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Jews of Ozarow and Emigration

From the end of the 19th century, certain Ozarowers knew that if they ever wished to experience anything other than misery and anti-Semitism, there was only one solution: to leave for another country. At that time, the Jews of Ozarow aspired to getting to Canada or the United States. Certain others — a very small number — looked to England.

There was a story told in Ozarow of a tailor who emigrated to London around 1905, leaving behind his wife and a little girl of tender age. Ten years passed and the tailor decided to return. But unfortunately, the 1914 war broke out and his fond plans crumbled. Once the war was over, we find the tailor feverishly packing his personal effects in a haversack. He took care to hide on his person all of his savings in pounds sterling. He crossed the English Channel without incident and settled down on the train which was to take him to the far end of Europe. In the course of his journey, a traveller of highly respectable appearance came aboard. They quickly introduced themselves, and very obligingly, the traveller proposed a deal. He could exchange the pounds sterling for rubles at a very good rate. The bargain was struck! Already, the tailor was dreaming of all that he would be able to treat himself to in Ozarow. He arrived and disembarked to receive the embraces of reunion and the joy of homecoming. Our hero proudly informed his relatives of his new situation. He was now a rich man... and in rubles to boot! The currency of the Czar, which was legal tender in Poland. At least that's what he thought. Because the news was thrust upon him so suddenly that he remained petrified! No more Czar! No more rubles bearing his likeness. The wheel of fortune had turned. It was now the Bolsheviks who held power and the Czar's rubles were worthless! But there was no time for the tailor to feel sorry for himself. As goes the proverb,

What good are tears?
What good is fury?
Let us bear misfortune with good heart.
Others had better luck. Yeyikel the Bricklayer, for example, was able to open a small brickyard with his savings when he returned from the United States. Alter Diamant, also back from America, was able to build himself a house at Number 10 Main Street and marry off his daughter Chana during the 1930's. Melamed Melman also came back from the U.S. with a nice nest egg which permitted him to marry off two daughters

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Rivka to Chaim Rapoport, and Feiga to Reuven Schneider. Later, the two young couples emigrated to France.

Alter-Chil Melman, the son of Kopel the Baker, left Ozarow for Warsaw at a very young age. Once there, he found himself caught by the events of the 1905 Revolution and he was assigned a residence at BrestLitovsk.

One night, he came to knock at his parents' door. He told them of his intention to cross to the other side of the Vistula in order to reach Austrian soil. And Austria was the beginning of the journey to America. Soon after his arrival in the United States, he brought over his youngest brother Shaul, who was very close to draft age.

One day a native of the village, an old man, came back from America. In the synagogue he was asked to describe life on the other side of the ocean, and in the course of the conversation he mentioned that AlterChil, the son of Kopel the Baker, had become a pharmacist. The news travelled quickly to Alter-Chil's parents' house. “Oi, a broch!” his mother Slouva lamented. “My son a pharmacist! A trade where he works with his head uncovered, and on Shabbos too.” But his father Kopel, by nature philosophical, received the information with a smile. The First World War came. After it was over, Alter-Chil brought the three orphan children of his older sister Freida to the United States. He continued to try to get other members of his family out, but the quotas were reduced and immigration was blocked.

After Israeli independence, Alter-Chil Melman left the United States to settle in Jerusalem, where he died in 1975 at the age of 86. We should also tell the story of the family of Shimon BougaierZylberstein.

Shimon Bougaier was one of the landowning Jews settled in the 19th century on the left bank of the Vistula. Around 1900, he decided to come to live with his family in Ozarow. Because he came from the place called Bougai, he came to be known as the “Bougaier” rather than by his real name of Zylberstein. This is the story told by his granddaughter Eileen, now living in the United States.

With the big wave of emigration to America, his four sons and his daughter Ethel found a way to emigrate to the country where, in the eyes of the people at that time, gold could be amassed by the shovelful. As was the custom, the oldest of the family, in this case Meyer, left first.

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Afterwards, he brought over his brother Laizer, his sister Ethel and still later, his two younger brothers, Chaim and Moishe.

