Ryan Hubbard with on a town which is more than just a tourist attraction. From the exterior, the Polish town of Oswięcim (roughly pronounced "Osh-vient-chim") seems no different to any other. As you exit the train station, you are greeted by pizza restaurants, take-away chains and even advertisements for the local adult store. The locals walk around, going about their daily business like in any other town or city across the world. When I first arrived in the town, I have to admit that this was a bit of a surprise to me. Whilst doing research on its history, it had never really occurred to me that there would still be people doing their daily chores or children going to school, let alone two football teams trying to make small steps up the Polish League ladder.
Sola Oswięcim were formed way back in 1919 when, backed by the local county and community, a group of young people from the local high school decided that they were keen to test their skills in a competitive environment. The newly founded club were given the name "Sola" after the river which runs through the town, and in the early Twenties became a founding member of the Krakow District Football Association (KOPN). One of 35 teams in the inaugural competition, the club started out in the B Class - plying their trade against teams as far away as Krakow and Tarnow.
After struggling for some time with local private land owners who didn't want the town's footballers to play on their plots, 1923 saw the municipality of Oswięcim open it's first purpose built football pitch for Sola. The inaugural game on the new field saw Sola hammered 7-1 by a strong Wisla Krakow side which included Polish legend Henryk Reyman - whose name adorns the White Star's stadium in Poland's second city.
Over the next few years - due to the reorganisation of the Oswięcim Football Association - Sola were moved from the Krakow District Leagues to their Silesian equivalent, again settling into the B Class. However after just two years they saw promotion to the A class, and in 1930 went on to win that league too. But 1933 saw the club's relegation back down to the B Class, and it was there that Sola stayed until the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland in 1939.
Soon after their occupation began, the Nazis forbade the Poles to compete in any sporting activity; meaning Sola were forced to suspend their operation before they could get the chance to claw their way back up the ladder. But unfortunately, the residents of Oswięcim were to have a lot more than football to worry about.
In mid-1940, the local population - including around 8,000 Jews - were expelled and forced to move away from their homes as the Germans built a 40 km2 exclusion zone around Oswięcim; which also included the villages of Babice, Plawy and Brzezinka. The area was cut-off to the outside world, and a Nazi prisoner camp was quickly built. As you may now have guessed, the camp was to take on the German name for the town. A name which it is nowadays still more commonly referred to; and has since become synonymous with the genocide crimes of the Nazis during the war, and the Holocaust in general. 1940 saw construction begin on the Auschwitz Concentration and Extermination camps.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, unspeakable crimes were committed in the town against many people. Men, women and children from all across Europe were murdered in the Auschwitz camp, whilst incomprehensible numbers were killed in an even bigger camp in Birkenau - the Germanic name for Brzezinka.
Whilst a number of people from the local area were incarcerated in the death camps, there was still a large number who had been completely unaware of the goings-on in their home town; and after it's Soviet liberation in 1945 they arrived back to a decimated Oswięcim, eager to return to normality as quickly as possible. And by the Spring of 1945 the sports ground had been cleared up after bomb damage, new equipment had been acquired, and Sola were about to play their first game in six years.
After the reorganisation of both the club and the town was complete, Sola took up their new position in the Chrzanow B Class; and for a brief time even changed their red and white jerseys to a blue and white strip, in remembrance - symbolising the blue and white striped uniforms - of the millions kept captive and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the years after the war, the united community of Oswięcim turned out in increased support of Sola; not only watching from the sidelines, but with an influx of people wanting to play as well. Young children and teenagers began to become involved in the sport, and from 1945 to 1947 Sola's youth team became the best in the region. The first team also began to benefit from the new-found popularity of the sport, defeating Poland's oldest club Cracovia Krakow by four goals to two.
Partly due to the number of people taking up the sport immediately after the war, many other clubs were formed in the area around this time. 1946 saw the emergence of ZKS Syntetyka Oswięcim, and the following year Iskra Brzezinka began their life.
Syntetyka were still in their infancy when in 1949, they were merged with their cross-town rivals; to the disgust of the Sola fans. The new club became known as ZKS Unia Oswięcim; "unia" being the Polish word for "union". It took the supporters of Sola a further 8 years before they finally got a team back into the league. A meeting attended by around 400 people with the intention of reforming the club, resulted in massive chants of "Sola is Oswięcim, and Oswięcim is Sola!". But with nowhere to play and no infrastructure to the club, the supporters were forced to join with a small local team called Kolejarz Oswięcim; who eventually adopted the name of the town's first club.
Whilst Sola were beginning to rise again from the flames, Unia were enjoying success in the Krakow district leagues. But despite winning their division twice, they were still unable to secure promotion via a play-off.
During the late 1950s, Sola finally made their way back to the A Class; but as the decade drew to a close, a number of successive relegations and promotions meant that Sola became a yo-yo club for a few years. Unia's results also began to dwindle as they began to bring more youth players into the squad, although they did manage to gain a famous 2-0 victory against Polonia Bytom on their way to the Polish Cup quarter-final. But this set off a rather unremarkable period for Unia.
In 1979 Sola returned to the A Class, and began a great period for the club. 1985 saw them promoted to the Bielsko District league as champions, however just four years later they saw relegation again after losing a number of their players.
Times had started to become difficult for Unia towards the end of the century, and with money a huge issue they were close to bankruptcy. In 2002, the decision was made to merge with Iskra Brzezinka in order to save the club.The youth team of Unia however, decided to carry on the team's name; and in the following season, Unia Oswięcim started again from scratch.
Nowadays, the town's two clubs occupy positions in the Wadowice district league's A class, very Oroughly Poland's equivalent to the Conference North/South leagues. For a town of just 40,000 people, the chances are that they aren't going to make huge steps into the heady heights. However whilst Unia are currently holding a mid-table position after eight games, Sola occupy top spot in the table. Promotion from this league will send the lucky club to the Western Malopolska region of the IV Liga - four tiers behind the Ekstraklasa; and Saturday's Oswięcim derby saw Sola defeat Unia by three goals to one, catapulting them past Iskra Brzezinka in the process.
If you ever get the chance to visit Auschwitz, I strongly suggest that you do. The camps are an important part of our history which should never be forgotten; and as long as they remain, serve as an important reminder of the horrors of which human beings are capable.
But if you do visit, please bear in mind that there is more to the town of Oswięcim than the nearby killing camps of Nazi Germany. If you head into the town itself, you will find people going about their normal business, children going to school, and two football clubs bidding to climb their way up the Polish league ladder. And why shouldn't they? Oswięcim is a town working hard to prove it isn't just a tourist attraction, and football is just one of their ways of showing it.