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Vilna offensive 1919

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The neutrality of this article or section is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.

This article is about the 1919 battle. For the 1944 battle, see
Operation Ostra Brama.
Contents 1 Prelude
2 The offensive
2.1 Diversionary attacks
2.2 Assault on Vilna
2.3 Atrocities
2.4 Soviet counteroffensive
3 Aftermath
4 See also
5 References
6 Further reading

Vilna Offensive
Part of Polish-Soviet War[1]

Polish Army enters Vilna, 1919.
Date early 1919
Location near Vilna
Result Polish victory

Second Polish Republic Bolshevist Russia
Józef Piłsudski
Władysław Belina-Prażmowski
Edward Rydz-Śmigły Unknown
For the offensive:[2]
10,000 infantry
1,000 cavalry
16 guns
For Vilna:[2]
9 cavalry squadrons
3 infantry battalions
artillery support
local population
Polish 1st Legions Infantry Division had 2,500 soldiers
Polish cavarly of col. Belina had 800 soldiers[3] For the
offensive:[2] Western Rifle Division and other units of Western Army.
12,000 infantry
3,000 cavalry
44 artillery pieces.
For Vilna:[2]
2,000 soldiers
33[4] Unknown. Polish military communiques note "more than 1,000
prisoners" taken.[5]
Polish-Soviet War
Target Vistula – Bereza Kartuska – Pińsk – Lida – Wilno –
Minsk – 1st
Berezina – Daugavpils
Latyczów – Mozyr – Korosteń – Koziatyn – 2nd Berezina –
Kiev –
Wołodarka – Głębokie – Mironówka – Olszanica – Żywotów
– Miedwiedówka
– Dziunków – Wasylkowce – Bystrzyk – 1st Brześć – 1st
Grodno – 1st
Niemen – Boryspol – Auta – Dubno – Kobryn – Å?omża – Brody
– Dęblin –
Nasielsk – Serock – Radzymin – Warsaw – Płock – Wkra –
Cyców –
Ciechanów – Lwów – Zadwórze – Mława – Białystok –
Komarów – Dytiatyn –
2nd Niemen – 2nd Grodno – 2nd Brześć – Mołodeczno – 2nd

The Polish army launched an offensive, on April 16, 1919, to take
Vilna (known to Poles as Wilno, to Lithuanians as Vilnius) from the
Red Army. After three days' street fighting (April 19-21),[5] the town
was captured by Polish forces, and the Red Army retreated. The Poles
also succeeded in securing the nearby cities of Lida, Navahrudak and
Baranovichi; they had earlier taken Pinsk.

The Red Army launched a series of counterattacks in late April but
failed. The Soviets would recapture the city only the following
spring, as the Poles retreated along the entire front.

The Polish offensive launched at Vilna would cause much turmoil on the
political scene in Poland and abroad.

[edit] Prelude
The Soviets, while at that time publicly supporting Polish and
Lithuanian independence, sponsored communist agitators working against
the government of the Second Polish Republic, and considered that the
eastern borders of any former Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth state
should approximate those of the defunct Congress Kingdom. Poles and
Lithuanians, on the other hand, inspired by memories of the greatness
of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, saw their their
borders as lying much farther east,[6] and their leader, Józef
Piłsudski, discerned an opportunity for military expansion, exploiting
the turmoil and disarray in the territories of the former Russian
Empire, shaken by the 1917 Revolution and the ongoing Russian Civil

Eastern front in 1919. Poles fighting with Soviets in the north and
Ukrainians in the south - mid-February 1919.In the first weeks of
1919, following the retreat of German Ober-Ost forces under Max
Hoffmann, Vilna found itself in a power vacuum. It promptly became the
scene of struggles among competing political groups, and experienced
two revolutions.[8]

On January 1 Polish officers led by Generals Władysław Wejtko and
Stefan Mokrzecki took control of the city, establishing a "Samoobrona"
("Self-Defense") provisional government. Their aim was to defeat
another faction active within the city, the communist "Workers'
Council," which was plotting to seize the city.[9] Samoobrona rule did
not last long. Four days later January 5, 1919, the Polish forces were
forced to make a hasty retreat when the Russian Western Army marched
in from Smolensk to support local communists as part of the Russian
westward offensive.[8]

