(Apt), a town between Kraków and Lublin in Małopolska (Little Poland) dating back to the twelfth century. In 1502, Opatów was sold by the Lubusz bishops to noble owners, who permitted Jewish residence from 1538. Eighty Jews paid a poll tax in 1578, making Opatów one of the largest Jewish communities in central Poland. In 1618, Jews owned 60 of the town’s 185 houses, and sources mention a Jewish school and hospital. A separate Jewish district had probably been established by that time.
Seventeenth-century version of the privilege to the Jewish community of Opatów, granted by Aleksander Janusz Ostrogski in 1670 with approbations and seals of subsequent owners of the town. (Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, Collection of Parchment Records 5749)
Although in 1656–1657 Swedish troops massacred dozens of Jews, 266 Jews paid a poll tax in 1662 (27% of the total population). In 1687, the Council of Four Lands granted the kahal (community council) the right to refuse settlement to newcomers. Opatów was a leading kahal in Małopolska throughout the early modern period. In 1721, a general economic decline meant that 42 percent of the lots in the Christian district and 9 percent of 114 lots in the Jewish area were deserted. By 1755, the number of Jewish homes had grown to 150. In 1787, sources indicate that 635 Jews lived in Opatów (representing 31% of the total population); the actual number was probably about 2,000. In the eighteenth century, multifamily houses prevailed: 28 percent of Jews lived in one-family houses in 1755. In 1827, a total of 1,377 Jews (making up 34% of the townspeople) lived there; in 1860, there were 2,563 (65%); and in 1921, the number was 5,462 (62%).
By the 1640s, Jewish merchants outnumbered those who were Christian. They traveled to Gdańsk (Danzig), Prague, and the Leipzig fairs; famous fairs took place in Opatów, too. However, by the 1750s merchants made up only 9–14 percent of Jewish householders, with craftspeople (who shared a guild with their Christian counterparts) emerging as the largest sector of breadwinners (approximately 60%). The Landau family was most influential throughout the eighteenth century. Tax arrears owed to the kahal, which were on the increase particularly at the end of the eighteenth century, testify to the community’s brewing poverty. Many Jews left the town, often for Warsaw. By the 1850s, an estimated 47–67 percent of Opatów’s Jewish population was indigent. The economic situation improved at the end of the nineteenth century.
Opatów was known for its kloyz, where a small group of mystics prayed and studied. The first Hasidic prayer room was established by 1784. Avraham Yehoshu‘a Heshel (known as the Apter rebbe) arrived there in about 1800 and became one of the town’s eminent spiritual leaders. In the 1820s, Me’ir ha-Levi Rotenberg, a disciple of Ya‘akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, attracted hundreds of Hasidim to Opatów on Sabbaths and holidays. In the interwar period, the Talmud Torah association schooled poor families’ children, and the Zionist cultural organization Tarbut ran an elementary school, which was attended by 150 pupils in 1938.
Four young men who put on a Purim play to raise money, Opatów, Russian Empire (now in Poland), 1905. (YIVO)
After 1918, socialism was propagated by the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon and the Bund, political parties that by 1922 were organizing evening courses for workers. The Jewish community published local periodicals in the 1920s and there were two amateur theaters before 1939. From the 1880s, Opatów was famous for its klezmer bands.
The local ghetto was organized in May 1941 for approximately 7,000 people including Jews who were displaced from Silesia, Vienna, and elsewhere in Poland. They were almost all transported to Treblinka in October 1942.
Only about 300 Opatów Jews survived the war. The survivors reunited at the great Memorial Gathering in Tel Aviv in 1949 and established the Apt Organization in Israel, the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Of the roughly 1,000 tombstones present in Opatów immediately after the war, only a few remained by the beginning of the twenty-first century; the oldest monuments had dated back to the sixteenth century.
Gershon David Hundert, The Jews in a Polish Private Town: The Case of Opatów in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore, 1992); Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia, 1985); Zvi Yasheev (Tsevi Yashiv), ed., Apt (Opatov): Sefer zikaron le-‘ir ve-em be-Yisra’el (Tel Aviv, 1966), partly in Hebrew, partly in Yiddish, summaries in English.
RG 116, Territorial Collection: Poland 1, , 1919-1939 (finding aid).