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Holocaust Remembrance Day – April 16

3The town next to Auschwitz

~ A story of then and now told in photos ~

While the small town of Oswiecim is now a quiet, rural place, during the Second World War, it lay in the shadows of the crematorium at Auschwitz, and death will forever linger in the air of the place.

Black and white images, sometimes grainy but still soul-piercing, recall those times, and the survivors tell their stories. A harrowing image from 1941 shows the moment the Jewish population of a small town in southern Poland is rounded up by Nazis and sent to their deaths. Other pictures show flags emblazoned with Swastikas flying from banks and outside churches, while those who stayed in the town recall the "disgusting glow" on the horizon, and the fear which kept the residents hiding behind closed windows.

TODAY, THE buildings which once held such horror have become part of the everyday fabric of the town: annexes of the camp are apartment blocks; there is no sign of the checkpoints, and the Nazi flags are long gone. But those who lived in the town during the Second World War still remember what it was like to live so close to the Nazi death camp.

Bogumila, who did not give her surname, and grew up in the Polish town, recalled: "Everyone sat in their homes in silence, windows shut as tightly as possible. Of course, people knew what was going on. Every now and again, my mother and I would walk toward the camp, and see the disgusting glow on the horizon. Most of them did nothing, because they were scared."

Bozena Szczepanska, 88, who was just 12 when the Nazis invaded, said, "It's difficult to forget because the memory of death is all around us, on the streets, in the buildings. People were forced out; others, including my parents, were shot. They were brutal, evil times."

Before the war, Oswiecim had a population of 12,000, just over 8,000 of whom were Jewish.

By 1945, the entire Jewish population had gone and only 2,000 Poles remained. Consumed as part of Nazi Germany in 1939, the town was renamed and work began on transforming the local army barracks into the biggest killing machine in history. By the time it was liberated six years later, an estimated 1.5million people had been exterminated in its gas chambers.

RETURNING FOR the 70th anniversary of its liberation by the Soviet Red Army which was held on Jan 27, 2015, Bozena said, "We used to live near the camp. But the Germans didn't want people there and told us we had to leave. When my parents protested, they were shot and I had to make my way to Krakow where an aunt of mine lived."

"The house is gone now. It's for the best. I remember the day they threw the Jews out. We all gathered to watch. I asked my father what was happening and he said, 'It's the end of the world.'"

"Other parts of the town haven't changed much; the only real difference is there aren't any Germans or Swastikas."

ANOTHER PHOTO from 1941 shows two German guards on a day off pushing their bikes across the River Sola as they head into town from the death camp. Local man Roman Lewicki, 55, commented, "Wherever you go in this town, there are terrible reminders of the past. I was born after the war but I know what happened here. People were executed on street corners and one of those places is now said to have a school playground built on top of it. Buildings were turned into annexes of the main camp and people were worked to death. Some of those places are now apartment blocks with families living inside."

Pawel and Sylwia Jurczak live in the house once occupied by Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess. Pawel, 32, who works in a local pet shop, said, "This house was built by a Polish soldier before the war. He was only here two years and then the Nazis attacked. He was thrown out and it was taken over by the commandant of the camp, Rudolf Hoess. It's only 300 metres away from one of the crematoria and gas chambers. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1970s and I was born here, but I have never felt weird or ashamed about it. This house is a Polish house, not a Nazi house."

English teacher Sylwia, 27, moved into the house five years ago after she and Pawel got married.

"Our view of the camp is blocked by trees at the back of the house and we have a lovely lake outside the front. If it weren't for the history, it would be ideal. But then the whole of this town lives in the shadow of its history. You can't escape it; you can only learn to deal with it, to come to terms with it.

"WHEN I WAS younger, I went on a school trip to the Auschwitz museum and the guide pointed this house out to us and said this was where Hoess used to live and that now a normal family lives here. I remember thinking, 'Why would someone want to live in the Hoess house?' I didn't know Pawel then, or the true history of the house. It had always been 'The Nazi House' to me.

"When I first met Pawel, for the first six months of our dating, he didn't tell me where he lived. So when I eventually found out, I was a bit shocked. But now I know the history and have lived here for a year, I can see it's a lovely house; most of it, anyway.

"But there's one place I don't like going – and that's into the cellar. Not much has changed down here. I don't believe in ghosts, but when it's dark and the door closes, it makes my skin crawl and my hair stand on end. You can almost imagine hearing the wailing of the dead.

"AND THEN there's this tunnel. We don't know where it leads because it only goes about 15 feet and then it's blocked off. But we have been told that it could lead to the crematorium and gas chamber as that was later turned into an air raid shelter for the SS and this would have been Hoess' private tunnel to get there. We've heard rumours that he also met his mistress – a camp prisoner – down there. He eventually had her gassed so his wife wouldn't find out. I dread to think what's down there. My parents refuse to come here. They think its evil."

From a top floor window of the house, two great stucco block buildings can be seen.

Pointing out of the window, Pawel said, "The people living over there aren't very lucky. That's where the SS officers at the camp lived. Directly behind them is the camp with all the barbed wire, watchtowers, the place the SS carried out their morning roll calls, etc. In front, there's Crematorium1, which also had a gas chamber in it. Their view is pretty depressing. My friend used to live there and would often tell me how horrid it is. He now lives in Ireland, but when he was growing up, he said it was very creepy looking out of the window and seeing the mist rise above the camp."

The Soviet advanced from the east, forcing the Nazis to retreat from Auschwitz, leaving several thousand of their prisoners behind, among them children and those closest to death. Survivor Bozena said, "They left behind a town which will always be haunted by the shadow of death and unspeakable horror. I don't want to come back here."

Adapted from Ed Wight In Oswiecim, Poland For Mailonline.

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