Two other daughters, his mother Malka and his Aunt Hendel, as well as his parents Shimon and Witel Bougaier remained in Ozarow. During the First World War all mail to and from America was interrupted. To Shimon Bougaier and his family there came the sad news that the oldest son Meyer had been killed in action as an American soldier in the Battle of Verdun in France.

In memory of their fallen son, his parents commissioned the writing of a Torah scroll. This took place in 1929, and the entire village took part in the dedication. Following tradition, the celebration took the form of a wedding, with the scroll carried down the aisle in the arms of the father Shimon Bougaier, and the mother of the glorious son of the Battle of Verdun at his side. All day, prayers were offered in memory of the long departed Meyer ben Shimon Zylberstein.

In 1931 Shimon Bougaier died. Soon after, his widow Witel was invited to live with her children in the United States at the expense of the American government. Every year until she died she would travel to France to visit, in the company of American officials, the grave of her son Meyer in Verdun.

A certain number of Ozarowers who settled in Canada and the United States at the beginning of the 20th century did not stay inactive. Once they had brought spouses and children from Poland, they began to think of helping other close relatives.

Laying the foundations of mutual aid societies, they were able to sponsor the departure of a large number of persons as soon as the First World War was over. This first flow of emigration was directed especially toward Canada because the United States had a rigorous quota policy.

Emigration to France wasn't simple. You could never get there directly. To reach Paris you needed a launching pad in Germany or Austria, where you would first try to acquire at least a semblance of legal status. With luck, you could then attempt to get into Belgium and finally, France.

Right after the First World War several Ozarowers, among them Albert Rochwerg, Albert Hirschenbaum, the Brothers Zalman, Joseph and Youkale Kotek, and Herman Rochwerg, undertook this hazardous route in order to escape military service in the Polish-Bolshevik War of

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1920. Once they reached Paris, they were confronted by many other difficulties. But Albert Rochwerg's integration was remarkable. After a few years he obtained his citizenship. The first Frenchman ever born in Ozarow! For that period this event had great historic significance and was an exceptional achievement.

Others followed in the steps of these “scouts”, like my three brothers Max, Meyer and Abraham, so that within a few years, there was a nucleus of Ozarowers settled in Paris. After the incidents of 1926 which opposed the Ozarow rabbi against the “Free Thinkers” (recalled in Chapter 3), many young people who had been involved in the affair fled the village to escape arrest. They settled n the larger Polish cities, and from there, some of them left for France, a country of liberty where life was said to be easier. When they got to France, they were often disenchanted. True, it might be comfortable and pleasant to live in France, but only if your presence there was legitimate. From the point of arrival, running around for a work permit or a residence card became the constant concern of all those who had emigrated, and there were many who were forced to abandon hope and to return, embittered, to their native village.

To emigrate to Israel — at that time Palestine — was the dream of many. It signified a return to the ancestral homeland, to speak Hebrew and to work the land — in a word, to be part of a people like any other. Alas, the means to this end remained limited. You could count on the fingers of one hand the active Zionists who, after completing their “Hasharah” (agricultural training), succeeded in obtaining a proper visa. In those conditions only a few tried to emigrate on their own. That was an undertaking that was more than hazardous! It meant selling all of one's belongings to cover the cost of the trip. Which is what Chaim and Sarah Basovitch did around 1935. A childless couple, they sold their house and their stock of shoes and boots and were thus able to establish themselves in Palestine where they became ....... shoemakers. Chil Zylberberg, the son of Faigele Raisel's, and his family took the same risks.

The primary question then was: How do we get out? The second question — where should we go? — became secondary. Those who reached Palestine were not necessarily the most ardent Zionists. Many fervent Zionists left for France, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Britain or

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Sweden. The opportunity counted far more than the choice of destination.

There was a story in the 1920's about a woman whose husband had emigrated to Canada after the First World War. She could barely make ends meet to raise her two children. Every morning she would scrub the floors of well-off Jews and wash their dirty laundry. She lived in a tiny house, a legacy from her parents. Her husband thought only rarely of the family he had left behind. From time to time, the family would receive a letter containing a few dollars. Of course, she was more than forgiving of him. Not knowing how to read or write, he undoubtedly had to rely on some charitable soul to write in his place. And after all, you couldn't impose on people every day!

