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[Page 186]

The history of the Jewish theater in Gostynin

by Chaim-Sender Zandman

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

 

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Chaim-Sender Zandman

 

I would like to relate here an episode from the Jewish past in Gotsynin, which is characteristic of the devotion of the Jewish youth in its quest to improve and enrich the life in town.

How much energy have those young people invested in the establishment of a Drama Group in Gostynin! The first steps were made in 1908. All the lovers of the Yiddish theater converged around this group.

The members of the group were Yosef Keller, Ben-Zion Keller, Rachel Motil, Itke Pintchewski (Glicksberg), Tuvia Yakobowitz and others. The prompter was Isser-Meir Motil.

This amateur group decided to produce a play. They began reading the available works, and they chose the play “the Wild Man” by Jacob Gordin. The group found a director and began the rehearsals and the play was finally ready for the stage.

However, being immersed in work, nobody gave a thought to the question of a place. It turned out that the Polish city-fathers did not agree to lease the City Theater for a Jewish performance. The group was greatly disappointed.

[Page 187]

Soon the group found a solution: they will build their own hall!

It was said and done: The members of the group “pulled up their sleeves” and began working. With the help of the three brothers Mordechai, Hershel and Yakov Motil they soon constructed a hall of wooden boards, brought to the site by Avraham Bressler.

This improvised structure was home for the Drams group in Gostynin. The public came, enjoyed the plays and was proud of the fact that this was the achievement of the young patriots of the Yiddish Theater. A long series of performances took place in this building.

 

gos187.jpg
Di Yiden [The Jews] played by the Gostynin Drama Group

Sitting from right to left: Feige Sarne, Yakov-Leib Motil, Shmuel Keller, Adam Domb, Dvora Zayontz, Chone Zayontz
Standing from right to left: Bashe Seideman, Henich Kutchinski, Yakov Sarne, Yehoshua-Noah Vilner, Israel-Zelik Kutchinski, Yakov Gostinski, Chaim-Sender Sandman, Baruch-Meir Motil and Chaim Shiye Tabatchnik

 

[Page 188]

 

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Performance announcement

 


[Page 189]

How and what we used to read

by Tuvia Yakobowitz

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

 

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Tuvia Yakobowitz

 

The Gostynin youth, who always felt an attraction to books, went through several stages before the establishment of the library.

The first stage consisted of the books the mothers would buy from the passing Jewish salesmen, and which contained stories and folktales: The 7 Beggars, Three Brothers, The Stories of the Baal-Shem-Tov etc. Other Jewish books were practically unknown. The second stage was the introduction of the Haskala [Enlightenment] books, which only several distinguished people could obtain, borrowed from old R'Fishel Tzivye. These were the works of Levinsohn (RIBAL), Y.L. Gordon, Brandstetter, Yitzhak Erter and some others. Then came the romantic literature, books borrowed from Mordechai Moritz: the writings of Avraham Mapu Ahavat Zion [Love of Zion], Ashmat Shomron [Guilt of Samaria], Ayit Tzavua [Hypocrite Eagle]; some science books, as, for example, history books by Schulman and books on nature by Bernstein, and finally old copies of the newspapers Hatzefira and Hamelitz.

Later, the “Hebrew Traveling Library” was established in Plock, and books were sent from town to town to responsible subscribers. This library contained scientific as well as modern literature:

[Page 190]

the Complete Works of Y.L. Peretz[1], The Blind Musician by Korolenko, Children of the Ghetto and other books by Israel Zangwill, the essay Al Parashat Derachim by Ahad Ha'am etc.

The first transport of books arrived at the Gostynin address of the writer of these lines, with the suggestion that, after all the books had been read, they would be sent to Lubien.

Later we received more books novels by Shemer, Blostein and Spector. These books were kept by Yitzhak Tcharke the bookbinder. In his possession were also books by Jules Verne, and other novels The Indian Prince, Gold Miners in California and others. Israel Yitzhak Zimmerman had some books as well, and he lent them for reading, for a small fee. Isser Meir Motil had a small collection of humoristic literature. He distributed an English humoristic weekly as well.

