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The question long has vexed Oswiecim, the town of 40,000 in southern Poland where the notorious Auschwitz death camp is located. For decades, residents and city leaders have struggled to separate Oswiecim from Auschwitz and pull the town, its history and its cultural associations out from under the overwhelming black cloud of the death camp, which is now a memorial museum. With only limited success to date, however, a new generation of town leaders is trying a different tack: bolstering Oswiecim as a vital local community, but also reaching out to connect with Auschwitz rather than disassociate from it. Downtown, the 10-year-old Auschwitz Jewish Center makes clear that before the Holocaust, Oswiecim had a majority Jewish population and was known widely by its Yiddish name, Oshpitzin. And now the Oswiecim Life Festival, founded last year by Darek Maciborek, a nationally known radio DJ who was born and lives in Oswiecim, aims to use music and youth culture to fight anti-Semitism and racism. The closing concert of this year’s festival, held in June, included the Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu.
Hertig said the new push to bolster Oswiecim and reach out more to the Auschwitz museum and its visitors is partly due to a generational shift in the town. For a long time, most of Oswiecim’s population consisted of thousands of newcomers from elsewhere in Poland who settled here after World War II.


The town now has plans to go ahead with several projects that had been thwarted by outgoing Mayor Janusz Marszalek, who had particularly strained relations with the Auschwitz Memorial, according to Hertig. Hertig said he hoped new programs and study visits developed with the Auschwitz memorial will encourage longer stays by visitors. Located on the opposite side of the Sola River from the Auschwitz camp, Oswiecim has an old town center with a pleasant market square, several imposing churches, and a medieval castle and tower. But few of the more than 1.2 million people who visit the Auschwitz camp each year ever set foot in Oswiecim or even know that the town exists.
Local residents long have resented that most outsiders make no distinction between their town and the death camp. It remains to be seen whether the new push can help remove the stigma from Oswiecim and achieve a less strained modus vivendi with the death camp memorial.
And for years a Catholic-run Dialogue and Prayer Center and a German-run International Youth Center near the camp have promoted reflection and reconciliation.
The center includes a Jewish museum and a functioning refurbished synagogue—the only one in the city to survive.


But today’s community leaders increasingly include 30- and 40-somethings like Hertig and Maciberok who were born in Oswiecim and feel rooted here. These include a new visitors’ center for the memorial and a park on the riverbank just opposite Auschwitz that will be connected to the camp memorial by a foot bridge. Plans are in the works to build an upscale hotel in town and refurbish the main market square and other infrastructure. In the modern part of town is a new shopping mall and state-of-the-art public library, as well as a big civic culture center that hosts a variety of events, including an annual Miss Oswiecim beauty pageant.



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