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Translation of "Opoczno" chapter
from Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of "Opoczno" chapter
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Published in Jerusalem
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Our appreciation to Sandy Zimmerman, who allowed us to publish
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the translations which were done by Shalom Bronstein for her private use.
Our appreciation to Sandy Zimmerman, who allowed us to publish
This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Polin:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume I, pages 47- 52, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(pages 47- 52 )
|I.||The Jewish Community Until 1918|
|II.||Between The Two World Wars|
The Swedish Wars interrupted the development of the city that was destroyed in 1655. Only 15 buildings, of which three were Jewish homes, were left standing. This indicates the obvious decline in Jewish population because of the economic situation. Jews were again forced to leave the city in 1715. They were also ordered to tear down the synagogue. It does not seem that this was carried through for a survey in 1765 showed that most of the workshops in the city were Jewish, among them, bakers, cobblers, saddle makers and silversmiths. According to the same survey, the Jews owned 41 lots in the city, in addition to the 12 lots mentioned above.
In the beginning of the 19th century the Jewish population of Opoczno grew, presumably because of the steady flow of Jews who were forced out of the area villages by the loss of their traditional sources of income, such as land leasing and the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. However, in the middle of the 19th century, the number of Jews in Opoczno began to decline. By the end of the century, the proportion of Jews in the general population had dropped to 38%. It is possible to explain this phenomenon as Jews left Opoczno in the search for new sources of income in the industrial centers that were developing in the area. Traditional petty commerce, peddling in the villages and skilled artisans (in 1884 some 70 shoemakers and some 30 tailors), all served as too narrow an economic base for Opoczno's Jews. Jewish factories in the town in that year (it is not known if they were totally owned by Jews, or only partially) included a beer brewery, a mead brewery, a vinegar factory, 3 dye works, 2 tanneries, 2 oil presses, a windmill and a watermill. These were all small enterprises and the value of their combined annual production came to about 5,500 Rubles.
The importance of the town's Jewish community at the end of the 18th century (like that of a number of the smaller towns connected to it) is seen by among other things, that in 1784, when a delegation of town notables stood at the gate of the city to receive the newly appointed Starosta, representatives of the Jewish community stood along side of the city and guild delegates. Opoczno's synagogue was built at the end of the 17th century and is numbered as one of the finest structures of that style in all of Poland. It had a Bimah supported by 4 columns, stained glass windows, a women's section, vestibule and a meeting room for the community council.
In the 19th century, the small Jewish community of Opoczno stood at the point of the rapid spread of Hasidism. At first, the Pzhysha [Pshische] Hasidim were dominant, but by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Gerer and Skierniewice Hasidim prevailed. Among the rabbis of Opoczno known for their Torah scholarship, between the 18th and 19th centuries R. Yehuda Leib Lipshutz, son of Eliezer Lipshutz (formerly the rabbi of Blaszki and author of the well-known responsa, Damesek Eliezer ), stands out. In the beginning of the 19th century occupying the rabbinate of Opoczno was R. Yitzhak Harif, one of the close colleagues of R. Simha Bunim of Przysucha. The general opinion is that because of R. Yitzhak's deep involvement in the Hasidic movement, the Dayanim [judges] handled the day-to-day rabbinic matters. Between the years 1818-1840, R. Moshe Simcha Alfus served as Dayan [judge]. Later, he served as the rabbi of Rawa Mazowiecka and between 1846-1856 as rabbi of Ujazd. Serving as second Dayan [judge] was R. Joseph Jungbach, who from 1851 was the rabbi of Inowlodz.
In the 1840s at the head of the Hasidim of Opoczno, was another disciple of R. Simcha Bunim, R. Herschel Dishkis. It is most likely that R. Herschel Dishkis, as Hasidic head [Admor] of the town, also was the officially recognized rabbi, as was sometimes the practice in other localities. In 1856, R. Moshe Simcha Alfus returned to Opoczno and occupied the position of rabbi. He was succeeded by R. Reuben Miedzyrzecki, who from 1866 was the rabbi of Biala Rawska. R. Joseph Nehemiah Lilienthal served as rabbi from the end of the 19th century until 1924.* R. Isaac Meir Padwa, the Admor of Ropchitz [Rozprza] and the son-in-law of R. Meir of Przysucha, lived in Opoczno during this time. He drew his following from both the town and the surrounding area. In 1914, Cossacks broke into his house and viciously beat his wife and daughter. R. Isaac Meir died shortly thereafter.
