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Institutions of Education and Culture

One of the first people involved in modern education in Kobrin was the teacher R' Todros Novik who opened a reformed Cheder according to the demand of the law. In his Cheder, boys and girls studied together in separate rooms and on benches and tables fit for this purpose. There was also a very spacious courtyard for the children's games during breaks. The group of teachers were: the tutor R' Todros, his wife Dubba, and his son Yitzchak. The first level of studies lasted until the child knew Hebrew perfectly and a little bit of arithmetic (adding and subtracting).

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From there the student went to Cheder. The parents selected for themselves the teacher they wanted. On a little higher level than these lower classes was the School of R' Baruch Gerber. This school did not have a fixed study program.

After the occupation of the city by the Germans in the year 1915, they announced that education was mandatory. Young people who had some elementary knowledge opened a school with the support of the government. The language of instruction was Yiddish and they used mostly instruction books in Russian and in German. Since there was a dearth of other instruction books they started also using books in Yiddish that were published by Z.I.S.A. The school was scattered according to classes in the women's galleries of the city synagogues.

The teaching staff was Beil, Antopolski, Dvora Zelkind, the sister Nimtzovitz, and others.

After the German authorities settled in the city and the front moved on they began to deal with administrative matters and then there arose serious criticism of the teachers and their Cheders. People started demanding better sanitary conditions and more fitting study halls. The teachers, who saw that they had to defend themselves, organized under the name, “Teachers Association” (the Melameds?). They came up with the idea of opening a school together. The Rabbi Michael Shmoish, of blessed memory, took them under his protection, gave them all the help they needed, helped them organize, found them a fitting hall at the house of Abramchik on Ratner. The school opened with three grades from the third and up, based on the program of an elementary school by the name of “Intelligence.”

The group of teachers were: R' Shlomo, a Jew from Lita who found his way to Kobrin and was a teacher of Talmud in the higher classes; Noach Holtzman for arithmetic, nature, geography and physics; the teacher Shmuel Gerber; Mr. Noach Alkon for Hebrew and Hebrew history; the teacher Hanan Wineshtok for arithmetic for the lower classes; R' Moshe Chayot; R' Yitzchak Novik; and more. Soon the school was accepted by the parents and more classes opened. The place became too crowded for all the students so they fixed the building at the beginning of Potcher Street. The school moved to its new location and the teaching staff was enlarged.

Among the teachers in “Intelligence” at one point were the brothers Polonski, Paltiel of blessed memory, and Ephraim may he live. Both of these two brothers had really done a lot for the national education in Kobrin.

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The school became the place where young souls were shaped in Kobrin. The idea was to do it in a national religious spirit. They were very attentive so as not to embarrass those who supported that cause.

The R' Michael was the principal of the above mentioned school and from time to time he would come to visit and to examine the students.

On a Friday night in the winter, before the school had had a chance to establish itself adequately in the new building, a fire broke out and the entire school was consumed by it. Nevertheless, the fire did not cause the cessation of classes. The women7 s galleries in the synagogues were put to use as places for study and the school dispersed to various parts of the city to continue its existence and the studies.

After a lot of travail to the teachers and the students and after the number of the students grew despite everything, the school moved to Pinsker Street (May 3rd) to a house that used to be a Jewish hospital. In that school for a short time the following served as teachers: Gedalyahu Alon-Rogoznitzki, of blessed memory, the teacher Zeidel Gvirtzman, may she live. They became the favorites of the students and they are mentioned to this day with a lot of admiration. Not all the students were lucky enough to be the students of these teachers. First of all because those teachers taught only in the higher classes and secondly because they were teaching there for a very short time. They left for Palestine and dedicated themselves to studies at the University in Jerusalem. Mr. Alon, of blessed memory, continued as a lecturer at the University after he received his diploma and Mr. Gvirtzman continued for many years to teach at schools in Jerusalem.

The studies in the building mentioned above did not continue for a long time. After that building was acquired, the former barracks on Traguta Street were overhauled and the school was transferred to that building with “relief” money from America.