At that time there were no Yiddish newspapers in Gostynin. Then Yona Baruch Katz began to receive the newspaper Hatzefira. When it was time for the postman to arrive, a group of people, headed by old R'Fishel Tzivye, would already be waiting in front of the house. The editorial was barely read, and old R'Hersh Leib the shamash [synagogue attendant] appeared and claimed the newspaper, as partner to the subscription. After he read it, he would give it to the third partner, R'Yakov Miller, and only after all this wandering the newspaper would finally reach me. A great deal of “book-exchanging” took place in town at that time, just like the barter trade in the old times: “I give you an axe and you give me a bear-skin” when one wanted to read a book he would first have to acquire another book so he would be able to make the exchange.

Even the rabbi, Rav Unterman z”l, participated in the book exchanges. I would bring him, understandably, books of religious nature, like Hadat Vehachayim [Religion and Life] and he would reciprocate with a work by Socrates, for example.

It can certainly be said that the love of books was much stronger then than now. Even though

[Page 191]

the books were not easy to obtain, we did everything to get them. We even walked to Plock to exchange books. Today, many persons are members of the library not so much for the sake of the books, but in order to have the right to vote for their favorite party.

The interest in the Jewish book embraced even larger sectors of the Jewish youth after the revolution of 1905. This tendency was initiated by the illegal literature, provided by the party representatives the Bund, the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) and some others who came to our town. It should be remarked, that the youth of the above-mentioned political leanings would meet, to discuss the literature of their parties, in the house of one of the Zionists.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Reprinted from a publication of the Y.L. Peretz Library in Gostynin, on its 20th anniversary. Return


[Page 192]

Gostynin, My City

by Chana Bagno-Keller

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

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Chana Keller

 

In our city of Gostynin, as in the majority of cities in Russian-Poland, the city administration was Russian, but in the year 1914, when war was declared, all Russian locals left the city. Soon a civilian militia was established to maintain order.

Unrest and fear took over the population. Gostynin was not far from the German border. Everyone 's eyes were turned to the western side of the city that was surrounded by mountains.

It was early one morning, when a German vanguard appeared from the Koval direction. They looked around the town, and turned back. But it wasn 't much later when a camp of German soldiers came down from the mountains. They marched through our town all day on their way to Warsaw, leaving a small number of soldiers and officers to take over the city.

Days passed, quiet days, but the silence was pained, unsure, the air smelled of gunpowder.

The military withdrew to the road back to Germany. They marched all day and into the night.

Again, the residents lived with fear. The Germans did frequent searches, made arrests, and took with them many …

[Page 193]

… people. Among those was my brother, the wealthy man Aron Bresler, the former German pharmacist Jahne, and a Russian policeman.

Meanwhile, the Russians began to return to the city. And suddenly we saw them bringing back all kinds of war machinery and wagonloads of many wounded soldiers. We sensed that things were not right in the lines of the Russian army. In fact, soon there was a retreat of the military and an even greater chaos befell them. Suddenly, there was loud cannon shooting.

The shooting became louder and closer. It felt as if it was a few kilometers from our house because the shutters were rattling.

My father, who in the meantime had returned from Kutno and found out that his sons were taken by the Germans, advised our mother and the children to go to our friend Itche Meier Strikowski who lived in the center of the city in a walled stone house where it was safer than staying in our small wooden house. My mother went there with the children, and I stayed with my father because I didn 't want to leave him alone in the house. We sat together, quietly in the dark.

In the middle of the night, we heard how they were smashing the fence around our house. We held our breath, and didn 't move from our place. Quietly, my father whispered a prayer. When they didn 't destroy our house, he gave praise to God. With pounding hearts, we heard the retreating steps of the soldiers; it lasted the entire night.

With the beginning of daylight, we did not hear any more soldiers ' steps. It became quieter and quieter. One by one, people began to appear in the streets. Suddenly, we saw riders (on horseback) wearing grey capes, and helmets on their heads. We understood immediately that this was a German vanguard. When they saw the locked stores …

[Page 194]

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The truck in which we went to Gombin to perform “The Dybbuk”

The first by the driver: Yakov Gostinski; the first row that you can see: Yakov Leib Pinczewski, Yakov Leib Motil, Faige Sarna;
The second row: Berl Levi, Pesse Narve;
Third row: Yissocher Motil, Ber Gonshor; fourth row: Shloime Krantc, Chana Zajac.