The condition of Jews in Opoczno further weakened in the 1930s, a time of increasing anti-Semitism. The local Andaks boycotted Jewish stores and posted guards around the clock at Jewish businesses to prevent Christians from entering. Jews were frequently beaten by members of the Andaks boxing club and by local scum. Activity against the Jews especially intensified on market days, and this prevented the peddlers who went from village to village from leaving town. On November 27-28, 1935, at the time fairs were going on in the Opoczno Region (Opoczno itself, Odzhvul [Odrzywol] and Przysucha) local Andak members initiated riots by stirring up the area farmers to attack the Jews and to destroy their shops and stalls. On November 29 of that year on the Opoczno-Klwow Road, there was a confrontation between the aroused agitated farmers and the mounted police. Four villagers were killed, others were injured and some dozen were arrested. Twenty accused stood trial.
Because of the disturbances in Opoczno and the region, in 1935 the regional authorities prohibited local market days for a period of six weeks. Factories in the area opened stores in their plants and prohibited their employees from patronizing Jewish stores. In the last years before the onset of World War II, the local Andaks brought some skilled Christian craftsmen to Opoczno, a watchmaker, silversmith and tailors. They opened workshops for them and called on the local population to take advantage of the services of Pure Aryan craftsmen.
The Opoczno Jewish community reacted to the boycott by the merchants and craftsmen joining forces and establishing organizations for mutual help. Besides the G'milut Hasadim [Free Loan] organization in operation since 1920-1921 under Community patronage, the Jewish Co-operative Bank was established. Of the 800 Jewish families residing in Opoczno, 500 benefited from credit it extended to them. Because of financial difficulties, the Bank ceased operating in 1934. It re-opened in 1938 and its 100 members granted loans of up to 250 zloty to the Jews of Opoczno and the surrounding areas. There were 326 members in the organization of Jewish craftsmen in Opoczno in 1931. The organization did not limit itself to professional matters and mutual help, but was involved in sponsoring cultural activities and in the upgrading of professional skills of older workers. In 1936, a regional conference of Jewish shopkeepers and petty merchants met in Opoczno. They discussed defending themselves against the growing anti-Semitic attacks and plans to approach the government on this matter.
The seeds of the organizations and political parties that came into being in the closing years of World War I, grew to recognizable dimensions in the following years. Among the Zionist organizations, the left wing was dominant and received the most votes for the Zionist Congresses. In the elections for the 21st Zionist Congress, the Eretz Yisrael Ha-ovedet [Working Eretz Yisrael] List received 232 of the 264 votes cast. The second ranking party in influence was reserved for the General Zionists. Among the Zionist youth organizations, He-Halutz and He-Halutz Hatzair, founded in the beginning of the 1920s, stand out. Ha-noar Ha-tzioni and Betar, established at the end of the 20s did not draw large numbers of members, relatively speaking. Agudath Israel, which based its strength in Opoczno as in other areas on the large concentration of Gerer Hasidim, was an almost equal competitor of the Zionists for influence in the Jewish community and its institutions. The Bund and the Left Poalei Zion were not represented in Opoczno in an organized fashion.
In the City Council, in the beginning (1928) the representatives of Agudath Israel and the Zionists numbered five. But in 1938, the government used various election tactics and only two Jewish representatives were elected. Until 1929, Agudath Israel controlled the community institutions and from then on, the Zionists and their supporters were in power. In the 1931 elections, the Zionists and the artisans connected with them won 4 seats, Agudath Israel along with the Amshinov Hasidim received 2 and the Alexander Hasidim received 1. However, as in the previous period, when the majority were Agudath Israel members, beginning in 1926 the community allocated 500 zloty to the Jewish National Fund. It is interesting to note, that in 1928, when the chairman of the Council, a member of Mizrahi, switched to Agudath Israel, he was forced to resign his position. According to the demand of the Zionists, the Polish government appointed the Community Council, and as its head selected the local rabbi, R. Eliezer Yitzhak Shapiro, apparently a supporter of Mizrahi. He succeeded R. Joseph Lilienthal as rabbi after R. Lilienthal's death in 1924.
