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Translation of "Opatow" chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Our appreciation to Sandy Zimmerman, who allowed us to publish
the translations which were done by Shalom Bronstein for her private use.
This is a translation from:
Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VII, pages 58-64, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(Known to Jews as Apt/Apta; subdistrict of Opatow, Kielce District)
|I.||The Jewish Community Until 1918|
|II.||The Jews to the End of World War I|
|III.||The Jews Between the Two World Wars|
|IV.||During the Days of World War II|
Because of its location at an important crossroads, from its beginning it was a center of the lumber trade. Timber was transported to Danzig either overland or via the rivers. At the end of the 16th century, a new commercial road connecting Opatow to other cities in the area was cut. From that time, the importance of Opatow as a regional commercial center increased. In the 17th century, the city had some 200 skilled artisans. The Swedes who invaded the area in the in the middle of the 17th century wreaked havoc and destruction. Many houses were burned, the population dwindled, and it took dozens of years before its previous status as a commercial center was restored. In 1793 with the second Partition of Poland, Opatow came under Austrian rule; in 1807, it was included in the Duchy of Warsaw and in 1815, it was annexed to the dominion of Congress Poland. The 19th century saw a renewal of its economic and demographic growth. At the end of the 19th century, 119 of its 457 buildings were constructed of either brick or stone. During this period, commercial ties between Congress Poland and Gdansk developed and Opatow served as a transfer point from which barges loaded with grain as well as timber and other merchandise were shipped via the Wisla. At that time, some new enterprises were established in the city chicory production, starch and absorbent cotton and at the beginning of the 20th century, two flour mills, and factories producing pins and needles. Trade in wine imported from Hungary and France as well as salt were important aspects of its economy.
During the 1863 Polish insurrection, some fierce battles took place near Opatow that brought the normal process of life to a standstill. Local Jews aided the rebellion. The last head of the rebellion, Ludwig Zweidzovsky, was publicly hanged in the town's central marketplace. During World War I, Opatow was occupied by the Austrians who held it until 1918. After the establishment of the independent Polish republic, Opatow was made the main city of a subdistrict.
Even the Jewish community did not welcome the arrival of Jews from Germany. According to the leaders of the community, the newcomers made things difficult for them and were the cause of complaints and ill will from the local residents, landowners and squires who come to the town to attend regional councils (simiks) and for other holidays of the general population. The community leaders requested that the Council of the Four Lands grant them the Right of a Community which would enable them to accept as new residents only those Jews who met their approval. This was agreed to in 1687 and they were given permission to expel any Jews who settled in the town without their consent. In effect, The Council of the Four Lands granted Opatow the privileges held by the leading cities of the Four Regions Krakow, Lvov, Lublin and Poznan. The Council based its decision on the fact that the Jews of Opatow occupied only one street that could not be expanded, and therefore, we grant this power to maintain the stability of the community.
In 1656, the Jews of Opatow owned 45 houses. In the tax lists from this time, the names of fifty Jews are listed among the merchants of the town. They carried on wide ranging trade in metal objects, perfumes and spices, grain, cattle, timber, leather and other items. In their business travels, the Jews of Opatow ranged as far as Breslau in the west, but the bulk of their business was with Gdansk. In contrast, Jewish merchants, mostly from Lublin and Krakow, frequented Opatow. Among the skilled craftsmen of many of the Jewish residents, were bakers, weavers, glaziers, tailors, shoemakers, furriers and butchers. Some of Opatow's Jews made their living as state and local tax farmers (head tax and customs).
The Jewish involvement in commerce and skilled craftsmen always led to chilly relations with their local competitors. It seems that the Jews were clever enough to overcome the difficulties their rivals placed before them. In spite of this, there were some instances where both sides cooperated and the local residents saw benefits in cooperating with the Jews. Not infrequently, this collaboration involved paying of bribes, an important item in the budget of the community.
The development of the Jewish community of Opatow ended with the Swedish wars in the middle of the 17th century. The street of the Jews went up in flames, and what fire did not destroy, the soldiers plundered. In 1656, Opatow was freed by the soldiers of the Polish Hetman Stefan Tcharnietzki, who waged a pogrom against the Jews killing many of them. With the cessation of the fighting, the Polish king John II Casmir came to the aid of the Jewish community. In an order from 1657, he permitted them to build new houses to replace those destroyed by fire and to trade and maintain stores and butcher shops in the town. Subsequent kings confirmed these rights.
