On his TV show today, Glenn Beck said to his guest Rick Santorum:
“I’m going over to Poland in a couple of weeks on something that’s a venture that I’m doing. I am not doing a special on Auschwitz per se — I’m visiting Auschwitz, but I’m talking about the town which is just a few miles outside of the gate.”
Beck plans to broadcast from Oświęcim, the Polish town formerly known as Auschwitz. He wants to “figure out” what happened at the Nazi extermination camp. He wants to know “How did this happen?”
It is common for tourists to blame the Germans in the town of Dachau for not doing anything to stop what went on in the Dachau concentration camp. Now, it seems that Glenn Beck is thinking the same thing about the people in the town of Auschwitz.
The town of Auschwitz in 1940
If Beck does some research before his trip, he will learn that the Auschwitz main camp was set up in June 1940 for Polish Resistance Fighters, not for Jews. There was a war going on and Poland was occupied by the Germans. If the people in the town had tried to rise up and stop the Germans from putting their enemies inside the old Polish Army garrison, they would have soon wound up as prisoners themselves. Poland never surrendered during World War II and the Poles continued to fight as illegal combatants throughout the war.
Oświęcim is now a factory town with 50,000 residents, but before the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, it was a market town with a population 12,000, of which 7,000 residents were Jewish. The next largest ethnic group in Oświęcim in 1939 was the Roma (Gypsies). The Jews, who had lived for over 500 years in the town, which they called Oshpitzin, were evacuated by the Nazis to three different ghettos in 1941, but eventually ended up back at Auschwitz, where most of them perished in the death camp.
Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue Photo Credit: Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation
Interior of Synagogue, 2005
At one time there were more than 12 Synagogues in Oshpitzin, but all except one were destroyed by the Nazis. The one surviving Synagogue, originally opened in 1930, has been reconstructed and since the year 2000, it has been open to tourists.
The Synagogue, which is shown in the photo above, is located on a small square near the Catholic Church that was formerly called Church Square, but was renamed Jana Skarbka square after the Synagogue was opened to the public in 2000. The building is connected to the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
A movie is shown on a TV screen in a small room in the Jewish Center. In the movie, several survivors, who were children in 1939, tell about what it was like in Oświęcim 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 mentioned anything about how they managed to survive the Holocaust.
One survivor said that the Jewish houses in Oświęcim 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.
Prominently mentioned in the Jewish Center are the Haberfeld and Hennenberg families who were engaged in distilling and selling liquor. Some of this liquor found its way to America during Prohibition.
Poland is a Catholic country and the Poles will not be pleased if Beck makes a big fuss about the Poles not rising up to save the Jews. If Beck wants to know “How did it happen?” he should know that the Poles hated the Jews more than the Germans did and still do.
The area of Europe that was inhabited by the German tribes in the Middle Ages became the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 and by 1270, the Empire had expanded to include the area known as Upper Silesia, where the town of Auschwitz was built by the Germans that year. In 1457, Auschwitz became part of the Kingdom of Poland and it then became known as Oświęcim.
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 Oświęcim or Oshpitzin, became a prime location for Jewish traders or merchants during the time that Galicia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In 1871, Prussia and the other German states, except Austria, united into the country of Germany. 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 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.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and the town of Oświęcim was captured on September 6th. Following the conquest of Poland, the name of the town reverted back to Auschwitz.
The city of Krakow, located 37 miles from Auschwitz, became the capital of German-occupied Poland, known as the General Government. Auschwitz was located literally at the junction of the Greater German Reich and occupied Poland; it was also in the heart of “The Black Triangle,” an industrial area with large coal deposits, which is why it was such an important location for the Nazis.
The gateway to Auschwitz is the city of Krakow which has its own airport. The airport is actually closer to Auschwitz than to the city of Krakow, so it is best to drive directly from the airport to Auschwitz. On the way you will see charming houses like the one shown in the photo below.
Old log house on the road from Krakow to Auschwitz
The photo below is a view of the front of the Catholic church in the town of Auschwitz, as seen from the road that enters the town over a bridge that crosses the Sola river. The Auschwitz Museum, which is the former Nazi concentration camp, is on the opposite side of the Sola river, and a world away from the town.
View of the Catholic Church as you enter the town of Auschwitz
The actual town of Oświęcim has virtually nothing to recommend it to a typical tourist. There is a 17th century Catholic church at the entrance to the Old Town, shown in the photo above. There is the ubiquitous Duke’s castle on a bluff overlooking the Sola, a small stream that passes for a river, but nothing is left of the original castle except a small tower, now obscured by trees, which is not at all impressive. Like the church, the castle tower will never make it into most tourist guidebooks.
The Castle in Oświęcim is located on what appears to be a man-made hill, which overlooks the Sola river. Most of Poland is as flat as a pancake and a hill rising out of nowhere seems out of place. According to information in a brochure about the town, the hill was built in the 11th century as a place of pagan worship. When the hill was first constructed, it was the site of a fortified stronghold with wooden buildings. The buildings were repeatedly destroyed by fires and floods, and in 1813, almost half of the city buildings fell into the Sola river in a mud slide.