 

[Page 195]

… they politely asked if it was a holiday and then ordered the storekeepers to open their stores.

The merchants, who were looking through the cracks with fear and saw the friendly behavior of the Germans, immediately left their place of hiding and opened their stores.

Soon the German military marched into the city. They were friendly to the residents, particularly to the children who had already assembled in the streets during that time. The soldiers gave the children cookies and chocolate.

Slowly, life began to quiet down, and all those who moved in with friends in the center of the city, now moved back home. This was the beginning of the German occupation.

Gradually the Germans began to remove products from the villages - products such as wheat, corn, potatoes, chicken, beets, fruit, and more. The farmers did not have anything to bring into the city and sell, and so business came to a halt. There was no work for the workers. Even for the stocking producers, stockings being the largest product made in the city, there was no work.

The atmosphere of the city was very strained. People were going around not knowing what to do with themselves. The youth woke up and energetically undertook community social activity. The first thing they did was to revive the former group “Linat Hazedek” with a women 's unit available for overnight stay for the sick, because at that time the typhus epidemic, that eventually took many lives, began to rumble.

The organization “Hatchiya” was also established under the administration of Yosel Gonshor, Moishe Pinczewski, Yankel Rusak, Ben-Tzion Keller, Tuvia Jakubowicz, and Yakov Zerkhyn.

Incidentally, it is also worth mentioning that Yakov Zerkhyn had come from Russia and had brought his family along with him, and he worked as a Hebrew teacher in the Gostynin gymnasium. He …

[Page 196]

… was an interesting personality and was always involved in important projects. The administration of Hatchiya set up a touring club where a few young people joined up with a special gymnastics teacher. They frequently did all kinds of tours in other cities.

The library was revived again. They organized a reading room and they would often invite a guest writer and cultural activist and have an evening of culture that was attended by almost all the youth.

From the larger cities, where the conditions were even worse, families came to settle in Gostynin. One of these families was Dzhalowski from Lodz. Dzhalowski was very musical. In a short time he became acquainted with the youth and he found out that among them there were talented singers. A singing club was set up with Dzhalowski as the director.

Members of the choir were: Chaim and Rochel Zweighaft, Yehoshua-Noach Wilner, Borucj-Meier Motil, Yankel Sarna, Glike Lewi, Faige Shteynman, Chana Bagno, Yankel Gostinski, Chaim-Yehoshua Tabachnik, Chana Zajac, and Shmuel Keller.

The singing club prepared for a concert with a repertoire of Yiddish, Hebrew, and - because of the German military and the locals - also German songs.

At an administrative meeting, it was decided that at these concerts there should be a reading and recitation. To this end, Chaim Pozner from the city of Koval near Wloclowek helped out. He had come to study in the gymnasium.

Chaim Pozner was a talented writer. He had written a poem titled “Shoin Vider Finster” (Dark Again). This poem mirrored the pogroms of the Jews that were taking place at that time. I was the reader for this poem. (Today, Dr. Chaim Pozner is one of the foremost Zionist leaders in Switzerland.)

[Page 197]

Glike Lewi, one of the singers, who was blessed with a beautiful alto voice and a strong desire to sing, joined the singers club only in her older years, because she knew that her father Benyomin Lewi, who was the town 's shochet (ritual Slaughterer), would not have allowed her to belong to a singing group.

On the day of the concert, when the excitement in the town was bubbling, and the crowd was preparing for the big evening, everyone knew that Glike would not be part of the evening 's performance. Her father found out about it and locked her up and even took away her shoes. We, in the choir, were very upset about the news that quickly spread across the entire town: first because we would be missing a singer; we were afraid that …

 

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A scene from “Dorf 's Yung” (The Village Youth), performed by the Gostynin drama circle.

Standing from right to left: Faige Sarna, Shmuel Keller, Chana (Bagno) Keller, Chana Zajac, Dvoire (Solomonowicz) Friedman, Chaim-Sender Zandman
Below, sitting on the bed: Adam Domb
Lying down: Yakov Gostinski

 

[Page 198]

… the Jewish residents would cancel and would certainly not come to the concert.

As it turned out, the Gostynin residents did come, and the concert was a great success. The entire purpose of that evening 's event was in order (to raise money) to buy books for the library.

During that time, Adam Domb came to Gostynin to take over the photography studio from his brother Julius. Domb was from Plock. He was a Polish-speaking young man. He had artistic talents. Sometimes he would act on the Polish stage. As soon as he became acquainted with the youth that was involved with the culture and social activities, he noticed their artistic talents. So, Domb decided to establish a drama circle.

The youth was very enthusiastic about this plan and after a brief discussion, it was decided to set up a drama circle with Adam Domb as manager. Domb was not familiar with Yiddish literature, but he began to study Yiddish enthusiastically, read a lot, and became proficient in Yiddish drama.

The first play that they decided to present, was Yakov Gordin 's “God, Man, and the Devil.” These were the performers: Yechiel Yehoshua Pluczer, Shmuel Keller, Yakov Sarna, Mordechai Maskel, Mirel Motil, Faige Sarna, Bimtza Motil, Malke Charke, and Adam Domb.

There was a hall with a stage in Gostynin, but there were no seats at that time. The hall belonged to the firemen. The administration received permission to use the hall. When the time for the performance approached, we rented horses and wagons and went from house to house to collect chairs. On each chair, the name of the owner was marked.

The furniture (props) that was needed for the stage was lent by people who had always been sympathetic to our work. We also needed a steel safe on stage, but this was a complicated issue. The administration …

[Page 199]

… was taken over by Efraim Motil who was a social activist and always supported our projects. Even though it was almost impossible for him to do, he did not refuse to give us his steel chest.

The day of the performance was a real holiday. The Gostynin people who filled the theater applauded the performers very enthusiastically.

After the performance, we saw these same people from the audience sharing their impressions about the performance.

This first time, the wealthier townspeople showed their displeasure with this whole thing, but when the administration told them that the money from the upcoming performance would go to various philanthropic causes, they took on a more positive attitude towards the drama circle.

It was decided that the play “God, Man, and the Devil” be performed again with the thinking that if the general public would also come to the theater, then this play would be an appropriate one to perform.

At that time, Yekhiel Yehoshua Pluczer, one of the most important actors, as well as Bimze Motil, left Gostynin. Shmuel Keller took over the role of “Hershele Dubrowner.” The director, Adam Domb, told me to take the woman 's role of “Tzipenyu,” because they had told him that I had already acted several times. I was happy to take the role and to belong to the drama circle, but I knew that my father would oppose this.

Nonetheless, I tried to talk to my father and explain to him that even the daughter of the well-known, wealthy Nute Motil was participating.

It did not help. My father categorically refused all of it. The administration decided to send a group of well-known youths to my father. These were: Moishe Pinczewski, Yosel Gonshor, and Ben-Tzion Keller.

[Page 200]

They explained to my father that the work the youth was doing was important. The income from the performances went to philanthropic causes. And they also assured him that the representatives from the municipality would come to the performance: those such as Yakov Zerkhin, Mendel Krel, Nute Motil, Moishe Brakman, and Yakov Mendel Keller, my father-in-law, of blessed memory.

My father cautiously listened to the youths and after a brief, silent reflection, he agreed to allow me to perform. It seems that the discussion with the delegation had the desired effect on my father. After some time of rehearsing this drama piece, the actual performance date was set.

It became known in town that the municipal representatives would be coming to the performance. So, others, who would never have come to a theater, also came to the performance and because not everyone was able to fit into the theater because of crowds and space, the play was repeated on a second night.

After that, other plays performed were Yakov Gordin 's “The Madman,” “Khasha the Orphan,” and “The Stranger”; Sholom Aleichem 's “Only the Doctor”; Y.L. Peretz 's “After Burial”; Chirakow 's “The Jews”; Strindberg 's “Father”; Ibsen 's “Ghosts”; Alexander Dumas ' “Kean”; and Sholom Asch 's “With the Current.”

