Opatow - German soldier in the ghetto
Opatow is a small town located in the Lesser Polish Upland. When the Second World War broke out, approximately 5,500 Jews lived in Opatow, representing two –thirds of the small town’s population. Most of the Jews earned their living from small-scale commerce and industry, especially in the garment, food and leather –tanning industries. A small number of Opatow’s Jewish residents were wealthy, especially those who leased areas of forestland for timber, or who owned sizeable factories. Opatow had two Jewish banks, in addition to a free-loan society, traditional charitable societies and a hospital. Opatow boasted a range of schools belonging to all the educational systems: a Talmud Torah and a Yeshiva, a state public elementary school for Jews and Poles and a Tarbut school. Political institutions active in Opatow included chapters of Agudath Israel, Zionist and pioneer parties and the Bund. On market day in 1936, thirty Jews were injured in a pogrom carried out by thugs from Opatow and farmers from the surrounding villages against Jewish shopkeepers and their families.
Just after the Second World War started in September 1939, many young Jews fled Opatow to the areas of eastern Poland that had come under Soviet control. After the Germans occupied Opatow, they torched the marketplace and the surrounding homes, primarily owned by Jews. The following day, they imprisoned between 1,000 and 1,500 of Opatow’s inhabitants, both Poles and Jews, in the local cinema and held them under guard for two days without food or water. The Jews were separated from the Poles and were targeted for abuse. After the Jews were released, German gendarmes seized about 200 young Jews and took them to an unknown location, from which they never returned. In early 1940, the Germans ordered the Jews to wear white Star-of-David armbands and they were forbidden to use the pavements or trade with non-Jews. They were ordered to establish a Judenrat, which was headed by M. Weisblum. The Germans often took Jews as hostages, and the Judenrat had to pay large ransoms to secure their freedom. By 1941 the Germans had seized all Jewish owned businesses in Opatow. In April 1941, an open ghetto was created, which included the streets of Joselewicza, Zatylna, Waska and Starowalowa Streets. Jews from the surrounding areas were concentrated into the ghetto, along with other Jewish refugees from major cities like Warsaw, Lodz and Vienna. The population of the ghetto reached approximately 7,000. Owing to severe overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions, a typhus epidemic broke out, especially among the refugees.
The ghetto had a TOZ clinic, a hospital with thirty to forty beds, and two public kitchens. The children continued to receive an education, and professional training and social aid was sustained. The Judenrat established a workshop for making brushes, with the intention of providing work – with its accompanying daily bread ration – for as many people as possible. On 16 July 1941, a school was opened in the ghetto that offered six classes, in which 220 children studied in Hebrew and Yiddish. A Torah study group convened in the Ohev Torah Beit Midrash. A pioneering training facility with some eighty to ninety members of the Dror youth movement, Hehalutz Hatzair, and Hashomer Hatzair was active in a farm near Opatow, their leader was Chaim Cherniakowski. The Judenrat initially supplied the Germans with between fifty and sixty forced labourers each day to perform various services; in exchange, the Germans refrained from seizing people in the streets. After the establishment of the ghetto, representatives of the Organisation Todt, periodically entered the ghetto and seized hundreds of Jews for work in slave-labour camps. Many of those abducted died of hunger, disease and ill-treatment and a number committed suicide. The Judenrat strove to assist the slave-labourers by sending them food packages. The Germans also sent many youths, and their leader Cherniakowski, from the farm to a labour camp in Skarzysko- Kamienna. In early 1942, a group of Jews deported from Sileasia arrived in the ghetto. The young people who still remained in the ghetto organised an Underground movement, and they obtained and hid weapons they received from their Polish counterparts in Ostrowiec. Through their contacts in the Underground, they managed to obtain arms from other arms merchants. The female members of the Underground were primarily responsible for hiding the weapons. The SD and the Gestapo stepped up the seizures of people for forced labour, while escapes from the ghetto to the forests and the Aryan parts of the town increased as well. On a winter day in 1942, members of the SD and Gestapo raided the weapons cache belong to the Underground in the ghetto, murdered the young women found on the site, and shot a number of bystanders.
The Opatow ghetto was liquidated on 20 -22 October 1942. Members of the German gendarmerie and Ukrainian SS surrounded the ghetto, rounded –up its inhabitants, and deported some 7,000 of the ghetto’s Jews to the Treblinka death camp. One of those deported was Samuel Willenberg, who described the deportation ‘Aktion’ in his book: The previous morning I had woken to the sound of drummers marching through the streets of the Opatow ghetto, calling to attention its 7,000 Jews. I was disoriented. It was 4 a.m. It soon became clear; the Germans were about to expel the Jews and liquidate the ghetto. But where would they send us? We were herded into the vast market square, the crowd growing with each passing moment. Many shuffled along in total resignation, as if knowing that the world of their past was irrevocably gone. We were lined up in ranks of five. Several dozen Jews were pulled out of this mass of people: these would dismantle the ghetto once it was no longer needed. Jewish militiamen and members of the Judenrat, together with their families were taken aside as well. Houses were searched; perhaps some Jews thought to hide something. The sick and elderly who could not march were shot there and then. We stood there for several hours, then we were marched 18 kilometres to the railway junction. About 500 Jews were sent to a labour camp in Sandomierz, whilst Jews who were kept behind to clear up the ghetto, once their tasks were completed were murdered in the Jewish cemetery.
Sources:The Yad Vashem Encylopiedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust Volume 1, Yad Vashem, 2009.
Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka – The Aktion Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987
Samuel Willenberg, Surviving Treblinka, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1989.
Photograph - Tall Trees Archive
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