The tower of the Castle dates back to the 13th century when it was one of the earliest brick buildings in the region called Malopolska or Lesser Poland. It is now almost completely hidden by trees and can only be seen when the leaves have fallen. The southern section of the Castle, originally built in the beginning of the 16th century, was later rebuilt. The middle part of the Castle was built in the first half of the 20th century. The castle looks like an ordinary building, not at all ornate like a typical Castle.
Old town hall in Auschwitz Photo Credit: Steve Wejroch
Building on the Auschwitz town square
The town of Auschwitz is almost completely devoid of charm. No famous artists come here to paint. There is no house that has been preserved as the birthplace of a famous person, nor any important historical buildings. The town square is surrounded by very ordinary looking buildings, constructed during the last 200 years, and has only one building of interest: the District Court building.
An ugly looking modern store built right in the middle of the town square has totally ruined any character that Auschwitz might have had. In the town, there were no thatched-roof cottages, no log houses, nor half-timbered buildings that I saw on either of my trips there in 1998 and 2005. It appears that most of the residents live in high-rise apartments built during the Communist era.
Communist era building in middle of town square
View of District Court and Catholic church in the background
There are many ordinary towns in Poland and it is only because Auschwitz has become the most famous town in the history of the Holocaust that anyone today marvels at how ordinary it is. Yet a suburb of this ordinary town is included in every package tour of Poland or Eastern Europe: an afternoon of horror at the Auschwitz concentration camp, sandwiched in between stops to see the famous salt mine and the Black Madonna, the other main tourist attractions of Poland.
District court building
The photo above shows the Siebarski house, which was built by Michael Siebarski, the Parish priest of the Church of Assumption of Holy Mary in the early 1800s. It is a two-story brick building with a basement. It was modernized by the Germans during their occupation of Poland in World War II. This building is currently the seat of the District Court in Oświęcim.
The town square in Oświęcim dates back to the Middle Ages when it was first built with wooden structures. The buildings were all destroyed in the numerous fires in the city. The present buildings were all built over the last 200 years.
Today, Oświęcim is a modern town with 50,000 inhabitants. It is a factory town where 5,000 of the residents are employed in one chemical factory. Upon entering the town from the east, visitors are immediately aware of the factories with their high smokestacks. Some of the factory buildings that were built during the German occupation of Poland are still in use, and still surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire.
Catholic Church in Auschwitz
Interior of Church, 2005 Photo Credit: Steve Wejroch
The first Catholic church in Oświęcim was a wooden building, built in the 12th century. After it was burned in 1241 during an invasion by the Tartars, it was rebuilt out of bricks in the second half of the 13th century. It was repeatedly damaged by fires and was rebuilt. The present church is called The Parish Church of the Assumption of Holy Mary.
Driving through the Polish countryside, you can’t fail to notice the numerous statues of the Virgin Mary or Catholic saints placed close to the road. Many of them are decorated with streamers of ribbons and usually there are fresh flowers left there. I learned from my tour guide, on my trip to Poland in October 1998, that they are called “little chapels” and the custom of putting statues for protection along the road dates back to the pagan days before Poland was converted to Catholicism about 1,000 years ago.
Little Chapel on the road to Auschwitz
Little Chapel near the town of Auschwitz
The little chapels are located at a crossroads or any place that might be dangerous on the highway. In 1998, that meant almost anywhere on the road since the highways were all two lanes with opposing traffic. When one driver from each opposing lane of traffic decided to attempt to pass, both cars were driving down the center of the road, ready for a head-on collision. Adding to the danger on Polish roads were the many horse-drawn wagons carrying loads of coal, traveling in the same lanes as the cars and trucks. Then there were the pedestrians, all dressed up, who seemed to be walking to work along the highway. It was only by the grace of God, and the protection of the Virgin Mary along way, that we made it safely from Krakow to Auschwitz and back on my 1998 trip.
Glenn Beck is planning to broadcast live from the town formerly known as Auschwitz. I’m guessing that he will broadcast from the Jewish Center which is connected to the one remaining synagogue in the town. The Jewish Center has a large reception area that is mostly empty.
Reception area in the Jewish Synagogue at Auschwitz
Notice the old black and white photo on the left in the picture. The photo shows Jewish women drawing water from the well that was in front of the synagogue before the Germans took over the town in September 1939. This is proof that the town of Auschwitz was very primitive before the Germans fixed it up in 1940 so that German engineers and their families could move there.
The steps in the photo lead up to the Synagogue, which I thought was very attractive when I visited it in 2005. The photo below shows displays in the reception area.
Displays in the Jewish Center at Auschwitz
Today, there are no more Jews left in Oświęcim. Shimshon Klueger, the last surviving Jew, died in 2000. Klueger is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim. However, there are still plenty of Gypsies in the town.
If Beck wants to pay his respects to the Jews of Oshpitzin, who were wiped out (literally) after 500 years, the Jewish Center is the logical place for him to do his broadcast.