But after several years had gone by, she received a letter bearing Canadian postage whose bright colours alone were enough to make her dream. She tore it open...her husband finally was asking her and the children to join him! But just as soon, her enthusiasm waned. How could she get to such a faraway country? Did she have to take the train or a boat? Maybe both....who knew? And she knew no other place but Ozarow! She had never spoken a word to other Jews except those of Ozarow. She didn't even know how to get to the train station at Jasice! To cover the costs of the voyage, she sold her little house and received help from her family. She finished packing her bags, separately wrapping the meat dishes, the dairy dishes and those she used only for Passover. She didn't forget the candlesticks, the meat cleaver, the kneading board, the rolling pin and the grater. A carter piled all of her things in the back of his wagon, and at the appointed time brought the young woman and her children to the station. A procession of villagers followed her right to the platform to see her off, and a member of her family who was travel-wise accompanied her to the ship. As she crossed Ozarow, the entire village gathered on both sides of the road to form a guard of honour. People envied her baggage. Any one would have wished that instant to be transformed into the meat cleaver or the rolling pin, to be able to cross the ocean and reach the shores of Canada! They prayed that the voyage would be without mishap, and gave her their good wishes and requests: “Whenever you write, think of us! If you meet anyone from Ozarow on the other side, tell them to send us a few dollars for the holidays.” With a heavy heart and her eyes filled with tears, she promised everything asked. How could she ever forget such decent people?

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From left: Bracha Shafir and her sons Fishel (Philip) and Michuel (Max) before coming to Canada from Ozarow

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Berish Goldblum (front right), later Ben Gold, the father of Morris Gold of Dundas, Ontario, just before embarking for Canada in 1930

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The woman rejoining her husband Leibish was Bracha Shafir, grandmother of Gloria Shaffer Tannenbaum of Montreal, and the two children were Gloria's father Michuel (Max) and uncle Fishel (Philip). (See photo on the next page.)

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Salvation Comes from the East

September 1939 marked the beginning of the German occupation. At the same time, we witnessed the return of many refugees who had fled eastward in order to escape the intensive Nazi aerial bombardments. Thanks to them, we were able to glean certain information which left us stupefied: Soviet troops were heading westward and likely had already penetrated Lwow and Bialystok .... In truth, this vast plan of action was nothing more than the implementation of the German-Soviet pact signed a month before by Molotov and von Ribentropp. We thought that with the treaty, Poland would be restored to her pre-1918 borders. The Russians were thus our liberators, and we would now know an era of equality and fraternity under Stalin.

In Ozarow, Jews whether orthodox, liberal or Communist, were in the large majority in favour of being liberated from the German yoke by the Soviets.

As for the Russians, they encamped in the east on the banks of the Bug River, which thenceforth would constitute a natural demarcation line from their new German ally. Very quickly, many Jews — youngsters for the most part — took to the road in an attempt to reach the Bug. Others were more hesitant. That was the case in our own family. We were two young boys and of course wished to get to the east bank of the Bug. There was no question of leaving our mother behind, but she was undecided about leaving.

Should she abandon her house and seek refuge in that unknown and inhospitable region when winter was approaching?

One day in November there was great news. An official transfer was being organized in the direction of Russia. It would involve an exchange of Germans living on Soviet soil for Ukrainians living in Polish territory. And since our region had no Ukrainians, the Russians accepted a certain number of Jews in their place.

A registration office was set up in the house of Chil Birenbaum, and many people signed up for this collective migration. Our mother seized the opportunity because she saw in it the possibility of avoiding our being separated. But the next day, our enthusiasm waned. We learned that a list had just been posted at the police station, and everyone on it was obliged to be on the trip. And who were they? People known for belonging to diverse political groups. Like Communists, Zionists, members of

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Agoudath Yisroel, Poale-Zion and Betar. This famous list included names of people who had no desire to leave Ozarow together with those who couldn't wait for the train to arrive.

