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Auschwitz Jewish Centre: Plac. Ks. Jana Skarbka 5
The town of Auschwitz, or Oświęcim as it is known in Poland, is indelibly associated with the nearby concentration camp to which it gave its name. As such, many visitors to the area are unaware that the town itself has a rich Jewish heritage. Indeed, prior to the Second World War, Auschwitz was very much regarded as a "Jewish" town, with Jews comprising over half the 12,000 inhabitants.
The Auschwitz Jewish Centre, which first opened in September 2000, consists of the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue and the adjoining Jewish Cultural and Educational Centre which has an exhibition showing the rich history of the Jewish community in Auschwitz. As of September 2006, the centre has become part of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
The late 19th Century synagogue has been painstakingly restored to reflect, as far as possible, its original layout and interior. This was due in part to the help of former members of the congregation, as well as architectural historians and local craftsmen.
The only original features of the synagogue to survive are two plaques. One, dating from 1907, was re-disovered after the war and is currently situated next to the Aron Kodesh. It was donated by a member of the congregation in memory of her late husband and it bears an inscription from the Book of Psalms: "I have set God before me always". The other one, dating from 1928, commemorates three members of the synagogue board and can be found on the mechitza (the long wall separating the men's section from the women's section).
The importance and influence of the Jews in Auschwitz is clear to see from the exhibits that can be found at the centre. For example, there are ashtrays which were produced for promotional purposes by the Haberfeld distillery, one of the town's major employers. There are also many other items that demonstrate Jewish life in Auschwitz: school reports, legal documents and lots of archive pictures of the former inhabitants of the town.
The exhibition is supported by historical information on Auschwitz's Jewish population, from the early Jewish settlers in the first part of the 16th century, up until the Nazi invasion and the destruction of Jewish life and culture during the war.
From an educational point of view the centre is furnished with a large array of books on a wide variety of Jewish matters, both in Poland and further afield, which makes it an excellent resource for those wishing to learn more or do some research. Visitors can also watch a short film in which Jewish people who used to live in Auschwitz reminisce about their life in the town.
The centre also tries to involve the local community in its work, you'll find examples of artwork from schools adorning its walls.
Without a doubt, the Auschwitz Jewish Centre shouldn't be overlooked by anyone coming to Auschwitz, small enough for those on a tight schedule, you can get a "feel" of the centre in a relatively short space of time, it also has enough to offer those visitors who would prefer to spend longer exploring the rich history of Auschwitz's Jewish population.
Opening times & Prices:
Entry to the centre is free, but there is a suggested donation of 5 zloty. The centre is open from 8:30 am until 8:00 pm (March to October) and from 8:30 am until 6:00 pm (November to February). The centre is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
If you initially travel to the site of the former concentration camp the easiest way of getting to the centre would be to use a taxi. The stated walking time of twenty minutes from the Auschwitz site seems overly optimistic.
It is possible to walk to the centre directly from the train station. The walk takes about twenty minutes and is fairly straightforward. Visitors need to turn left on leaving the train station and head in the direction of the Glob hotel. Visitors then need to turn right at the very first roundabout onto ul. Konarskiego and head straight all the time, up to and including the next roundabout. The centre is just over a bridge and next to the town's castle.
Lastly, for those using the PKS bus service, a bus stop is conveniently located not far from the centre from where you can travel directly back to Krakow.