Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

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Shtetl Routes. Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in cross-border tourism in borderland of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine

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Biłgoraj - Cultural Heritage Card

Biłgoraj is a powiat town in lubelskie voivodeship, with 18.000 residents. Located in the north–eastern part of Sandomierz Basin also known as Sandomierz Lowland, near a crossing of roads from Lublin to Tarnogród, Jarosław, and Przeworsk (road No. 835) towards Hungary, and the road from Zamość through Nisko (No.858) to Sandomierz and Kraków. Biłgoraj was founded on the edge of Solska Wilderness, between Czarna Łada and Biała Łada, which near the town merge into a single river – Łada, a tributary river of Tanew, which in turn is a tributary of San. In the pre-partition Poland, the town was under the administrative rule of lubelskie voivodeship.

Biłgoraj - Cultural Heritage Card

History

The permission to build a private town of Biłgoraj with Magdeburg rights was issued in 1587 by king Stephen Báthory for a Calvinist Adam Gorajski. The location privilege allowed "people of every sort" settle here – Poles, Ruthenians, and Jews. Gorajski founded a Calvinist chapel and probably an Eastern Orthodox Church (which in the 17th century had already become Uniate). A separate privilege for Jews was issued by Zygmunt Gorajski (son of the town's founder) in 1616 and confirmed in 1634. Gorajscy owned the town until 1664. After them Biłgoraj went to Rejowie (1665–1683), then, briefly, to Fredrowie and Grothus. Then there were Szczukowie (1693–1733) and Potoccy (1733–1802). In 1802 the indebted lands were taken by the Banking Commission, from which they were purchased by Nowakowscy (1803–1850). After the debts were paid, around 1850 a Russian became the lands' owner – Mikołaj Płatonow, from whom the town was purchased in 1864 by the State Treasury and given on a lease to Józef Goldman. Two years later, by a Tzar's ukase on removing feudal relations[1]  in the towns of Congress Poland, Biłgoraj became a property of the state. The town surrounded by woods avoided Tatar incursions. Any large destruction was brought by wars of the 17th century: marches of Swedish, Russian, and Saxon armies during the Northern War, as well as by the camps of Crown and Lithuanian armies. The residents of Biłgoraj had busied themselves with sievemaking at least since the 18th century. They sold their sieves in the entire country and abroad. This profitable craft was practised with success in the 19th century and early 20th. Many Jews joined the production and distribution efforts. The chances of a profitable business influenced significantly the population growth.

Dom sitarza biłgorajskiego z 1810r.
After the first partition of Poland, Biłgoraj for several years had ended up in Austrian Galicia (1772–1776), but some of the area covered by this partition was given back to Poland. Between 1795–1809, after the third partition, it was once again a part of Galicia, and then of the Duchy of Warsaw. Since 1815 until 1915 it had been a part of Congress Poland dependent from Russia. Before World War I Biłgoraj had over 11.000 residents, half of whom were Jews. After Poland had regained its independence, the town remained a capital of Biłgoraj powiat (which it had been since 1866), being a part of the lubelskie voivodeship (of an area larger than before the partitions). After the war the population dropped to 5600, 66% of which were Jews. Before the outbreak of World War II, the population grew to 8300, including over 5.000. Jews (60%)
At the beginning of World War II, in the first half of September 1939 Biłgoraj was bombed twice and fires were set to it from several directions at once. Only some of the previous buildings remained. After a brief stay of Red Army in town, at the beginning of October Germans came. Soon they began persecutions aimed predominantly against Jewish population. The actions gradually intensified to the point of creating a ghetto liquidated in early 1943. The majority of Jews died in an extermination camp in Bełżec.
After the war, Biłgoraj remained the seat of Biłgoraj powiat. After the administrative reform of 1975, the town became a seat of gmina (commune, municipality)  authorities in zamojskie voivodeship and remained so for 10 years after the fall of PRL (polish People Republic) (in 1989) until 1999, when it once again became a seat of the Biłgoraj powiat authorities in lubelskie voivodeship.