With this drama circle, Domb also performed Dovid Pinski 's “Gabri and the Women.”

Those times in Gostynin presented the well-known contemporary Rose Shoshana. Our director used the opportunity and invited her to play the leading role in Dovid Pinski 's play.

They also prepared to perform Sholom Asch 's “With the Current,” but we were stuck with a difficult problem: Where would we find a shtreimel (round fur hat) for the Rav? In this small town, who would lend out a shtreimel? So, Shmuel, who was playing the role of the Rav, remembered Soro 'le, a daughter of Yishaye Feinzilber, from one of the famous Chassidic families of Gostynin, to whom …

[Page 201]

… the Kellers were related. He met her secretly, and asked her to help him get her brother-in-law 's shtreimel.

For this naïve daughter, this was a great challenge, but she gave in. The night before the performance, her brother-in-law, Yitzkhok Shtern, a great Chassid and God-fearing man, and one who had Rabbinic ordination, left for Warsaw and she, Soro 'le, spent the night with her sister.

That night, when the family was sound asleep, Soro 'le tied the shtreimel to a rope, and let it down through a window where we were waiting for it.

Right after the performance, Shmuel and I immediately went to Yitzkhok Shtern 's house where Soro 'le was already waiting for us. That 's how the situation was saved, and no one, not her brother-in-law nor any of the chassidim in town, knew anything of this.

It has remained a secret until today.

The story with Glike Lewi, that her father locked her up, and the story of the shtreimel were not the only incidents that could have disrupted a concert or play.

There were others too. I am remembering those days when we were preparing to perform the play “The Father,” by Strindberg. I played the role of Berta. That same evening, potential in-laws came to our home to “check out” my older sister Hinda. My parents wanted me to be there to welcome the guests. As much as I tried to have them understand that I had to go to the performance, and that without me the performance could not go on, nothing helped. My parents were fixed on me having to stay home. I had no other choice but to sneak out of the house in the last minute.

After the performance, when I went home, everyone was already asleep. I knocked at the door and heard my father 's steps. He was angry, but he let me in. In the morning, …

[Page 202]

… I tried to avoid meeting my father 's eye. I was happy that my father left to the synagogue. Later, I was standing in front of our store, and thought about the anger that I had to experience before going to the theater.

Suddenly, from a distance, I noticed my father returning from the synagogue. My heart began to pound in fear. When he came closer, I saw a satisfied expression on his face, and even a smile. He turned to my mother and said: “You hear, Genendel! I have shame and humiliation from YOUR daughter!” Then my father told her that on his way to the synagogue he met his friend Yakov Linderman. He told him that all the actors had performed well and that I, Chana, excelled in portraying the role of 12-year-old Berta.

Our drama circle became famous in the surrounding cities and towns. Yakov Weislicz, reknowned reciter (reader), also learned of our work. He came to Gostynin and proposed a reading for us of Leon Kobrin 's “The Village Youth.”

For amateurs, this was not an easy play to produce, but Adom Domb, our director, was a man of great ambition, so he immediately told us to get to work.

For this specific project, we needed more actors. So, these are the ones who joined the drama circle: Chaim Sender Zandman, Yehoshua Wilner, Hersh Kruczik, and Dvoira Solomonowicz.

Yakov Gostinski played two roles in this play: Yeshiye the store owner, and Prokov.

With heart and soul the actors threw themselves into the work; everyone tried to bring out the personality of the character they played exactly as Yakov Weislicz directed.

The actors from Gombin came with their director Chaim Luria to attend the performance.

There was a dignified atmosphere within the audience. After the performance, the Gostynin and Gombin actors got together …

[Page 203]

… with the director in the studio. The guests from Gombin were so enthusiastic about this event, that they decided they too would perform “The Village Youth” in their town.

The Gombin director, Chaim Luria, began rehearsals for “The Village Youth,” but he did not have an appropriate actor for the role of Hersh Ber the Fisherman, and since Shmuel Keller had played this role in Gostynin, he (Chaim Luria) asked him (Shmuel Keller) to play this role in Gombin.

Shmuel accepted the invitation.

On the day of the performance our director went to Gombin with all the actors to attend the performance.

