By Maggie Kuck, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
I’m staying in a hotel in Auschwitz. No, not the camp, although I can see it from the comfort of a modern lobby. Before my trip to Poland I, like many others, did not know that there was anything
significant that surrounded the former Nazi concentration and death camp. My first reaction was a bit of shock and a lot of confusion. How could anyone live so close to the infamous place where over one million people were murdered? The simplest answer is that this has been home for thousands of people for hundreds of years.
Before WWII, a vibrant community lived in Oświęcim, Poland - later named Auschwitz in German. The population was made up of about 16,000 people, of which over 8,000 were Jews. Half the population was Jewish. I had to let that sink in as I walked the streets of the town. Unless you look closely, it is hard to imagine a vibrant Jewish community once walked the same streets I walked today - 27 May 2019. But life after the Holocaust was not simple. In many cases, former Jewish homes were destroyed or new families already occupied the home. More complex in this case was the challenge of returning to a home in which a few miles away existed the very place in which people were murdered because of their faith. It’s not hard to imagine why no Jews live here today.
Curiously, one man did return, Shimshon Klueger - the last Jew in Oświęcim. He had survived a concentration camp and went to live in his family home, which at the time looked nothing short of abandoned. He would not talk to anyone, would not go outside, would not tell his story. But everyone in the town knew he was there. People would leave him money or food in a bowl outside his door, but still, he never rejoined the community.
Klueger passed away in 2000, just before a formal Jewish presence in Oświęcim existed, the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC). I learned about Shimshon at my visit there, and even purchased an Israeli coffee in his former home which has since been converted to a cafe that fundraises for the center. The home was donated by the Klueger family, but it is unclear what Shimshon would have wanted. Nobody will ever know, but I believe it is not anyone’s business to know.
I am not sure how to process the level of comfort I have felt during my stay in Oświęcim so far. But given that the population here today is just under 40,000 residents, I understand that there must be a way to remember the past and move forward. It is unfortunate that out of the over one million visitors to Auschwitz, less than 5% ever visit the AJC to learn about the former vibrant Jewish community and its last Jewish resident. Had I not been given the opportunity, I would have missed out on a major aspect of Auschwitz history, one that ties the past, present and future.
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