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July 15, 2012

Oshpitzin (Auschwitz) — there’s an App for that

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 7:47 am

Oshpitzin is the Yiddish name for the town formerly known as Auschwitz, which was originally built by the Germans in the year 1270. The Polish name for the town is Oswiecim.  In the context of the Holocaust, the town is still called Auschwitz because the main Auschwitz camp was located in a suburb of the town.  To a new generation of smart phone users, it will now be known as Oshpitzin.

According to a recent news article in JTA, a new iPhone/iPad app called Oshpitzin is now available.  This quote is from the article which you can read in full here:

A project of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a Jewish prayer and study center in Oswiecim, the app includes augmented reality, testimonies of survivors, an audio-guide of the town’s Jewish heritage sites and 3D models of the destroyed Great Synagogue.

“It opens a totally new way of educating about the Jewish history and the destruction caused by the Holocaust,” Auschwitz Jewish Center Director Tomasz Kuncewicz told JTA. “It’s a way which today is the most appealing to the new generations.”

The app, which supplements an Oshpitzin guidebook and web site that are already operating, was unveiled Tuesday. Kuncewicz said it will be available soon at the iTunes app store and will be released later this summer for Android.

The only surviving Synagogue in Oswiecim

When I went to Auschwitz in the fall of 2005, I visited the Auschwitz Jewish Center which was built next to the only surviving Synagogue in the town.  You can see my 2005 photos of the Synagogue and the Jewish Center on my website here.

According to a brochure which I obtained from the Jewish Center, Jews first settled in Oswiecim 500 years ago. By 1939, over half of the population of Oswiecim was Jewish. This quote is from the brochure: “For several centuries, Jews prospered as traders, merchants, professionals and manufacturers, and were entrusted with tax collection and the administration of the lands of the Polish nobility.”  The second largest ethnic group in Auschwitz was Gypsies, but you don’t hear much about them.

Prominently mentioned in the displays in the Jewish Center are the Haberfeld and Hennenberg families who were engaged in distilling and selling liquor. During Prohibition in America, some of this liquor found its way here. There are persistent rumors that Oshpitzin was also a center for human trafficking.

When I visited Oswiecim in 2005, there were no more Jews left in the town. The last surviving Jew, Shimshon Klueger, died in 2000. Klueger is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Osweicim.

A movie was shown on a TV screen in a small room in the Jewish Center when I visited in 2005. In the movie, several survivors, who were children in 1939, tell about what it was like in Oswiecim before the German invasion of Poland. There was a “large Jewish presence in Auschwitz,” according to one survivor. All of the survivors said that they now live in Israel or the United States, but none of them told anything about how they survived the Holocaust.  (Out of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, 1.5 million were children.)

One woman survivor said that the Jewish children in Oswiecim were all “organized.” There were many organizations for Jewish children, and she had joined the Zionist movement as a child. Another survivor said that she had a home tutor so that she could learn German. Her father told her that she would be able to go any place in Europe if she could speak German.

One survivor said that the Jewish houses in Oswiecim had no running water, no electricity, no central heating or air conditioning, and no inside toilets, but the Jews had “culture.” Another said that the Jews were not rich, but they had a “rich Jewish life.” One survivor described the life in Oswiecim before the war as “a life of dignity.” All that is now gone; the Nazis not only killed the Jews, they destroyed their rich, dignified way of life in Europe.

Here is the back story on Auschwitz/Oswiecim/Oshpitzin:

The area of Europe, that was inhabited by German tribes in the Middle Ages, became known as the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800. By 1270, the Empire had expanded to include the area known as Upper Silesia, where Auschwitz is located. In 1457, Auschwitz became part of the Kingdom of Poland and the name was changed to Oswiecim.

Most of Silesia was annexed to the German state of Prussia in 1742, except for four duchies. The duchy of Auschwitz was annexed to Galicia, a province which was given to Austria when Poland lost its independence in 1772 and the country was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Western Galicia soon became known as The Corner of Three Empires: Russia, Prussia and Austria. The town known as Auschwitz, or Oswiecim or Oshpitzin, became a prime location for Jewish traders or merchants during the time that Galicia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Map of the German Empire in 1871

In 1871, Prussia and the other German states, except Austria, united into the Germany Empire. After the defeat of Germany and Austria in World War I, Galicia and the industrial area known as Upper Silesia were given to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles. In 1939, after the joint conquest of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union, Upper Silesia was annexed into the Greater German Reich, which at that time consisted of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic.

When railroad lines were built in the 19th century, the little town of Auschwitz, at the junction of three empires, became the crossroads of Europe. There were 44 train lines coming into Auschwitz, making it at one time a larger railroad hub than Penn Station in New York City.

It was because Auschwitz was such an important railroad junction that a camp for migrant workers was built in a suburb of the town in 1916; seasonal farm workers from all over Europe were sent from Auschwitz to the large German estates. The migrant worker camp, with its beautiful brick barracks buildings, was the place that eventually became the Auschwitz I concentration camp.

In 1919, Poland became an independent country again and Auschwitz became a Polish town called Oswiecim. The former migrant worker camp was used as a garrison by the Polish Army.

Brick buildings in Auschwitz main camp were remodeled by the Nazis

The Auschwitz main camp originally had 20 brick barracks buildings; 14 of them were single story buildings and 6 were two stories high. When this camp was converted into the Auschwitz concentration camp, a second story was added to the 14 single story buildings and 8 new two-story buildings were added, making a total of 28 barracks buildings. Between 13,000 and 16,000 concentration camp prisoners were crowded into these 28 buildings where they slept in three-tiered bunks. At one point, in 1942, there were 20,000 prisoners at the Auschwitz main camp.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and the town of Oswiecim was captured on September 6th. Following the conquest of Poland, the name of the town reverted back to Auschwitz.

Almost every news article that you read today, and including the articles that you don’t read, will say that the name of the town was originally Oswiecim and the Nazis changed the name to Auschwitz.  I previously blogged about the origin of the names Auschwitz and Birkenau here.