However, even before the Jews were able to rebuild, other calamities ensued. In 1680, a fire destroyed most of the Jews' Street and this was followed by a plague that claimed many lives. In 1685, a blood libel was circulated that threatened all the Jews in the area. In a village near Opatow, a day old infant died, and a rumor was circulated that the Jews killed him. The governor of the district, who was one of those behind the rumor, ordered the arrest of the Jewish innkeeper of the village. The Jews were then compelled to pay the governor a fine of 2,400 zloty payable over a period of three years. This fine subsequently became a permanent required payment.
In the 18th century, and especially during the time it was annexed to Austria (1793-1807) when restrictions on living outside the limits of The Jewish Street were cancelled, the Jewish population greatly increased. Their economic activity expanded to include new and important areas. In addition to retail business, wide ranging trade in grain, lumber, eggs, cattle and agricultural products developed. Some of the Jews controlled the marketing of local crops from the entire area. Some even leased estates and operated them on their own. The end of the 19th century saw the Jews taking an active role in the industrialization of the town. A local Jew started a weaving factory that did not last very long. In the 1890s, Jews opened two tanneries and a sugar factory and in the early part of the 20th century a dye-works for area cottage weavers. Even with these developments, the main source of livelihood for the Jews during this time was through petty trading and skilled crafts.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the community of Opatow was a member of the Country Council of Greater Poland in the Council of the Four Lands. Delegates from Opatow participated in the meetings of the Council. Some of them were among the appraisers, who were empowered by the Council to assess the tax obligations of each and every Jewish community.
From 1666 to the beginning of the 20th century, the Jews of Opatow maintained a community register (Pinkas) that included all the regulations enacted by the its leadership. Today, the Pinkas is an invaluable source of information for researchers on the history of the community. A copy of the Pinkas was in the archives of the Central Synagogue in Warsaw but was lost during the Holocaust. From the Pinkas we learn of the independence of some of the societies (hevrot) with regards to the official community and of the dependence of the Jewish artisans (tailors and furriers) on the Christian guilds. Thus, the Jewish craftsmen were required to pay membership fees to the guilds, but the guilds specified that they had no obligation to come to their aid. At the head of the Jewish organizations was a committee of eleven men: 3 gabaim, 2 trustees and 5 accountants. The list of expenses in the Pinkas reflects the relationship between the leadership of the community to the nobility and government officials. Also included are the travel expenses of the leaders to the government in Warsaw in their attempts of intersession with the superior authorities. Among the regular expenses are the payments for cantors and singers, for the most part itinerant cantors who came to Opatow for a Sabbath or holiday to conduct services; for visiting preachers, the community had a regular preacher; aid for poor exiles, for those traveling to Eretz Yisrael, funds for the redemption of captives, support of wandering collectors of charity and many more items of this nature.
During the 16th century, the first synagogue in Opatow was built and the cemetery was dedicated. Later a number of charitable societies were founded for visiting the sick, shelter, bridal dowries and a shelter for travelers. In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century there was a school [Talmud Torah] funded by the community where most of the Jewish children studied.
Among the rabbis who served Opatow the following names are known to us: R. Moshe Mt [Matt] (the Mt is an acronym for Marbitz Torah the teacher of Torah) who died in 1606; R. Ya'akov ben R. Elyakim Halpern, died 1645, who lived in Lvov at the end of his life; R. Eliezer Ashkenazi, known as Ish Zvi, the author of the volume Dameshek Eliezer, who settled in Eretz Yisrael in 1651. Also included are R. Shmuel ben R. Eliezer, R. Avigdor Kra d. 1645; R. Yitzhak ben R. Zev Wolf, who because of his sharpness in scholarship was known as R. Itzik Spitzkoph [peaked-head] from 1668-1674, who moved to Krakow where he died in 1682; R. Shmuel ben R. Heschel, d. 1707, the rabbi of the Krakow district. In 1701, he relocated to Krakow to serve as its rabbi, but he continued to hold that position in Opatow until 1705 when he moved to Breslau. R. Meir ben R. Binyamin Wolf Halpern, who came to Opatow from Chelm. In 1718, he represented Opatow at the Council of the Four Lands, d. 1723. During his time, R. Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, the Haham Tzvi, lived in Opatow; R. Yitzhak Segal Landa, a native of Opatow, served as rabbi from 1719, d. 1767; R. Aharon Moshe Ya'akov of Krakow, from 1730, his approbations from Opatow date from 1732; R. Shaul ben R. Simha Halevi from 1768; R. Hanania Lipa Miezlish, from 1772, d. 1816; R. Arieh Leibush Harif from about 1790.
