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Enlightenment and Zionism

Translated by Jerrold Landau

We do not have detailed information as to when the secular Haskala (enlightenment) began to take root in Dembitz. The attempt by Hertz Homberg to set up a Government German school for Jewish children at the end of the 18th century failed quickly. The Jews of Dembitz, just like the Jews of other cities and towns in Galicia, would certainly have rejected this new sapling of foreign culture. It is quite conceivable that the number of parents who agreed to send their children to this school was small enough that this institution could not really be called a true school. However, it is important to point out that, due to the unusual persistence of the government, this school was able to function for several years until the central government in Vienna was forced to admit in 1806 that the experiment was unsuccessful, and the government German schools for Jewish children of Galicia were then officially closed down.

The Jewish children of Dembitz were educated in the purity of Torah in cheders and Beis Midrashes (study halls), just as they were in the rest of the cities of Galicia. Their knowledge of the language of the neighboring gentiles was quite sparse, as this knowledge was only necessary in the realm of business and livelihood. Even those Jews who had greater contact with the gentiles and knew how to speak their language whether because they lived in their neighborhoods near the outer areas of the city, or whether because they intermingled with the gentiles of the neighboring villages due to their business dealings – were nevertheless not able to read the language. Jewish pronunciation was evident in the spoken Polish of the Jews of Dembitz, for the most part.

Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the Jews of Dembitz, just as the Jews of the rest of Galicia, saw no need or value in learning the Polish language, since their dealings with the central and regional governments were conducted solely in German. For that reason, when the Jews decided that they needed to learn a foreign language, they preferred German, due to the need for contact with the governing authorities, the general trend of the Jewish Haskala, and the similarity to their own Yiddish language.

As contact with large cities, both near and far, increased, and as the economic connections with businesses and factories throughout the country increased, the need to communicate in writing arose – the need for a general enlightenment and acclimatization to the ways of the larger world increased in like fashion. Whether they were asked to provide agricultural products to the local area, such as eggs, grain and wood or whether they wished to buy clothing, cloth, iron products, etc. – at every point the benefit of knowledge of the vernacular, both written and spoken, became more and more obvious. The more well to do, those whose business dealings brought them to the bourse in Vienna, found it necessary to read a newspaper – at first in German, and later, as the administrative independence of Galicia grew, also in Polish. Thus did the gates to secular enlightenment open slowly among the Jews of Dembitz, accompanied by incessant internal debates. The pioneers were, on the one hand the children of the well to do families, whose situation gained them a higher status, and on the other hand the children of the poor families who attempted to improve their lot by means of enlightenment and secular knowledge. At first only private teachers filled this need, such from as the Liprant and Krantz families, and others. Later, as compulsory education in public schools became more prevalent, the Polish schools began to fill this need.

Thus, the Haskala movement came to Dembitz significantly later than it did to larger cities. At that time, the Haskala movement in Galicia began to define the direction of the nation, as it did in the rest of Eastern Europe. The Haskala reached Dembitz in the national sense with the gradual introduction of Zionism. It is impossible to determine exactly at what point, and through whom was the Zionist idea introduced to Dembitz. We can conjecture that Zionism became prevalent in the 1880s, with the national awakening that arose in conjunction with the pogroms in southern Russia, and through the influence of the newspapers "Hamagid" and later "Hashachar" of Smolniskin. These newspapers had a small readership in this city, since most of the Jewish population, although by no means all, were under the influence of the Orthodox. We know from hearsay that the first Hebrew socialist newspaper, "Haemet" published by Lieberman, was also read by the first maskilim of Dembitz.

In any case, it is a fact that already by the beginning of the 1890s there were active Zionists in Dembitz. In 1893, they attempted to organize a Zionist organization, however we do not know whether they were successful, and if so, for how long it lasted. Word of this organization was transmitted by delegates from the Dembitz area to the second Zionist convention of Galicia which took place in Lvov in 1894. At that time there were already Zionist organizations in Tarnow, a city with which the Jews of Dembitz were in close contact, as well as in other smaller towns near to Dembitz, such as Pilzno and Ropczyce. In particular, when the "Ahavat Zion" organization was founded in Tarnow in 1897 with the aim of promoting settlement in the Land of Israel, and became actively involved in founding a moshava in the Land of Israel by the name of "Machanaim", there was great excitement about this also in Dembitz.