History of Jewish community

Biłgoraj Jews are mentioned in archival documents already in the late 16th century. It wasn't until 1616 and 1634, however, that they received a document from Zygmunt Gorajski, specifying their rights and obligations as an organised community. They had a freedom of settling in town, having a synagogue and other gmina buildings, having a cemetery, as well as a right to purchase and sell real estate. They were subject to the land owner's jurisdiction. Initially they were dependant on the Szczebrzeszyn qahal. During the Khmelnytsky's Uprising, his Cossacs destroyed Biłgoraj and nearby towns (Tarnogród, Frampol) and murdered some of the residents, including many Jews. The town did not avoid Swedish armies nor the camps of Crown and Lithuanian armies. Despite all this, Jewish population in the second half of the 17th century was slowly regrowing.

Thanks to the document of Stanisław Szczuka, Jews in Biłgoraj got independent from Szczebrzeszyn, creating in 1694 an independent qahal, from which Jews from Frampol were initially dependent. It caused a protest from the Jews from Zamoyski Family Fee Tail, who claimed it was them who should have the authority over these gminas. From the second half of the 18th century some tax statistics are preserved. In 1765 in the entire Biłgoraj qahal (the town and nearby villages) a tax per head was paid by 661 Jews, while in 1778 by 418 Jews. In 1790 it was paid by 508 Jews, 351 of whom were from the town, while 157 from the nearby villages. Judging by the number of "heads" paying the tax, in Lubelszczyzna (Lublin region) it was a medium-sized qahal. A percentage of Jewish population in town is shown only in the 19th century statistics. In 1819 in Biłgoraj there were 161 Christians (Roman Catholics and Uniates) and 616 Jews, who constituted 26,7% of total population. Jews already had surnames, given to them during the second Austrian partition (1795–1809).

The rabbi of Biłgoraj was Awigdor Majzels (since ca. 1773 to 1819), after whom the position was taken by his son-in-law from Szczebrzeszyn – Natan Perlmutter (1819–1864), mentioned also as Natan Note son of Cwi Hirsz from Berlin. Even before Natan's death Nachum (Suchym) Palast became the rabbi (1860–1877). He was removed from this position after 17 years as a result of a fraud accusation. Szmul Engel was elected as a replacement, but after a few years (in 1884) he was relocated to Austrian Galicia because he did not have Polish citizenship. Jakub Mordechaj (Jankiel Mordko) Zylberman was the rabbi after that – he was a grandfather of Izaak Baszewis Singer. Previously he had been a rabbi in Porycko (today's Pawliwka in Ukraine) and Maciejów (today's ‎Łukiw in Ukraine). In 1913 he gave the rabbi status to his son Icek, who was soon accused of financial irregularities. During World War I cholera epidemic, Jakub Mordka left for Lublin and died there in 1916. In Biłgoraj he was replaced briefly by rabbi Chaim Hochman, who came there from the ravaged in war Krzeszów. After the war the oldest son of Jakub Mordka – Josef Zylberman was elected rabbi (until 1926), and after his death Mordechaj (Markus) Rokeach (Rokech) was the rabbi. During World War II thanks to Hungarian Jews he managed to leave to Israel where he died in 1949.

The 19th century in Congress Poland under the Russian partition was a time of Polish uprisings, and in Jewish tradition – of changes introduced by Russian administration. Jews received surnames then, while in 1821 qahals were replaced by the elected every three years Dozory Bożnicze [Synagogue Supervisor Boards] which had to prepare three-year budgets. In 1862 Jews received partial citizenship rights. In the first half of that century the Hassidic movement steadily grew in popularity. The ideas of Haskala also reached the town.

Biłgoraj
Leading the qahal were the elders: in 1721 Rubin Mendlowicz, in 1728 Lejba Herszkowicz, Rubin Zelkowicz, and Dawid Gerszonowicz, and in 1732 Berek Lewkowicz, Zelik Michalewicz, and Icek Joszkowicz. In the first quarter of the 19th century szkolnicy (qahal helpers) were Hersz Boruch and Anszel (Ankiel) Amt (1810–1825), Majlech Tober and Mojżesz Tauberman (both noted in 1825), and Bendyk Wenberg (Beniamin Wamberger – a "kahalny") and Icek Rytner – signed under the first gmina budget design in 1818. In the second quarter of the 19th century szkolnicy were: Beniamin Szlajen and Jankiel Kalksztajn (1827), and Anszel (Ankiel) Morgensztern (1832).

