Before World War II, Oshpitzin (the town that became Auschwitz) was a thriving community of Chassidim and talmidei chachamim that had twelve shuls and a few yeshivos.
Delving into the Oshpitzin Memorial Book, compiled after the war, reveals that its Torah and Chassidus coexisted with anti-Semitism and anguish. Peace and security were not typically found in Polish-Jewish communities. Farcical blood libels suffered by Oshpitzin’s Jews were a sign of the times. One of them was reported in the periodical, “Halevi,” in 5654/1894.
“I shall relate with laughter, a bitter jest, how our enemies erupted and behaved riotously in the case of a blood libel,” it writes. “On the Friday before Pesach, a local Jew was returning from making his rounds of the villages where he had been buying merchandise and, along with his purchases, he had a basket covered by a cloth which contained a lamb. The lamb bleated and wailed bitterly. A Christian woman happened to hear this and she wisely surmised that it was a Christian child that the Jew was conveying in order to slaughter him and use his blood to besprinkle the matzos.
“She unhesitatingly sallied forth and brought five armed policemen, who made no attempt to inquire of the village head, as required, and surrounded the house, letting none in or out, until the arrival of other policemen to conduct a thorough search. The house was that of Mordechai Schnitzer who, by that time, was already in the shul for evening prayers and, upon his return, found the house encircled by a great throng. He wished to enter his home but the police did not permit it and, only after many appeals and entreaties, did they consent for him to go in and show him the place where the child was kept.
“He went with them, door-to-door, to all of his neighbors and the residents of the building, and then they heard the bleating of the lamb. The Christian woman heard it as well and joyously proclaimed, ‘This is the sound of the child I heard.’ How very great was their disgrace when they saw that it was but a young lamb tied to the bedpost and longing for its mother. They departed in humiliation.”
A similar tale was reported a few years later, in 5660/1900.
“A Christian maid was employed in Oshpitzin by a Jew named Gross,” the report says. “Because of some illness she had contracted, she left her job and disappeared. It was surmised that she was admitted into some hospital. Last week, a man was cropping some of the tall grass near the fence of the Jewish cemetery and, since the grass there was very high, it seemed to look like an open grave. At once, a rumor spread through the town that the Jews had murdered the girl, had buried her, and that now the guards had disinterred her and brought her to the morgue at the Christian cemetery. The guard there guaranteed that there was no corpse in the morgue and refused them entry. At that point, the wrath of the mob increased and they tore the window of the morgue from its frame, and turned its fury onto the town’s Jews, threatening them with the destruction of their homes unless they brought out the body of the victim. The police were hard put to disperse the angry mob and the Jews were sorely afraid.”
A month later, the paper reported the following:
“Our readers will recall that, in Oshpitzin, our oppressors laid a false charge of blood-libel against the Jews, in the wake of the disappearance of a Christian maiden before Passover, and that witnesses testified that the Jews had brought her to the Jewish cemetery for burial. All the efforts of the police had so far been in vain. Lo and behold, the maiden was found by the Prussian police in Jast on the Prusso-Silesian border, where she had gone after her suitor, to the boundless joy of the Jews in Oshpitzin.”
THE END OF OSHPITZIN
On the 19th of Elul, 5699/September 3rd, 1939, Oshpitzin was bombarded by Nazi artillery for the first time since World War II broke out two days earlier. German forces entered the same day and announced their arrival by murdering eight Jews.
“This was the Selichos period,” a community leader, Eliezer Schenker, recalls in Oshpitzin’s Memorial Book. “Along with other Jews, I attended the Selichos prayers at the Great Shul and, for the first time in my life, I led them at the request of Gabbai Jachtzel. I couldn’t refuse since there was a genuine fear that German troops might enter the shul at any moment, and all were afraid to lead the service. I stood before the white marble amud and began the service. A heavy pall bore down and our hearts were heavy due to the horror stories circulated by the returning refugees. Tears were running from my eyes. Outside, it was still dark and the heavy treads of German patrols could be heard while the prayers were conducted in gloom, only a few candles burning in the gigantic shul.
“On that day, I told Selinger to prepare two large crates and to line them with clay and tar. After that, I ordered the gathering of all the sifrei Torah and the silver ornaments – except for two required for the services – and their burial in a certain location.”
However, on September 20th, the Nazis burned down the town’s Great Synagogue, together with its forty sifrei Torah.
The Memorial Book recalls how the Gerrer Rebbe passed through Oshpitzin on his miraculous journey to Eretz Yisroel via Nazi Germany.
“The Gerrer Rebbe passed through our town on his way to the Land of Israel. This was in October 5700/1939. Biberstein, the Head of the Krakow Judenrat, had informed me by telephone that the Gerrer Rebbe and his close associates were to pass through Oshpitzin by train, and requested that I provide them with some warm food since they had not been permitted to approach the train in Krakow.
