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March 10, 2023 12:29 pm

‘One-of-a-Kind’ Historic Wooden Mikvah Excavated Near Site of Auschwitz Concentration Camp


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

The wooden mikvah discovered in the Polish town of Oświęcim. Photo: Provided

A unique wooden Jewish ritual bath known in Hebrew as a mikvah was recently excavated in Oświęcim, the town in southern Poland where the Nazis built the Auschwitz concentration camp, likely showing that Jewish presence in the area dates back at least 400 years, according to researchers and historians.

“As far as we know, this is the only mikvah of its kind in Europe, in the world most likely,” Tomek Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation’s Jewish Museum in Oświęcim, told The Algemeiner about the discovery made in late February. “The experts we talked to from Poland [and] from other places said they have never heard of such a discovery, ever. So it definitely seems that it’s one-of-a-kind.”

He added that the mikvah, made of oak, is roughly 400 years old and is the “oldest piece of evidence” of a once thriving Jewish community in Oświęcim.

The mikvah was found a month after another Jewish ritual bath  — made of concrete and tile and probably from the 19th century — was discovered in January above the wooden mikvah. Both were excavated during the construction of an underground parking garage organized by the town of Oświęcim and found near the Great Synagogue Memorial Park, which is located on the site where the town’s main synagogue once stood before it was destroyed during World War II.

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Fragments from the concrete and tile mikvah were removed from the excavation site and are now housed at the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation’s Jewish Museum. However, removing the wooden mikvah is a “much more complicated endeavor” due to its fragile and complex state and experts have yet to extract it from the site, Kuncewicz explained.

He said that while the wooden mikvah was “well preserved” and is in “relatively good condition,” it is also very fragile. They are still trying to figure out how to remove it without causing damage and are working with the town of Oświęcim to decide on the best method for its removal.

“Right now the wooden mikvah is still in its site but we are working with conservators and historians to come up with a process of how to take it out and preserve it,” Kuncewicz noted. “And then the next step will be how to display it and where. This will be saved for sure, but we are now in the process of finding out how to do it the right way so it doesn’t get destroyed … it has to be done professionally and carefully so it doesn’t get damaged in any way. In the ground it got preserved but once it’s uncovered, it has to be taken out.”

Kuncewicz added that the Jewish museum and the mayor of Oświęcim have talked about wanting to have the wooden mikvah on display in Oświęcim as “a testimony to the Jewish presence and history of the town, which is very often overshadowed by what happened at Auschwitz [concentration camp].”

Before World War II, there were about 8,000 Jewish residents in Oświęcim — roughly 50-60 percent of the town’s total population — but most of them were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp and after the war only about 200 Jews returned to the town, Kuncewicz said. He added that in subsequent years there was an effort to revive the Jewish community in Oświęcim but gradually most Jewish residents left, mainly for Israel. The last Jewish resident of Oświęcim, Holocaust survivor Szymon Kluger, died in 2000.

Kuncewicz told The Algemeiner it’s important to remember that Oświęcim once had a “significant and vibrant” Jewish community spanning back to almost 500 years, and that the city’s legacy should encompass much more than the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“I think it’s very important to realize that the Jewish presence of the town was not just at Auschwitz,” he said. “There was centuries of Jewish life in this town. It’s crucial to understand what was lost and this [mikvah] is another piece of legacy which tells the story of Oświęcim … In a way to show that the Holocaust of course happened and people were killed but we need to remember their heritage and lives that were lost.”

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