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The influence increased further due to the fact that one of the people who intended to settle in Machanaim was Mottel Leibel, the brother of Reb Chaim Leibel, a long-time resident and the son of an honorable family of the city. This matter was a topic of conversation for everyone, especially when he left along with his family to the Land of Israel.

At first many of the locals, including many of the particularly Orthodox people, such as the Dayan Rabbi Yehuda Leib Laufbahn the grandfather of Yitzchak Laufbahn, as well as many Hassidim, joined the ranks of the "Ahavat Zion" movement in Dembitz. However after a short while, the Rabbi and Tzadik of Sziniowa as well as the Rabbi and Tzadik of Belz proclaimed their opposition to the movement, and almost all of the Rabbinical courts in Galicia followed suit. At that time the Hassidim began to wage an open battle against "actively precipitating the end", and a powerful war erupted between the two camps.

The main weapons in this battle was "graffiti literature" [65], a written debate, where both sides did not hesitate to refer to the other with names couched in flowery rhetoric, replete with hints and innuendoes, each side according to its own spirit.

The Zionist movement remained very small, and only a few youths joined it openly. These youths were maskilim, who had rejected the traditional Beis Midrash, including: Eliahu Gewirtz the son of Reb Alter and the great-grandson of Rabbi Elish the Rabbinical judge, and the grandson of Rabbi Daniel the Strong, Nissan Taffet, Shmuel Mahler the son of Reb Chaim, Moshe and David Leibel the sons of Reb Chaim, along with other people who kept their identification hidden. When the most prominent members of this organization left their city, the field of battle was open for several years until a new generation of Zionists came of age. Some of these were people who abandoned the Beis Midrash, and they were headed by Yehuda Bornstein, and later Yitzchak Laufbahn. Others were businessmen and tradesmen who were no longer dependent on the Jewish G-d, and were not particularly concerned with the view of the community.

From this point, the Haskala and Zionism had caught on in Dembitz to such a degree that assimilation was no longer an issue in the communal life, and the opponents of Zionism were found only among the Hassidim. The few assimilationists among the professional intelligentsia no longer had the need or the possibility of organized activity within the community.

The second unsuccessful attempt to establish a Zionist organization in Dembitz took place in 1904, ten years after the first attempt. A hall was rented next to the synagogue, and they even succeeded in arranging a memorial service after the death of Dr. Herzl. However, one morning they found all of the furnishings scattered, and the organization lost its life force. This deed was perpetrated by the Hassidic opponents, who were heartened by the death of the Zionist leader, and even arranged a festive meal on that occasion. This deed was described in the Zionist newspaper "Der Yud" that was published in Krakow. A Zionist meeting hall was not established again in Dembitz until after the First World War, when conditions had changed radically.

A few years later, an article from Dembitz appeared in the above -mentioned newspaper, apparently from the pen of Meir Sapir, with the signature "Yankel le mort" saying: "By us Zionism died in its childhood". A youth could be a Zionist – but when he becomes a groom he loses interest. There was much truth to this adage, and it remained true until the end of the First World War. The means used by the general Zionist organization to raise funds were quite limited: selling of shekalim [66], and Keren Kayemet [67] stamps, a memorial evening for Herzl and an annual Chanuka play (Macabee players). These means were insufficient to sustain the Zionist movement throughout the year. A small local committee was established, consisting of appointed or elected representatives. Every few years there were also elections for the state organizations, such as the parliament and the Sejm of Galicia, as well as for local organizations, such as the city or communal council. With all this, they did not have the means to sustain an organization of young people during the intermediate times, since in addition to all of the difficulties and persecution, there was also the attrition due to emigration.

After some time, an attempt was made to expand the Zionist activities by the founding of a businessman's organization, just as had been done in larger cities. This union would protect the business situation of the merchants of Dembitz, such as the issue as to whether closing of business on Sundays would be obligatory or optional, the issue of taxes, etc., and the setting up of a reading hall, etc. The Zionists were the main force behind this organization, however the businessmen themselves, men of means and influence, did not participate in this organization, and the union only lasted for a short time.

