The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue is “the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in Oswiecim was built circa 1913 and functioned until the Nazi occupation. During the war, its interior was devastated and the building was turned into a munitions warehouse”.
Despite being alone for Kabbalat Shabbat, the presence of Jews who once filled this Shul and the many other Shtibalach that were destroyed in the village of Oswiecim (~60% of the population of pre-war Oswiecim was Jewish!) could definitely be felt. Between Mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat I was privileged to “study” with those Jews Mishnayot and then to sing together Licha-Dodi….
“A well-disseminated legendary tale was current about the dead who used to Davven together in the Oshpitzin synagogue. It was told in this way. Once on Simchat Torah, after midnight when the entire populace slept peacefully, the Jews were awakened by a loud noise issuing from the Synagogue. The more adventurous went to see what was happening there. When they were quite close the synagogue, previously shrouded in darkness, suddenly was full of light and the doors came wide open. They didn’t see anyone there, but they did hear the voices of a large congregation of Jews who were Davvening the Ma’ariv Service. A Chazan intoned the “Ato Horeiso” and then led the Hakofes [Simchat Torah Dances]. When the living Jews wanted to run away in their great fright, they could not do so, because a voice from the Synagogue warned them all that they should not move a step until they were given leave to do so. Obviously, they had to carry out the command. Then they were informed that all of the worshippers were the purified souls of former Oshpitzin Jews who have long been in Heaven. When it came time for the Torah reading, all were honored with being called to the Torah, and also the living Jews were called by name, each one in turn. Later when the Torah Scrolls were returned to the Holy Ark, they were instructed that when leaving the Synagogue no one should face the exit, but all were to exit walking backwards, so that they should not, God forbid, be harmed. In this manner they returned home.……..”
On Shabbat morning, after davening alone and reading Parshat Balak, I was taken by the hand by those same Jews with whom I had davened Kabbalat Shabbat to Birkenau and, in the afternoon, to Aushwitz. As we walked along these paths of destruction , the prophecy of Balaam was resounding in my mind – ‘How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!‘ – and made me thankful that I am a witness to the miracle of the rebirth of Israel…
Late in the afternoon I returned to what had been the center of pre-war Jewish Oswiecims and as the “shul” was closed I continued in the footsteps of the Hevra Kadisha to the cemetary.
The shadows of the Minyan that had accompanied me for Shabbat answered to the silent Kadish I said while looking through the locked gates of the cemetery.
I continued with the Minyan to the heart of Jewish life in Oświęcim, the Jewish Street named Berek Joselewicz. Here opposite of where once stood the “Great Synagogue”, I imagined I was inside with the Minyan, saying Havdalah while looking at :
“…the walls covered with marvelous frescoes all flowing together under the rounded dome, making the ceiling into a form of a chupa above. The ceiling and its coloration looked like the blue sky, with scattered shining stars, and around it were the twelve signs of the zodiac. The walls, too, were covered with marvelous drawings by a master craftsman. The bima was raised and enclosed by a screen and covered by a canopy fashioned of scrolled iron and brass, and of carved wood. There were quite a few steps leading to the Holy Ark, which was of gigantic proportions and took up a sizable part of the eastern wall. Around the Ark and above it were exquisitely hand-carved wooden decorations, all for the beautification of the sanctuary….”
Sites “studied” Erev Shabbat included :
A sub-camp and from November 1943 a concentration camp to which all the “industrial” sub-camps in the Auschwitz complex were subordinated. It was established at the site of the Polish village of Monowice, whose inhabitants were expelled and buildings razed. The location had previously been envisioned as one of ten barracks-camps planned for compulsory laborers for IG Farben Industrie.
The first of approximately two thousand prisoners were brought there at the end of October 1944, after which the prisoner population rose to six thousand in 1943 and almost 11 thousand in the late summer of 1944. The prisoners lived in 59 wooden barracks and one made of concrete panels. Each barracks was furnished with 56 three-tier bunks, several tables and stools, and a central heating installation.
