jewish Community of Poland, which has turned them over to the Foundations.  The Foundation will now establish a cultural facility, housing the first permanent exhibit of the vital and diverse Jewish community that existed in Oswiecim and the surrounding areas before the Shoah.  The restored synagogue and adjacent Center will be available for visitors who wish to pray and mourn and for those who wish to broaden their base of knowledge about Jewish life in the region.  The Center will offer an exhibition including artifacts from residents, survivors, and family members.  It will also offer kosher food.

Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German) is a city with a rich and long history, in which Jewish life and culture played a significant role for more than 500 years.  The Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps and the State Museum, situated outside Oswiecim, recall the tragic memories of the Shoah.  The Jewish Center, in contrast, will sit within the old town center which lies several kilometers away from the camps.  The Center will depict and commemorate the life and culture of the Jewish victims by focusing on the largely unknown history of Jewish life in Oswiecim.

The adaptation and restoration of the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue is designed to provide a meaningful space for Jewish people to mourn and pray.  A Catholic Center and an International House already exist near the concentration camp sites but there is no specifically Jewish place for Jewish visitors.  The synagogue also holds interest for non-Jewish visitors as an example of a typical place of worship in a small community environment.

In addition to the synagogue restoration, the adjacent building will be converted into an exhibition space, a small theater and lecture hall, a space for dialogues and meetings, and a vegetarian cafeteria.

Arthur Rosenblatt Associates has prepared preliminary designs for the restorations and adaptation of the structures.  The foundation has engaged Polish architects Eleonora Bergman and Janusz Smolski and American architectural historian Samuel Gruber as historical and architectural consultants to the project.

Crosses Planted At Auschwitz Ignite Controversy
Roman Catholic activists have responded to a call from the recently established Social Committee in Defense of the Oswiecim Cross and, in an attempt to transform Auschwitz into a site of remembrance for Polish Catholic martyrdom, planted over fifty crosses at the site of the Auschwitz camp.  The activists placed the crucifixes at the site without regard to a 1987 agreement between Jewish and Catholic groups that dictates that Auschwitz be free of any religious symbols.  These crosses are the newest in a series of crosses that have been planted at the site since 1979, when Pope John Paul II marked a mass grave with a seven-meter cross. The Polish government and many senior Polish clerics have agreed to moving the cross, but Poland’s primate, Cardinal Glemp has vociferously defended its presence at the site.  As recently as last March, 130 Polish parlimentarians petitioned for the large cross to remain.

The controversy over the crosses has played a role in delaying the signing formal agreement between the Polish government, Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and several other Jewish organizations which called for the preparation of a plan incorporating the entire site.  Poland has committed $90 million over ten years to the project and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has succeeded, over the course of six years, in securing commitments for over $25 million from 112 governments.  It anticipates raising another $20 million.  In light of the seemingly contradictory signals from the Polish authorities concerning the future interpretation and presentation of the site, there have been some calls that the camps be granted extra-territorial status.  Poland, which has long regarded the Auschwitz camp as a national shrine, is unlikely to agree to this request – even though it was put forward by the country’s chief rabbi, Menachem Joskowitz, among others.

 

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