Oświęcim: Transforming the Town

Oświęcim was one of the first towns in Poland to be invaded by the German army after the outbreak of World War II.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

A vibrant multicultural town

Before the outbreak of World War II, Oświęcim (known to the Jewish population as Oshpitzin) was a vibrant town located in the south of Poland, in the Upper Silesia region.

After the war, the world came to know it as Auschwitz – the town where the Nazis built one of their most notorious death camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau.

However, the camp was not the only place where Jews and non-Jews became victims of genocidal acts. In fact, these began in the town itself from the very first days of the war.

"Oshpitzin, a word that means guests. Oshpitzin was home for us, and into our home we welcomed all guests and extended our hospitality to all travellers. For me, the transformation of Oshpitzin to Auschwitz signified the end of home and of innocence."

Moshe Weiss (1977: 155)

By 3rd September 1939, despite attempts by the Polish army to slow the attack, Oświęcim was captured and by October it was incorporated into the Third Reich as part of the province of Katowice. Aerial bombardments had already begun in the two days prior. 

When the Germans invaded Oświęcim, they did so mainly because it represented a viable place in which a “political, economic, and cultural centre of this New South Tyrol” could be created.

The name of the town was soon changed to Auschwitz. German place and street names replaced Polish names. The town was divided into two zones; the Old Reich and the Third Reich. 

Street sign for the renamed Tischlerstrasse (originally ‘Stolarska Street’). The street name was changed by the Germans when Oświęcim was incorporated into the Third Reich Street (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University. Original sign in the Auschwitz Jewish Center)

Attacks on Jewish culture begin

These military operations and the presence of the German army meant that the Jewish population in Oświęcim which constituted 9000 out of 13000 residents – was one of the first communities to experience cultural genocide and mass violence during World War II. Likewise, the Polish population of the town faced persecution, deportation, and cultural genocide from the very first days of the conflict.  

A series of anti-Jewish measures were imposed and the destruction of important cultural sites commenced. This included the destruction of synagogues and the Jewish cemetery.

On the very first day of the German invasion of Oświęcim, “the first soldiers…met some orthodox Jews fleeing down the street and shot three of them on the spot”.

They also rounded up Jews in the market square and murdered eight of them.

The market square in Oświęcim (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Sites of cultural genocide and mass violence in Oświęcim (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

In the days that followed, Jewish men between 14 and 60 years of age were forced to undertake manual labour, which included the reconstruction of the bridge over the Sola River that had been destroyed by the Polish army in advance of the invasion.

German soldiers stand next to the destroyed bridge over the River Sola following the invasion of Oświęcim. (© Mirosław Ganobis)

Many townspeople were shot in this early period and others died as a result of the forced labour they were made to endure.

Deportations of Jews began in 1940

As soon as the Germans occupied Oświęcim, deportations began. Initially, 1000 Jews were deported to a town near Lublin. Jews from one half of the town were also moved out of their homes into the other half in January 1940 to facilitate the construction of the Auschwitz camp complex. Jews from neighbouring towns and villages were also sent to Oświęcim to undertake forced labour or to make way for other construction projects in their home regions. 

In March and April 1941, the remaining Jewish population of the town was deported to Będzin, Sosnowiec and Chrzanów. During deportations to Sosnowiec, on the 25th April 1941, Jews were forced to gather in the main market square with their belongings and were then transported on wagons. Photographs, taken by German informant Andreas Kasza, showed the scenes. 

Jews being deported from Oswiecim, walking in the street with bundles of their belongings and escorted by German soldiers. Photographed in 1941 by Kaszny, a Gestapo informer (© Ghetto Fighters’ House Photo Archive)

A landscape of camps

The Auschwitz camp complex rapidly expanded. Initially built to house Polish prisoners (due to overcrowding in prisons in the region), by 1942 Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest Nazi death camp and the place where 1.1 million people were murdered. As well as the main camps – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – more than 40 sub-camps were built, including the Auschwitz III (Buna Monowitz) site.


Transforming Oświęcim
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In November 1941, just a few months after the deportation of Oświęcim’s Jewish population, a subcamp of Auschwitz III was constructed in the northern part of the town’s Jewish cemetery. The camp was named “Camp Judenfreidhof” (Camp Jewish Cemetery) but later it was renamed Camp II Buchenwald. 

Hence, cultural genocide, anti-Jewish measures and mass murder all formed part of a complex system of persecution levied against the Jewish population of Oświęcim and its surrounding regions.

Oświęcim: Destruction of a Cemetery

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