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Synagogue Reopened in Auschwitz

September 16, 2000|Washington Post

OSWIECIM, Poland — In this small Polish town, whose German name--Auschwitz--became a synonym for Nazi genocide, a fragment of living Jewish life returned this week 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 about a mile away, site of the extermination of more than 1 million people.

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

"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."

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 Nazis destroyed 11 synagogues in Oswiecim, including the Great Synagogue, with its painted domes, white marble lectern and Ark of the Covenant. The modest Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue--the Society of the Study of the Mishnah, the traditional Hebraic law code--survived only because it was used for storage.

In the mid-1990s, the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, set up by New Yorker Fred Schwartz, successfully applied to the Polish government for the return of the Lomdei synagogue to the Jewish community for renovation.

"I think the synagogue is a fitting juxtaposition" with Auschwitz-Birkenau, said Schwartz, "the void of the camps with the texture of the lives lost there."

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