What did this ploy mean? We began to wonder. All the more so, since only two days before, the Germans had sent us six Jews from Wloclawek. And here they were, already officially registered on the list of candidates for departure by the Judenrat!

The days passed, and the registration office stayed open. The list grew longer, and we had yet to see the first car of any eastward bound train. Some on the list lost patience and left early by other means in order to arrive at their destination before winter.

It was the beginning of February 1940. In a Polish newspaper there appeared an insert announcing that a mixed Russian-German commission was sitting in Cracow in order to establish an exchange of Germans for Ukrainians. Around the same time, Ozarow was declared a ghetto town, and its Jews had to wear the armband embroidered with the star of David. From then on, Jews were forbidden to travel on the trains. Yankel, who came from Przybyslavice, decided to go to Cracow. He had to be determined! He could easily pass undetected, since he looked like a real Catholic and spoke Polish like a native-born peasant. So there he was before the famous commission, cooly presenting his application. He claimed to speak on behalf of a group of Jews who had been registered on the list for several weeks. Would they ever get to Russia, and if so, when? The representative of the commission brusquely cut him off and in a peremptory tone declared: “Here, we deal only with exchanges in the strict sense of the term! As for other cases ..... it's everyone for himself!” Yankel came back to Ozarow with his “report”. Nothing good was to be expected from this commission, any more than from any other official body. In spite of the ever bitter cold, new small groups took to the road for Russia. Among these were Avrum Lederman, Abraham Manheim, Leon Goldstein and Chaya, the sister of Leon Kleinmintz. Jacques Lederman, his wife Chana and their child were also among the first to depart. Unfortunately, at the very beginning of this long march, the insistent wailing of the baby forced the young mother — beside herself with worry — to turn back.

A few days later, other Ozarowers left. Among them was my brother Shimon, accompanied by his friend from childhood, Hershel Tyshler. The two of them could not get across the Bug and were forced to retrace

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Notarized document signed by Jacob Meyer Fraiberg, Warsaw, May 26, 1928, confirming permission to his son Aaron Moses Fraiberg, then a minor of 16, to travel to Canada to stay with his oldest son Israel in Montreal. On June 17, 1928, young Aaron Moishe, soon to become Moe, landed in Quebec City on the S.S. Calgaric. He would never see his father again.

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Cry to Escape: Letters to
Yidiss Birnbaum from her Sisters

In May 1930 Yidiss Birenbaum left Ozarow for Canada, where she became Edith Birnbaum, leaving behind her parents Yechiel (Chil) and Yocheved (Yoch'fid), her sisters Sarah, Miriam (Marmish) and Raisel, and her younger brother Yecheskel (Chaskiel). She joined an older brother, Shloime, in Montreal, but in 1935 she married another Ozarower, Yoissef (Yidel) Weissfogel, later Joseph Wise, who had settled in Toronto. They had two children, Rosalie (Rosalie W ise Sharp) and Stanley. After both her parents had died, Rosalie discovered a worn cardboard box in the top drawer of their dresser containing a cache of yellowing letters that had been written in Yiddish to Yidiss by family members left in Ozarow between June 1930 and August 1939, a couple of weeks before mail service was suspended for the war's duration. As premonition of the coming war grew more intense, the letters, which had begun as gossipy reports of simple pastimes, work and family events, became darker and grimmer.

Marmish, a diligent and artistic seamstress, had mused to Yidiss about the possibility of emigrating to Canada in 1930 and 1936. By January 24 1939, engaged to be married to Yossel Hirshorn, she was desperate to get out:

“Dear Sister, Brother-in-law and Child,

I haven't received a letter from you in a long time. To be honest, it's my own fault, since I never answered the last letter you wrote.