The driving force of Zionism during this period was the enthusiastic youth named Yehuda Bornstein. He did not lose one opportunity to inject the spirit of Zionism into the downtrodden city. What he was not able to accomplish with the elders he was able to accomplish in a great fashion with the youths.

Poale Zion

The first Zionist organization in Dembitz which managed to survive was "The Union of Poale Zion" (The Workers of Zion).

Very few of the Jewish businesses in town hired salaried employees, so most of the members of this organization were employees from outside the city, or local artisans who worked in their parents' workshops. These people would be less influenced by the pressure from the old guard of the city, and they would also be more brazen in going against the wishes of their parents. The means of sustenance of the workers' organization was wide enough to be able to win over members from the surrounding area, since the mandate of the organization included the protection of rights of the workers, and the raising of the level of culture among the populace, which at first was quite low.

In the newspaper of Poale Zion, "Der Yiddisher Arbeiter" [68], which was published in Vienna (edition 8, from June 1, 1905), the first article was written about the organization in Dembitz: "Even in our small town, Zionism has begun to spread among the workers. Our organization was founded only with great effort, for we were forced to wage war with the local zealous Hassidim, who were not willing to agree in any manner to the establishment of an organization here."

Later, it describes the first meeting which took place on April 23 of that year. The scholar Rabinowitz spoke at that meeting. He was apparently not a Dembitz native. "He explained the principles of Zionism and in particular the principles of Poale Zion, and the purpose of the organization". The speech had a great effect.

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The first committee was established, with L. Wasserman (a tailor) as the chairman, M. Taub as vice chairman, Sh. Lempel as treasurer, Aharon Finn as secretary, as well as other members of the committee.

The articles was signed by the initials Y. B., that is Yehuda Bornstein, who from behind the scenes was the main force behind the founding of the organization.

When the general organization of Poale Zion was established in Austria (The Jewish General Workers Organization), the workers and business helpers of Dembitz joined, and the Dembitz branch became affiliated with the general organization.

In the meantime, there was apparently a significant changeover of the members of the organization due to the massive emigration. In the second general meeting which took place on April 28th 1906, a new board was elected, with M. Schildkraut as chairman, M. Sheinfeld as vice chairman, Sh. R. Wurzel as secretary, M. Israel (a coppersmith) as treasurer, and M. Dar as recorder.

The organization continued to gain in strength. It felt the need to expand the realm of activities to female workers as well. Once again, Yehuda Bornstein was the main force behind this action. On December 29th of that year, an organizational meeting of the female workers took place which was addressed by Yehuda Bornstein. A committee was appointed consisting of Dintfas, B. Kreindel, S. Siedlesker, and M. Siedlesker. This meeting which founded the "Women's Union of Poale Zion", took place on April 5th, and the above mentioned appointees were elected to the committee. It was decide to establish a library (which was never established), and to offer courses in enlightenment to the women members.

After about two years after the founding of the union of Poale Zion, an action took place which had no precedent in Dembitz nor in any other town in western Galicia: a general workers strike. This strike took place after the strike of the needle workers in nearby Tarnow, which was organized by the Z.P.S. (The Jewish socialist workers' organization – later known as the Bund). The many achievements of the strike in Tarnow left a great impression among the workers, and the workers' union of Poale Zion decided to demonstrate that the workers have the ability to improve their living conditions if they put the effort to it. Dembitz was one of the few places where Poale Zion was the only workers' union. At that time, the manufacturing of clothing for the purpose of export was beginning to develop in Dembitz. It was still not possible to rely on the local residents to organize something as major as a strike, so an organizer was sent in from the central organization in Krakow, namely the comrade Piltzer, later Dr. Piltzer, who now lives in Israel.

The needle workers in Dembitz would work in the summer from 5 a. m. until a late hour in the evening, and in the winter from 7 a. m. until 11 p. m., and on occasion until 12 midnight or 1 a. m. The main objective of the strike was therefore to reduce the number of working hours per day to twelve (!).

Twenty-eight workers participated in the strike, of whom only half were participants of the union. One Christian worker joined the strike as well. Financial assistance was sent to Dembitz from the central organization, without which the workers would not have been able to sustain themselves for the duration of a nine day strike.

The employers did not remain silent during this strike. As usual, they turned to a "third party" – the mayor and the governor of the area (Starosta), who ordered the arrest of two of the strike leaders. They were immediately freed due to the intercession of the above mentioned representative. The employers went out to the neighboring cities to seek strike breakers, but they were not successful: no worker from the outside was willing to come to their aid on account of the great publicity that Poale Zion made with regard to the strike. Additional measures taken to frighten the strikers included the searches and other protocols that were ordered to be conducted by the local gendarmes in the union offices. The workers stood firm even after the employers agreed to reduce the workday to thirteen hours, from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., and the entire city was in ferment.

Finally, the strike ended with victory for the workers – it was agreed that the workday would be from 6 a. m. until 7 p. m. with a one hour break for lunch. The employers were compelled to pay the workers for the days they were on strike, and a condition was made that none of the strikers would be fired.

The victory in the needle workers' strike raised the spirits of Poale Zion in Dembitz and the surrounding areas. However, the governor of the Ropczyce region, under whose jurisdiction such an event never took place again, decided to liquidate the rebellious organization based on the repeated pleas of one of the employers. After about two months the regional government ordered the closing of the Dembitz branch of the Jewish General Workers' Association on the pretext that during the needle workers' strike the song "Red Flag" (Czerwony sztandar) was sung in the offices of the organization, and on one occasion the members of the organization shouted out "long live social democracy!" as they left a meeting. These serious deeds were definitely legal, however who could stand in the way of the will of a governor of a Galician town?

Nevertheless, the opportunity arose to evade the order, and a new branch of the General Workers' Union was founded. At the founding meeting a new committee was elected, with L. Fuchs as chairman, Grinhut as vice chairman, Wurzel as secretary, and Schneider as treasurer.

At first, many members joined the union. However, apparently, the organization weakened significantly due to emigration. In the years 1908-1909, there was no mention at all in the newspaper of the activities of Poale Zion in Dembitz.

In August 1910, a general membership meeting took place and it was decided to establish anew the Poale Zion union after the liquidation of the national workers' union. About fifty members signed up at that time. The temporary committee began the activities of the branch. A meeting took place in order to distribute the Zionist shekels, and a committee was chosen for that purpose, consisting of Naftali Schneur (currently in the United States), Leiner (currently in Israel), and Mendel Wilner. About fifty workers participated in that gathering. Lectures on various topics took place each Sabbath. One of these lectures, entitled "Our Cultural Tasks", was given by Yitzchak Laufbahn, who had returned from a visit to the Land of Israel. Special action was also taken to distribute the newspaper "The Jewish Worker".

After the other Zionist organizations in the city founded a public library, the members of Poale Zion found themselves disenfranchised by the founders, who did not purchase books in Yiddish. Therefore, they were forced to join the library as members, so that they would be able to have an influence on its activities.

The Poale Zion convened a meeting together with the "Zionist Citizens" in the large Beis Midrash in order to deal with the issue of the "Public Library" that was founded by the governing authorities on January 1, 1911. Meshulam Davidson of Rzeszow (currently of Israel) gave a lecture on the necessity of registering Yiddish as the spoken language.

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A new committee was elected at the general meeting, consisting of Schneur as chairman, Leiner as vice chairman, and Wilner as secretary. A nice two room apartment was rented as an office and the cultural activities increased. A. Rivotzki (Shlimovitch), the representative of the central organization, visited the group and lectured. A Chanuka party was arranged with the participation of Meshulam Davidson, who was very active during those years in the activities of the movement in the entire region.

One Sabbath, Tzvi Wolf lectured on "Socialism and the Agricultural Question". The cultural activities did not weaken even though organization lost several of its most active members due to emigration. Lectures were given by local members on the topic of Jewish literature, history, Zionism, socialism, and other such topics. Evening classes were also arranged.

After the local chapter had re-established itself, special attention was paid to youth activities, and a "Jugent" group was established which consisted of twenty boys and girls at its outset. This was the first youth group in Dembitz. After several months this became an organized "Jugent" group with 25 members. Most of its activities focussed on evening classes.

