Emerging from the shadows of history, the town of Oświęcim has a lot to boast about
Best-known outside of Poland by its German name, Auschwitz, the town of Oświęcim again found itself in the global news this week as over 50 heads-of-state and assorted international delegates joined two-hundred survivors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation earlier in the week.
For the 40,000 residents of the town, the attention was nothing new. Visited last year by a record breaking 2.32 million people, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum continued to underscore its status as one of the most important memorial sites in the world.
However, whilst visitor numbers to the museum have swelled, the town itself has often found itself shunted into relative obscurity. Stigmatized for its notorious association with the Holocaust, the job of marketing Oświęcim has not been easy. Tentatively, though, it has shown signs of emerging from the shadows to register an identity independent of the camp that has hitherto defined it.
Granted its charter in 1272, for several centuries it thrived as an important mercantile town deriving its wealth from the salt and fish trade. So famous was it for the latter, that the Royal Court in Kraków was said to have ordered its fish from there.
The years of prosperity came crashing with the so-called Swedish Deluge. Ransacked by the Swedes in 1655, by 1676 just 114 residents remained in the town.
The decline was halted with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of a rail junction on the Kraków-Vienna route soon restored the town’s fortunes. Factories flourished, among them the Ostryga and Atlantic canned fish plants, the Haberfeld vodka distillery and an assembly line producing the much-coveted Oświęcim-Praga cars.
What happened next with the outbreak of WWII has been exhaustively documented, and ever since then the town has suffered for it as if personally bearing the curse of Hitler’s demented racial theory.
“Many visitors expect us to live in a permanent state of mourning,” laments one regular at the town’s Café Bergson, a sentiment echoed with resignation by many local residents.
But this is slowly changing as the town actively seeks to rehabilitate its reputation.
Established in 2010 by music journalist Darek Maciborek, the Life Festival has been one such initiative with the three-day event presenting, in the past, performances by such luminaries as Sting, Eric Clapton, Elton John and James Blunt.
Though finally ceasing its eight year run of activities last year, its impact cannot be underestimated. Formed, says Maciborek, “to break the spell” of Auschwitz and to show his home town in a more positive light, the festival was born with the intention of promoting peace and harmony through the medium of music.
In the process, it helped raise the profile of Oświęcim to a raft of visitors previously unaware as to the town’s qualities.
And these, it should be highlighted, it has in abundance. An otherwise typical Galician town, its features include a compact but handsome old quarter peppered with smart tenements and historic landmarks such as steepled churches and a preserved synagogue. The only one to survive the war – during which time it was used by the Nazis to store ammunition – today it has been meticulously renovated following a stint in the 90s when it gathered dust as a carpet warehouse.
Back outside, an air of silent stillness permeates. Free from the tourist swarms of nearby Kraków, walking the cobbled streets is a strangely entrancing experience conducted in a suspended state of timelessness.
Despite the seemingly sedentary pace of life, reminders that this is a town in the process of hauling itself upwards are rife and the award-winning municipal gallery is a case in point.
Opened in 2011, the 16 million złoty project has become a calling card for ‘the new face of Oświęcim’, with its stunning glazed façade opening to reveal attractions such as a ‘youth library’ and a VIP zone (Very Important Parent) containing Xboxes, air hockey table, Lego and Playstation diversions. Attracting in excess of 300,000 people per annum, it has earned a reputation as one of the finest such facilities in Europe.
Replicating the outbreak of ‘mural-osis’ effecting Poland’s major urban areas, the town has also embraced street art to present its own trail of wall art. Created with the support of the city, these murals are more than just cosmetic decoration, but sensitive and relevant works of art that have been designed to promote messages of tolerance.
Yet nowhere does this fresh sense of direction manifest itself with more clarity than inside Café Bergson. Opened five years ago, and overseen by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, it’s perhaps the most surprising venue in Oświęcim: hip, laidback, bright and buzzy, it’s a place where locals and tourists alike gather to enjoy specialty coffee, regional produce and craft beer amid minimalist interiors that are delicious on the eye.
Located inside the former Kluger family home, it’s here that the town’s “last Jew”, Szymon Kluger, lived out his final days until his death in 2000.
“Yes, we’re a café,” says Tomasz Kuncewicz of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, “but we’re also so much more. We’re a place that stands for dialogue, diversity and inclusion, and the fact that we have five-thousand Facebook fans despite being a city of 40,000 demonstrates the role we’ve assumed on the cultural landscape.”
Helping to stitch the local community together, Bergson’s influence belies its moderate size with its roster of events, workshops and concerts doing much to extend its standing way beyond the town’s borders. Whether by accident or design, it has become a bona fide attraction and a microcosm of Oświęcim’s own growing stock.
“Though the majority of our customers are local,” says Kuncewicz, “we’re definitely seeing more foreigners lately and that goes for the town as a whole. I think there’s been a growing understanding that there’s more than just a concentration camp here, and that level of differentiation continues to grow.”
Change is in the air. A stone’s throw from Café Bergson, the newly opened Jakob Haberfeld Story combines the functions of a bar with that of a museum honouring the former vodka kingpin, while neighbouring it, a Hampton by Hilton hums to the raucous sound of visiting groups.
Where once hotel rooms remained resolutely empty, demand is strengthening with the Hampton by Hilton being the local market leader. And, arguably, it is here that one is best positioned to view the contrasts offered up by this town: from one flank, views of a river bank in the midst of being smartened up, and from the front, the 16th century castle.
Formerly the seat of the Nazi authorities, today its been repurposed to house a compelling museum whose points of interest number dioramas that present, among others, a reconstruction of a typical pre-war Jewish-owned apartment.
Even overlooking the proximity of the concentration camp, that Oświęcim was fleetingly turned into a model Nazi settlement ensures the more sinister side to its history is never far removed. Horrific as this history is, utilizing it for the force of good could yet be where the town’s future lies.
“It’s crucial to understand the context of Auschwitz in relation to Oświęcim,” says Kuncewicz. “With that in mind, I hope that Oświęcim continues to attract more and more people, and that the town reaches its full educational potential to become a place where people can celebrate tolerance whilst learning where hate can lead.”
That Auschwitz will always be perceived as a place of death is certain; conversely, Oświęcim, however, could yet become a beacon for hope.