The modest provincial town of Oswiecim is better known by its German name “Auschwitz”, and was witness to an enormous evil caused by humankind. Around 1.5 million people perished in the largest German extermination camp of the Second World War. A gruesome exposition in the former camp makes the visitors rethink their basic human values, such as humanity and dignity.
Oswiecim is a town of around 45,000 inhabitants and an important local centre for trade and industry (mechanical and chemical). However most people in Poland and around the world generally associate it with its gruesome concentration camp, but there are other reasons to visit Oswiecim.
The local population underline that they live in Oswiecim, not in Auschwitz, and the organisations you can find in the town prove that apart from being a memorial to the scariest experiment in human history, Oswiecim is a place where life still goes on.
One of the most active organisations is the Auschwitz Jewish Centre, which consists of an educational centre, a museum and a synagogue that all not only commemorates the victims of Shoah, but which can also provide you with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture. The synagogue is the only Jewish temple to survive the war and the first place of worship to be given back to the Jewish community after the war. The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer is also worth visiting.
The old town is a pleasant, calm area, with several old churches and the ruins of a castle. It can be a good place to rest after visiting the camp. Visitors with more time should consider a trip to nearby Pszczyna, one of the oldest towns of Silesia; Wieliczka with its mediaeval salt mine; or maybe even fascinating Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.
Oswiecim is situated in southern Poland, only 60 km excursion from Krakow and 30 km from Katowice. It belongs to the Lesser Poland Voivodship, and is close to its border with Silesia. The town is situated in the Oswiecim Valley, near where the Sola and Przemsza Rivers join the Vistula.
The history of Oswiecim dates back at least to the 12 century, and about a century later it was granted town rights. It passed back and forth between the Czech and the Polish kingdoms, and for a long time it was an important centre of the salt trade.
Jews began to settle in Oswiecim in the mid 16th century and soon built their first synagogue. In the 1920s the Jewish community formed 40% of the town’s population.
The Second World War has been a tragic fate for Oswiecim. Between 1940 and 1945, the biggest German concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was built and began operations on the outskirts of the town. Its first victims were Polish political prisoners but soon the camp was transformed into a centre of the mass extermination of Jews according to Hitler’s idea of a “Final Solution”. It gradually expanded to Brzezinka (Birkenau or Auschwitz II) and Monowice (Monowitz). People were brought in sealed cattle carriages from all over occupied Poland and Europe to Oswiecim, and then were slaughtered or simply died of hunger. Most of them found death in the gas chambers, where they were poisoned with Cyclone B.
In 1945 the Red Army liberated the camp, although the Germans managed to evacuate those prisoners who were able to march into the Reich. Before they left the camp, some of the chambers and crematoria were destroyed as well as the majority of the archives. As a result, the number of victims cannot be estimated precisely. Supposedly, the Nazi experiment cost the lives of 1.5-2.5 million people; predominantly Jews, but also Poles, Russians, gypsies and more than 20 other nationalities.