In an article on Dembitz in the newspaper "Yidisher Arbeiter" from that time period, the following fact is noted: "Recently we were informed of an intended lecture by the member Avner (that is Yitzchak Ben Tzvi [69], who is today the president of Israel), however to our distress Avner became ill during his trip and he was not able to come to us. They invited by telegraph the member Davidson from Rzeszow, who spoke on the same topic "Labor and Culture among the Jews of the Land of Israel" … The lecture was very successful and we thank the member Davidson for his volunteering.

Thanks to the valiant effort of several members, the number of members of the chapter increased. A new committee was elected. At every chance that presented itself, donations were solicited for the Fund for the Workers of the Land of Israel (K. P. E. Y.), which had been founded at that time by the world organization of Poale Zion in order to strengthen the cooperative and labor movements in the Land of Israel.

The efforts of Poale Zion to gain more influence in the public library, which had been founded by the women's Zionist organization "Debora", were not very successful. The Zionist university students, who took it upon themselves to run the library, were not interested in purchasing Yiddish books which were in demand by the common folk. Therefore, it became necessary to found a special library which would serve the needs of masses. The young women of the common folk did not find the atmosphere of the women's' Zionist organization "Debora" to be appropriate for themselves, so a new women's organization "Chavatzelet" was set up with the assistance of Poale Zion and due to the efforts of Ruchama Gruenspan. A significant number of working women were included in its membership.

When the issue of the library came to the fore, the two related groups Poale Zion and Chavatzelet, with the efforts of Yitzchak Laufbahn, established a separate library "Yidishe Folksbiblioteke". The library started with forty books, and became one of the most significant cultural institutions in the city until the time of the Holocaust.

At the general meeting held on October 30, 1911, the following people were elected to the committee: Naftali Schneur as chairman, Moshe Taub as vice chairman, Mendel Wilner as secretary, Pinsk as treasurer, Shtrik as recorder, Parker, Wilner, Hershlag, Bronheim, Sender Bienstock as officers. Ring, Wurzel and Treister were appointed to the inspection committee.

At the conclusion of seven years of the functioning of the committee, a festive celebration took place. The members of Chavatzelet participated, as well as many members of the Zionist youth. For the first time, the Poale Zion choir performed.

The Workers’ Organization

Translated by Jerrold Landau

There were very few labor disputes in Dembitz. There were no large factories there who would hire salaried employees. Most of the workers were employed by family members. In the larger plants such as the wood engraving plant of Nathan Grünspan and the foundry of Naftali Eisen, the vast majority of the employees were Christian. From time to time, the Poale Zion union would become involved in a minor dispute between an employer and an employee, however, after the needle workers' strike of 1907 there were few such opportunities for involvement. One opportunity for action came in 1912 with respect to the makers of the upper parts of shoes (oberteilmachers) who were employed in Mendel Leibel's shoe factory, which had only been established a short time before. This factory also employed mainly Christians. Only the makers of the uppers were Jewish, and most of them had been brought in from different cities. After the employer was in significant arrears in the payment of salary, and a written complaint submitted by the union was not answered, a strike was declared. This forced the employer to respond to the complaint after a few days. In the periodical “Der Yiddisher Arbeiter” which described this strike, it is pointed out that “Mr. Leibel is a Zionist, and not a simple one, but rather a flaming radical.”


The Poale Zion organization was the first organization, however once the ice was broken in the city, that very same year a second organization was founded due to the efforts of Yehuda Bornstein. This organization, called “Debora”, was known as the “Union of Zionist Women”. However, the membership consisted only of unmarried women, who were well to do and well educated. This organization's activities were primarily in the educational realm, with a particular emphasis on culture and Zionist publicity. Its endeavors were assisted by several students of the Dembitz Gymnasia and the University of Krakow. However due its use of the Polish language and the social makeup, this organization remained rather small and did not reach out to (and it is not clear if it even intended to reach out to) the masses of Jewish young women whose language of speech was Yiddish and whose way of life was much simpler.

These differences were instrumental in the founding of the young womens' organization of Poale Zion, called “Chavatzelet”, as has previously been mentioned, due to the efforts of Yitzchak Laufbahn. This organization was headed by Ruchama Grünspan who was far more active than the older members of Debora. These differences were also instrumental in the founding of the Public Library of Poale Zion. As has previously been explained, the members of the intelligentsia who headed the Jewish National Library, which had been founded by Yehuda Bornstein, were not interested in purchasing Yiddish books, and also to a large degree they were not interested in purchasing Hebrew books. The situation was such that this library, rather than spreading Jewish national culture, served as a vehicle for assimilation.