Despite somewhat better conditions than in KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau and additional nutrition in the form of camp soup, the strength of Monowitz prisoners dropped rapidly due to the hard labor, and they died or fell victim to selection. In total, 1,670 prisoners were murdered at the building site or in the sub-camp hospital, and 11 thousand were sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau, where the majority of them were killed with a lethal phenol shot or in the gas chambers.
The commandant throughout the entire existence of Auschwitz III-Monowitz, renamed the Monowitz camp in November 1944, was SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Schwarz. He had 440 SS men at his disposal. In January 1945, the prisoners were evacuated on foot to Gliwice, from where they were transported by rail to the Buchenwald and Mauthausen camps.
IG Farben (Interessen-Gemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG)
A German chemical conglomerate resulting from the 1925 merger of such leading firms as Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, and BASF. In the 1930s, owing to technological advances and state subsidies, it almost monopolized the production of many goods vital to the Third Reich war economy. The most important of these were liquid fuel and synthetic rubber, which could not be imported to Germany after the sea lanes were cut at the start of the war.
IG Farben was one of the first companies to employ concentration camp prisoners—above all from Auschwitz (Buna-Werke)—and to demand that the SS maintain their capacity for labor, mostly through the replacement of the sick (selection) and weak with healthy, strong new arrivals from the transports arriving in the camp.
After the war some members of IG Farben management were tried at the American war tribunal in Nuremberg and sentenced to up to eight years in prison, but all the convicted men were released at the beginning of the 1950s.
At the moment the war started, the German IG Farben chemical concern had two synthetic-rubber (Buna) plants in central Germany. At the end of 1940, in view of the danger of bombing, management decided to shift part of its productive potential to Upper Silesia.
From among several proposed locations, the choice fell on flat ground to the east of Oświęcim/Auschwitz because of not only the nearby rail lines and hard coal, lime, and salt mines—the main raw materials for producing synthetic rubber—but also Auschwitz concentration camp, which would supply prisoners to work at the factory. As a result of an agreement with the SS leadership, prisoners began working at the construction site in April 1941, marching there at first and later traveling by rail.
They labored at digging foundations and drainage ditches, building roads, rolling enormous wooden spools of electrical cable, unloading cement, pulling narrow-gauge rail cars, and carrying bricks and other construction material. This was exceptionally hard labor, and the death rate among the prisoners was high. It is known that about 100 prisoners from the Buna Kommando died on site in two months in mid-1942. At the end of July the outbreak of a spotted typhus epidemic caused a three-month interruption in sending prisoners to labor at the IG Farben factory. Only at the end of October was the separate Monowitz camp opened for them.
Harmense I + II.
Two *sub-camps located in the village of Harmęże (German: Harmense), about 2 km from Birkenau, whose Polish residents had been expelled by the Germans. The first of them was founded in December 1941 when about 50 Polish prisoners were billeted on the second floor of a manor house whose owner had been expelled.
They occupied rooms separated from the rest of the house by a barred, padlocked door. They were employed raising poultry and rabbits, and maintaining the fishponds. In June 1942, these male prisoners were moved to two buildings in the village, and more than 30 women prisoners took over their former lodgings in the manor house. At the end of the summer of 1943, the male prisoners were incarcerated in the nearby Auschwitz sub-camp named Budy, thus liquidating the men’s sub-camp in Harmęże. At this point the women prisoners replaced the men at work—cleaning out poultry coops, preparing chickenfeed for about two thousand hens, working in the incubators, looking after one thousand ducks, five hundred turkeys, and three hundred geese and, above all, caring for three thousand angora rabbits raised for their wool. Conditions and food in Harmense were better than in Birkenau and it was easier for the prisoners to organize additional food.
The directors of the camp were SS-Unterscharführer Bernhard Glaue, followed by SS-Rottenführer Xaver Eidenchinkt. In January 1945, the women were evacuated to Wodzisław Śląski and from there by train to other camps in the Reich.
Budy I, II, III.
Budy, Wirtschafthof (German: Budy farm). A sub-camp at a farm set up on agricultural land covering the localities of Brzeszcze-Budy, Bór, and, in part, Nazieleniec. In various periods, a men’s camp, women’s camp, and the women’s penal company (Strafkompanie) functioned there.