In addition to the synagogue mentioned above, the community also maintained a Beit Midrash, constructed of stone, and the Hasidim and their various courts maintained Stiblach. In 1938, the community purchased a piece of land for a new cemetery. It was Opoczno's third cemetery the first dated from the 17th century and the second from the 19th century.
The main center of cultural activity for Opoczno's Jews was the Arbeiter Heim [Worker's House] founded in 1917. Its activities included a drama circle and a large library in the name of Borochov. Each Zionist group had its own smaller library. Besides the traditional forms of Jewish education, private Hadarim, study in the Beit Midrash and in the shtiblach, Opoczno also had a network of schools: a Talmud Torah run by the community (1926-1927), a Yesodei Torah Heder under the auspices of Agudath Israel (1920-1922) and a Beth Jacob School for Girls (1931). In the Tarbut School, established by the Zionists in 1929, at different periods there were 350-370 children enrolled. For a while, the town also had a school run by the Mizrahi.
For physical education and sports activity, the youth of Opoczno had both the Hapoel (local branch started in 1926) and the Maccabi (local branch started in 1930) organizations.
Two weeks after occupying the city, the Nazis demanded a punitive fine of 20,000 zloty from the Jews that was to be paid within 24 hours. The purported reason behind the fine was that the Jews caused the war and had to pay for some of its cost. Three prominent members of the community, Moshe Katznellbogen, a grain merchant, Yitzhak Chmielnitzki, one of the owners of the Vulcan [Wulkan] glass factory, and Eliezer Chmielnitzki, the owner of a large bakery, were taken as hostages. The Germans threatened to execute them if the fine was not paid. The desperate families of the prisoners called upon the Jewish population to gather the needed funds. Heading the operation was Mordecai Rosenbaum (nicknamed Haas hare), a man with a 'dubious' background according to one of the witnesses. Having lived in Germany before the war, he had a perfect command of the German language. Rosenberg went to the military commander of the city and presented himself as the representative of the Jews. He suggested that the current hostages be switched, for without the support of the wealthy there would be no chance of raising such a large sum of money in such a poor town. The Germans agreed to release the hostages, and the Jews brought the money. From then on, the authorities looked upon Rosenbaum as the representative of the Jews and a short time later; on their order, he set up a Judenrat of 20 members. Of its members, the only names we know are those of Rosenbaum, the three prominent men who were held as hostages whose names are recorded above and Friedlovski, who headed the Vulcan [Wulkan] glass factory before the war and who was chosen as the Chairman of the Judenrat.
The Ghetto of Opoczno was set up in either November or December of 1940. In included only 115 small houses, and because of that some 1,000 were left without shelter. For the local homeless, as well as for the steady stream of refugees flowing to Opoczno, the Judenrat set up a temporary joint shelter in the Beit Midrash, and afterwards occupied themselves with finding them permanent shelter. The Ghetto was not fenced, and the bribed German guards turned their eyes away from Jews slipping away from and the Poles entering its confines. Officially, Jews could only leave the Ghetto with official permits issued by the government. The Judenrat was also authorized to issue such permits, and some say that those in the know and those with connections got them with no difficulty. The residents of the Ghetto smuggled food, traded illegally with the non-Jewish population, and produced all kinds of items secretly. The Jewish bakers, besides producing bread with the flour ration received from the government, baked all kinds of items using smuggled flour. Small workshops operated in the Ghetto, producing such items as soap. It is safe to assume that these manufacturers earned their livings because of the ease of contact with their Aryan clients outside of the Ghetto. Helping in the smuggling and in the contacts with the surrounding area were the Jewish work crews who worked outside the Ghetto, and in the Jewish Cemetery located in the Aryan area, where contact [with the outside] was made during funerals. There was a large number of impoverished people, especially among the refugees. As mentioned, the Judenrat concerned itself with providing them with shelter and when, over time, the Beit Midrash was cleared of its temporary residents, the Judenrat opened a public kitchen in the facility.