In the budget design for 1843–1846 salaries for two szkolnicy were included. There was no salary for rabbi, who may have been living on the, unmentioned in the design, contribution from the entire Jewish community. Only since 1851 the rabbi's salary had been included in the budget (it was 75 rubles a year). The other paid gmina officials were: kantor, cashier, and two szkolnicy. Between 1869–1875 the szkolnicy were Szimszon Filer, Fiszel Bran, Jankiel Udes. In the last budget design during the Russian partition for years 1915–1917, there were salaries for two szkolnicy (30 rubles a year) and a salary for the official rabbi (200 rubles), and the clerical rabbi (100 rubles). Distinguishing between the two rabbis is surprising and not present in other budgets. It can be a proof of some unclear today divisions within the gmina. Apart from them, a salary from the gmina was received also by szkolnik Szmul Frost.

For almost 30 dozorca bożniczy [synagogue supervisor] mentioned in the archives had been Szmul Szwerdszarf (an important figure in the gmina), serving on this position from 1847 to 1875. Other dozorcy were: Herszko Harman, Nusym Sztrum, Szmul Wajsman. In the last quarter of the 19th century this function was served by: Szloma Zypman, Froim Szternberg, Dawid Lubliner, Fiszel Szwerdszarf; while in the early 20th century by: Szyja Majman, Noech Lichtensztajn, Nusym Wajsman, Aron Grosman, and Herszko Edelsztajn.
Hassidism came to Biłgoraj, one could assume, even near the end of the first half of the 19th century, when Daniel Wakszul came from Leżajsk. He was mentioned in 1865 as one of the senior clerics. The other two were Szmul Wagner and Michel Pancerman. In 1846 Hassids constituted a large part of the Jewish community, although Othodox Jews were still a majority. The competition between these two groups and their respective supporters resulted in a series of conflicts within the gmina, starting around the second half of the 19th century. It is evidenced by accusations aimed at rabbis and Dozór Bożniczy members by certain Biłgoraj Jews or groups thereof, as well as the accusations coming from rabbi and the Dozór against selected residents or groups thereof. Probably connected with Hassidism was rabbi Nachum Palast, removed from station by accusations, as well as rabbi Szmul Engel, deported to Galicia (he then became a famous tzadik in Radomyśl). Szoel Gebet (arrived in 1875), a supporter of Izbick–Radzyń Leiner dynasties, wouldn't stay long in Biłgoraj either. He was accused by the rabbi and the Dozór of illegal kosher slaughter and preaching "the words of God". Elected rabbi in 1884 was Jakub (Jankiel) Mordko Zylberman (the grandfather of I. Baszewis Singer) – he was connected to Hassids from Turzysko. On the other hand the father of Singer – Mendel Pinkas (from Tomaszów) was the supporter of Hassids from Bełz. In 1913 Jakub Mordka Zylberman – "rabbi at a synagogue" – resigned from his position for his son Icek and became a rabbi for prayer houses.

Near the end of the 19th century (1889) Jewish gmina had a big, brick synagogue from 1875, three brick prayer schools, a mikveh, three cemeteries, a Talmud-Torah school, and a poorhouse. There were also at least four private prayer houses.

It wasn't until the early 20th century that political parties (Bund and Zionist party), social, cultural (theatre, library), and sport as well as scouting organisations arrived to Biłgoraj. New cheders were being founded, quickly reaching the number of over a dozen. To cheders boys went, while girl went to a state school. A special influence on the development of political parties and Jewish organisations had the events of the 1905 revolution and World War I. They generated a lot of movement of people, with whom Jewish press reached the town. Undoubtedly very important for the flow of information on politics and culture had the printing houses of Mordko Werners (in the late 19th century) and Kaminerowie family (the early 20th century). The biggest of them was founded in 1906 by Natan Kronenberg, specialising mainly in publishing religious writings.

Before World War I the conflicts within the gmina returned on a larger scale. A Dozór Bożniczy Representative Icek Kaminer in 1913 accused other members of Dozór – Szulim Rofer and Jakub Szyja Zilbercwajg – of financial irregularities in the gmina budget regarding payments for kosher slaughter of fowl (including swans). Rabbis Zylbermanowie and shochets were to be profiting from it. It may be that the conflict resulted from a fact that Kaminer – the printing house owner – was a supporter of another Hassidic tradition – one of the dynasty from Gorlice. The next conflict came a year later – a group of Jews accused rabbi Icek Zylberman, who despite receiving a gmina salary took additional payments for register entries. It was of little consequence, however, as soon after that World War I broke out.

