A Rebirth In Auschwitz

Actor Alan Arkin speaks during the Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Evening with Alan Arkin" at New York's Lincoln Center Dec. 19, 2006.
To go into some areas of Poland these days is to enter what seems like a hugely ironic traditional Jewish theme park: Klezmer music and matzo balls and memories.

The irony, of course, is that there are hardly any Jews left there. Visiting Americans are on a mission to give life to a long-dead Jewish institution in perhaps the most unlikely spot on earth: Auschwitz, where a population was turned to ash.

And there's the neighboring town of Osweicim, where the largely Jewish pre-war majority vanished with more than a million others in the death factory across the river.

And there one - only one - synagogue building survived, having been used as a munitions dump by the Nazis during the war and as a warehouse by Poland's communists after it.

This week, the warehouse became a synagogue again - not to serve a local community; there isn't one - but to serve as a reminder of what used to be. Its walls and exhibits document the Jewish life lived here for five centuries before its destruction.

Fred Schwartz, a successful New York businessman, had come to Auschwitz as many do, to see the horror for himself and pay his respects to the dead.

And on the road to Auschwitz, Schwartz had his own kind of epiphany.

"I was shocked to discover, first, that there was a town, and the second thing, it was a predominantly Jewish town, and it was a very vital one," he says. "And I thought, 'My God, the contrast between this callous death and the vitality of life should be brought out in some way.'"

Whether in the watchtower, where the unspeakable industry of death was overseen, or at the ruins of the gas chambers, where the extermination of more than a million Jews was methodically carried out, a visit to Auschwitz inevitably involves prayer and tears.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports this is especially true for those few survivors who come back to try to exorcise the ghosts that still haunt them.

"What is there for me here? Can I take one of my brothers or sisters home? Where are they? They don't even have a tombstone, a cemetery, nothing," says Sylvia Wirtzbaum, an Auschwitz survivor. "They are dust! For what? What did they do?"

She adds, "We arrived here at night, and then we went to the gate to see who is at the other side, and you touch those wires, and they were all electrocuted, and people were hanging all over them, and you carried."

"Aaach, I can't talk about it," she says. "How can I tell you my feelings? Torture, if you know what that is. To stand on my feet, it's a miracle," Wirtzbaum says. "This is something that nobody can feel."

And what can those who come here do? Imagine the horror? Grieve? Suppress rage?

Schwartz's dream has come true in the Polish town of Osweicim - what the Nazis called Auschwitz. A ruined synagogue, the only one still standing in what was once a largely Jewish town, has been refurbished and rededicate to those who lived here.

"The synagogue dedicated here...will return to being the place of learning," says Schwartz, founder of the New York-based Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, which financed the renovation. "It will be a vibrant symbol of life regenerated and of the angel of death that passed over here."

Sitting on a knoll in central Oswiecim about 1.9 miles from the Auschwitz site, the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue was among a dozen that once served 7,000 Jews in the southern Polish city - more than half its prewar population. Invading Nazi troops turned it into a munitions warehouse in 1939.

About 70 American Jews were joined at this week's dedication by more than 200 officials from Poland, Israel, the Roman Catholic Church and even a Muslim prince from Jordan - in a sign of religious tolerance.

The synagogue was briefly revived after World War II by local Jews who survived the Holocaust, but was abandoned when most left communist Poland for the new state of Israel. It reverted to warehouse use and fell into disrepair.

Poland, now 95 percent Catholic, returned the synagogue to the Jewish community in March 1998 under a restitution program for former Jewish religious properties.

"I am very moved to see this place after so many years," says Adam Druks, an Israeli resident who left Oswiecim in 1939 at age 10.

For people like Jacob Hennenberg, now of Cleveland, and the only surviving member of his family, returning brought out memories.

"I see my father coming out here. I see my sisters running around here. I hear the wagons with the horses in them," says Hennenberg, himself a camp survivor.

For him, reopening the synagogue in his old hometown isn't just about remembering his family and neighbors who perished. It's also about setting history straight.

He explains, "When you tell people, 'I grew up in Osweicim, in Auschwitz,'...the first thing that comes to anybody's mind..., 'Auschwitz! What a place!'"

"Well, that's what I'm talking about: the stigma," he says. "The town should not be punished for what the Nazis did."

"And this is really, for all these 50 years, what's happening,"he says. "The people here are punished for something they didn't do."

Yet reopening a synagogue here at Auschwitz - or Osweicim - is more of a symbolic than a practical act. There are no Jews left here to pray at it. Reopening the synagogue here is an act of defiance. The Jews of Osweicim may have been wiped out, but now a little bit of their history and their spirit survives.

"It's loaded with symbolism, but I think the most important thing is it's an expression of life, it's vitality, the fact that ashes can rise up and really be re-formed as life again," says Schwartz.

Any visit to Auschwitz is bound to be a highly charged emotional one. Usually, the feeling is one of overwhelming grief, ut also a kind of helplessness in the face of the scale of the evil done there. But when Schwartz came, he didn't feel helpless. On the contrary, he felt he had to do something.

And rebuilding the synagogue became Schwartz's passion, a place to pray and to think for those who visit and a place to commemorate the normalcy of pre-war life.

None of this will bring the people back, of course. But those who brought this project together can allow themselves a rare feeling in Auschwitz, along with the usual sadness: a touch of bittersweet satisfaction.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report