Archaeologist separates Oswiecim from Auschwitz

Unlike the vast majority of Jews, Israeli archaeologist Adam Druks has warm memories of Oswiecim, better known by its infamous German name of Auschwitz. Druks was born and lived in the Polish town until the age of 10, and his was a privileged life.

His father was a highly respected lawyer as well as the deputy mayor. In addition, the Druks family owned a tar paper factory. This meant they had both social standing and a very comfortable standard of living.

This changed, of course, with the German invasion of Poland, and had not the family quickly fled eastward, they too would have presumably ended up in the nearby death factory. Instead, after an interval of several years in the Soviet Union, they reached Palestine via Iran.

What initially brought Druks back to Poland was archaeology. Recently, he was invited to lecture at several Polish universities, where he was to speak in English (but also hand out a Polish summary of his remarks). As it happened, he didn't have time to prepare the summary and therefore decided to speak in his mother tongue, much to the delight of his audiences.

After his lecture in Krakow, Druks decided to go to nearby Oswiecim, and has since returned to the town six or seven times. "How," I asked him, "are you able to go back there with the gas chambers so close by?" After a troubled moment of contemplation, he said: "I suppose it's because I mentally separate Oswiecim, which was once a tranquil, predominantly Jewish town, from the hell that was Auschwitz."

The primary reason for Druks' many visits to Oswiecim is his attempt to regain ownership of the tar paper factory and the various pieces of land that had belonged to his family. So far he has not succeeded, though litigation is continuing and he hopes at least some of the Druks property will be returned.

Another, more spiritual matter has also brought him back to Oswiecim, namely his participation in a project to establish a Jewish center in the town. The purpose of this center, initiated by New York businessman Fred Schwartz, is to inform contemporary and future generations about prewar Jewish life there. And in the absence of a synagogue in Auschwitz itself, the center has one, a place where Jews from around the world can pray, reflect and meet one another.

The synagogue is in a building once used by a small group of worshippers, the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot (the Society for the Study of the Mishna). The structure had to be extensively renovated, but at least — unlike many more impressive synagogues in Oswiecim — it survived the war because the Germans used it as an ammunition storehouse.

Druks and his entire family recently participated in the ceremony at which it was rededicated. They found it extremely moving, as they did what happened afterwards. In a reception at the town's recently built youth center, a young woman came up to Druks and handed him some photographs of his family that were taken shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

"How did you get them?" he asked her in amazement. "My grandmother," she replied, "worked for your family and lived with her husband in the basement of their home.

When they fled, she held on to the photographs in hopes that they could eventually be returned to one of the Druks. They came down to me, and when I saw your name on the list of people who had come for the rededication of the synagogue, I was pleased that I could finally fulfill her wishes."