Russians removed their administration before Austrian army came in 1915. Some of Biłgoraj's residents left too, including rabbis. Jakub Moszko Zylberman died in Lublin in 1915, his son Icek evacuated to Równe in Volhynia. He was replaced by Chaim Hochman, rabbi of a Jewish gmina in Krzeszów, who relocated to Biłgoraj after Krzeszów burned down in the war.

In the late 1918 Poland regained independence. During the war many residents left, so the population decreased significantly – from over 11.000 in 1913 to about 5600 in 1921. Jewish population dropped from 5595 to about 3700. Okręgi Bóżnicze established by Russian invaders were renamed in Poland to Jewish Confession Gminas. A new rabbi was elected in Biłgoraj, another member of the Zylberman family – Josef. The previous rabbi Chajm Hochman became assistant rabbi, and Dozór was headed by Gerszon Gutwein.

Jews lived mainly in the houses near the town square and the vicinity – at the Lubelska, Nadstawna, and Morowa streets. They owned most shops and workshops – including sievemaking ones. They also had representatives in the city council. There were organisations active even before the war: political parties, organisations both social and cultural (the Szolem Alejchem library). There were also new parties like Aguda and Mizrachi, various fractions of the Zionist party and of left-wing ones. A division of the Union of the Jewish Craftsmen, a Jewish bank and a savings bank were founded.

Some details regarding the functioning of Jewish community of the time can be found in the preserved gmina budgets. The fully organised gmina was reborn as late as 1921. 4835 Jews belonged to it, including around 3700 from the town and in 10 nearby villages. In 1921 Josef Zylberman an older son of Jakub Mordka was the rabbi, his successor was the mentioned before Chaim Hochman. Josef died in 1926. Hochman briefly succeeded him, and in 1927 Mordechaj (Markus) Rokeach (Rokech) from the Bełz tzadik dynasty became the rabbi. Apart from him, paid from the gmina funds (coming from the income from the slaughterhouse and the contribution for the wealthiest residents) were other gmina officials: subordinate rabbi Chaim Hochman, secretary Aron Bergman, shechita Lejzor Morensztajn and the second shechita Wolf Wajnberg, slaughterhouse manager Chemia Szuldiner (he was also a "matzo supervisor"), caretaker Abram Szuldiner, custodian Zyndel Altbaum, and teachers: Kloc and Rycer. The pre-war rabbit Icek Zylberman after his return from Russia did not reclaim his position, he was a full–time butchery supervisor. Gmina also paid pension for the rabbi Jakub Mordka Zylberman's widow and her children, and Ruchla, a removed from duty shechita Pancerman's widow. For a salary from the gmina also applied kantor Dawid Rycer. The gmina kept three schools – Talmud-Torah, "jabne", and "Zaycharon Jakub", an almshouse, and a Charity Fund "Gemłs Chsed". From gmina funds baths, synagogue, and prayer houses were renovated, a plot of land for enlarging the cemetery and a plot of land for rabbi's house (in the old house rabbi Jakub Zylberman's widow was living), also a poultry slaughterhouse was built. Gmina budget had to be accepted by the rabbi and the Board of Jewish Confession Gmina, as well as, interestingly,  a "Gathering of plenipotentiaries". The board chairmen were, in turns, M. Majman and I. Oliwa, while the members were Sz. Adler, I. Rapoport, H. Cymryng, L. Sznajderberg, I. Rener. The gathering of plenipotentiaries was led by L. Goldberg, and the members of the Gathering were: Sz. Rofer, Ch. Obligenhanc, L. Sztern, Ch. Baran, E. Kloc, Ch. Gutwajn, N. Fryling, and M. Gliklich.

