By Kalen Michals, Simmons Univeristy
The town of Oświęcim, Poland is known worldwide, for it is the location of the most notorious Nazi concentration and death camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although most commonly referred to as Auschwitz, its German translation, the town of Oświęcim was home to many Jews prior to the outbreak of WWII. However, when Holocaust survivors returned home to Oświęcim after liberation, they found their homes and businesses reclaimed by their one-time neighbors.
Jewish migration to Oświęcim began in the mid-1500s and grew over the next four centuries. In 1940, prior to the deportation of Polish Jews to ghettos, Jews comprised half of the town's population (roughly 8,000 of the 16,000 residents). They held prominent roles, such as business owners and money lenders, were registered to vote, maintained organized sports teams, attended local schools alongside Catholics, and actively participated in raising funds for the Polish military. In 1932, over half of the town council members were Jewish.
Prior to the war, the Haberfeld family owned a large distillery near the Sola river. The Jewish family even installed a railroad to transport goods, which the Nazis would eventually use to transport Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Germany invaded Oświęcim while the Haberfelds were on a business trip to New York, and their ship home was diverted to Scotland. During their time away, their toddler daughter (who had remained home in Poland) was transported and eventually murdered at Belzec.
By 1942, all Jewish residents of the town had been transferred to either ghettos in Silesia, Sosnowiec, and Bedzin, labor camps in Gora Swietej Anny, or the death camp in Belzec. It is important to note that the Jews from Oświęcim were not transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but other labor and death camps where most spend their final days. At the time oftheir extraction from Oświęcim, the “Final Solution” was not yet implemented, and the ghettos were seen as a temporary solution to the “Jewish Problem.” By liberation in 1945, less than 10% of the Oswiecim Jewish population remained, and only 77 people returned home. Later that year, there were 186 Jewish inhabitants, but only 40 were left in 1946.
When the survivors who had previously inhabited Oświęcim returned, they found their homes occupied and businesses taken over. Their former neighbors now owned their property and belongings, and had no intention of returning them. When the Haberfelds first tried to claim ownership in 1967 of their once thriving distillery, anti-Semitism was on the rise again, and the state prohibited such a transaction. Mrs. Haberfeld tried to reclaim the building again in the 1990s, but -- yet again -- she was unable to do so.
The story of the Oświęcim Jews is tragic, but all too familiar. Jewish communities throughout Europe that once flourished were demolished by the end of WWII, and the survivors of the Holocaust had no homes or families to return to. Many of the remaining European Jews immigrated to the United States and Israel in hopes of avoiding the ever-present threats of anti-Semitism.
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory