I Wish It Were Fiction
Holocaust Memories 1939 - 1945
The Bloody Annihilation of the Jews of Opatow
It was the year 1941 when I returned to Opatow. Sadness pervaded all Jewish homes in town. Life was tragic. The streets were full of German troops. Wherever a Jew appeared on the street, the Germans grabbed him and dragged him off to work for full day, under conditions of hunger and slavery. Accompanying the Germans, were the Jewish police, who carried out the orders of their German masters.
Older, bearded Jews did not dare to go out into the street. If the Germans saw such a Jew, they immediately pounded on him and began cutting off his beard. Their sadism knew no limit. They used simple knives to cut off the beards and they enjoyed the sight of the martyred Jews. Those who wanted to save their beards, did not dare to go out into the street. Others covered their beards with bandages, and they looked like wounded war veterans.
Elderly Jews were also dragged to work. There were no exceptions. Everyone was beaten and tortured. Suddenly a new order was published by the Nazis. Henceforth Jews would not be allowed to live in the main sections of the city and its surroundings. A ghetto was established for the Jewish population. Signs were posted at the Ghetto entrance, warning everyone with the death sentence for leaving the confines of the Ghetto. Jewish policemen were posted on all streets of the Ghetto, to make sure that no one strays from the Ghetto to other streets on the outside and also to maintain order among the population.
Along with the police, there was a “Judenrat”. We also had a Jewish postal establishment. There were no courts. If there were any conflicts or fights among Jews, no attention was paid to it by the authorities.
In 1942 the area of the ghetto was reduced. All Jews were packed into an area of three city blocks. A wall was built around the whole area, topped with barbed wire. The overpopulation was so great, it was almost suffocating. In most cases, there were three families to one room. It was forbidden to go out into the street after five o’clock in the evening. The situation became more and more difficult, almost impossible. It was forbidden to light candles, because the Germans maintained, that candles are lit for prayers to God and this the Germans forbade. Just for mentioning a prayer to God, the murderers threatened with death.
But the edict against lighting candles, did not deter the saintly, pious Jew, Reb Mendl Namon. He risked his life and regularly made his way, through the barbed wire, running to the old cemetery, to the resting place of the old, revered rabbis, in order to light a candle there.
Another pious Jew, was Reb Mendl Soifer. There were also other wonderful God-fearing Jews, who were deported along with every one else. Unfortunately these men and women refused to believe until the last minute that they too will be deported to the death camps.
The terrible congestion in the small ghetto, brought in its wake sickness, particularly a typhus epidemic. Every day saw more and more fatalities. Death spared few.
Hunger became widespread and almost unbearable. Every house suffered. In desperation, people began to make their way to the outside of- the ghetto in the hope to get some food there. Many of them were shot.
Illnesses notwithstanding, no one was permitted outside for more than two hours daily. Even fresh air was rationed.
Despite these horrible conditions, activities were still being carried on, particularly among the youth. Young people gathered secretly in homes and engaged in cultural activities. There were lectures on various topics, discussions on current events and on problems facing the inhabitants of the ghetto. These activities lasted almost to the last minute, up to the time of the final deportation.
The black clouds of final tragedy began to approach the sky over Opatow. More and more Jews from the surrounding towns and communities were brought in to the ghetto of Opatow. The congestion became worse. Panic began to spread. The news became grimmer. Arriving Jews brought the terrible news of deportation. People were being taken directly to the extermination camps.
The Judenrat became more active. Attempts were made to halt or at least limit the deportations. More and more people were put to work at different small enterprises, in order to show the German authorities that the inhabitants were productive people. Brush manufacturing became particularly popular. Hundreds of men and women registered for work at brush manufacturing.
News about deportations in the surrounding communities became more frequent. We heard of mass deportations in Ostrowiec, Klementov and others. We began to realize that the fate of those other communities was only an indication of what we ourselves had to expect. The panic was increasing by the hour.
It is important to note the exact date of the final deportation from Opatow. The mass Opatow deportation took place on the 22nd of October, 1942, the 11th day of the month of Cheshvan, according to the Jewish calendar.
It is difficult to remember the exact details of such an enormous tragedy. To this day, it is simply impossible for me to comprehend such an event. I wasn’t at all sure, whether I myself will survive. But some inner voice urged me on to note the details, try to remember everything, make some kind of a record. Maybe, sometime in the future the notes will be found by survivors and there will [be a] record for history.
And this is what happened:
Up to the last minute before the deportation, the chairman of the Judenrat, Mordechai Weitzblum, tried to find some way of placating the Germans, in order to halt the deportation. He called together the Jews of Opatow and asked them to collect a large some of money as ransom for the Germans, who may thus be willing to halt or at least postpone the deportation. Everyone responded by contributing whatever valuables were in their possession. A fortune was thus collected. Some, who had means to bribe the Germans, did so and gained permission to voluntarily depart for forced labor camps, thus avoiding deportation to the extermination camps. The Judenrat began to collect whatever gold and diamonds there were still in possession of the slightly more prosperous Jews. These were given the chance to depart for the slave labor camps. The poorer ones were sent to extermination. Twelve thousand Jews were thus deported on that infamous day — eight thousand from Opatow and four thousand from the surrounding communities, who had previously been brought to the Ghetto.
It was five o’clock in the morning on October 22, 1942. The terrifying sound of the sirens on the walls surrounding the Ghetto began to screech. It sounded like a huge fire alarm. After a while the sirens stopped, but then began screeching again. This went on for a while. After five times the sirens fell silent. This was the signal for the beginning of the “action”.
The ghetto was then surrounded on all sides by armed S.S. troops, assisted by Polish police, punishment brigades and fire brigade. Everyone was dragged out from the houses. Even the Jewish police assisted hurrying everyone to run the large assembly square on Trawiska street in the suburb. People who were not running fast enough were brutally beaten. The agonized cries of women and children pierced the air.
While driving the people to the assembly point, the Germans broke up family groups. Wherever they noticed a group close together, they shot a few of the group on the spot. In that way they managed to create confusion and unimaginable panic.
I myself marched with my family. When we reached the assembly point we saw a great mass of people, some with packs, some without anything. Women carried children in their arms, bigger children hung on to their skirts. Older people hardly managed to stand on their feet. Young mothers carried their newly-born infants in pillow cases. People were pushing each other. Everyone was afraid of beatings by the police, which were generously administered by the brutal Nazis and their helpers. Those who refused to leave their homes were shot on the spot.
Among the crowd I saw the simple man, Samuel Tam. This man had all his life a horse, a cow and a goat. When the policeman tried to take away the goat, Samuel Tam refused to let go of it. He was shot on the spot.
There was Chama, Itche Meirs, an elderly Jew, formerly quite wealthy. An S.S. man went over to him, looked him in the eye and simply shot him in the head. This heavy-set, very imposing looking man dropped dead on the spot.
All of us, those from Apt and from the surrounding communities, who were brought to Opatow faced the same fate. The shooting did not stop. Everyone was warned that any attempt to leave the place or escape will be punished by summary execution.
As I was standing with my family, I suddenly felt the terrible pain of a very heavy blow to my body. As I bended down, in pain, I heard a shout: “Hey, you, get out of there. You are still able-bodied, and capable of working. I feared more blows of the rubber truncheon which the S.S. man held over my head. I did not even get the chance to say good-bye to my parents and sisters. I just looked at them for a second. The thought crossed my mind that this was the last time I looked at them. The S.S. man with the rubber truncheon in his hand grabbed me and dragged me over to another corner, where there was another group of people standing.
Thus, during the years of German occupation, fate brought me to different places. Every minute of those five years could have been the last minute of my life. I never knew whether I will survive. To this day I cannot forget nor forgive myself for the last moment, when I was with my parents and family — why did I leave them? Maybe I am partly guilty for their death, while I remained alive?
"It is important to note the exact date of the deportation from Opatow"