Opatow was the birthplace of the preacher (Magid) R. Yisrael of Koznitz, one of the four founders of Hasidism in Poland. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Admor [acronym title used for head of Hasidic dynasty our master, our teacher, our rabbi] R. Moshe Leib of Sassov settled in Opatow. He established a Hasidic center, one of the most important in Poland. Many Hasidim streamed to his court and some of them settled permanently in Opatow to be near their rabbi, and the community continuously grew.
The presence of the Hasidim increased the need for goods and services in the town. Many Jews now made a living by providing lodging and food for the masses of Hasidim who visited the Admor on weekdays, and especially on the Sabbath and holidays. The visitors also purchased merchandise in town and from time to time needed the services of the local skilled artisans.
The Hasidic master (Admor) R. Aharon Hacohen, author of Keter Shem Tov (The Crown of a Good Name) about the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), printed in 1795, also made his home in Opatow. The most famous of the Hasidic leaders who lived in Opatow for a time was R. Ya'akov Yitzhak, The Holy Jew from Pzhysha, [d. 1814]. In the beginning of the 19th century, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, 'the Apter Rebbe,' served as Admor and rabbi of the town. The author of Ohev Yisrael (Lover of Israel), he, as well as The Holy Jew, were disciples of R. Arieh Leibush [d. 1811, known as The Grandfather (Zada) of Spola]. After he left Opatow, R. Meir Rotenberg (d. 1827), author of Or Lashamayim (Light to Heaven), was elected as rabbi. He stood at the head of the Hasidic folk masters (Admorim) who opposed the approach of The Holy Jew. R. Shmuel Eibschutz (d. 1884), author of Torat Shmuel (The Doctrine of Shmuel) who was also a Hasid, was chosen as rabbi of Opatow. The Admor of Opatow during his time was the son of R. Meir, R. Pinhas Rotenberg (d. 1837). The dynasty in Opatow continued with his son, R. Meir ben R. Pinhas Rotenberg.
R. Pinhas ben R. Meir was succeeded in the rabbinate of Opatow by R. Ya'akov, the grandson of R. David of Lelev, who was also a Hasidic master; his grandson, R. Arieh Leibush Lipshitz, who settled in Eretz Yisrael and R. Tzvi Arieh in 1909.
For many years, the head of the rabbinic court was R. Eliezer Yehoshua Epstein, who subsequently moved to Rakov and Chmielnik.
Opatow was the birthplace of the Hebrew poet Natan Neta Shapira (1817-1897). Also making their residence there in the last quarter of the 19th century, were the poet and author, Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915) and his father-in-law, the maskil [enlightened] and mathemetician, Gabriel Yehuda Lichtenfeld (1811-1887). He published articles in the Hebrew newspapers Hashahar and Hatzfira and also authored a mathematics textbook.
In the beginning of the 20th century a Zionist circle was organized in Opatow.
The years of the Austrian occupation (1915-1918) were a period of revitalization for the Jews of Opatow. The new rulers openly permitted political parties, forbidden during Tsarist rule, to function. The branch of the Opatow Bund, which had operated underground, opened it own active club, Zukumpft (the Future). It became a center of many activities, including a drama club. However, the main focus of the town was Zionist activity, whose origins predated the war. During the war, a Hebrew kindergarten was opened. It closed in 1921 because of a lack of financing. A branch of Tzieri Zion (Young of Zion) was founded in 1918. Among the activities of its members was collecting food and fuel for the needy.
The rising tide of Anti-Semitism in Poland did not bypass Opatow. Towards the end of the war, Polish soldiers under the command of General Haller passed through the town attacking Jews and plundering their possessions.