Yidiss, you might have gotten the impression from our father's last letter that I'm angry at you, but that isn't so, since up to now, you've never offended me in any way. But dear sister and brother-in-law, I will now explain the situation to you, since that letter might have upset you. As you know, dear sister and brother-in-law, my wedding will be taking place soon, and you are probably wondering how things are in Poland; that's why I wasn't sure about what to write, and had to think over what I was going to say. And so, dear sister and brother-in-law, as you can see, I cannot make a life for myself in Poland because people are living in fear for their lives; that's why I can't say too much, but I have to say this much.

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They're driving all the Jews out of Poland and taking everything away. In a word, my opinion is that things will get as bad here as they did in Germany, and since my dowry is still intact, I have 600 dollars. So, dear sister and brother-in-law, if you have any pity at all, and don't want to see the death of me, my plan is to quickly get married here in Poland and you should make an application to bring us both over. Dear sister, I ask you not to laugh at what I'm saying, because I remember when Sarah and her husband (Gershon who had left alone that same month for Bolivia) asked you to bring them over, it was a big joke and you quickly wrote home, and you were laughing at her. It was a big joke to you, and that was two years ago, and things are getting worse every day. And now you see that our brother-in-law had to go to Bolivia — he had no other choice, since you didn't want to bring him over. Yidiss, remember that we always got along well together, and I was always ready to risk my life for yours, and today is no different. Remember that and help me as much as you can, and don't laugh at me, because I see no other way out. Our brother-in-law knew someone in Bolivia and he made out his application to bring him over, but I have no one. Now, dear sister and brother-inlaw, I'm counting that, with God's help, you won't refuse what I'm asking and the 600 dollars would make it easier for you to bring me and my husband over, who is even more attractive than our brother Shloime. Now, dear sister, you just can't imagine how miserable things are for me, that I should have to ask you such a big favour.

You've been in America for seven [sic] years, and I've never written such a letter to you before — and every time I laughed at the idea of you bringing me over and when I asked you how much money it would cost, you said that whatever it would cost was no concern of mine, that you would worry about that. You said that as long as I wanted to come over, you would arrange it. Did you know that two people are leaving Ozarow for Montreal? Pirim Rimash, one daughter, and Moishe Mayerowitz's brother, Ella Vovkis' son, whose name is Shafir, and the girl's name is Sherman. Shloime wants us to send along a small parcel with a few things for him. I'll write and let you know what and when. Yidiss, I don't want to write to Shloime at all, because he interfered too much in choosing my husband, the same as he did with you. I'm angry with him and I'm not writing to him at all. We received a letter from Shloime last week; he's telling Raisele to sew up a few things for him. He's not asking for much, just a white hand-sewn tablecloth like the

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one you took with you when you left, the one I traded with you: you gave me the silvery one and I gave you the white one. I still have it. I would sooner send him an evil eye before I would send him a tablecloth. He also wants four bishops for his chess game like the ones you took with you when you left and a Krakower style dress for Goldale (Shloime's oldest daughter). Raisele could do it for him but she says she probably won't — she loves herself better than anyone else. I think that out of all these things, he'll have to be satisfied with nothing. If he hadn't interfered in my wedding, I would have sent him all those things. He behaved badly towards me, he never should have interfered in my wedding at all.

Dearest sister, I have a lot of hand-sewn things. I have a few tablecloths. I have one tablecloth worth 20 dollars which means a hundred zlotys, and over there it would be worth even more. I have some lovely pillowcases, the likes of which you couldn't find in all of Poland. I sewed them up a long time ago. I wouldn't have the patience to sew like that today. I've gotten everything ready for the time when you'll bring me over; I'll bring you lots of presents then — you don't have such things over there, and I myself will not arrive poor and shabbily dressed, but in the best store-bought goods. I won't be a burden to you. My husband is a strong, healthy fellow and he's not afraid of work, and my hands are not yet lying idle in my lap. I'm used to working day and night. Yidiss, listen to what I'm saying, and remember my words. You must help me as much as you can. You would be saving my life. I still want to live and taste something of life. Yidiss, remember my words!