In 1941, a men’s Kommando that marched back and forth from *Auschwitz I (about five kilometers each way) was already working at the farm. Since the walk took too long, a sub-camp was set up in April 1942 and 40 prisoners billeted there. At the turn of 1942/1943, the sub-camp was expanded to a dozen or more barracks designated as barns, stables, livestock sheds, workshops, warehouses, and living space for prisoners.
An SS barracks, granary, pigsty, and rabbit pens were built outside the fence. The fencing was barbed wire hung on concrete posts. SS-Oberscharführer Hermann Ettinger held the post of Lagerführer until he was succeeded by SS-Unterscharführer Bernhard Glaue. At first only non-Jewish Poles were prisoners in the sub-camp, but later there were also Polish, Czech, and Greek Jews as well as Russians and Germans. At the beginning of 1944 there were 500 hundred prisoners working the fields and raising pigs, cattle, horses, and sheep. On January 17, 1945, at the last roll call, 313 prisoners stood to be counted. They were evacuated from the sub-camp the following day.
In the early spring of 1943, a sub-camp for women opened in buildings formerly occupied by the women’s penal company. German women held the capo posts, and the prisoners were Poles, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Yugoslavians. The female population reached 600 that year. The directors of this sub-camp were, in succession, SS overseers Elfriede Runge, Elisabeth Hasse, and Johanna Bormann. In the second half of 1944 the women’s sub-camp was expanded with several wooden barracks, surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, being built in the vicinity of the men’s sub-camp.
The women were divided into several Kommandos for field and forest work in a forest- and fruit-tree nursery, draining the fields, cleaning and dredging ponds, cutting reeds, building dikes along the Vistula, and repairing roads. The sub-camp was probably evacuated in January 1945.
A sub-camp located in the village of Jawiszowice (in German: Jawischowitz). The prisoners held there worked in two shafts of the Brzeszcze coal mine located in the localities of Jawiszowice and Brzeszcze. The camp began functioning in mid-August 1942 when 150 French Jews arrived under an agreement between the SS-WVHA and the Reichswerke Hermann Göring, which owned the mine.
This was the first time in the history of the German concentration camps that prisoners were employed below ground. In terms of the number of prisoners, Jawischowitz was one of the largest Auschwitz sub-camps. In June 1944, it held 2,500 prisoners, mostly Jews from Poland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Hungary. There were also Poles, Russians, and Germans in the sub-camp.
At the turn of 1943/1944 there were at least 70 SS men in the garrison. The first director was SS-Unterscharführer Wilhelm Kowol, who was succeeded by SS-Hauptscharführer Josef Remmele. The sub-camp was surrounded by electrified barbed-wire fencing. It consisted of more than ten barracks, most of them wooden. Prisoners lived in seven of them and the rest contained a kitchen, hospital, storage space, workshops, showers, and toilets. Despite the expansion of the sub-camp, the prisoner rooms were overcrowded in 1944, with more than 200 men in rooms designed for 50. The prisoners had two changes of clothes at their disposal—work clothes that they took off at the showers after their shift, and the clothes they wore in the sub-camp. Thanks to their everyday showers and changing of clothes, dictated by the nature of work in the mine, they did not suffer from the lice that were a serious problem for prisoners in other parts of the Auschwitz complex. The work in the mine exhausted them, however. They loaded carts with coal, transported them, made repairs, and did construction work in a three-shift system with quotas that they were sometimes unable to fulfil because they were hungry, weak, or did not know how to do the job. On such occasions, their shift was extended until the norms were met. Prisoners also worked above ground at various sorts of construction jobs. In the second half of 1944, several score underage Jewish prisoners were assigned to sort the coal.
SS doctors held *selection every few weeks, after which the prisoners classified as unfit for labor were taken to Auschwitz. Most of them were murdered in the *gas chambers there. According to partially extant records from October 1942 to December 1944, at least 1,800 sick prisoners were removed from Jawischowitz.
In January 1945, about 1,900 prisoners were evacuated on foot to Wodzisław Sląski. Several score sick and exhausted prisoners were left behind; Soviet soldiers liberated the majority of them on January 29. After liberation they were taken into the care of the local branch of the Polish Red Cross.