In 1925, the organization of merchants and small workshops in Opatow organized a Jewish cooperative bank. Three years later, the merchants withdrew and founded their own bank. The two banks, one of the merchants and the other of the small workshops, existed until the outbreak of World War II. Opatow also had a free loan society that offered interest free loans to the needy. Also helping the poor were the traditional charitable societies for visiting the sick, provision of lodging for the needy and travelers and dowering brides. In 1930 a small hospital and a branch of the organization Ezra, which helped the poorest, were established.
During the interwar period, many of the community's children studied in the Talmud Torah that moved to a new building in 1929. A Yeshiva that functioned for five years was founded in the early 30s. In 1923, the government opened an elementary school for Jewish children shabesukvah, where mostly girls studied. In 1933, it became a regular school with sessions on the Sabbath where Poles and Jews studied together. In 1925 a school sponsored by the Beth Jacob network opened for the girls of Opatow and a heder Yesodei Hatorah, under the supervision of Agudath Israel, opened for boys. The Tarbut school, where instruction was in Hebrew, opened in 1934 and each year another grade was added. It also occupied its own building.
The majority of Opatow's Jews were Orthodox and they controlled the community and its institutions. A branch of Agudath Israel started in 1921. Even so, there were active chapters of most of the Zionist political parties in Opatow. In the early 20s, a branch of Hehalutz started and its members started an agricultural pioneer training center [hachsharah] in a nearby farm. A branch of Hashomer Hatzioni [the Zionist Guard], later known as Hanoar Hatzioni [Zionist Youth] started in 1927 and in the early 30s, a branch of the Revisionists was founded. The Zionist parties and youth movements were also involved in cultural activities and opened courses for Hebrew and conducted lectures on a wide range of topics. The average number of those purchasing the Shekel in Opatow was 300. The strength of the various Zionist parties in Opatow can be seen from the voting results for the Zionist congresses. In 1921, Mizrahi received 159 votes, Al Hamishmar received 110 votes and Hitachdut received 91. In the 1929 elections, Mizrahi received 272, Al Hamishmar received 99, Eit Livnot received 91 and Poalei Zion received 18. In 1939, the last election before the war, Mizrahi received 159, Al Hamishmar received 110, The Working Eretz Yisrael list received 91 and the General Zionists 33. There was a small branch of the Bund and a number of Jews were active in the communist underground.
The results of the last elections for the community council were, 5 representatives of Agudath Israel, 3 Zionists, 2 craftsmen, and one representative from an independent list. Jews of Opatow also had representation in local government. In the first elections for the municipal council in 1919, they received 19 of the 24 seats on the council; in 1927 and 1931, only 11 Jews were elected.
In 1920, Opatow's rabbi was R. Hayim Yosef Bach, who signed an edict prohibiting the purchase of rabbinic positions. In 1930, after a bitter struggle, R. Shalom Rokeah (the son of the Admor of Belz R. Yisachar Dov Rokeah [the Belzer Rebbe]) was elected rabbi. He was the last rabbi of Opatow and perished in the Holocaust. The Belz Hasidim had their own prayer house. Besides that one, there were shtiblach [prayer rooms] of the Gur, Ostrovitze, Modzitz and Alexander Hasidim.
In the 1930s, there was constant Anti-Semitic agitation in Opatow and in 1936 there were attacks against the Jews. On one of the market days, a group of hoodlums along with area farmers, attacked stores and stalls of Jews. They stole goods, attacked the owners and their families, tried to break into houses and injured 30 Jews. The police arrested 20 of the rioters and they were brought to trial. Thirteen of them were sentenced to short terms and the rest were freed. The Appeals Court upheld the convictions but set aside the sentences of six of them because of their age.
At the end of 1939, all Jews living in large and fine houses were ordered to evacuate them and move to the Jewish quarter, one of the poorest sections of the town. The deserted Jewish homes were then taken over by German officers.
At the beginning of 1940 the Germans posted special orders for the Jews the requirement to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David, the prohibition of buying from or selling to non-Jews, and in addition to this they were forced to make large payments. The first payment was for 60,000 Marks with the addition of jewelry and other items of value to be handed over to the Germans within 24 hours. By the beginning of 1941, the Germans had confiscated all the Jewish owned enterprises.
