Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Behind the Scenes with the Curator of "A Town Known as Auschwitz"

Last week, we were pleased to open our latest exhibit, A Town Known As Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community. Curator Shiri B. Sandler, U.S. Director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, took the time to talk to us about the past, present, and future of Jewish life in Oświęcim, the small town in Poland that inspired this exhibition.

MJH: What was the inspiration for the exhibit?

SBS: We had two inspirations for this exhibition. The first is the story the Auschwitz Jewish Center tells of the Jews of Oświęcim – who they were and how they lived before the town became Auschwitz. Our second inspiration was realizing that Americans don’t know that there was a town before there was Auschwitz, and that it was a place with a rich, varied, and full Jewish life.

MJH: Tell us a little about the title of the exhibit. What did Auschwitz used to be called? How did the town change with each name?

SBS: The town we know as Auschwitz really has had many names. Auschwitz is its German name, which comes from German dukes settling the region in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Oświęcim is its Polish name – it’s what the town’s residents know their hometown as. Oshpitzin – which comes from the Yiddish word for “guests” – is the name its Jewish residents called it.

What changes with each name is the context the town is in, and how the speaker sees it. Auschwitz refers either to the town’s supposed German past – one Poles contest – or the camp on the town’s borders. Using Oświęcim recognizes the town as a regular Polish town. Oshpitzin, in the past, showed the warmth and love Jews felt for their town. Using it today calls up a nostalgia, a sense of a vanished world, but I would say it may actually be the most important name. It counteracts our assumptions of Auschwitz as a town on the borders of a death camp, and asserts that this was a place in which Jews lived, and one they loved.

MJH: Why is this history so little known?

SBS: This history is little known for a variety of reasons. The main one is that Auschwitz has become the symbol of the Holocaust and its history blots out most other perspectives on not just this region, but pre-war Polish-Jewish life, as well. We assume the history of the town is the history of camp. It’s hard to see the normality of a town against the exceptionality of a death camp; it’s almost mind boggling to realize a camp was named for a town –one where a majority of the residents were Jewish.
MJH: I know you spoke to former residents of the town of Oświęcim. What are their pre-war memories of the town?

SBS: Most Oświęcim Jews remember the town with fondness. They think of it as home, or as their first home. I’ve spoken to survivors who recall beautiful childhoods. Survivors tell of families who lived in that town for hundreds of years. It was a real community and every Oświęcim Jew I’ve spoken with is still proud of that community.

MJH: What image or story do you find the most powerful?

SBS: I think the whole curatorial team’s favorite image is of two best friends, Marta and Olga (seen above). Olga was Jewish and Marta was Catholic, and they’re pictured on their first day of school in 1934. The photo was taken by Olga’s father, who was a studio photographer in town. We know after Olga was deported, the girls saw each other at least once more, when Olga was doing forced labor in nearby Katowice. Olga and her parents were murdered in Auschwitz, but Marta survived, and saved the picture.

MJH: What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibit?

SBS: I hope visitors see how beautiful this life was before the war. I hope they recognize that Poland was home to the Jews of Oświęcim, who lived a vastly peaceful life with their Polish neighbors. I also hope they understand more about what the war experience was like for the Jews and Poles of Oświęcim.

We carry assumptions with us about a town when we call it Auschwitz, not Oświęcim. This town wasn’t Auschwitz, and its people weren’t to blame for what happened in the camp. I hope this exhibition challenges those assumptions, and shows how the town changed through the centuries.

MJH: What’s next for the Auschwitz Jewish Center?

SBS: This past weekend, the Auschwitz Jewish Center opened a renovated and expanded facility many years in the making.

We unveiled a new Core exhibition, called Oshpitzin. This new exhibition uses historical photographs, compelling original documents and objects, and immersive technology to tell the Oświęcim Jewish community’s 400-year- history.   Hundreds of visitors came on Saturday night, and we expect thousands more in the months to come to learn from survivor testimony and view unique and never-before-seen objects that will illustrate this important history.  

Another thrilling addition to the campus is the renovation of the home of Szymon Kluger, the last Jew to live in Oświęcim. He passed away in 2000 and his family generously donated their home to the Auschwitz Jewish Center. We have saved and transformed the house; the ground and upper floors house Café Bergson, which will welcome foreign visitors and locals alike, serving local vegetarian cuisine and packaged kosher products, while the bottom floor features temporary exhibition space.

For more information about the town and the exhibit, visit the interactive exhibition site.

Image caption: Marta Swiderska (left) and Olga Pressler (right), 1934. Collection of the
Auschwitz Jewish Center. Marta Swiderska and Olga Pressler, shown in their uniforms on the first day of school in 1934, were best friends. Olga was Jewish
and Marta was Catholic. 

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