300-year-old Jewish bathhouse described by archaeologists as ‘unique’ found in Oświęcim
A 300-year-old Jewish ritual bathhouse described by archaeologists as ‘unique; has been found during excavations in Oświęcim.
The bathhouse, or mikveh, was discovered next to the Great Synagogue Memorial Park in the town where an underground car park is being built.
The mikvah made of oak wood was discovered several meters below a brick bathhouse found in January.
Archaeologist Grzegorz Mądrzycki said: “Initially, when we dug up a few stairs leading down and a wooden floor, it seemed that it could be a fragment of a wooden hut.
“However, after removing successive layers of earth, it turned out to be a wooden mikvah.”
A mikvah is a bath used for ritual immersion to achieve ritual purity in Judaism.
The traditional rules on how to build a mikveh are based on guidelines laid down in the Torah and in classical rabbinical literature.
According to the ancient rules, a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring or well of naturally occurring water, and they were traditionally supplied by rivers and lakes which have natural springs as their source.
A cistern filled by rainwater is also allowed. The ritual bath is performed by both Orthodox and conservative Jews.
It is obligatory in many circumstances, including before a wedding or after a period of mourning.
In Poland, mikvahs were usually separate buildings, forming a complex together with other Jewish religious buildings.
This was the case in Oświęcim, with the mikvah being located near the town’s largest synagogue, not far from the Soła River.
Preliminary estimates suggest that the mikveh could date as far back as the 17th or 18th century.
Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the local Jewish Museum, said that the mikveh may date from the early period of Jewish settlement in Oświęcim.
Jews first appeared in Oświęcim around the mid-16th century, and they called the town Oszpicin.
On February 21, 1457, Polish king Kazimierz IV bought the Duchy of Oświęcim from the Bohemian prince Jan IV.
Soon, as part of the town's development, Kazimierz allowed a Jewish community to live in the town.
However, historians believe the Kazimierz was only reaffirming privileges granted earlier.
Experts are saying that the exceptionally well-preserved discovery is extraordinary.
Architecture historian Ryszard Głowacki said: “This find is of unique historical and architectural value […] I don't recall ever coming across such a trace of Jewish community settlement in Poland before."
According to a Hasidic legend, three great tzaddikim from the 18th century - Elimelech of Leżajsk, his brother Zusja of Annopol and Shlomo Bochner of Chrzanów, met in Oswiecim during their journey.
Dr Artur Szyndler from the Jewish Museum in Oświęcim said: “They spent the whole day there, but in accordance with the rule they adopted on their trip, they did not stay the night in the same place where they spent the whole day.
“This time, however, at Elimelech's request, they stayed in Oświęcim, and the tzaddik stayed overnight in a small mikvah, which has since been called the mikvah of "Reb Elimelech."