In January, a swastika was sprayed on the outer wall of the Jewish cemetery in the Polish city of Oswiecim.
Antisemitic graffiti at Jewish sites isn’t rare in Europe, even 76 years after the end of World War II. But this time the target was only three kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp, and thus it made headlines.
Shlomi Shaked, a 29-year-old Israel who has been living and working in Poland for several years, was shocked, but was relieved to discover that the graffiti was quickly erased and suspects were arrested.
Shaked feels a special connection to the town of Oswiecim, which had a thriving Jewish community until World War II and is where his mother’s family came from. His great-grandfather Moshe Greenbaum owned a large flour business; his grandmother, Rivka, who eventually ran the family business, was also born in the town, as was his grandfather Shlomo Kupperman, after whom he is named. Kupperman was descended from a family of rabbis, some of them dayanim (religious court judges), one was even the head of the Oswiecim Beit Din, the religious Jewish court.
His grandparents, Shlomo and Rivka, survived the war. Shlomo and his brothers fled to Uzbekistan. Rivka was expelled to the Sosnowitz ghetto and passed through a number of camps until ultimately being liberated from Bergen Belsen. Many members of the family were murdered in the Holocaust; others were rescued with the help of Poles.
At the end of the war Shaked's grandparents returned to Oswiecim, and discovered that out of a community of 8,000 Jews, only about 100 had survived. Most of the survivors left the city, but his grandparents decided to stay and even to start their family there.
They married in 1948, the year of Israel’s independence. Their daughter Elina, Shlomi’s mother, was born there in 1949 – one of the few Jewish girls born in Oswiecim after the war.
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Shlomo worked in the finance department of one of the city’s larger enterprises an also led religious services for the small Jewish community at the Hevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue – the only one in the city to survive. Rivka was the secretary of the Jewish community and its representative to the municipality. Only in 1962 did the communist authorities allow the couple to leave and immigrate to Israel.
Shlomi, their grandson, was born and grew up in Holon. In 2013, after service in the Israelia army’s Military Intelligence Unit 8200, he chose a “post-army trip” of a different kind. Instead of trekking in India or sunbathing on a beach in Thailand, he traveled to Oswiecim to volunteer in the Jewish museum established there in 2000, on the site of the last synagogue to survive the war. For several months he guided groups of visitors from all over the world, helping to translate historical texts from Hebrew, and to commemorate the city’s Jews
“The experience was amazing. It was a kind of closing a circle,” he said this week in a phone call from his home in Krakow, where he has been living for the past few years. “My grandfather was the last person to run the community’s religious services. And here am I, his grandson, who bears his name, standing in the same synagogue, about 50 years later, telling the story of that same community.”
Shaked also had the privilege of participate in the project of renovating the home of the last Jew to live in the city, Shimon Kluger, who died in 2000. The house was in terrible condition, he says, but the Jewish museum raised donations and turned the place into a café and a cultural center. Later he affixed a mezuzah at the entrance of the café, apparently the first time such an event has taken place in the city since the war.
Near the home of the last Jew was a warehouse that nobody had opened since the end of the war. When they started to demolish it in the course of the renovation, they discovered documents and items that had been hidden inside the walls of the structure.
“As the only Hebrew speaker, it was no less than amazing for me to see and touch items belonging to people who are no longer with us, which haven’t seen the light of day for about 80 years,” he said.
One moving encounter he had while there was accompanying Rachel Yakimovski, an Oswiecim native who came to visit with her daughters and who, in Israel, chaired the organization of Oswiecim residents. About 90 years old at the time, she took Shaked on a tour of the Jewish cemetery and other Jewish sites, including the building where the office of the family’s flour business had been located.
“I was able to complete parts of my historical puzzle,” says Shaked. When they stopped next to the grave of Rachel’s family, she asked him to light a candle in their memory on subsequent visits. Shortly afterwards she passed away and he has been fulfilling her request ever since.
Later Shaked launched a Facebook group for natives of the city and their relatives, which now has about 400 members. The group is designed to meet the desire for commemoration and to preserve the legacy of the city’s Jews.
“Fewer and fewer people attend the annual memorial services for natives of Oswiecim, which are held in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv. I first came at the age of 13 and had the privilege of meeting a large number of survivors, but since then there isn’t even a minyan” (a quorum of 10 men), he says. The Facebook page revived the tradition, and two years ago, before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, 100 people attended the memorial service, from all the generations. Last year they conducted a virtual service.
Most of the visitors to the memorial website of the Auschwitz concentration camp don’t even know that there had been a Jewish community in the adjacent city. “Without the Jewish museum, very few people would know that for almost 400 years there was a flourishing community,” says Shaked. “The memory of the Jews of the town would have disappeared from the pages of history, as happened to innumerable other Jewish communities in Europe.”
“I would like to convey to the readers the importance of a visit to the Jewish museum in Oswiecim, which is only about three kilometers from the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s important to go and visit the camps, but it’s just as important to remember that right next to those terrible places there’s a town that had a flourishing Jewish community, which is proudly displayed by the Jewish museum in Oswiecim,” says Shlomi.
The museum is having financial difficulties at present due to the coronavirus crisis, and has begun a fundraising campaign. On Thursday night, January 28, Shlomi will participate in an event to be broadcast on the museum’s Facebook page, and will tell about the unique history of the city’s Jewish community.
Between the two world wars, while there were despite antisemitic incidents, there coin had a flip side: shared life in almost every area, says Shlomi. Among other things, he tells about a priest named Jan Skarbek who was friends with Oswiecim Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bombach: the two tried to find ways to achieve mutual cooperation, he says.
Oswiecim once had a number of Jewish youth groups, including Mizrachi, Hehalutz, Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair and Gordonia. In 1922 the city even started a Jewish soccer team, Kadima, “the pride of the city’s Jewish residents.” In 1939, out of a total population of 14,000, some 8,200 were Jews. The town had dozens of synagogues, in addition to yeshivas, heders, shtiebels (informal synagogues) and a girls’ school.
In the Jewish museum you can see many items that document the life of the Jews there. Prominent among them is the story of Jakob Haberfeld’s Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory, the town’s first factory, which was opened in 1804 and operated until World War II. His bottles of alcohol are now sold as collectors’ items on public auction sites.