You could call this the “shining period.” The school curriculum became more varied. Classes were added. To this day it is hard to decide what kind of educational level the school had. It had two preparatories up to the first grade and would take in only those who already knew how to read and write. In addition to the preparatories there were seven more grades. In the fifth grade two hours a day were dedicated to the Talmud and in the sixth the students had to study three hours a day, sometimes without a break. In the seventh they studied the Talmud all morning at the Beit Midrash of the Hassidim of Kobrin. This is not the place to stop and examine the pedagogic level of the teachers but it should be mentioned that their influence is still felt by students of theirs today.

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First of all, I feel obligated to mention all of them. The acting principal superintendent, who was given that duty by the R' Michael (because the Rabbi had too many duties in other institutions),.was the R' Noach Vinberg (“the judge”) who visited the school everyday and sometimes examined the students. On his silent face there was never seen even a shadow of a smile. He was very quiet. At no time did anyone know whether he was pleased with the teachers and the students or not. He always appeared in class without knocking on the door, sat in the corner and listened to the studies.

The teacher Noach Alkon was especially liked by the students. He had a tremendous influence on them. Even with his strictness and the heavy work load he gave the students, they admired and loved him. Even when he was angry they believed he knew what they were doing and recognized by the face of a student whether he had prepared and knew his lessons. When the bone in his left jaw trembled nervously the students became fearful. They knew he was angry. But when he lectured on a new subject it was as if he had been transferred to another world. His anger subsided and the class's fear disappeared.

He had a special system for teaching history. He arranged a lottery for all the chapters of the Jewish history of Dubnov that they were studying. A student picked from the ballot box the chapter upon which he had to write. The students composed a special prayer to say when they were picking their lottery so they would succeed in choosing the chapters that they really liked.

Once a year the above-mentioned teacher showed his ability in directing a play that had to do with current affairs for Hanukkah. The great hallway of the school served as a hall for the presentations. He chose talented students from the upper classes and he prepared them for the presentation. Indeed, during the years these presentations became a sort of tradition. The audience of parents enjoyed them very much and mentioned them for a long time.

Mr. Alkon was an enthusiastic Zionist who transmitted his enthusiasm to others. In his imagination he visited. Palestine many times. He carried on with Zionist speeches. He seized every opportunity to instill the spirit of Zionism in the hearts of his students. I remember once he received a new instruction book from Palestine and read to his students about the heroism of Trumpeldor and his friends. At the end of the reading from the book he said, “Blessed the book that you had the privilege to hear in our country. I am wandering around here in Diaspora.”

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He attempted to give his students a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language in the Sephardic pronunciations that he himself found hard to master.

Gerber Shmuel was a teacher of arithmetic and geography. He was a student of the Russian system and he taught in Yiddish. Arithmetic he taught from an arithmetic book of Vorshtzegen and later from the Polish edition. To teach geography he used Yiddish books that were published by Z.I.S.A. He always scared the students with threats of bad grades but he was of a good temperament and the students knew that he was only joking.

The teacher Wineshtein Chanan: a teacher of arithmetic and physical education, he was an old bachelor who never came out of match-making, and an eternal student. To remind himself of the good days when he studied at a polytechnic he wore the student hat (the only one in the city) with its insignia. As a sports teacher he organized a scout movement among the students in the school and they were called “Scouts”. The teacher for Talmud, R' Zundel, brought in a spirit of refinement and of Torah for its own sake. He was a Jew with a refined soul, a Torah scholar and a wise teacher who inspired his students with a spirit of good manners. (He spoke to the students in the third person). The students treated him with love and with exceptional manners. They listened willingly to his lessons in Talmud. He was a divinely inspired artist to make the study easy. He straightened every difficulty without much ado in a very simple way that was understood even when we dealt with the most complicated issues. He never punished a student because we all pushed ourselves willingly to the studies.

R' Moshe Chayut, a teacher for the beginning classes, was an intellectual. When he ran a Cheder by himself he attempted to bring “from the beauty of Yefat to the tents of Shem.” He found a lot of satisfaction in his profession. He was experienced; in his special melodious way he would turn the studies into a source of pleasure for the students. He was among the founders of the school and his students remember him favorably.