Before the outbreak of World War II, the total population of the town numbered at over 8.000, including around 5.000 Jews. (60%). At the beginning of World War II Soviet army entered Biłgoraj for a few days. Germans came in the early October. Soon occupants began persecutions aimed against the civilian population, mainly Jewish – beatings, humiliations, forced contributions, a series of bans and obligations, forced labour. In June 1940 a ghetto was created, where all Jews living outside of it had to relocate. In time the scale of violence had grown to deportations (to Tarnogród and Goraj) and executions. In the late 1939 a Judenrat with Szymon Bin at its head was created, the members of which after a few months were put to death by firing squad for not following the invader's orders. Transports of Jews from Austria (mostly from Vienna) started to arrive to the town. They were aided by the Help Committee quickly organised in town. 
Deportacja Żydów z Biłgoraja
Deportations of Jews from Biłgoraj to camps began in the spring of 1942. The first transport headed for Majdanek, and since August further transports headed only for Bełżec. The end of the Jewish community of Biłgoraj was the liquidation of the ghetto and remaining residents in January 1943.

Urbanism

The elongated urban shape of the town was caused by its location between Czarna ‎Łada and Biała ‎Łada rivers. The old town square and streets layout is preserved to this day. In the northern part a location square is situated, with a network of streets branching from it – to the north–east towards Zamość, to the south towards Tarnogród, and to the west beyond Łada, where to the north there is a road to Lublin and to the south towards Krzeszowice. By the road to Zamość  there was a church situated, by the road to Tarnogród an Orthodox church (far from the square), and near the square, to the south–west at the crossing of Lubelska and Nadstawna streets – a synagogue, prayer houses, a school, an almshouse, rabbi's quarters, and a cemetery. Another cemetery is located to the south–east of the town centre, by Morowa street, and yet another further down south. Christian cemeteries were located to the west of the town centre, over Łada. In time Biłgoraj developed towards the south, creating a large suburbial area, further enlarged by incorporating a Puszcza Solska village into the town in 1954, along the Fransciscan monastery complex. Currently the town develops also towards the west – towards the road from Lublin to Jarosław and Przemyśl.

Architecture and building monuments - preserved and destroyed

1) Calvinist congregation, created by Adam Gorajski after the town's location as the first Christian temple in Biłgoraj, presumably in the north–western part of the town. This building existed until 1676.

2) Orthodox Church of St. George the Martyr, situated at Tarnogrodzka street. Created probably soon after the town's location, not yet Orthodox then, but in the early 17th century it became Uniate. The next temples were wooden, and in years 1790–1793 a brick Orthodox church was built, in 1875 taken over by Russian Orthodox church. In 1919 the Orthodox church was converted into a Catholic church. A new Orthodox church was built in the 1990s in the southern part of the town, not far from the church in Puszcza Solska.

3) Initially Biłgoraj was a part of a Roman-Catholic parish created in the early 17th century near the Franciscan monastery in the nearby village Puszcza Solska. In the town, near the town square by the road to Zamość there was a chapel. An independent Roman Catholic parish was founded in the late 17th century. The first church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was wooden. The current brick one was built in years 1732–1755. Between 1883–1885 its facade was rebuilt. The church burned down in 1939, and it was rebuilt still during the war, in 1942.

4) Church of Mary Magdalene and the Franciscan monastery were founded by Zamoyscy in the Puszcza Solska village incorporated into the town in the 1950s. In 1644 Zamoyscy brought Franciscans to the village, who took care of the parish until its discontinuation in 1864. Since then it has been only a regular diocesan parish. The brick monastery was founded by Konstancja Zamoyska near 1778. Since 1794 a part of it served as a church. The current brick one was built in years 1921-1928.

5) Synagogue complex (no longer existing), founded not far from the town square to the south–west of it, in the quarter between Lubelska and Nadstawna streets. It was comprised of a brick synagogue from 1875 (erected on the place of the previous wooden one), three brick prayer schools from the break of 19th and 20th century, brick baths with a mikveh, rabbi's house, a slaughterhouse from 1927, and an almshouse. These buildings were destroyed at the beginning of the war, the ruins deconstructed and the area built over during the 1960, with residential housing.

6) The oldest Jewish cemetery, probably from the first half of the 17th century, located at the Lubelska street, built over during the 1960s.


