Oświęcim: Social Action

A diverse group worked to clear and restore the cemetery with a dedication to remembering the past and building bridges for the future.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

"Using a wide range of techniques, experts, stakeholders and volunteers have worked together to document above and below-ground evidence relating to the Nazi desecration of Oświęcim Jewish cemetery. This work provides a unique opportunity for social action, bringing together people from all over the world to restore the cemetery and to explore the causes and consequences of racial hatred in the past, present and future"

Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls, Project Lead for the Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries Project

Protecting heritage

Oświęcim Jewish cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis during the Second World War and the matzevot were damaged and removed from the cemetery to be used in construction projects. The Nazis also constructed a camp on the cemetery grounds after the Jewish community was prevented from undertaking burials there.

Our project in the cemetery bought together experts and volunteers from all over the world seeking to restore this important place and ensure its long-term protection.

Project team members and volunteers cut vegetation at Oświęcim Jewish cemetery (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Celebrating collaboration and diversity

In 2016 and 2017, an interdisciplinary, international team from Staffordshire University (UK), The Matzevah Foundation (US) and Fundacja Zapomniane (Poland) worked alongside more than 50 volunteers to carry out restoration works and implement forensic archaeological methods.

The project team also collaborated with the Auschwitz Jewish Center (AJC), the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace in Berlin, Międzynarodowy Dom Spotkań Młodzieży w Oświęcimiu (International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim/Auschwitz), The Jewish Community of Bielsko-Biała (Gmina Wyznaniowa Żydowska w Bielsku-Białej), Erinnerungsort Topf and Söhne – Die Ofenbauer von Auschwitz, local Scouts and students from Staffordshire University to cut the vegetation in the cemetery, reinstate matzevot and lay a new path.

Specialists from the Jagellonian University, Rohatyn Jewish Heritage and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum also visited the project team during the fieldwork.

Recording the cemetery in Oświęcim with the help of volunteers (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Steven D. Reece speaks with Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls about the project's collaborative work in Oświęcim
Play Video

"Through this work we seek to preserve and bring honour to the Jewish heritage of Oświęcim. Our work included clearing the cemetery of overgrowth, placing matzevot without bases in concrete stands, and building a path from the front to the back of the cemetery. The path ended up being symbolic of the work we do in Jewish cemeteries. We start out with a straight line in mind. Along the way it is not uncommon to run into things that weren’t part of the original plan. With the cooperation of our partners (Staffordshire University, Rabbinical Commission, and Fundacja Zapomniane) a solution is found as these things are brought to light. One of our partners, Aleks, called it the Path of Awareness. A very fitting name! Partnership elevates us all and makes us all better."

JoAnn Siegienski, Matzevah Foundation Board Member

“The Path of Awareness” constructed as part of our project in Oświęcim Jewish cemetery with the help of international volunteers and local partners (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

The project team was keen to explore the lesser-known history of Oświęcim and to encourage project participants to consider this in the context of the evolution of the Holocaust and pre-war Jewish life.

Volunteers had the opportunity to work alongside archaeologists to utilise non-invasive techniques such as GPS and Total Station mapping, photogrammetry, laser scanning and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to create the first accurate plan of the cemetery and the surviving matzevot, to document surviving evidence of the desecration of the cemetery by the Nazis during the war and post-war vandalism, and to identify any below ground evidence of cultural and physical genocide.

"Oświęcim is known to many as the location for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp. Yes, this is part of the town’s history, but they choose to celebrate the vibrant life of their city. Oświęcim lovingly embraces its strong Jewish heritage and is always eager to share that history with visitors."

Steven D. Reece, Director of the Matzevah Foundation

The Staffordshire University and Matzevah Foundation team alongside volunteers standing behind some of the matzevot that were re-erected as part of the social action project in 2016 (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Community Responses

The social action projects also generated a lot of interest from local people. The team was visited by survivors and witnesses wishing to tell their stories as well as local people who had sought to collect information and objects related to the cemetery.

Local history enthusiasts meet with the project team to share documents and objects that they have collected to help preserve the history of Jewish Oświęcim (© Steven D. Reece)

Project participants also engaged in discussion groups, considering the causes and consequences of racial hatred and genocide. Visits to the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau were also undertaken as part of the fieldwork.

A visit to the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau with students and volunteers (© Steven D Reece)

The project team also worked with local and international groups to create sustainable strategies for Holocaust education and to develop further opportunities for this kind of collaboration in the future.

Now in their sixth year of undertaking work at the site, The Matzevah Foundation will return to the site once again in the summer 2019 to continue this important restoration work.

Piaski: The Evolution of Anti-Semitism

Next story...

More information
Learn more

Download our full report for details of our archaeological investigations and social action work at Oświęcim's Jewish cemetery and references

Download File