Here, they don't know that I'm writing you this letter. Yecheskele says that he's going to write to Shloime and tell him to bring the whole family over. I don't want to ask anything of our brother. If Yecheskele had wings, he would fly to America. He's been advising our father for a long time to pack things in and tell Shloime to bring us all over. He's in the biggest hurry to leave since he reads the newspaper ever single day and he sees how things are going for the Jews in Poland. Our brother-inlaw Gershon left on January 15th. It's only been two weeks today, and we can already see that he did the right thing. And this past week 70 people left for Australia and Bolivia. People are leaving Poland like birds. Soon there will hardly be anyone left in Poland, only those who don't have the money to save themselves.

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Rivka Fraiberg's children in Montreal have written to tell her that she should sell the house and they'll bring her over. I know that if our brother (Shloime) would write a decent letter to our father telling him that he wants to bring him over, he would make up his mind to leave the same day, because we're growing black with worry, wondering at every moment when they're going to start chasing us out.

Yidiss, don't write home and tell them what I'm asking of you. Don't mention me at all. Just send your answer to my father-in-law's address. They won't open the letter. You can say whatever you like. Send me a good answer.

I send you all warm regards; and special regards for your daughter Rivkale (Rosalie). I will make her a Krakower-style dress like the one for her sister Goldale (actually Shloime's daughter and Rosalie's cousin).

sister and brother-in-law who are hoping that they might yet live to see you one day and to talk to you face to face.”

* * *

Sister Sarah had married Gershon Zweig, a stall vendor from Zaklikis. They had two children, a boy and a girl named Yehudith. On January 15, 1939, over his father-in-law Chil's bitter opposition, Gershon left Ozarow alone for La Paz, Bolivia. No other country would admit him. He fully intended that his family join him later and sent immigration papers to Sarah in the course of the year. Sarah and the children were forced to move in with her mother-in-law in Z aklikis, from which desperate for money to pay for passage to Bolivia, she wrote to Yidiss in August 1939:

“Dear Sister and Brother-in-law,

You must surely be asking yourselves why I haven't written you till now. You should know, dear sister, that it's because you didn't answer my last letter.

Dear sister, it's been almost a year since Gershon left, so I'm living at my mother-in-law's parents. You can just imagine what my life is like, living with a mother-in-law. Just imagine to yourself, dear sister, my miserable situation. I have nothing to live for. Just imagine how bitter my life has become; I have to wait for my mother-in-law to feed me. So remember, dear sister, what I am writing you. Write me, answer me like a sister. You should know that I have never asked you for any favour up

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till now. But now that I have received papers from my husband, I'm asking you to send me money for passage on a boat. If there is any hope in living, dear sister, don't think that I'll take anything from you; I will pay you back with thanks. Now that times are changing in Poland, you should realize that if you don't manage to get me out, I'll be miserable. Remember well what I'm writing here; take heed of my words. Get me out of here as soon as you can so I can be with my husband, or else he'll soon find himself another woman. Sister, remember well these words. If I can't turn to my own sister, who else can I turn to?

Now, dear sister, write and let me know how your health is and how business is doing. How is your daughter? Write and tell me how things are going for you. For my part, I can tell you that I have two fine children, they should only be healthy.

Dear sister, I implore you to well consider my letter and I beg you to help me out of my miserable situation; you would be saving my life, since the times are changing here, and there's a big fire in the making. I have the applications lying here, my dear sister, so send me money for a ship's passage — if not, the applications will expire, and there'll be nothing left to do.

Sister, remember well what I am writing here; help me out of this wretched situation. I am so very unhappy.

I send warm regards for you, your husband and daughter, they should only be well; also, regards from my children. Write and let me know if you've gotten a letter from my husband. Dear sister, I beg of you to grant me what I'm asking. Answer soon. You know very well that I'm not one to ask for favours from others, but since things are so bitter for me right now, I have to ask you to lend me the money for passage on a boat. With God's help, I'll pay you back. Remember what I am writing you. Don't cast my words aside; take them seriously and do me this favour.

Your sister Sarah”

Then there was silence....

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This New Year's card from Shloime Birnbaum of Montreal to his father Chil, dated September 11, 1939, was returned, stamped “Mail Service Suspended”


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