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Only surviving synagogue near Auschwitz on verge of collapse

Courtesy Auschwitz Jewish Center

The Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot synagogue (c. 1939-1941).

REGENSBURG, Germany -- A synagogue near the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz is on the verge of collapse, officials warned on Wednesday.

The head of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, which maintains the historic building in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim, said in a phone interview that the synagogue is on unstable ground and if it is not reinforced soon, it may crumble.

"There are already small cracks visible," Tomasz Kuncewicz said. "A thorough examination found that the ground is unstable and with heavy rain or something similar, anything can happen."

If the Chevra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue were to collapse, the only surviving Jewish house of prayer in the city would be ruined.

Oswiecim, once an ordinary town home to a large Jewish community, became an international symbol of the Holocaust when Nazi Germany ran its largest and deadliest concentration camp just two miles from the city center during World War II. Some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.

"Several synagogues were located in the area, and this was the only one not destroyed by the Nazis," Kuncewicz said.

Jacek Bednarczyk / EPA

Students visit the Chewra Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue in Auschwitz, Poland, on Wednesday.

The synagogue itself seems to trace the tragic path of the Jewish community in the area.

Built around 1913, it thrived until the Nazi occupation. During World War II, the interior was gutted and it was used to store ammunition.

After the war and the liberation of the concentration camp, a group of Jewish survivors restored the building provisionally, but it stopped operating when the small group emigrated from Poland shortly thereafter. In the 1970s, the country's communist government nationalized the building and turned it into a carpet warehouse.

It wasn't until 1998 that the synagogue was turned back over to the Jewish community, a historic first in Poland after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. It was rededicated in 2000 in an effort to rekindle the Jewish community that had been so vibrant in the city decades before.

Today, it is not only a place of prayer, but also a historical site and educational center that draws 25,000 visitors each year.

Organizers are seeking $300,000 for the renovation effort, the majority from donations, but they also are asking for help from government agencies.

Kuncewicz said he hoped to start the repairs this spring: "We are working very hard to raise money for this project, to make sure the synagogue will stand."