The first Jews appeared in Antopol (Belarusian: Antopaĺ) in the 17th century, perhaps in 1604, but initially they did not settle in the town permanently. There is therefore no substance to the claims of many Jewish fatalities suffered in 1706 during the ‘Swedish Deluge’ or of the ‘Swedish’ graves by the road to Antopol being in fact Jewish. Jewish people did not start to settle in Antopol until the second half of the 18th century.
In the 19th century, the primary means of subsistence for the Jews of Antopol were the local fairs. Records from 1822 mention Jewish owners of permanent market stalls. In 1847, the town had 1,108 Jewish residents. The community was severely affected by the fire which ravaged Antopol in 1858. In order to cover the losses, the authorities cancelled the arrears of the ‘candle tax’ imposed on the sale of Sabbath and holiday candles, intended for the maintenance of state Jewish schools. The late 19th century saw the first wave of migration to large cities of the Russian Empire. In February 1867, a native of Antopol called Litman Mindelsohn graduated from the Saint Vladimir Imperial University of Kiev. He received the diploma of an assistant pharmacist, which authorised him to stay in Kiev and take up a job in his profession. He was removed from the list of members of the Jewish community in Antopol.
The second half of the 19th century was a good period for the economy, which significantly improved the situation of the Jewish community of Antopol. The local Jews founded numerous companies dealing with flax processing. There were also many illegal distilleries in the town. The number of yearly fairs increased from two in 1881 to ten in 1897. The wealthiest inhabitants of Antopol during this period included Herszka Kamieniecki, Dawid Zajdel, Jankiel Stawski, Bejla Sierota, and others.
In the early 1890s, the Jewish community of Antopol owned a synagogue and five houses of prayer. In 1897, the Jewish population in the town increased to 3,137 people (by over 81%). The Jews were the dominant force in the local trade and ran many hotels and inns.
The community was religious. In the 19th and 20th century, a yeshiva operated in Antopol, with Gutman as the principal. Rabbi Aron Lifszyc transformed the traditional cheder into a Reform school. His activity was continued by another rabbi, Israel Wall-Wołowielski, who hired a Russian language teacher.
The year 1902 saw the foundation of the Zionist “Agudath HaTzionim” organisation, joined by the hundred wealthiest Jews of the town. Its secretary was S. Pisocki. Meetings were held every Friday. Members of the Agudath were active in the local economy and social life. Burgher Lifszyc and agronomist M. Weller made efforts to establish a credit bank in the town. In 1903, the local Zionists participated in a fundraiser for the victims of the Kishinev pogrom. After 1905, revolutionist ideas started to gain ground in the local political life. Fradel Stawska was deported to Siberia for her ‘subversive activity’ against tsarism.
In 1908, Wigdor Sierota became the chairman of Antopol’s Municipal Council. In the same period, Hirsz Abram Nicberg, Szymel Szejnbaum and El Włodawski filed a petition with the Grodno Governorate administration for permission to open a universal library in the town. There was also a private school for girls in Antopol, run by Tejbe Szagan.
In 1915, during World War I, the Russians forced the local Jews to evacuate from the town. Many buildings were destroyed in warfare (according to some information, there were as many as seven synagogues in Antopol just before World War I, probably including houses of prayer). Trade ties with Russia were severed. The local population was additionally burdened by the German occupation and the subsequent invasion of the Bolsheviks and excesses of soldiers commanded by General Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz.
In 1921, the town was inhabited by 1,792 Jews, representing 81% of the population. The period of the Second Polish Republic saw the development of traditional schooling as well as the emergence of thriving social and political life. The town boasted numerous educational institutions: a Talmud Torah school, a yeshiva, a Hebrew school run by the Tarbut, and an I.L. Peretz library. Most Jews continued to make a living from crafts and trade. The peasants in the region of Polesie often did not have any cash, so they bartered with Jewish sellers, supplying them with food, flax, linen, and grain, and in exchange receiving non-food merchandise and salt. One of the two practising doctors in Antopol was Jewish – Murduch Nochim Norkin, a specialist in internal diseases. The local dentist was Leon Szogam, and the pharmacist’s assistant – Judel Najdycz.
The interwar period was a time of economic hardship. The American Joint Distribution Committee and the Gemilut Chassadim Fund provided aid to the local community, but the wave of emigration intensified, supported by the Jewish Colonisation Society in Antopol. The Jews would leave mainly for Palestine and South America.
The Red Army invaded Antopol on 20 September 1939. The Russian troops were quite warmly welcomed (some of the soldiers were Jews), but the occupation brought with itself swift Sovietisation of the most essential elements of the town’s life: the economy, social and cultural organisations and initiatives. Industrial and commercial enterprises were nationalised. Wealthy Jews were deprived of their homes, which were seized by the new administration. They were also labelled ‘bourgeois elements’ and deported into remote regions of Russia. Religious schools were closed and replaced with Soviet Jewish schools.
The Jews who were loyal to the new power embraced the change of direction in the social development of the town – the authorities claimed that they cared about the ‘working people.’ For ideological reasons, the kindergarten in Antopol was opened on 8 March – Women’s Day. The facility was naturally also given the name of the “8 March Kindergarten.” It took care of the offspring of mothers working in state offices and was mainly attended by children from Jewish families aged 3 to 7. The carer working in the facility, Faina Rubinstein, reported that the children had not known any Russian before but “now they understand everything and can speak Russian. Besides, the children have learnt many songs, games, and poems.” On the eve of the German occupation, some 2,600 Jews lived in Antopol.