R' Yitzchak Novik came to continue his teaching as a teacher for the younger children from the “progressive Cheder” of his parents when this school was established. I think he continued to teach there until the end.

A special character was the teacher R' Zelig Slodzinski who was later appointed a Rabbi (in Kossova). He was taken out from the Beit Midrash where he sat and he continued his studies from the Yeshiva (which was closed during the World War).

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He was given the role of pedagogue and educator to the students. He was still a young man who was in need of a guiding hand. He approached his work without pedagogic experience and used his governing arbitrarily. Although he had an interesting appearance and was full of holy studies, still the students did not want to accept his discipline. He was among the few teachers who used heavy punishment, spiritual and physical.

He derived a special delight from tripping up his 11 to 14-year-old students with difficult questions that would even trip up scholars very experienced in the Torah. He expressed his opinion of the students based on their responses.

His punishments did not always stop with beatings. In one instance he actually knocked a tooth out of a student's mouth. In another case he made a student fall down (his legs were weak) so that the student could hardly stand up again without the help of his friends. Expelling students was an everyday occurrence with him. Bitterness accumulated in the hearts of students and lessons became torture. In the sixth grade, where he was the main teacher, his maltreatment of the students reached a peak. At the end of the winter of the year 1924 the students declared a strike and did not want to continue to study with him. The intervention of the parents did not help. The students insisted with their demands and the class closed before the end of the school year. During the new year the sixth grade students declared they would continue as the previous class had and the management of the school was forced to fire him. The firing actually turned out to be for the best because he went back to the Yeshiva and continued with his studies. He had a great talent in his studies and in the year 1927 he was appointed Rabbi of the congregation in Kossova where he was very much accepted by his congregation.

A youthful beauty and freshness were brought to the school by the teacher Shlomo Stavski and the teacher G. Stavski. When they were still young they started teaching because there was a dearth of teachers who were acquainted with the Polish language in those days. The students liked them very much. A female teacher found it harder to take control of a class of older boys but the students knew how to accord her the honor that she deserved. Their subjects were the Polish language, grammar, knowledge of nature, and physics.

The teacher Fishel Feldman was also brought from the Beit Midrash to teach sacred studies.

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The teacher Rosenboim, the teacher for Tanach, came from the Polish town of Mezrich to Kobrin. He was a real scholar. He turned the studies of Tanach into a scientific study. He was a Jew whose heart was to Zion and he felt himself in the Diaspora as “an imprisoned baby.” He was among the founders of the “pioneer Mizrachi” in the city and the “Mizrachi,” the real mover and shaker, there. He always dreamed of moving to Palestine, but because of family reasons never achieved it. He made speeches in assemblies of the above-mentioned organizations. Although his speeches lacked pathos, their influence was mighty nevertheless.

For a time R' Mordechai Shimon Rabinovitz was the Talmud lecturer for the seventh grade. His teaching went outside of the borders of the school and he continued to teach in the Beit Midrash of the Hassidim of Kobrin. His lessons carried the character of a lecture like in a Yeshiva. The students felt themselves free. They studied independently and assembled in the Beit Midrash only to listen to the lesson.

The lesson for which everyone was waiting all week was the one that taught the intonation of the reading of the Torah. The teacher was R' Nachman. He was very particular and had a very nice voice. He was short and his face was like that of a child . with a thin black beard. He was very strict about every iota and those musical intonations are planted in the hearts of the students to this day. Of course when the students sensed his weak side they wanted to dominate him but he usually took one of the teachers as a helper who would take care of order while he did the teaching.

The caretaker of the school was a gentile with a long mustache. During the rule of the Czar he had been the commandant of the city police in Kartocz-Berza and somehow ended up in Kobrin. He was a quiet man and did his job faithfully without ever angering anybody. He lit the stoves during the winter. He saw to it that the kerosene lamps were lit and distributed in the classes in the hours before the evening.

The day of judgment for the teaching staff came when the district supervisor was about to visit the school, or someone from the central government. The day before, students were ordered to come the following day dressed in Sabbath clothes and all shiny. The teachers were very nervous on that day and were very nice to the students. Almost always the inspector left the school very satisfied.