The Jews were required to establish a Judenrat in the beginning of 1940. At its head was M. Weissblum, a wealthy man acceptable to the entire community. The Judenrat was forced to obey all the orders of the German rulers and to fulfill all their demands. Even with all of this, Weissblum and his colleagues [on the Judenrat] sought to defend the interests of the Jews and from time to time were able to pay ransom to release Jews whom the Germans would periodically arrest. The Judenrat also used bribes to help relieve the plight of the Jews.
A ghetto was established in Opatow in the spring of 1941, and the entire way of life of the town changed. As was stated, before the ghetto was established the Germans had succeeded in confiscating all of the Jewish businesses and remove them from any possibility of making a living. A station of the SD, which brought terror and fear to the Jews, was set up in Opatow. The ghetto occupied Berko Yoslevitz St. and some alleyways in the area. Besides the local Jews, refugees from Warsaw and Lodz arrived. They came on their own believing that there would be more of a chance to survive the Nazi occupation in small towns. As a result of the terrible crowding and unspeakable sanitary conditions, there was an outbreak of typhus in the ghetto, especially among the refugees whose living conditions were the worst. The Judenrat and other self-help groups organized to fight the typhus plague. An infirmary operated by TAZ (the Jewish health organization of Poland) and a hospital of 30-40 beds operated in the ghetto. A public soup kitchen provided lunches for a symbolic price for the needy among the Jewish intellectuals. Shortly thereafter, another soup kitchen for other needy opened. At first, both soup kitchens attempted to provide a two-course lunch, but with time, they were only able to provide a bowl of soup and a cup of muddy coffee. These two kitchens continued operating until the liquidation of the Opatow ghetto in October 1942.
The ghetto residents attempted to maintain an orderly pattern of life, including a school system for the children, vocational training, aid and social services. At the beginning, the Judenrat, with the help of knowledgeable and enterprising Jews, set up workshops to produce brushes. They hoped to keep as many people gainfully employed as only those with a regular job and a work permit qualified ghetto residents to receive a daily bread ration. The Judenrat also tried to convince the Germans to permit them to open a school for small children in the ghetto. In the end, a permit was issued and on 16 July 1941, a school comprising six grades and 220 children opened with instruction in Hebrew and Yiddish. The ghetto also had a Torah study group in the Beit Midrash of Ohev Yisrael. There was an agriculture pioneer training farm of the Freiheit (Dror) and Hashomer Hatzair youth groups near Opatow. They worked under the direction of the landowners and their leader was Kalman Tchernichovsky.
Initially, the Germans were satisfied with the Judenrat providing them with forced laborers and did not snatch people from the streets as they did in other places. Every day the Judenrat supplied them with 50 to 60 house workers for their domestic needs. However, the setting up of the Opatow ghetto in the spring of 1941 undermined the previous arrangement. Periodically, representatives of the Todt Company would enter the ghetto and seize hundreds of people for forced labor. The first group of young people was sent to work camps in the Lublin region. The prisoners of these camps suffered from hunger, beatings and abuse from the Ukrainians and German gendarmes. Many died of hunger or disease and there were some suicides. The Judenrat attempted to send them food packages. A short while later, the Todt Company demanded that the Judenrat supply it with 500 additional young people and threatened to have the ghetto liquidated if they did not comply. The new workers, men and women, reported on time and were sent to the notorious work camp Skarsyzko Kamienna (cf.). Shortly thereafter, another group of 200 men were taken from the ghetto to work in the munitions factory in the Starachowitze labor camp. Next came the turn of the agriculture pioneer training farm. One day the Germans entered and took a large group of young people along with their leader, Kalman Tchernichovsky. They were also sent to Skarsyzko Kamienna. Before being sent away, Tchernichovsky managed to make contact with the pioneer farm that was in Ostrowiec [Swietokrzyski] (cf.) near Opatow. He continued his work even in the forced labor camp. In 1941, Mordecai Anielewicz visited Skarsyzko Kamienna and met with Tchernichovsky and his colleagues. Yitzhak Zuckerman (Antek) also visited the members of the Opatow underground.
