By Jessie Levine, Simmons University
Only several miles away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, the Auschwitz Jewish Cemetery holds the memories of the town’s Jews going back generations. Before the German
occupation of Poland, Oświęcim, a small town west of Kraków, had a population of about 12,000 people, 8,000 of them being Jews. Today, in 2019, about 80 years after German forces
occupied Poland, there are no Jews reported to be living in Oświęcim. However, the Auschwitz Jewish Center continues to promote Holocaust education among the communities within Poland and visitors, allowing them to visit the historical cemetery.
In order to understand the severity and devastation from the Holocaust experienced by the
small town of Oświęcim, it was crucial to first understand how Jewish life was before those
horrid events took place. Those 8,000 Jews in Oświęcim were forced out by the Germans
during World War II or they decided to leave the country before anti-Semitic propaganda
escalated. However, before they left, Oświęcim was home to their Jewish lives: it had Jewish
stores, a synagogue, and a Jewish cemetery. When I toured Oświęcim today, I was most
fascinated by the Auschwitz Jewish Cemetery, located about a 5-minute walk away from the
Auschwitz Jewish Center.
Back in the States, all of the Jewish cemeteries I had been to had freshly mowed and groomed
grass, clear and maintained walking trails, and each of the headstones looked shiny and
affluent. This Jewish cemetery was a very different picture than I was used to-the grass was
very overgrown and contained weeds, the walking trails were not maintained or very clear, and
the headstones didn’t seem to be organized or properly placed. I noticed this to be upsetting to
me as I felt it disturbed the memory of the individuals, most of who were likely buried at least
100 years ago. I began to have a lot of thoughts about why the cemetery is this way, and I
imagined how it would be if a Jewish cemetery in the States were in this condition.
It is safe to assume that all the people in the cemetery had died/were buried before the German
occupation of Poland in 1939. We know that during the occupation, the cemetery was badly
vandalized and damaged by the German occupants, and the size of the cemetery was
significantly reduced. It makes a lot of sense to me then why many of the tombstones look like
they were just thrown in there and why the site is in such disarray. Immediately after the war,
once there Germans left, there were no Jews remaining in Oświęcim, and it makes sense why
those who left and were still alive wouldn’t want to return.
It is possible that there are people in Poland who have family members buried in that cemetery,
but are unaware because that information was never passed along to them or that it died with
their relatives in the Holocaust. People also may not know exactly who is buried there, as
tombstones have been moved as times changed during and after.
Since the tour, I have been thinking a lot about how it would be if the Jewish cemetery where
my family is buried were to be found in a similar state as this one. I would be appalled that my
relatives were being disrespected like this in their final resting place and that no consideration
would be given to their personhood or ability to be at peace after death. As a family member
and a mourner, I would feel that my ability to remember my relatives would be impeded due to
another’s ignorance or hatred just because my family is Jewish. I think these thoughts are only
the beginning of how I would feel if my family’s gravesite were to be found in a similar state to
the Auschwitz cemetery. How can we continue honoring and respecting those before us when
we fail to create a peaceful site for their graves?
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