The Nazis freely entered the open Ghetto and would occasionally beat Jews and torment them by cutting off ½ of their beards and other such things. These attacks took place mostly in the winter, as the Nazis would not enter the Ghetto in the summer as they were afraid of coming in contact with typhus.
The typhus plague erupted in the Ghetto in the spring of 1941 as a result of poor living conditions and the appalling hygienic situation. It vanished in the winter and another outbreak came in the spring of 1942. To control the plague, the Judenrat set up disinfection rooms next to the bathhouse along with mobile disinfection units that went from house to house. The population from time to time would undergo disinfection showers and have their clothing disinfected. The population did their utmost to free themselves of the typhus plague. They wanted to avoid having to admit, against their will, their relatives to the hospital in the Ghetto, Esterka, because of the frightful conditions that prevailed there. They also tried to avoid having to go through the bothersome disinfecting process in their houses. Many people perished in the typhus epidemic and the Hevra Kadisha was forced to triple its size of its staff to cope.
The German authorities forced the Ghetto residents to do hard physical labor. The Judenrat was required to supply 400 men on a daily basis to do various kinds of work in the city and in the surrounding area mostly digging peat. A regular peat digging operation existed in the Opoczno vicinity. Watching over the workers were German and Volksdeutsch guards. Jews who were conscripted by the Judenrat for forced labor were able to exempt themselves from work by paying 5 zloty per day. Peat cutting did not take place in the winter and the Jews were engaged in the clearing of snow. They were also used in the digging and asphalting of roads. Near the Ghetto were lime pits and the Ghetto residents also worked there. Some of the Jews reported for the work details on their own free will, in order to earn wages, to be able to maintain contact with the outside (commerce and smuggling), and some to earn 'the protection' as someone working for the Germans.
Twice large contingents of men were sent to forced-labor camps. The first time, in August 1940, the authorities demanded 500 men to be sent to the Narol Camp near Lublin. The Judenrat prepared a list of prospective candidates and included in it mostly the poor and refugees one from each family. However, the Germans were not satisfied with the list supplied to them and they conducted a 'hunt' in the streets and in homes of the Jews. The second time, July 1942, some 400 men were sent to the Hasag Camp in Skarzysko Kamienna.
In spite of conditions in the Ghetto, the youth tried to continue their pre-war political involvement. The only details we have are of the activities of the Gordonia group. With the approval of the Judenrat, their members met at the public kitchen in the Beit Midrash, where they cared for and taught the refugee children. In conjunction with a teacher from the local Tarbut school, the Gordonia youth operated a continuing education seminar. This group maintained contact with the Gordonia center in Warsaw (later, in the Warsaw Ghetto). That group sent emissaries to Opoczno who brought underground newspapers and instructional materials. The Warsaw center hoped to establish a training base in Opoczno for both local youth and youth from Warsaw that would serve as an educational center and also function as place to earn a living. They first planned to start a workshop where previously webbing for beds and sofas was produced and had been owned by a Gordonia member. To finance the project, they intended to use the funds raised through the sale of the high quality food packages that were sent to Opoczno from the Gordonia Organization in Switzerland (or by individual members) at the first stage of the occupation, 1939-1940. Their plan never materialized. In 1942, a few dozen refugees, members of Gordonia including girls, did arrive in Opoczno from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Judenrat employed them in the lime pits and provided them with an apartment at the edge of the Ghetto near where they worked. The boys worked in the lime pits while the girls maintained the joint household. This preparation group intended to slip into the surrounding forests to join the Partisans and perhaps to reach Bedzin or Czestochowa. In order to leave the Ghetto they were supposed to get Aryan certificates from the Warsaw center. In the end, only a few of these documents arrived and only for a handful of the Gordonia members. The group quickly broke up since they gave shelter to an Opoczno Gordonia member, Abba Lebendiger, who was wanted by the German police, ostensibly after illegal literature was found in his house. The Judenrat demanded the disbanding of the group. The group's members, or some of them, and some of the Gordonia members did manage to reach Bedzin and Czestochowa, among them Abba Lebendiger. It appears that this transpired close to the liquidation of the Ghetto.
