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Translation of Opole chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem for permission
This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of
Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VII,
pages 64-67, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
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A small settlement owned by the nobles of the Gorski Family in the 15th century, Opole was recognized as a city in 1450 according to the Magdeburg Laws. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Calvinist clergy from all areas of Poland would meet there at appointed times. These conferences raised its status and Opole became a regional center. In the second half of the 18th century, a school for the training of craftsmen (tinsmiths, weavers and tailors) was established in the town. It had a very good reputation and attracted students from near and far.
In the 19th century, the first industrial enterprises, flourmills, sawmills, a brick factory and whisky and beer distilleries were established in Opole. During World War I, the Austrian army occupied Opole.
Jewish settlement in Opole begins in the second half of the 16th century. In 1564, Jews owned six of the town's houses and in 1616, the number of Jewish owned homes increased to seventeen. The Council of the Four Lands occasionally held its sessions in Opole.
During the Chmielnicki persecutions, 1648-1649, his mobs burned most of the Jewish homes in the town and murdered many of its Jews. The survivors fled for their lives. In 1663, the owners of the city granted Jews privileges including the permission to live and acquire real estate any place in the town and to engage in commerce and skilled crafts with no restrictions. They were also granted special conditions for paying their mortgages. This concession helped revitalize the local Jewish community. Attempts by local townspeople to restrict the Jews to a separate section of the city did not succeed. Bills of sale of land as well as other documents from the second half of the 18th century indicate that Jews purchased and sold real estate in all parts of the city and played an active role in the local economy. The majority earned their livings as grain and hide merchants and as skilled craftsmen, while some were engaged in distilling beer and whisky.
In the 19th century, Jews played an active role in the development of local industry. Some opened weaving factories, but most of these did not operate at a profit and nearly all were abandoned by of their owners who then relied on home produced goods. Several Jews continued to operate beer and whisky distilleries and two flourmills were Jewish owned. The market days and annual fairs were when the petty merchants earned most of their income. There were also a few Jewish peddlers who carried their merchandise with them selling their wares in the neighboring villages.
In the second half of the 18th century, the Jews organized themselves into a Kehillah - community, constructing a synagogue, dedicating a cemetery and engaging a rabbi. Among the rabbis whose names are known to us are R' Samuel ben Meir (known in Polish documents as Meirowitz), who served in the end of the 18th century, R' Yechiel Hayim Epstein, R' Samuel Shapira (end of 19th century) and his brother R' Nachman, who remained in his post until World War I.
The first Zionist circles organized in the beginning of the 20th century. They renewed their activities with greater fervor during the war years [World War I] as did the traditional community charity organizations Bikur Holim caring for the sick; Linat Tzedek shelter home for the poor and G'milat Hesed the free loan fund.
The 1920s and 1930s saw increased political activity among the Jews of Opole. In addition to the Mizrachi, founded earlier during the war, there were branches of the General Zionists, Hitachdut (organized in 1929), Poale Zion Left and the Revisionists and pioneering youth groups Hanoar Hatzioni [Zionist Youth], Hashomer Hatzair [The Young Guard] and Hehalutz [The Pioneer] which established a preparatory farm in 1936 in a nearby village. A Betar branch started in 1930 and the Zionist sports organization Maccabi was also active in Opole. The members of these groups took upon themselves additional responsibilities such as guard duty during activities and meetings of the Jewish organizations and maintaining the Jewish library, founded in 1916, which served as the town's Jewish cultural center and also supported its drama club.
In addition to the Zionist organizations, Agudath Israel had a strong influence in the community. Its branch in Opole was also established during the war, and in the elections of 1924 and 1929, its candidates won half the seats in the community council. This was not so in the 1933 elections when they declined in power and the General Zionists, who presented a joint front with the artisans list, won a majority of the votes. Opole also had a group that was affiliated with the Bund.
During this time, many of the youth continued to attend the traditional heder and Talmud Torah. Agudath Israel founded a Beth Jacob School for Girls in 1922 but it attracted a limited number of students. The city also had a government-sponsored elementary school for Jews (Shabsuvka) that did not hold classes on Saturday or Jewish holidays or on Sunday. It opened with six grades and a seventh grade was added in 1927.
Rabbi Reuben Winkler served as the community's rabbi during the 1920s and 1930s. Along with him, the Admor Rabbi Jeremiah Kalish transformed Opole into an important Hasidic center for the area of central Poland.
The anti-Semitism that intensified in all of Poland, especially in the 1930s did not pass over Opole. The Jewish cemetery was desecrated in 1932, shortly after it had been renovated. Tombstones were smashed and the wall was destroyed. The community council requested the intervention of the Jewish representatives in the Polish Sejm and at the same time took their own initiative. A delegation led by the rabbi met with the local priest and called on him to publicly denounce the incident. His response is not known, but the cemetery was not disturbed again.
In the late 1930s, the Polish government forbade kosher slaughtering of animals. This affected not only the Jewish consumer but also the slaughterers and butchers. In addition to that, in 1937 the government cut the meat ration for the Jewish population in half. Acts of violence increased with attacks on Jews on the streets becoming commonplace. Occasionally, the police arrested the perpetrators but this was not enough to stop them.
