The only surviving synagogue near the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau will be restored and made into a Jewish religious and cultural center, a New York foundation has announced.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation said the restored synagogue building, which until recently was used as a carpet store, would be the first Jewish presence in 50 years in the southern Polish town of Oswiecim.
Jewish life and culture flourished in Oswiecim for more than 500 years until the Holocaust, and the town once had a dozen synagogues and 7,000 Jews. But today only one Jew lives there and just one of the synagogues still stands.
"Our goal is to create a permanent structure symbolizing Jewish life in a place which, for too many years, has only represented Jewish death," foundation President Fred Schwartz said at a news conference.
The center will serve largely as a museum, but Jewish prayer services also will be held in the synagogue.
During World War II, 3 million of Poland's 3.5 million Jews were killed, more than 1 million at the death camp complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau outside Oswiecim. Germany, whose invasion of Poland in 1939 started World War II, gave Oswiecim the German name Auschwitz.
Schwartz said the project had been supported by government and religious leaders of all faiths in Poland and the United States. The new center, consisting of the synagogue and an adjoining house, will be completed within two years at a cost of between $5 million and $10 million, the group said.
Two Holocaust survivors originally from Oswiecim attended the news conference, including Hirsch Kornreich, sole survivor of an extended family of 144 who lived in the building adjoining the synagogue that is now to be restored.
"I can still feel the pain and the shock upon returning after liberation to the building I once considered my home, the home of my family going back many generations," said Kornreich, who was 14 when his family was murdered in the death camps. "I wish to express my sincere thanks for the effort to restore an ancient Jewish neighborhood."
Poland's chief rabbi last week called for Auschwitz-Birkenau to be turned into an extraterritorial zone outside Polish control where all could freely pay homage to the dead. Poland's tiny Jewish community numbers only several thousand.