The town was seized by the Germans on 25 June 1941. The local Jews did not have time to evacuate. Volksdeutscher Chromiński, the former postman notorious for his anti-Semitism before the war, took the position of the town’s governor. He formed a local police unit and called a meeting of all Orthodox Christian inhabitants of Antopol, forbidding them to contact the Jews. The Jewish community itself was obliged to wear armbands with the Star of David and sew a yellow patch on the chest and back of their clothes. The Germans also ordered the creation of a Judenrat. Its president was Rosenberg, and members: Rabbi Wołgin, Zalman Altwarg, Beniamin Wolf, and Rubinstein. A unit of the Jewish police was formed, with Boruch Hersz Rabinowicz at the helm.
The first German operation aimed at the annihilation of the Jewish population of Antopol was carried out two months after the beginning of the occupation. On 28 August 1941, the ghetto and its surroundings were cordoned off by the police and a penal battalion arrived at the site. The Germans demanded that the Judenrat surrender all gold, silver, valuables, leather, foodstuffs, and Polish and Soviet currencies. All men fit for work were instructed to assemble at the market square. Ca. 140 male Jews were driven to the building of the Polish school at Pińska Street, including underage boys over the age of 14. The Jewish community was trying to collect valuables to pay the contribution: women brought money, gold, and silver to the home of Rabbi Wołgin and other goods to a shop in the square. Meanwhile, residents of a neighbouring village were ordered by the Germans to dig pits in the forest. The Jewish men were told they were going to work; in fact, they were brought to the forest and shot. After the murder, the Germans announced to the rest of the community that the men had been sent to a labour camp and it was now necessary to provide packages for them – 5 kg of food per person. A total of 257 Jews and eight communists were killed that day.
In the spring of 1942, an open ghetto was established in Antopol. All Jews living on the right side of Pińska Street and Kobryńska Street had to leave their houses and move to the left side. Several days later, the Germans decided to create two ghettos. The ‘A’ Ghetto was intended for skilled workers and professionals whom the occupier saw as useful. The ‘B’ Ghetto was intended for people unfit for work (and thus ‘useless’). The task of separating people between the two ghettos was assigned to the Judenrat’s Labour Department. Everyone knew that being sent to the ‘B’ Ghetto was practically a death sentence, since the Germans did not need people incapable of work. Many Jews bribed the members of the Judenrat in order to go to the ‘A’ Ghetto, which offered at least a small chance of survival.
In the early summer of 1942, the Germans cordoned off the ‘B’ Ghetto, which at the time had ca. 1,000 residents. They were all driven to the railway station. Awaiting them was a train already transporting Jews from Pinsk, Janów (Belarusian: Ivanava), and Drohiczyn. The train was sent to Bronna Góra, where the Jews were murdered. The area of the ‘B’ Ghetto was subsequently reduced. It was surrounded with a 2.5 m tall wooden fence topped with barbed wire. Guards were stationed around the perimeter of the Jewish district. One night, the ghetto was cordoned off once again. The penal battalion murdered about 400 people.
About 300 Jews remained in the ghetto. There were some attempts to build shelters (‘bunkers’) or escape from the district. A group of people left the ghetto in the autumn of 1942, but they were forced to return after a few days of wandering around the surrounding villages, having lost all strength due to hunger and cold. Some people also tried to smuggle children outside the ghetto and have them taken care of by the peasants living in the area.
On the night of 15 October 1942, members of the Judenrat and the Jewish police were imprisoned. The ghetto was once again cordoned off by the penal battalion. The prisoners were forced into lorries and taken to the cemetery, located 1 km east of the town. Three broad pits had been dug at the site. Policemen and military gendarmerie surrounded the execution site. The victims were driven inside the pits, ordered to strip naked and lay face down on the ground. They were then shot at with rifles. The Germans took all valuables from the corpses. The liquidation of the ghetto in Antopol lasted four days. A total of between 2,000 and 2,500 Jews were killed. Only a handful survived the Holocaust, among them health professionals. The occupiers needed them to fight epidemics and infectious diseases that erupted in the town and its surroundings. This is how physician Czerniak with his wife and child lived to see the end of war – there were no Christian doctors in Antopol. He and his family later escaped with the help of resistance fighters and joined the Brest partisan unit named after S. Kirov. Other people who survived the ghetto in Antopol were Sz. Wołowielska, I. Mazurska, R. Kagan, and Eliasz Wołyniec.
After the Holocaust, the Jewish community was not revived. In the years 1945–1950, three Jews stayed in the town: Awigdor Dewinic, Chaim-Leib Finkelstein, and Izaak Zaks. Finkelstein worked in the Public Utilities Department until the early 1950s. He designed a revitalisation plan of the town centre. Dewinic married and left for Minsk with his wife. Finkelstein moved to Brest. Izaak Zacks remained the only Jew in the town which mere twenty years earlier had boasted a thriving community of several thousand. One Jewish family in Antopol is still listed in data from 1962. There are currently no Jews living in the town.