Possibly the most well-known part of Polish Jewry is the
shtetl. The shtetl is almost mythic in its charming mystique it presents to the modern
observer. We present as a model shtetl the village of Oswiecim, or Aushwitz. Although it
may sound strange, there was once a vibrant Jewish life in Aushwitz.
There were two separate nations living in the shtetlach (villages) all
over Poland. The Jews lived a completely different existence -away from the Poles, coming
together only for practicalities. The city of Aushwitz was about 16,000 strong, divided
approximatey fifty-fifty between Jew and gentile. Of the 8,000 Jews, about 500 or so
weren't religious. Some had been secularized for quite some time, but did still go to
synagogue on the High Holidays. No one was unpleasant or rejoycing in rebellion.
The Jews in Aushwitz were mainly tradesman like tailors, blacksmiths,
baker, butcher, wagonmakers, and shopkeepers. Jews made the majority of their income
selling to Poles twice a week on Marktug, or market day. On Market day the Jews would set
up their booths and the gentiles would bring their farm goods from the fields, like
produce, chicken and eggs. The market place was in the center of town because everyone
needed something on Market day. Neither Poles nor Jews could subsist without each other,
but Poles and Jews never knew each other through frank exchanges or other intimate talk.
They were proximate and familiar and that's as close as it got. Generally, as in most
small towns, relations were in fact pretty docile, although anti-Jewish flareups happened
infrequently when heavy drinking occurred. Soldiers weren't a problem at all, though; they
would just ride through town sometimes.
There were stores immediately surrounding the market square. The main
residential area was almost entirely Jewish, as most gentiles lived in the countryside
surrounding the town. Many gentiles, seeing the Jewish dress and other things, thought the
Jews were better off than they themselves were. They forgot about the many poor Jews
unable to even get meals, an unknown for gentile farmers. A residential building had two
or three stores at street level, and an alleyway went from the street to an inner
courtyard, where the apartments were accessible from. Many of these were multi-family
houses, and sometimes the alleyways cut from the street to the one on the other side,
forming a large courtyard where 10-20 families might be located.
Basically, Aushwitz was a poor town; there were many needy people.
There were a few wealthy Jews and they took care of the less fortunate, especially making
sure that they had nice meals for the festivals. But many times kids wouldn't even be able
to eat breakfast before school started. A modest but comfortable Oswiecim apartment would
be a kitchen and one bedroom. There were usually two toilets on each floor for five
families (there were always more than one family in each building). The kitchen was
essentially a large room with a stove, usually made out of bricks or tile and looking like
a large box, a table, chairs, and a bed. There was also, usually, a cellar to store all
sorts of goods, like food, preserves, even coal. Coal got more expensive in the winter and
there was no coal delivery, so many people stocked up. People didn't steal things that
weren't there's, though. They just didn't wish to behave like that.
The weather was generally pleasant in Oswiecim. It never got furiously
hot or hit arctic lows. In the winter, though, it did snow a lot, and the Sola River froze
so well, you could walk across it through the town. Some of the area Poles chopped off
pieces of ice 3 ft. thick to sell square for people who could afford an ice box. This
helped people at home and there were also Jewish vendors who sold ice cream and flavored
soda water. The ice cream was an excellent but expensive little treat. The vendors stood
with their ubiqutious carts in front of the Beis Midrash (House of Study).
As for religious institutions, Aushwitz had one full-time rabbi and two
dayyanim (judges), and all the other typical Jewish institutions. The Jewish community was
very veried with many differen flavors of Chassidus, and also some Ashkenazim. The main
large synagogue was under kehillah supervision, as were the shochtim (ritual
slaughterers). One goes about gettting a chicken slaughtered by buying a ticket, and
handing it over to the slaughterer, who rips it up and slaughters the animal. The kehillah
paid their salaries.