Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Urszula Bieniek - Here I Was Born, Here I Live …

… and Here I Write About How I Feel as an Inhabitant of Oswiecim

When I went to the first meeting at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, I did not really know what was going to happen there, who was going to be there, or whether I would go there again afterwards. But as I heard more details about the one-year project prepared by the Centre, I was absolutely sure that I wanted to participate.
Today, with hindsight, I do not regret a single moment that I devoted to the project. On the contrary, I am proud of it. I had the chance to get to know myself better, to meet wonderful people…and to find truth and dialogue.
Last year marked a breakthrough in my life. Everything that happened, things I learned, people I met – all of this has changed my life. It cannot be described in a few words, it has to be experienced personally….
All the stages of the project “Place of Residence: Oswiecim ” I found to be of great interest; I felt a constant craving for knowledge that I could gradually satisfy. I could ask many questions and participate in discussions. And I felt that I was somehow valued, that others listened to my opinions and feelings and shared in them.
A very important thing I learned over the past year concerned DIALOGUE: Dialogue with another person, striving to get to know people the way they are really and not as others might judge them.
The first thematic section KL Auschwitz-Birkenau – history and symbols left me with the greatest impression. After everything I heard about the former camp Auschwitz – Birkenau, I wanted to know even more. I started to read books, mostly memoirs of former prisoners. During the meeting with Mr. Kazimierz Smoleń, a former prisoner and for many years the manager of the Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oswiecim , I had the opportunity to listen to his personal recollections. It was very difficult for me to imagine all that had happened in the area of Oswiecim between 1941–1945. How was it possible to allow the annihilation of so many people? How could people have been treated with such cruelty? I thought: This is unbelievable, it sounds like a story someone made up; I mean, I wished it had been made up by someone, that it would not have happened… but unfortunately it did take place. Untold thousands of people were killed, innocent people-- first humiliated, hurt, crippled, left with no means to live or survive, and then murdered with greatest cruelty, with no chance to defend themselves or to fight.
During subsequent meetings were some devoted to questions of Christianity and Judaism, and I discovered how interesting the Jewish culture, religion, and traditions are, and how little I had known about it before. After what I learned, I wanted to meet representatives of the Jewish community. Soon my wish came true: At one of the meetings I met Jewish youths from South America , and I had an opportunity to talk to people whose culture had captivated me. I also learned how Jews see Poland and the Poles, what they think about us, the inhabitants of the city of Oswiecim . What is the importance of the former concentration camp Auschwitz – Birkenau to them, what do they think and feel while spending time in this place?
One of the most important experiences over the past few months for me was the March of the Living, in which our whole “ Oswiecim group” participated alongside hundreds of Jews from all over the world. Together we walked from the stammlager Auschwitz I to Birkenau to pay homage to all those who had lost their lives here. I had never taken much interest in this event. It simply took place somewhere on the margin of my awareness, but now I know of just what great importance this symbolic march holds for the Jewish community around the world. I understand people who meet together here once a year, in Oswiecim , to pray for their loved ones killed in this place. As I was walking with all those people towards Birkenau, and the next day when I had an opportunity to speak with Jewish youths, I realized that the fate of the Jewish people is very close to me, that it is a nation whose tragic and cruel past resembles the history of the Polish nation to some extent.
In the weeks that followed those events, together with German guests invited for meetings, we discussed the relations between our nations: How they have developed over the recent years and over centuries, and what they are like nowadays, how we are similar and how we differ – we Poles and our German neighbours.
I think that I myself had never had any prejudice against the German nation. Young Germans do not have to feel guilty for what their forebears did. It is not their fault: Indeed it happened and is part of the past; but it is in our young people’s hands that the future lies, and we all must make sure that history is not repeated. We have to remember that in WW II many innocent Germans were also killed – Germans who stood up against the Nazi regime and ideology. The Germans now also deplore this tragedy that took place in Auschwitz , they also have tears in their eyes and are scared, and many are ashamed of the fact that it was the German nation that masterminded this horror.
Today, after many years, we young Poles and young Germans should strive to attain the good. We do not want any more wars and mass murders. We must make sure that peace, harmony, and tolerance rule this world.
During meetings with German groups in the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer I got to know many wonderful Germans with whom I am in touch to this day, and I can’t wait to see them again…. When the first German group was about to arrive, we were all very anxious. But the discussions we had, with honest conversations and friendly smiles, made us forget our worries. And then together we built small houses that made up a “European village.” I can’t remember when I had had such a good time before! I got to know people I will never forget. I think about them very often, I like talking about them with my friends. Those brief moments spent with the German group have taught me a lot. Despite the fact that the German language is not my strongest point, I was able to communicate easily with my new friends. There have been a few such meetings that I will keep forever in my memory.
Coming back to the history of Oswiecim , especially to the distant past: Within the framework of the project we had interesting meetings on the subject and we visited places that “keep history for future generations,” such as the Oswiecim castle or the State Archives. Like many of my friends, I used to think that I knew Oswiecim well. I did not know that this city has such a complex and interesting history. Probably not many people know that Oswiecim has a longer history than, for example, Poznań . Now I can boast that I know the history of my city very well, and I take every opportunity to share this knowledge with visitors.
The one-year project ended with meetings devoted to human rights – to national, religious and cultural minorities, as well as to foreigners and the disabled.

What I Think and Feel After Months of the Project “Place of Residence: Oswiecim
For many people around the world, the city of Oswiecim (known under its German name, Auschwitz ) is associated with only one thing: The former concentration camp Auschwitz – Birkenau. I know that one must not forget history and that we must do everything we can so that it is never repeated.
However, I think that my Oswiecim should not be associated only with the extermination of Jews, Poles, Roma and other nationalities. Apart from the former camp, there is a normal city here, and its citizens are ordinary people, just like the inhabitants of Kraków, Katowice or Warsaw . With one difference: We live closer to the site of this horrendous tragedy that took place in the area of Oswiecim between 1941 and 1945. I am not afraid of this place – on the contrary, it is particularly dear to me as I know its other face, the face of my home city with its centuries-long history.
I have been living in Oswiecim since I was born, and during recent years have gathered a lot of information about my city. But many inhabitants do not realize how distant and interesting the origins of this city are. The project run by the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer provided a great chance to learn. My feelings and experiences following the months of participation in this project have influenced my perception of the world and of other people.
Weekly meetings with my group -- at the beginning with complete strangers, now with my close friends -- have opened my eyes to what has been happening in Oswiecim . It is as if I were born again and looked at this city through new eyes. Before, to me it was a city like any other, but now I can see and notice much more and know its history. What is most important is that I am proud to be a citizen of this city, that it was here I spent my childhood and grew up. Some of my friends cannot wait to get away from here as soon as they can – to bigger cities that offer better prospects, where it is easier to find a job.
As for me, I feel emotionally tied to Oswiecim . This city means a lot to me. Maybe because I have participated in the project “Place of residence: Oswiecim ” for many months.
There are times when the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer is my second home. It is here that I can sit down with people very close to me, talk, laugh, or cry on their shoulder. Above all else, it was here that I learned to respect other people whatever their nationality. I got rid of various prejudices against foreigners and people of other faiths. Teenagers from other countries are just like us, have similar dreams, behave in a similar way. We differ in practically nothing except our origin, nationality, or faith.



Krakowska Fundacja
Centrum Dialogu i Modlitwy
w Oświęcimiu
ul. M. Kolbego 1, 32-602 Oświęcim

tel.: +48 (33) 843 10 00
tel.: +48 (33) 843 08 88
fax: +48 (33) 843 10 01

Education Department: education@cdim.pl
Reception: reception@cdim.pl

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