 7) The second Jewish cemetery, south of the town square, at the crossing of Morowa (near 3 Maja street) and Polna streets, founded near the half of the 18th century, devastated during World War II – in 1941 the wall was deconstructed, old oaks were cut down and matzevahs were transported away and probably used for hardening the roads. The area had been built over with barracks, and in the 1980s a buildings complex and a playing field of the Liceum Ogólnokształcące [roughly equivalent to high school] named after ONZ.

8) The new Jewish cemetery "na Piaskach" [on the Sands], at what is now a Konopnicka street. Founded in the first half of the 19th century, south of the town centre and quite far from it. It was expanded in 1927. Its pre-war area was 2.44 ha. During the war victims of the executions, which lasted until 1943, were being buried here. The Cemetery "na Piaskach", just like other local Jewish cemeteries was also devastated during that time – the wall was deconstructed (probably by Jewish labor, like in other places), the matzevahs were removed and used to lay down the roads, pavements, and driveways. After the war the exhumed remains of Jews both local and from nearby area were buried here. In time the cemetery area was divided into plots of land and transferred to various owners. On the largest plot in the 1970s "Fabryka Domów" [A House Factory] was built. In the 80s by the initiative of Jews from abroad (the family of Art Lumerman) from the area of the former cemetery a small plot was separated, which got walled out and several fully preserved matzevahs were placed there. A wall memorial was also built, with fragments of matzevahs incorporated into it, commemorating the victims of Holocaust. Matzevahs found throughout the town and surrounding are were also brought here. The gravestones laid down on the ground draw humidity, are overgrown by moss and dilapidating.

9) Roman Catholic cemetery at Lubelska street, founded probably in the late 18th century, active until the third quarter of the 19th. Has an entry in the register of objects of cultural heritage. Currently serves as a "Lapidarium of cemetery art". Around 40 gravestones from the 19th century are preserved.

10) a burial cemetery at Lubelska street, founded in the first half of the 19th century as a Uniate cemetery. In the last quarter of the 19th century converted into Orthodox, at that time also expanded by a Roman Catholic part, as well a military one, for the Russian garrison.

11) Burial churchyard of the church in the former Puszcza Solska, founded near the half of the 19th century.

12) A "Jew town" – a modern project – a square with wooden buildings around it, and a wooden synagogue in the centre. Located to the south–west of the town centre, at the I. B. Singer street.

 

Reconstruction of the synagogue in Wołpa, Belarus at "The City on the Trail of Borderland Cultures" in Biłgoraj
 

13) a museum consisting of a wooden house and a sievemaking workshop. Preserved to commemorate the industry that made Biłgoraj famous in Poland and abroad.

14) Izaak Baszewisa Singer's Bench – a form of a monument commemorating the Nobel–winning writer who used to visit his Biłgoraj family. 

Intangible assets

1) The works of Izaak Baszewis Singer, a Jewish writer, writing in Yiddish. A Nobel prize in Literature winner. Singer used to visit Biłgoraj, as his mother descended from there. The setting of his short stories and novels are is the Biłgoraj area.

2) Harvey Keitel – a famous American actor, his ancestors (a Zylberlicht family) came from Biłgoraj.

Sources

Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw

Centralne Władze Wyznaniowe Królestwa Polskiego [Central Confession Authorities of Congress Poland]

State Archive in Lublin

Civil Registry – Jewish confession.

Lublin Gubernatorial Government I

Lublin Gubernatorial Government II

Voivodeship Office in Lublin, Socio-Political Department. 

Bibliography 

J. Markiewicz, R. Szczygieł, W. Śladkowski, Dzieje Biłgoraja, Lublin 1985

J. Górak, Miasta i miasteczka Zamojszczyzny, Zamość 1990

J. Niedźwiedź, Leksykon historyczny miejscowości dawnego województwa zamojskiego, Zamość 2003

Biłgoraj czyli raj. Rodzina Singerów i świat, którego już nie ma (red. M. Adamczyk-Garbowska, B. Wróblewski), Lublin 2005 [an antology of historical texts from the Singer conference in Biłgoraj]

Zagłada Biłgoraja. Księga pamięci [a translation of a book containing materials gathered by Abraham Kronenberg „Churbn Biłgoraj”, Tel Awiw 1955] (translated from Yiddish by M. Adamczyk-Garbowska, A. Kopciowski, A. Trzciński), Gdańsk 2009

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