In 1942, the condition of the Jews of Opoczno continued to worsen. The area of the Ghetto was reduced in the beginning of the year, and many Jews were again forced to find shelter. To add to the problem, in January 1942 Jews from the neighboring villages of Bukowiec, Krasnica, Kliny, Gielzow, Gawrony, Ludwikow and Ogonowice were transferred to the Ghetto. By April, the Ghetto had 4,231 Jews of whom 1,406 were refugees. The authorities' battle against smuggling intensified with increased house searches looking for contraband and the small illegal workshops. In the beginning of 1942, the entire Lebendiger family was shot in the forest in the town's suburbs after the secret workshop for the manufacture of soap was discovered in their house. Another version gives as the reason for their execution the discovery of illegal literature, as mentioned above. In the spring, the Germans searched the house of the baker Mayer Rosenblum, the second largest bakery in Opoczno, which also did baking for the German authorities. A store of smuggled flour was discovered and the entire family was murdered. There is no clear indication of the fate of Mayer Rosenblum himself.
In the middle of April 1942, the Opoczno police chief demanded from the Judenrat a complete list of the Jewish population. It is conjectured that the provision of this list is connected to the upsurge of arrests that began in the Ghetto afterwards on April 27 1942. Arrested were the Zionist activists, Tuvia Zveir, Abraham Goldberg, Yitzhak Belzhitzki, Mottel Mortkovitch, Moshe Vinogrodzki, Schwartsmann, the two Zuker brothers and Hayim Frosh [Frosz], a few communists and a number of people with no past political involvement together, some 30 men. They were taken to the stream near the community's slaughterhouse and after three were separated, the rest were shot. These three, among them [Hayim] Frosh were sent by the Germans to Tomaszow Mazowiecki, where a similar Aktzia [roundup] took place, and from there to Auschwitz. During the murder by the stream in Opoczno, [Yitzhak] Belzhitzki was just wounded and he succeeded in getting to the Esterka Hospital. When the police found out, they sent an officer to the hospital and he shot Belzhitzki in his bed.
Conditions drastically deteriorated at the peat operation in the summer of 1942. Twenty Jews had escaped from it. Under orders from the Germans, the Jewish police were forced to arrest them; the Ghetto jail was located in one of the rooms of the Great Synagogue. The prisoners broke out from the jail and hid. According to one account, the Judenrat refused to search for them and Mordecai Rosenbaum disappeared for a few days on account of it. The whole picture is not clear, as the same source indicates that this all took during the period of the expulsion, October 1942.
Through the summer and fall of 1942, there were numerous rumors in the Ghetto that the Jewish community of Opoczno was to be liquidated. The sources of these reports were the underground press and letters in code from Jewish acquaintances throughout occupied Poland, who succeeded in escaping from the annihilation. A portion of the Ghetto residents believed that they would be sent to forced labor camps in other places and prepared provisions for themselves for the trip. A large part of Opoczno's Jews believed that a wave of expulsions was about to begin including mass murders, but that this would effect only a portion of the population and the rest would survive and remain where they were. This belief was supported by area Poles who reported that when other Ghettos were liquidated, the Germans allowed a certain number of Jews to remain alive, especially members of the Judenrat, the police and those considered to be vital workers in German enterprises. Everyone tried to the best of their ability to secure work in these 'good' factories outside the Ghetto; they hid their possessions or turned them over for safe keeping to reliable Poles in exchange for providing them with hiding places. Many young women sought to marry members of the Jewish Police and hiding places were prepared. A few days before the Aktzia the rumor was spread that one could avoid expulsion through the payment of bribes. Immediately, long lines of Jews formed outside the offices of the Judenrat. They turned over their valuables and all items were carefully recorded. The assumption is that the Judenrat did, indeed, try to annul the expulsion order by providing the German authorities with a large bribe.