The wagon driver, a cheerful and happy person named Blind Chaim 'el because he was blind in one eye, called out from his wagon 's step: “Actors! Hurry up and get on!” We climbed into the wagon and the wagon driver followed behind us. He slapped the horse and before we knew it, we had left the city behind.

The road from Gostynin to Gombin was very dusty. The speed of the trotting horses raised the dust high up so that it seemed that we were traveling in a fog. However, this did not prevent us from filling the air with song. When we passed through the forests, an echo surrounded us as if there were choirs with many people singing.

The wagon driver told jokes at our expense and we laughed heartily.

As we entered Gombin we felt the holiday atmosphere in the city. We saw big posters that were put up announcing the performance of “The Village Youth” that was to be held that day.

People were looking at the horse and wagon that was bringing in the Gostynin theater lovers. And that 's how we went to the theater.

[Page 204]

 

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Part of the drama circle under Adam Domb

Sitting from the right: Yakov Sarna, Yakov Gostinski, Adam Domb, Yakov Leyb Motil, Faige Sarna, Manja Klajnbord.
Standing from the right: Borukh Meier Motil, Shloime Gostinski, Dvoire (Solomonowicz) Friedman, Bibiczje Motil, M. Zajf (Motil), Hinde Domb, Shmuel Keller, Chana (Bagno) Keller.

 

[Page 205]

“The Village Youth” was also performed twice in Gombin with great success.

This was a trip that one cannot forget.

***

Other than these above mentioned groups in which the Gostynin youth participated, there were also other activities, such as work that provided help, and also activities in the area of education, where Jewish students proved themselves outstanding in the gymnasium. They gave free classes to the younger ones who did not have these opportunities, or the opportunity to receive an elementary education.

One of these students, Avrohom Zajf, who had come from the city Radziejow Kojowski, was very active in helping young men and women who wanted to leave Poland. (That same Avrohom Zajf later was a teacher in a Mizrachi school in Wloclowek, then lived in Danzig, and was connected to the prominent Zionists in the city. He died in Konin in unusual circumstances.)

After the Great Depression in the year 1918, when the German army suffered on the Western front, a revolution broke out in Germany. They overthrew German Kaiser Wilhelm, and the German armies ran away from all occupied countries.

The dream of the Polish people came true - Poland became independent.

But for the Jews, there were new days of fear, pogroms, and unrest. The anti-Semitic General Haller and his group of hooligans and pogrom instigators moved in. It was impossible for Jews to pass through the streets. They beat the Jews and ripped out their beards; they attacked Jews in trains, and they did not permit Jewish youth to study in the universities.

The youth saw that they could not build their future existence in Poland, and they began to emigrate. I, too, decided to leave Poland in 1920.

Thanks to the help of the social activist Avrohom Zajf, …

[Page 206]

… I was able to board a small ship in Danzig that was going to Swinemunde, Germany. From Germany I went to Belgium where my brother Shmuel Borukh had already been for a long time. One year later, I arrived in America.

My yearning for Gostynin never abated. Even though when we lived there, it was always with the fear for tomorrow, it still pulled me to see my dear and close ones.

After a period of thirteen years, I decided to go back to Gostynin, so in 1934, I and my 10-year-old daughter Ita Fraide'le went to visit my place of birth, Gostynin.

I found a new youth, and recognized only a few of them who resembled their parents. This youth also had a drama circle. Their director was a younger brother of Yechiel Yehoshua Pluczer.

By that time, Adam Domb was no longer in Gostynin. He was now part of a professional acting troupe in Warsaw.

During the time that I was in Gostynin, the drama circle was preparing for their performance of “Thieves,” by Fishel Bimko. On the day of the performance, there was the same holiday feeling as in the former years.

I sat in the theater and looked over at audience and at their enthusiasm for the curtain to rise.

The performance was as I expected - superbly presented by the entire troupe. I went behind the stage to congratulate the actors, enthusiastic about their acting abilities.

As I was sitting in the theater in 1934, all kinds of images and memories went through my mind about the former life and activities in Gostynin.

Who would have imagined that a few years later there would be a massive destruction in which the beautiful Jewish capital of Gostynin would be erased.

 

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