“We rode to the train station in the company of kehilah officials… taking with us thermos bottles of hot tea and pastries. In the second-class coach, completely isolated, rode the Rebbe, his family, associates and his personal doctor. S.S. men guarded the coach. They allowed us to approach in order to provide the travelers with food and drink. I was busy with the distribution of the pastries while the Rebbe, short of height, gray of hair, in a wide and high hat, stood at the window of the coach and took leave of all the Jews. He called me over, took both my hands in his, and greeted me, ‘You, your wife, and your children will remain alive and will succeed in surviving the war.’
“The train moved, the Rebbe was on his way, and we stood and watched as the train rode off to freedom. By order of the train officials, we were obliged to leave the station…
“I was amazed as to why the Rebbe in his blessing had said, ‘You, your wife, and children,’ and not, ‘You and your family,’ which would have been simpler and more natural.” (By the end of the war, he understood. Except for his wife and children, his family perished.)
During that October, parts of Poland, including Oshpitzin, were annexed to the Third Reich. Three hundred local Jewish forced laborers began building the Auschwitz camp, in the spring of 5700/1940, utilizing an old Polish barracks as its first buildings. On June 15th, the first transport of Polish political prisoners arrived. On April 25th, 5701/1941, the Nazis deported all the Oshpitzin Jews to the nearby Sosnowice-Bedzin (Zsrodula) ghetto.
“In 5703/1943, the remaining Jews from Oshpitzin in Zsrodula were sent to the camps, the majority to Auschwitz,” the record in the Memorial Book continues. “The younger ones were sent to Mauthausen, Giessen and other camps in Germany.”
AFTER THE WAR
Eliezer Schenker, with his wife and children, returned to Oshpitzin after the war.
“In June 5705/1945, I returned together with my wife, my children and my late stepmother, to the town of my birth – Oshpitzin,” he recorded. “We came back as beggars of the lowest category, shriveled, hungry, train station of my hometown without any possibility of recognizing it. The station had been enlarged, the inner hall looked different, and more tracks had been added. It was only after leaving the station that we spotted the Zator Hotel and came to realize that we were really in Oshpitzin…
“From the river’s edge, I saw the view towards the city: In spite of all the tribulations we experienced in the ghetto, in the prisons, in the bunkers, in the forests, and in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, we remained alive by the grace of Hashem, I and my wife and children. However – to our sorrow – the only ones of the whole family.
“Sad and depressed, I went to City Hall to register. I saw sidewalks made of tombstones that had been taken from the cemetery. When I left city hall, I saw piles and piles of headstones on the place where the Great Shul had once stood. I went down to the river, where I was shown headstones loaded on barges that the Nazis had prepared to send to Germany.”
Eliezer Schenker soon discovered that Jews were not being welcomed back in Poland.
“Two months had passed from the day the Germans had left, and the Poles began to complete the task of Jewish extermination on the Jews returning from the camps. A young Jew and his mother and sister who had returned reopened a grocery store in Brzeszcze. I was amazed that he was not afraid to live alone in a village. He laughed at me and said the Poles liked him very much and that he had many friends in the village. I warned him to lock his doors well at night. One night, the Poles attacked and killed them. I had to send my horse in order to bring their bodies for a Jewish burial. Thus, the Jewish cemetery once more served its function.”
The former Jewish community leader’s dream was to re-establish a vibrant Jewish community in Oshpitzin/Auschwitz.
“We were able to rebuild the wall around the cemetery and rehabilitate it. We devoted much time and energy to this task. Only a short time afterwards, to our distress, Polish hoodlums destroyed the headstones we had replaced and smashed them with sledgehammers. Not a year had passed and City Hall began to debate whether the Jewish cemetery was still in use, or whether it was now possible to expropriate it and subdivide it for building plots.
“We turned our thoughts to a place of worship. I repaired what was left of the Chevrah Mishnayos shul. It was difficult to gather a minyan but, nevertheless, Jews again prayed on the Sabbath in a shul in Oshpitzin, even though hoodlums threw stones and smashed windows during the services. That’s how things were on the return to Oshpitzin.”
In our time, the “Chevrah Mishnayos” shul has been fully restored. The buried sifrei Torah were never discovered. However, a few years ago, a ninety- year-old Oshpitzin survivor, Yeshayahu Yarot, supplied a young Israeli with a map showing where various artifacts of the destroyed Great Synagogue were buried and an archeological team dug them up. Nevertheless, Eliezer Schenker’s efforts to recreate the Oshpitzin Jewish community failed and, instead, the town has become a museum dedicated to the dead.