{Photo page 37 – Zionist Women's Circle “Debora”}

“Geula” and “Shachar”

With the development of the two organizations, Poale Zion and Debora, together with the growth of two different approaches within the Jewish youth movement in Galicia, there arose in 1907 two additional Zionist organizations whose influence and impact was well recognized and significant.

These were Geula (Redemption), a group of Dembitz high school (gymnasia) and university students, founded by Yehuda Bornstein; and Hashachar (the Dawn), an organization of Beis Hamedrash (religious school) alumnae, a branch of the national Histadrut of the same name headed by Yitzchak Laufbahn before he emigrated to Palestine. Geula held its meetings privately in its members' homes due to fear of discovery by the faculty of the gymnasia and expulsion from the school for the offence of participating in a secular organization. Hashachar held its gatherings in the facilities of Poale Zion.

Hashachar held its first conference in Dembitz at the Bornstein Hotel during Passover 1908. Yitzchak Laufbahn was one of the featured speakers, and he also headed the second conference. However, he passed away prior to the third conference. During this period many of Hashachar's members and staff emigrated to Palestine, while the remaining members and the Beis Medrash students joined other Zionist organizations. As a result, there was no longer any purpose for Hashachar's special activities. The area organizations, including those of Dembitz, continued their efforts in a smaller scale fashion, until they also ceased to function with the outbreak of World War I.

By 1912, Geula had stopped functioning as the Jewish high school population had declined and there were only five remaining members in the senior gymnasia class.

“Local Committee”

Starting in 1910, a local Zionist committee (known as the “Local Committee”) was formed in Dembitz as an umbrella group to coordinate the activities of various organizations including the collecting of the shekel, arranging elections for the Zionist Congress, Jewish National Fund activities, collecting funds from charity boxes (pushkas) in the residents' homes, setting up a Hebrew school and running it, activities regarding the elections, and all other political activities.

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This committee served as an umbrella organization for all of the Zionist organizations with the exception of Poale Zion. For every joint activity, such as producing the population registry or setting up elections, it was necessary to deal with Poale Zion outside of the committee. Mr. Bendet Fett served as the chairman of the Zionist committee at its outset and for many years thereafter. He was one of those who was most committed to the Zionist idea and to the Hebrew school.

The matter of Aliya to the Land of Israel, of all the issues that were of importance to the community and in particular to the youth, was always outside of the realm of activity of the local Zionist committee. Assistance for those that made Aliya was provided by private arrangements, help from friends, and other such venues. It would have been an inadvisable thing to give out an address to the parents of those that made Aliya which could be used for complaints and requests, since most of those that went did so without the permission of their parents. The party line of the Zionist organization was always that the lot of the immigrants to Israel might reflect badly on the movement itself.

Aliya of individuals from Dembitz to the Land of Israel had already begun by 1909. The first of those that made Aliya included: Yitzchak Laufbahn, Tzvi Wolf of blessed memory, and Moshe Taub (who now lives in Kfar Yechezkel), all members of Poale Zion. Afterwards Mendel Wilner, one of the leaders of the movement in the town, made Aliya to the Land of Israel. However he returned after a short time, and after his return he remained as one of the chief activists in Dembitz. He was an individual whose cultural and organizational activities among the youth and the adults remained in the memory of the people of the city for many years, even after his emigration to America in the wake of the First World War.

{Photo page 38 bottom – “Geula” and “Hashachar” organizations}

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Translator's Footnotes
  1. Probably referring to posters and flyers put up on walls and buildings. This form of spreading doctrine is still very prevalent in the Hassidic areas of Israel and other places, particularly Mea Shearim. Return
  2. Coins. The shekel is the current unit of currency in Israel. The shekel in this context was a nominal membership fee assessed by the Zionist organization. Return
  3. The Keren Kayemet is the Jewish National Funds. Return
  4. The Jewish Worker. Return
  5. The second president of Israel, who served from 1952 until his death in 1963. Return

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