The Town of Auschwitz

Town of Auschwitz looks just as it did in this 1940 photo

If asked to name a city or town in Poland, most Americans could probably come up with the name Warsaw, the capital and largest city. A few educated people might be able to dredge up the name Krakow, the city that boasts one of the oldest universities in the world. But the town name that would immediately leap into the minds of most Americans would be Auschwitz, although many people would not know that it is now called by its Polish name, Oswiecim.

The town of Oswiecim, by itself, is quite unremarkable. It is a factory town in the province of Upper Silesia in an industrial area now called the Black Triangle because of the air pollution problem. Driving through the town, you can still see the gray factory buildings where the prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp worked as forced laborers for the I.G. Farben company over sixty years ago. The buildings which once housed the factories at the former Auschwitz III camp, called Monowitz by the Germans, are still there and some are still in use.

The actual town of Oswiecim has virtually nothing to recommend it to a typical tourist. As far as I could see, there were only four hotels in the town in October 2005, and no night life. There is a 17th century Catholic church at the entrance to the Old Town, and 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 town is 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 durng the last 200 years, and has only one building of interest: the District Court. An ugly looking modern store built right in the middle of the town square has totally ruined any character that Auschwitz might have had. There were no thatched-roof cottages, no log houses, nor half-timbered buildings that I saw on my trip there in October 2005. The town now has a population of 50,000 and it appears that most of the residents live in high-rise apartments built during the Communist era.

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.

Huge buses now rumble past the town, carrying Polish students to the suburb of Zazole on a trip to see the concentration camp as soon as they have reached the age of 14 and are old enough be allowed to enter it. Brightly painted buses from Krakow, Prague and Munich arrive daily, bringing swarms of tourists to visit the former death camp, but they don't cross the Sola river and enter the town. Seventeen-year-old students from around the world make bi-annual pilgrimages to this place, parading with flags of Israel in the March of the Living.

Through this town have passed the leaders of virtually every country in the world, including American President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and French President Jacques Chirac, bearing huge funeral wreaths to lay at the famous black wall where Polish political prisoners were shot. With more than a million annual visitors, there are now more people walking the streets of the Auschwitz concentration camp than there ever were when it was in operation.

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