Word “Auschwitz” is sadly famous all around the world. For many people this place is first of all a symbol of Holocaust, one of the most tragic pages in the history of human being. It means all worst crimes, which just could be done by people and shows, how ideology, combined with incredible violence and belief of “higher race” could create the most terrible factory in the world – factory of death. But what the city of Oświęcim means for the people today and what it symbolizes for its inhabitants? And have you actually ever heard, that Oświęcim is also the city with around 60000 people living there? Sounds already interesting, isn’t it? This place can tell a lot and here I would like to share my own impressions and thoughts.
If you do not really know the history, from the first view Oświęcim is just one from 1000 ordinary cities in Europe. Pretty market square, couple of museums, several old streets with different shops and restaurants – nothing, what will from the first second remind you, that the Stammlager Auschwitz 1 situated just half an hour walking from the city center. But on the way to the memorial site there is one more very important place to see and, from my subjective perspective, obligatory to visit. International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim is a place, which offers not just a big library and plenty of information about the concentration camp. It offers space for young people from all around the world to have a real dialogue, to reflect, exchange and understand the past, think critically about everything, what was going on in this place, and which role it plays today for the society. Each year there are more than 12000 people coming to IYMC to take part in the projects and seminars, connected to the topic of crimes against humanity during the times of National Socialism. This place creates a safe space for exchange of perspectives and thoughts and provides a necessary dialogue between young people from all other the world. The center itself also actively takes part in the city’s development, helping to organize different exhibitions and events. Back to June, for example, there was an exhibition, located exactly in the heart of the city, on a market square, which showed pictures from different artists connected to the topic of Human Rights, freedom of speech, etc.
Talking about exhibitions it is important to mention, that art initiatives in general are very visible in Oświęcim. There are a lot of pictures, posters, photos, which are located all around the city, sometimes showing, how this or that place looked like before or just sharing some moments from city’s life today. It is an attempt to find its own identity, from one side, accepting everything, what happened here during the Second World War, but from the other, to understand, what was the life here before and after. Unexpectedly, in Oświęcim is still valid synagogue, which is located in the city center and shares its space with Jewish museum. Synagogue is not active anymore, but from time to time there are groups of visitors, coming to have a guided tour and if they will, could also pray or organize a service. Jewish museum in Oświęcim presents a lot of artifacts, which help to explore the phenomena of Jewish life in this place. Before the Second World war the half of city´s population were Jewish, there were almost 30 active synagogues, which made a huge influence on the local cultural development and religious diversity. After the war only 28 Jews left in the city and just one synagogue survived. Today only some small details could nostalgically remind about the past. Sad to realize, but this part of city´s identity will be never rebirthed.
When you will go out from the Jewish museum, you will directly go inside Cafe Bergson. It is not just a typical café, it works also as a culture center and exhibition room. When I visited this place, there was a photo exhibition called “Granice.Borders”, which showed photos of people of different nationalities, wearing the traditional clothes from various regions in Poland. In a bookstore, located on the second floor in the café you can see variety of books about Oświęcim, but not just about the place, but mostly about the people, who used to live here. For ordinary city’s citizens this café is a place to socialize, to communicate, to share some ideas and thoughts with each other. At the same time, it has very symbolic meaning: place, located near the synagogue, which is hosting different exhibition and events, open for people of different nationalities, ready to share and tell openly the history, is now one of the most active parts of the city.
Oświęcim is special place. Maybe it will not surprise by incredible architecture or unbelievable nature views, but it has something more than that. History is everywhere here, it gives lessons, which each of us has to learn. But once you will come here, remember to respect not just the history, but also the memory itself. In this memory and for its former inhabitants it stayed forever as just the city, the city of Oświęcim.
- International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim - http://www.mdsm.pl/en/component/content/article/120-our-centre/stay-with-us/1103-visit-us
- Jewish Museum in Oświęcim - https://ajcf.pl/en/museum/
- Café Bergson - https://ajcf.pl/en/cafe/