We did not have any program for field trips for the students aside from one journey a year to the nearby forest in the neighborhood on Lag B'Omer. Of course, very willingly and with a lot of joy the students prepared and trained themselves in exercises several weeks before the journey.

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The students who during all the rest of the days of the year sat with their studies inside the school for between seven and eight hours a day took great pleasure in that journey. The spring was shining and everything was blooming around. The Jewish/Israeli songs that were sung would put the students in a poetic patriotic mood and they would sail in their imagination to their ancient homeland. This explains why all those journeys made by the schools were so successful.

The school balanced its budget through tuition paid by the parents. Several times teachers' strikes broke out when they demanded additional pay. The parents' committee had to come to some kind of a compromise with the teachers.

The reputation of the school started going down after R' P. succeeded in extending his rule over the school “Intelligence.” His desire was to bring an extreme religious spirit and to turn the school into a hallway to the Yeshiva that he founded in the city. There was a movement to start looking at every little blemish of the teachers. Indeed some teachers were found lacking and were fired. The secular studies became limited. Many students that finished only three to four classes headed for the Polish gymnasium. Chaos started to take over the school.

The Zionist circles founded a Hebrew school as a branch of their center called “Culture.” Since their school did not have a home, they invaded a building at the end of Taraguta Street that housed the Z.I.S.A. school. After a lot of dealings and compromises they divided the building in two with a partition made of wood to divide the two extreme schools. As principal of the school “Culture” was appointed a beloved Zionist among the citizens of Kobrin, the engineer Mr. Levits, who with his talents succeeded in acquiring the Hebrew language in several months. The instruction was conducted purely in Hebrew and in a modern style. The students were mostly from Zionist parents. Thanks to the school “Culture,” many of the students were saved from the claws of assimilation that started creeping into our city.

Within the central building for educational institutions was the school of Z.I.S.A., which when it was established was supposed to be coed. In reality the teachers wanted a separate education and in the seven classes there were no more than five to six boys. The life behind the school was its principal Yomtov Beil, a former Yeshiva man who dedicated himself with all his enthusiasm and energy to the above-mentioned school. The group of teachers was composed of youngsters of the city. In the beginning they did not have any intention of associating themselves with any political circle, but in time that school joined the Z.I.S.A. movement. A very liberal spirit pervaded the above-mentioned school. Hours of study were few (until noon time) and everything was conducted in the Yiddish language.

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Aside from the teaching of the language of the country, there were friendly relations between male and female teachers and students. As could be expected in the battle over languages in the city, the school was very important, and students and teachers together with a small group of the residents of the city fought a holy war for Yiddish. Still the school did not succeed in developing because most of the girls preferred to study in the Polish elementary school. With the establishment of the school “Culture” it received another blow.

A trade school for boys and a sewing school for girls established by “ORT” were found in the lower floor of the house on Trauguta Street. The principal instructor of the trade school was I. Kulton. “Instructor” was the name given to one of the carpenters in town who instructed the students only in practical work. The only improvement that came to the school was that the students learned only that occupation and were not exploited for other purposes as they might have been by a private carpenter. The students learned the work only by hand. The tools were primitive (new). No machines were used. The more talented students would get some idea about carpentry and those who were ready to immigrate to Palestine saw themselves as carpenters and that's the way they put it in their documents. The sewing courses for girls were conducted by a seamstress from the city and I doubt if they acquired enough of sewing to make a living at it. Anyway these courses did help the girls after they became housewives.

Yeshiva and Yeshiva Students

by M. Tzinovitz

The government appointed Rabbi, R' Aaron Yehoshua Shafit was brought from Vishniova (the Vilna district) to Kobrin by his relative R' Shlomo Levin and he established here a small Yeshiva in the year 1910 in “Gass Beit Ha'Midrash” and a congregation for a shtibel by the great synagogue. R' Shlomo Levin was a student of the Yeshiva Volozin. He became famous as a preacher and a lover of Zion. In his sermons he always preached the love of Palestine and to prefer the Etrogim from the land of Israel to those coming from Corfu.