We cannot dismiss the role of informers in the ghetto. A young German Jew by the name of Mandelbaum, regularly supplied the German gendarmes with information on what went on in the ghetto the smuggling of food or the secret slaughtering of chickens or other livestock. Some of these transgressors were apprehended [by the Jews] and sentenced to death. One day Mandelbaum got drunk and paraded through the ghetto streets singing songs of the German Nazis. The Germans caught him and shot him. Another young Jew, Poznerson from Lodz, approached Governor Frank of the General-Government requesting that his parents be brought from Ghetto Lodz. In return, he promised to reveal to the Germans names of Opatow Jews who had hidden property. Poznerson also indicated in his letter that the Opatow Judenrat had bribed local officials and security police to avoid searches where the property was hidden. When the local SD found out, they arrested Poznerson and shot him to death.
In the beginning of 1942, a group of Jews expelled from Silesia arrived in Opatow's ghetto. The number of residents, which had decreased because of the abductions to the forced labor camps, multiplied. At the same time, those young people who still remained in the ghetto began to organize as an underground. They even obtained some weapons that were kept in a hiding place. Meanwhile, the seizures for forced labor increased, this time by the members of the SD and the Gestapo. Those abducted were also sent to Skarzysko Kamienna and Starachowitze. At this point in time, the number of those escaping to the forests and to the Aryan side of the city grew. The ghetto's youth underground also increased its activity especially in obtaining weapons from area Poles. They maintained close contact with the Polish underground in Ostrowiec and through them met additional arms dealers. It was mostly the women who took care of hiding the weapons. On one of the winter days of 1942, the SD along with the Gestapo raided the arms repository. Immediately afterward, the enraged Germans began searching all the Jewish homes. They interrogated the ghetto inhabitants, randomly shot passersby and threatened the lives of the Judenrat. Everyone knew that it's discovery was the work of an informer, but it is not known who it was.
Between October 20 and 22, the ghetto of Opatow was liquidated. Members of the German gendarmerie and Ukrainian police surrounded the ghetto, assembled all the residents in the large sports field and carried out a 'selection.' Some 500 people that were found fit for work were sent to a forced labor camp in Sandomierz (cf.). A smaller group of a few dozen Jews, including the members of the Judenrat and the Jewish police, were returned to the ghetto under armed guard. The remainder of the ghetto population, some 6,000 in number, was taken to the train station in nearby Yashitze, where they were jammed into trains and sent to the death camp Treblinka.
The Jews who were retuned to the ghetto were required to gather and inventory the abandoned possessions of those who were deported and forced to clean the deserted area. On the completion of these tasks, they were taken to the cemetery where they were murdered.
By the summer of 1944, there were still some 1,500 young Jews from Opatow in the various forced labor camps Skarzysko Kamienna, Starachowitze, Radom, Ostrowiec and others. Most worked in munitions factories and other units producing war materiel for the Germans. These camps were surrounded by barbed wire and the Jewish forced laborers were brutally treated by the Ukrainian guards. Beatings were a daily occurrence; food was scarce and of poor quality and even water was meagerly distributed. Periodically, the sick and weak were separated, brought to the nearby forest and shot. With the approach of the Red Army to the area, the Germans killed those healthy prisoners who still remained in the camps.
At the end of the war, 300 Opatow Jews remained alive; most were from among the forced laborers. Some returned to Opatow but in light of the hostile and menacing attitude of the local population, they quickly left.
Apt (Opatow} Memorial Book, Tel Aviv 5726 1966.
Borstein, Y. The Apter Jews on the Brink of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Bletter fur Geshichte [Pages of History], volume XIII, Warsaw, 1960., pages 120-131. [Yiddish]
Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People [Jerusalem]: Files HM/1950, 2707, 2734, 2745, 3540a, 7094, 8213, 8214
Central Zionist Archives [Jerusalem]: Files S5/1707, 1747; S6/2190; Z4/33, 2023, 3004-IV, 3569.
Di Ekonomishe Lage [The Economic Situation]. . ., page 153. [Yiddish]
Gazeta Zydowska, September 9, 1940, March 7, 1941, July 16, 1941. [Polish]
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YIVO ADRP 7.
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