Oswiecim's history is of enormous proportions compared to its physical size. It's been overrun by invading armies for centuries, it's had times of peace and prosperity, it was home to the worst incidence of genocide humanity has ever known, it was a communist industrial center, and it's now a quiet Polish town trying to figure out its place in the 21st century.
In the outskirts of the town stands Auschwitz-Birkenau, a universal symbol for evil and genocide. To see an image of the infamous red brick gates and barbed wire fences is to gaze into the face of death. About a million people a year pay homage to the lost souls at the camp. Very few venture into the adjacent small town.
It is quite hard to perceive the immense suffering that took place at Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis when thinking in numbers. The human mind can't comprehend what more than 1,000,000 murders looks or feels like. There is no precedent for comparison, so for lack of a better example consider the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The suffering, the ramifications. Now imagine 9/11 happening about 350 times in one location, and conducted painstakingly by a "modern" government mainly to eliminate one group of people. (Although many thousands of Poles and other minorities were murdered there also).
Most residents of the town came after the war, when the communist government turned the former I.G. Farben factory (and Nazi labor camp- Auschwitz III, Monowitz) into an industrial center. Before the war there were about 15,000 residents, but grew to about 50,000 during communist rule.
The residents of Oswiecim live with a paradoxical reality. The psychological scar on their land is like the face of a burn victim, who's visitors may not be able to see beyond the disfigurement. But there is much beyond the surface. Is the town's identity forever intertwined with the Nazi's xenophobic monstrosity, or can their be two separate entities?