This small Yeshiva that prepared students for the larger Yeshivas in Lithuania brought the known Talmudist R' Mordechai Shimon. R' Mordechai Shimon excelled as a distinguished scholar. He came to Kobrin earlier and became the secretary of the philanthropist R' Yeshaia Leichtung for matters of charity especially as they related to the Yeshivot in the land of Israel. Unlike R' Shlomo Levin, R' Mordechai Shimon was a great zealot and he later joined the movement of “Agudat Israel.”

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In those days there was the beginning of a great movement among the students of this small Yeshiva to go to greater Yeshivot in Lithuania. Among the first in that movement was Moshe Gvirtzman and R' Zalman Parmut who traveled through Slavodka in the year 1913 and R' Yosef Yozfa who left for Novharduk. In the year 1913 when Moshe Gvirtzman visited Kobrin he took back with him the young man Gedalia Rogoznitzki, student of R' Shlomo Levin, to Slovodka. In 1914 already thirty young men from that Yeshiva left for other Yeshivot especially to Slavodka and Mir.

Among the Yeshiva students from Kobrin in the Yeshivot of Lithuania we should also mention the famous R' Isaac Kamnetzki and R' Sander Vigodtzki. R' Isaac traveled first to Lita to the Yeshiva of R' I.I. Reiness, the head of the “Mizrahi.” This was against the will of R' David, the Rabbi of Kobrin. It is interesting that he did not stay there for a long time and later he moved to Radin and he became a very famous student of Rabbi Naftali Trapp. Then he became also his son-in-law. R' Isaac settled in Novidvor and became famous as a Torah scholar.

R' Sander Vigodtzki, the son of the ritual slaughterer of Kobrin, Rabbi Aaron David, studied in Slovodka and came back to Kobrin during the German occupation. When the war was over he went back to study in the Mir Yeshiva. He became the son-in-law of the head of the court of Brazi, the R' Yakov Moshe Osherovitz. When he died he was replaced by R' Sander Vigodtzki. R' Sander excelled as a Torah scholar and as one with good manners. His father R' Aaron David, the ritual slaughterer of Kobrin, was among the Hassidim of Turisk.

During the '20's when this writer studied at Mir Yeshiva, he found about 20 people from Kobrin who held important posts in the Yeshiva. Among them the brothers Karpenshprung (the children of the ritual slaughterer R' Yona of the Hassidim of Turisk). One of them, Mordechai, remained alive and is now in America. Chaim Visoker (also among the survivors and in America), the saintly R' Shlomo Pinchuk who became famous as a Torah scholar and while still young he composed an important book about the Talmud, Noach Nimtzovich (later lived in Brisk, his native city), Mordechai Shlomo Markel, Menashe (the brother of R' Sander) and other precious youngsters studied at the Yeshiva.

It should be noted that Moshe Gvirtzman and Gdalyahu Alon, who were in Kobrin during the German occupation, did a lot to benefit the people of the city in those days in every way possible, despite the fact that they were still young. M. Gvirtzman (his grandfather Yitzchak Yakov Gvirtzman was involved among the Hassidim of Kobrin and a childhood friend of the Rabbi David, he was also a follower of the learned Rabbi Zalman Sander and became friendly with him) was very active in those days as a public activist and the right-hand of Rabbi Michael Shmoish and they coordinated the great welfare work.

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By their initiative there was established a general Cheder. (To replace the previous “Talmud Torah”.) That became a fabulous educational Torah scientific institution. To that institution was also connected all the best instructional energies that were then in the city: On one hand there was R' Mordechai Shimon for the studies of Gemara in the higher classes and on the other hand the known teachers for secular studies. Among them was Baruch Gerber who was previously a known teacher in the city for Hebrew and Russian and also Gdalyahu Alon (Rogoznitzki) who served, despite his young age, as a teacher in that school.

The Youngsters of the Yeshiva

by Efraim Polonski

In Kobrin I lived close to the Beit Hamidrash “the life of a man” and I had an opportunity to examine from close the life of the Yeshiva under the management of R' Pesach Pruskin of blessed memory.

The voice was the voice of Yakov. The youngsters studied and delved deeply into the essence of their studies and they went back and forth with their studies, day and night. They did not stop from studying the Mishna. Various melodies came mixing together.

