Effort preserves Jewish history in Poland

Service to highlight work to restore synagogue

April 17, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As Fred Schwartz visited the Auschwitz death camp in Poland several years ago, he was confronted with the reality that thousands of Jews had died there.

But the camp and surrounding town bore no evidence that Jews had lived there.

To correct the record, the New York businessman is leading an effort to restore the only remaining synagogue in Oswiecim, the Polish town near the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.

Schwartz, president of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, will speak about the project at 1 p.m. tomorrow during the commemoration of Yom Hashoah, the worldwide Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust, at the Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation on Auchentoroly Terrace across from Druid Hill Park.

When he first went to Auschwitz in 1993, Schwartz said, he was "struck by the complete anonymity of the people who died there. There was no identification as to male or female, rich or poor, young or old. And there were no signs of Jewish identity either. The camp was just a morass of anonymity.

"While the camps very well represent the methodology and place of the killing," he said, "they do not represent the character of the lives that were destroyed."

The town of Oswiecim was once a thriving center of Jewish life, with more than 30 synagogues. Two-thirds of its population of 11,000 were Jews.

There is little trace of that heritage today. The Nazis stripped every vestige of Jewish identity, destroying every synagogue in the town -- save one.

That is reflective of the situation of Judaism in Poland. In pre-war Poland, there were about 3.5 million Jews; after the Holocaust, they numbered just 250,000.

Since the war, the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps have become places of pilgrimage for Jews, but few bother to enter the town.

"The lack of Jewish presence in the camps and the area made it a very forbidding environment for Jewish visitors," Schwartz said. "We wanted to find some kind of place where people would be able to say a memorial prayer, the Kaddish, and find some sense of identity with the people who were there . We fortunately found this little synagogue."

The rundown building that housed the Lomdei Mishnayot Congregation before the war had most recently been a rug warehouse.

Schwartz set out to raise money to restore the building and re-open it as a synagogue and museum depicting Jewish life in Oswiecim, which lies across the Sola River from the two death camps. He also bought the adjacent house, which will become a kosher cafeteria, offering the first kosher food service in Oswiecim since 1939.

The synagogue property was turned over to the local Jewish community last year, the first transfer under a law recently passed by the Polish legislature that provides for the return of property to Jewish congregations.

Schwartz estimates renovating the synagogue and adjacent building will cost about $3 million, but his goal is to raise $12 million to provide an endowment.

Baltimore is his first stop in a tour of U.S. Jewish communities.

Rabbi David Herman, spiritual leader of the Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation, has a personal connection to the Oswiecim synagogue: his father-in-law was a member there as a child and made his bar mitzvah there. He said the project will serve the 100,000 Jews who visit Auschwitz annually.

"I thought it was essential to recognize the accomplishments of this man who has spent so much time and effort to do something both educational and spiritual in a place that has long been associated with death and destruction," he said. "His efforts will help educate the new generation of visitors to this place about how Jews lived for close to 1,000 years in Poland and not just simply how they died at the hands of the Germans from 1939 to 1945."

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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