From the very beginning of the German conquest, Opole served as the central collection point of Jews from other places in the area. On December 29, 1939, 2,500 Jewish refugees from Pulawy were brought to the city and on the following day an additional 300 refugees from Jozefow arrived. By the beginning of 1940, there were already about 7,000 Jews in the city.
The Germans set up a Judenrat (Jewish Council) numbering eighteen members that was headed by Yankel Hochman and most of its members were public figures and community leaders from before the war Goldwasser, Goldberg, Weinberg, Katz, Rabbi Winkler and others. The Judenrat set up its offices in the old synagogue building. Next door to the Judenrat was the 30-member Jewish police for keeping order. The head of the Jewish police in 1942 was Kaiser.
In February 1941, two large groups of Jews deported from Vienna were brought to Opole. Among the Vienna deportees a group of well-educated people [intelligentsia] stood out doctors and other professionals. Some of them were housed in the synagogue and other public buildings. The Judenrat did all in its power to ease the terrible plight of the refugees from Vienna and especially tried to find them living quarters and sources of income. The Judenrat and the refugees themselves, made contact with the German regional governor, Horst Gude, who responded positively to their request and permitted some of the refugees to return to their homes. In the spring of 1941, the number of Jews in Opole, including local people plus refugees, reached approximately 9,000 persons.
In March 1941, in an area of 3 acres in the old part of the city, a Ghetto surrounded by a wall was established. There were only 300 houses and there was extreme overcrowding with an average of nine people living in each room.
In October 1941, the Judenrat set up a social-services aid committee headed by Naftali Rubenstein and Albert Adler. This committee was a branch of the YSS Organization (Jewish Self-Help) in Krakow and in addition was placed in charge of helping Jews in the neighboring towns. The YSS center in Krakow forwarded 7,300 zloty to the Opole committee to be used to open a public kitchen for children, refugees and other needy people. Until the winter of 1941/1942, Polish workers, especially those whose skills were required could enter the Ghetto if they had special passes. From time to time, they also smuggled in food.
In the first months of the occupation, many Jews were conscripted to work in two neighboring villages, Chodcze Grona and Chodcze Dolna. In the middle of 1940, the Judenrat was ordered to prepare a list of all the Jewish males between the ages of 14 and 60 and according to this list, groups of forced laborers were sent from time to time to other places in the region. A group of about 300 was sent to do agricultural work in Jozefow and additional groups were sent to camps in Belzec and Chodel, to work on fortifications and excavations on the border of Soviet occupied territory. The Judenrat made it possible for those who had the funds to buy their way out of forced labor and this money was used to pay the workers a daily wage of 20 groschen. The forced laborers as well as the Judenrat workers and the physicians who worked in the small hospital that was established in the Ghetto, received work permits that provided them with some special privileges such as not being required to report for forced labor battalions.
In the summer of 1941, with the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the condition of the Jews in the Ghetto worsened, especially since food rations were cut and new limitations on entering the Ghetto were put on Poles. In the winter of 1942, an epidemic of typhus broke out in the Ghetto that claimed more than 500 Jews. On a daily basis, the dead were moved to three sheds built specifically for that purpose and at night a burial unit of the Judenrat would bury the dead in the Jewish cemetery. The misery in the Ghetto worsened even more in March 1942, when an additional 2,800 refugees were moved there 2,000 were from Kazimierz Dolny and about 800 came from Vonvolnitza (Wawolnica). The number of the Jews in the Ghetto then reached nearly 10,200 persons. In March 1942, the Germans disbanded the first Judenrat and in its place set up a new Judenrat with only twelve members.
The deportation of Jews from the Opole Ghetto to the death camps began on 31 March 1942. 1,950 were taken from their homes and assembled in the market square near the Ghetto wall, and from there marched by foot to the nearby Naleczow train station, loaded onto cattle cars and sent to the Belzec Death Camp. When the deportations began, three large wooden structures were set up near the Ghetto to collect the possessions of those deported. The task of collecting the belongings left behind was assigned to the Jewish police.
On 7 May 1942 an additional 1,350 people from the Jozefow Ghetto, which was cleared of its residents, were brought to the Opole Ghetto. On 25 May, the second deportation was carried out; some 2,000 Jews were sent by way of the Naleczow train station to Sobibor. The last group of deportees, approximately 1,400 Jews, the majority from Slovakia with some from France was brought to the Opole Ghetto on 30 May 1942. At the end of May 1942 there were around 7,600 Jews, most of them refugees in the Opole Ghetto.
The liquidation of the Opole Ghetto took place on 24 October 1942. About 400 German policemen aided by Ukrainian units forced the Ghetto residents out of their houses and carried out a Selektzia [separated the people]. A small group of young people and needed professionals were taken to the Poniatow forced labor camp. The others were sent from the Naleczow train station on cattle cars to Sobibor. Some 500 people remained in Opole to gather and sort the left behind possessions, which were slated to be sent to the Operation Reinhard (German code name for the destruction of the Jews of Poland) warehouses in Lublin. When they completed their work, they in turn were murdered, mostly by Germans. Those who remained were taken to forced labor camps in the Lublin area.
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