Traces of Jewish life in Poland

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Opatów was the first noble town in the Sandomierz County, where Jews settled down. In 1538 there were four Jewish families living here. In 1634 the town was divided in two parts – Christian and Jewish. Opatów was a very important trade centre which was run mainly by Jews. Merchants from Persia, Crimea, Greece and Turkey visited the town to buy and sell goods. The first privilige for Jews in Opatów was granted in 1545 by the then owner of the town - Jan Tarnowski. The first rabbi in Opatów known from reports was Izaak ben Eljakim Heiłprin, who began to perform his function before 1590. Opatów was the home of one of the six districts of the Jewish Sandomierz and Cracow lands. Famous Opatów rabbis are Abraham Jozue Heschla (Herschla) known as Rabbi of Opatów and Meir Rothenberg. It was in 1825 when Opatów became most important as the centre of Hasidism. Then, about 200 Jews came to Opatów every shabbat and on more important holidays even 500-600 people from outside the town. In the nineteenth century and in the period between the wars Opatów was still one of the biggest and most important Jewish communities in this region. It is worth mentioning that in the patriotic manifestations which took place in Opatów before the January Uprising, Jews also participated. Doctor Wiktor Stawowczyk characterising Opatów in the I World War period reports that the town can only dream about the foregone fame as the connector between the west and the Asian Mediterrean lands – when the huge market was buzzing with various languages and stored piles of exotic goods.

„I should explain that I don`t differentiate very much between Jewish and non-Jewish life. I had a few friends who were not Jewish, although they were not my very closest friends. When we met, we had a good time. We would chit-chat, walk around for a couple of hours, and discuss different things, from politics to schoolwork. These friends were not anti-Semitic or hateful. I used to play music with a Christian boy, but that`s where it ended because he belonged to one side of town and I belonged to the other side. That said, more than two thirds of the population of Apt (Opatów) was Jewish: in 1921, there were 5.462 Jews and 2.365 Christians. We considered Apt a Jewish town: a Jew could live out his whole life in the Jewish community, and many never went beyond the town`s boundaries.“

- Mayer Kirshenblatt -

(Mayer Kirshenblatt/Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They called me Mayer July. Painted memories of a Jewish childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, London 2006, p. 5 ff.)

In the years between the wars Opatów was a county town. According to the census from 1921 there were 8827 inhabitants among whom there were 5432 Jews, which is 61,5%. Christians and Jews lived there peacefully side by side.

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One of the greatest tragedies that happened to Jews was their systematic persecution and extermination. On the territories conquered by the Germans until 1941, there lived 7,8 million Jews – including 3 million in Poland, when in the autumn of 1939 they were made to wear the Star of David symbolizing the Jewish nation (in the Third Reich this obligation existed since the autumn of 1941, in occupied areas of western Europe since the spring of 1942). All their belongings were taken away from them, their freedom was limited. Since 1939 Jewish Councils (also known as Judenrat) were established. These Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi orders and regulations were implemented. Ghettos were created: at the beginning in Poland (around 400), and later in other countries. The conditions of life were terrible there and any attempt to escape was punished with death. German Nazis created concentration camps in which Jews were kept and then killed by hunger, extremely hard work and mainly by gas and finally burnt (some have even been reported to have been burned alive). Over 400 concentration camps were created in Poland, in which the mortality rate ranged around 50%. Both in concentration camps and outside them, Nazis murdered approximately 6 million Jews during the Second World War. Many of them were outstanding scholars, artists and writers.

The Opatów Ghetto was a World War II ghetto set up by Nazi Germany for the purpose of persecution and exploitation of local Jews in the town of Opatów during the German occupation of Poland. The ghetto population at the time was around 7,000 people. Expellees were brought in from smaller towns, but also a group of expelees from the Czech Republic from Vienna. Severe overcrowding led to steadily increasing number of deaths. The Ghetto was closed off from the outside officially on 13 May 1942 in preparation for its eventual dismemberment. The approximate number of Jewish people confined to the ghetto was about ten thousand. Beginning in January 1942 the SS conducted mass shooting actions at the Jewish cemetery in Opatów [Apt] where the bodies of the Ghetto victims were also buried by the hundreds.

„The Germans entered Apt on September 6, 1939, and established military rule. A few months later, in 1940, Yeshiye was forced to abandon his job in Nieklan and bring Mania and their two children back to Apt. Grandfater was dead by then and Grandmother was living alone, so they moved in with her. Their daughter Ester, who was already sixteen years old, got busy in Grandmother`s store. She went to Myklekh`s father`s store to buy a few essentials fort the business. Ester had turned out to be a beautiful and intelligent young woman, according to Maylekh, who was still in Apt after I left. The ghetto was established in 1941. It was an open ghetto in the sense that Jews from Apt and the environs were confined there, but there was no wall. Yeshiye became the postman in the ghetto. When the Jews were expelled from Apt on October 20 -22, 1942, Mania refused to be separated from her children, and the whole familiy was shot in front of Grandmother`s house. Mania was a beautiful woman, with long blonde hair and blue eyes, like my mother and me. My grandmother was old. She was short and fat. On the march out of Apt to the labor camp in Sandomierz, she could not keep up the pace. She lagged behind, fell to the ground, and was shot on the spot. Her body was thrown onto a wagon with the corpses of other people who could not walk fast enough. Thousands of others were forced to march to the train station in Jasice and were transported to Treblinka.“

- Mayer Kirshenblatt -

(Mayer Kirshenblatt/Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They called me Mayer July. Painted memories of a Jewish childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, London 2006, p. 169 ff.)

On 20 October 1942 in the course of Operation Reinhard, the SS with the aid of Orpo police and Trawnikis rounded up 6,500 Jewish men, women and children in the centre of town at Targowica Square. They were marched some 18 kilometres (11 mi) to the railway stop in Jasice in a one-kilometer- long column. The weakest furthest in the rear were beaten and shot by the dozen. The ghetto inmates were loaded onto the Holocaust train in Jasice, with 120 people in each boxcar fitted only with a bucket latrine. The trip of less than 300 km took three days. During this time, they received no food or water. Those who managed to survive the transport to Treblinka extermination camp, died in its gas chambers shortly after arrival. After the deportation to Treblinka, about 2,000 slave labour prisoners remained as workers for Oemler GmbH.

They were sent to other labour camps in 1943–44 including in Sandomierz, Starachowice and Radom, never to return. Some were sent to HASAG in Skarżysko-Kamienna (the total of 35,000 Jews perished at the HASAG camp before the war‘s end). Thus, the community was entirely eradicated. The German authorities in the town organized a sale of everything left behind in the abandoned ghetto. Impoverished Polish families took blankets, pillows and winter clothing to survive. Opatów was taken over by the Red Army on 16 January 1945. Only about 300 Jews are known to have survived. Among the Jews rescued in Opatów was the fourteen-year-old Rina Szydłowska, hidden for almost two years by Maria Zaleska, the Polish Righteous among the Nations recognized by Yad Vashem in 1987; as well as Israel and Franciszka Rubinek, rescued by Zofia Bania and her family, honoured posthumously in 2011.