How sad and how deep were those melodies. They moved the heart of a man who passed by the school, the treasury for the spirit of the people of Israel during the days of our Diaspora among the nations. The voices of those youngsters who carried the flag of the Torah rang loud and said: “Hoi Hoi” said “Ravina” said “rav Ashi.”

The sound and the melodies seemed as if they were asking for mercy, as if embracing before our father in Heaven and retelling the troubles of the people of Israel during the long days of the Diaspora. The sorrow, the disgrace, the degradation that Jews are taking among the gentiles for the sake of his holy name.

As a Yeshiva man who wandered until my 20th year from one Yeshiva to another Yeshiva, I found it very pleasant to hear those melodies that were familiar to me from the time of my youth. For hours upon hours I listened to them to absorb into myself the sounds of the student of the Mishna.

And this was the daily schedule during the weekdays: The youngsters would walk around the Beit Midrash, here and there. Some of them would stand by the closet filled with books and other commentaries, looking at several different commentaries. Some of them would stand there and argue about commentaries, each one trying to convince his friend that he was right.

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On Friday afternoon the house became empty and quiet. Each youngster would go to his'apartment to prepare for Sabbath, the Queen, with great respect and fear. Before the sun completely set the young men would assemble again in the Beit Midrash well washed. One of them who knew music would stand in front of the Ark and in a voice fitting the Sabbath he would start with “let us go and sing” and everybody, with a lot of excitement, would follow him. At the end of the prayer they would stand and turn, bow and sing “come Queen, come Queen, Sabbath the Queen.” The holiness of the Sabbath and its shining would float in the entire house. There existed a feeling that an “extra soul” was hovering over every one of them.

On Saturday there was no sacred study. Everyone would select for himself some book to look into to study. Some people examined books about morals because there was among the youngsters a group of moralists, “Musarniks” as we call them.

That is how the Sabbath day passed, half a day to God and half a day to yourself. At evening time the “Musarniks” assembled in a special room that during the. rest of the week was for those who say tehilim. Those youngsters would enter the room one by one with a bowed head and in a manner of surrender to accept the yolk of the Heavenly Kingdom and to confess for their sins, which they hadn't even sinned. One of them would read in a low voice in fear and in trembling: prepare for the worship of the creator, to give yourself a personal account. Each one of them would take in his hand books of morality that he had prepared ahead of time and start to moan in a trembling voice, and the room was dark, which made everyone scared.

Slowly, slowly the voices rose until they reached a crying stage. In that crying were included all the troubles and the torture of a poor nation that sheds its tears before the master of everything, over the Diaspora of the divine presence, and over the destruction of the Holy Temple, and over the sons that were exiled from the table of their father.

One of the young men would call aloud and all the rest would repeat after him: “The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth. Satan chases you to catch you to lead men in a crooked path. With every step you take, you meet with obstacles. Ho, master of the universe,” they would shout from the depths of their hearts, “how many obstacles there are!” The crying would rise and become stronger. “Satan seems like a mountain,” they would continue, “with every trick he tries to bring man to commit sin. Ho, master of the universe how horrible is the sin! We sinned, we were traitors.”

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They would drum with their hands on their heart. “The eye sees and the heart covets, oh merciful!” The young men, the moralists would cry in a voice that tore your heart, “you our father in Heaven who is waiting at every time for your people Israel to repent. Give mercy upon your children and take them out of the gates of obscenity, so what has been written will come to pass; he who comes to cleanse himself, Heaven helps him.”

This is the order of every Saturday night. After the lesson the moralists came out of the room where they had isolated themselves and prayed with great enthusiasm the evening prayer.

On Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah they would dance and sing in ecstasy: A God you chose us of all nations. They would talk about current events: God did a good deed to us that gave only us the Holy Torah because if not for the Torah we would be like the other nations. Now that we have received the Torah how good and pleasant it is to us. And whoever did not see those young men rejoicing during the Holiday of Purim…

kob182.jpg [43 KB] - The Yeshiva in Kobrin
The Yeshiva in Kobrin

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