The Portuguese Jewish Diaspora. New Christians, Crypto Jews, Marranos, “People of the Nation”
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Fragments of tombstones destroyed by the Germans have been used in the newest project realized by the Oshpitzin Jewish Museum in Oświęcim which is part of Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. This is another initiative to commemorate the Jewish residents of Oświęcim, this time carried out on the site of the historic Jewish cemetery. The innovative element of the project is the use of a bunker built by the Germans, on the walls of which an installation has been created, consisting of preserved parts of matzevot.
The existing Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim is the second Jewish graveyard in the town. The first one was established around 1588 in the area of the old town. As a result of new Austrian sanitary regulations, it was closed, and a new site was marked out in 1784. It functioned until 1941. In March and April of that year, the Jewish residents of Oświęcim were forcibly deported to ghettos in Będzin, Sosnowiec and Chrzanów. In July, the German occupation authorities closed the cemetery, and its ground was almost completely destroyed.
The matzevot were used by the Germans as construction material. After the war, some of them were found around the town and they are still being found. Many of them have found their way back to the cemetery with the help of the local inhabitants.
A handful of Jewish survivors who returned to Oświęcim after the war cleaned up the site of the cemetery. Emigration of survivors in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the cemetery losing its natural guardians and over the years, during the communist era, it began to slowly deteriorate. The first cleanup work on its grounds did not take place until the late 1980s.
Since 2000, The Jewish Museum in Oświęcim has taken care of the historic graveyard which belongs to the Jewish Community in Bielsko-Biała. Today, the cemetery is a place that educates about the multicultural heritage of the town, explains director Tomasz Kuncewicz. He adds that in addition to the preserved circa 1,000 historic tombstones or their fragments, the cemetery also contains remnants of the tragic period of World War II. These include military facilities, mainly bunkers, made by the Germans. One of them has just gained a new function, which also has a great symbolic value. Together with the support of the Town of Oświęcim and private donors: David Goldman, the Matzevah Foundation and the local company Susuł and Strama, a project called “Bunker of Memory” is being realized.
It aims to commemorate Jewish residents of Oświęcim and educate about the history and culture of the local Jewish community. The project includes an installation composed of fragments of matzevot found within and outside the cemetery and placed on the walls of the German bunker, as well as an educational path that explains the meaning of the tombstone symbols and a map.
As explained by the museum’s historian Dr. Artur Szyndler – it is also worth mentioning that, while working on the project, we managed to discover and acquire several unique fragments of matzevot. Among them are: a fragment of Abraham’s tombstone, dating back to the 18th century, a tombstone with the symbol of a lion, found in the neighboring village of Zaborze, and part of the tombstone plaque of Józef Thieberg (1855-1916), a town councilman and chairman of the Israelite Religious Community in Oświęcim (1910-1916). The plaque was discovered during the dismantling of one of the monuments from the 1950s, in the Catholic cemetery in the vicinity of Oświęcim – the village of Bielany. Another example is unusual – a fragment with contents referring to the victims of the cholera epidemic that hit Oświęcim in 1831 which claimed the lives of 74 Jews and 58 Christians. The preserved text – which is vague – may indicate that this was a mass grave dedicated to the deceased from the Jewish community of Oświęcim or the community of the town in general. The culmination of it occurred on Sunday, July 24, 1831. The matzevah was found in Oświęcim by the Soła river.
The completion of the project is planned for the end of 2023 and a continuation is planned for next spring. Its purpose will be to place more tombstones, which have not had their place yet, around the “Bunker of Memory”.