A Major Discovery at the Great Synagogue
Archaeologists discovered candlesticks and chandeliers, probably bronze, on Monday at the site of the Great Synagogue of Oświęcim, which was demolished in 1939. The items, buried 65 years ago, were part of the furnishings of the synagogue.
Archaeologist Anna Drążkowska, part of a team led by Małgorzata Grupa that is investigating the synagogue site, said that the items were found at the place where stairs led up to the women’s gallery of the prewar synagogue. They were buried in the ground without any containers or covering.
“I was in the Oświęcim Jewish Center when colleagues phoned to say that they found something,” Drążkowska reported. “I went there immediately. It was a chandelier. We were thrilled. We photographed it and then I came back to the Center. Soon afterwards, there was another telephone call saying that we had found a great treasure!”
All told, the archaeologists excavated several dozen elements. “We have not yet carried out any detailed inspection, but they seem to be made of bronze. Some of them can be seen to have been gilded or silvered. They were taken apart before being buried,” said the archeologist.
The items were buried in fear of the entry into Poland of the Nazis in 1939. They probably date back to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the synagogue was built.
Drążkowska said that the objects were taken to the Jewish Center. They are being inventoried and photographed, after which they will be prepared for conservation. In the future, they will be exhibited in the Jewish Center.
The archaeologist did not conceal her joy over the discovery. “This is something special for us. I think it is special for the whole Jewish community, as well. We have found something that someone once regarded as special enough to hide. And now we can restore its glory by excavating it, preserving it, and exhibiting it in a secure way.”
The archeologists from Nicholas Copernicus University in Toruń, led by Małgorzata Grupa, began their dig in early June. They wanted, above all, to study the location of the synagogue.
They are also looking for Judaica items and Torah scrolls. Yariv Nornberg, a former Oświęcim resident who now lives in Israel, provided information about the items. Nornberg had met another former Oświęcim resident who told him that Jews there had buried chests of Judaica items and Torah scrolls in the cellar of the synagogue.
Nothing was found in the place that Nornberg indicated. “The space where the synagogue stood was crisscrossed by shelters built during the war. Something might have been unearthed then. The fact that no one found the things we excavated is a real miracle,” said Drążkowska.
The archaeologists are still at work. “We will go on looking, and perhaps we’ll find some liturgical vessels. Our investigations will go on for another week, and, if we find anything, it will be extended,” she stated.
Aside from Monday’s treasure, archaeologists have so far found fragments of the marble ornamentation of the aron ha-kodesh, the holy place that is the central point in the synagogue. That is where the Torah is kept. They also found parts of pews, books damaged by fire, and fragments of Hebrew-language inscriptions.
Jews of Oświęcim
The first Jews settled in Oświęcim in the mid-15th century. Before the start of the Second World War, there were 8,000 Jews in a city with a population of 12,000. Jews had a majority on the city council early in the 20th century. After the war, 186 of them returned to Oświęcim. The last native-born Jewish resident, Szymon Kluger, died four years ago, and is buried in the local Jewish cemetery.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were 10 synagogues and prayer houses in Oświęcim. The Grand Synagogue was destroyed in 1939, after the Germans occupied the city.
Now only one synagogue remains, the Chewra Lomdei Misznajot. It was returned to the Jewish community in 1998 under the law on the restitution of Jewish community property in Poland. The synagogue was rededicated at a ceremony in 1999. (PAP)