The liquidation of the Ghetto began on October 27 1942, just before the liquidation of nearby Tomaszow. The Jewish population of Opoczno was assembled in the horse-market, and most of them, about 3,000 people were deported to Treblinka. Some 200 people were killed on the spot during the Aktzia. Close to 200 families, approximately 500 people, did remain in Opoczno: members of the Judenrat and Police force and their families, although quite a few of them were deported as being 'non-productive,' and some workers in the German operated factories. A number of Jews hid and remained alive in the 'underground.' The member of the Judenrat, Rosenbaum, hid or escaped at the time of the Aktzia and returned only when it was over. However, he was summoned to the Opoczno Police station, where he was shot.
Around the time of and during the Aktzia, a few dozen Jews managed to reach the area forests and set up Partisan groups. The most prominent of them, The Lions , under the command of Julian Eisenman-Kanievski, carried out many acts of sabotage on the conquerors' infrastructure. Among their accomplishments was damaging the Opoczno-Konskie rail line that was a vital link in the German war supply line.
The remaining Jews in Opoczno continued to live there for another two months; they were housed in the Judenrat building. The Jewish police were given sole responsibility of keeping watch over this remnant. The Jews in hiding that the Germans discovered both in the Ghetto and outside, were not murdered, but were put with the camp of 'legal' Jews. The Jews did not lack for supplies. They utilized the property left in the Ghetto after its liquidation to bribe the Germans and to buy food from the Poles. Jews were even permitted to bake bread. Some of the Jews worked for the German police and while a number were employed in other places. The Jews were tranquil and began to hope that they would be saved. They felt that after the mass murder of so many Jews, the Germans now regretted that illogical move and wanted to maintain this remnant as a work force so needed by them.
At the end of December 1942, German police came to the Judenrat and said that they wanted a list of all those Jews who had relatives in Eretz Yisrael. The Germans said that these Jews would be sent to a neutral country and would there be exchanged for German prisoners of war who were in Allied hands. The lists were prepared exactingly: questionnaires, the checking of documents, etc. The Jews eagerly reported and those who did not have relatives in Eretz Yisrael forged official documents. Official announcements on this matter, posted on the walls of the city, convinced some of those Jews in hiding or those with Aryan documentation, to come and register. On January 3, 1943, (or perhaps it was January 5), all those who had happily registered, were loaded onto carts that brought them to Kilinski Square, which was outside the Ghetto. Doubts entered the minds of the Jews when their coats and bundles were taken from them, but they still believed that they were on their way to a neutral country. Only a few guards kept an eye on the travelers, and anyone who wanted to could have escaped. All were taken to Ujazd where a Ghetto was re-established in November 1942, after the series of mass deportations. Legal Jews and those who were persuaded to come out from their hiding places were assembled there. The Jews of Opoczno were the last group brought to Ujazd. There they discovered masses of Jews deteriorating in the conditions that prevailed in a transition camp surrounded by barbed wire. Only now, did it become clear to some that the Eretz Yisrael registration was only a cunning plot. In order to make their last hours bearable, others still held the hope that they would indeed be heading for freedom. On January 6, 1943, all the Jews massed in Ujazd were brought to the train station and sent to the Treblinka Death Camp.
There is another version of events. In the beginning of 1943 the remnants of the Jews, who were living in the Opoczno Judenrat building were told to report to the City Hall to register for tranfer to Eretz Yisrael. They were then surrounded by police and sent on that very day to the Treblinka Death Camp.
AP Lodz: Anteriora PRG 2575
Der Yud [Yiddish] January 10, 1921; June 21, 1921; April 30, 1922
Haint [Yiddish] June 14, 1921; August 26, 1924; February 4, 1925; January 19, 1926; June 20, 1928; March 3, 1936; March 12, 1936; May 27, 1936; September 11, 1936; September 8, 1937; June 28, 1938; July 26, 1939.
Lodzer Folksblatt [Yiddish] September 3, 1915
Nasz Przeglad 7 June 1936
Naye Folksblatt [Yiddish] January 22, 1930; December 13, 1935; January 2, 1936; September 3, 1937.
Naye Folks-zeitung [Yiddish] February 6, 1936; February 27, 1936; March 2, 1936; April 5, 1936
Nowy Dziennik 3 July 1937
Tomashover Wochenblatt [Yiddish weekly] 1931, number 4.
Unzer Zeitung [Yiddish newspaper] July 22, 1927
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