Vilna, the historical capital of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, became part
of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and soon named the capital
of the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was
proclaimed in the city on February 27, 1919. "Lit-Byel" became the
eighth government to control the city in two years.[10] The short
period during which the Lithuanian SSR and Lit-Byel controlled the
city was eventful, as the new communist government turned Vilna into a
social experiment, testing various solutions on the city's
inhabitants.[11] [12]

Józef Piłsudski, Polish revolutionary, military leader and
statesman,[13] himself a Lithuanian of Polish culture[14][15], a
descendant of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth nobility
(szlachta)[15] polonized to an extent that most sources call his
family Polish[13] a native of the Vilna region[14][15] and Polish
commander-in-chief,[16] decided that regaining control of the city —
whose population comprised mostly Poles and Jews[17], with some
Belarusians and about 2% Lithuanians[12] — should become a priority
the renascent Polish state.[18] He had been working on plans to take
control of Vilna since at least March; he gave preliminary orders to
prepare a push in that direction - and counter an expected Soviet
westward push - on 26 March.[2] One of Piłsudski's objectives was to
take control of Vilna before Western diplomats at Paris Peace
Conference could rule on whom the city, demanded by various factions,
should be given to.[19] The action was not discussed with Polish
politicians and government,[19] who at that time were more concerned
with the situation on the southern Polish Ukrainian front.[20] By the
time of early April when members of Kresy Defence Committee (Komitet
Obrony Kresów) - Michał Pius Römer, Aleksander Prystor, Witold
Abramowicz and Kazimierz Åšwitalski met with Pilsudski, stressing the
plight of occupied Vilna, and the need for the creation of
self-government of city's inhabitants, Piłsudski is ready to move.[21]

[edit] The offensive

[edit] Diversionary attacks

Battle of Vilna and related operations.Piłsudski arrived at the front
near Lida on 15 April, bringing reinforcements from Warsaw. His plan
calling for exploitation of the gap in Soviet lines between Vilna and
Lida, and advance towards Vilna using the road and railway. Amidst
diversionary attacks, diverting Russian attention from the main Polish
thrust towards Vilna, Polish forces attacked on dawn of 16 April.[3]

The forces moving on Vilna included the cavalry group of Colonel
Władysław Belina-Prażmowski (nine squadrons supported by a light
battery of horse artillery, ~800 soldiers), and infantry under General
Edward Rydz-Śmigły (three battalions of the Polish 1st Legions
Infantry Division with two batteries of heavy artillery, ~2,500

Soviet forces in the area were composed Western Rifle Division (a unit
which had many pro-communist Polish volunteers)[22] and other units of
Western Army; Soviet garrison of Vilna was about 2,000, but the troops
were newly trained and mostly green. Remaining Soviet forces in the
area estimated at 7,000 infantry, few hundreds of cavalry, and 10
artillery pieces.[2] Those forces were to be engaged by other Polish
forces and thus prevented from coming to aid the Vilna garrison.

The diversionary attacks went well, with Soviet forces acting under
the impression that Poles had other targets than Vilna. Despite the
attacks being planned as diversionary, they succeeded themselves, with
generał Józef Adam Lasocki taking Lida in two days (despite
unexpectedly strong resistance[20]), and generał Stefan Mokrzecki
taking Nowogrodek in three and Baranowicze in four days.[3]

[edit] Assault on Vilna
On 18 April Col. Belina decided to use the element of surprise and
move into Vilna without waiting for the slower infantry units.[23]
Polish forces left the village of Myto in early morning.[2] At 0330 on
19 mjr Zaruski took Lipówka near Vilna.[2] Belina's cavalry bypassed
the city and attacked from behind, taking train station on the night
of 18 to 19 April.[24] On 19 April the cavalry uner lt. Gustaw
Orlicz-Dreszer - future Polish general - charged into the suburbs,
spread panic among the confused garrison, seized the train station and
sent a train down the line to collect infantry.[23][20] In this
surprise raid about 400 prisoners, 13 trains, and various military
supplies were captured.[2] Piłsudski would declare Belina's cavalry
action a most excuisite military action carried out by Polish cavalry
in this war.[2]

Cavalryman fought for control of the center of Vilna and took the
Cathedral's square,[24] Castle Complex on the hillside and quarters at
the southern riverbank; they also captured hundreds of Bolshevik
soldiers and officials;[2] but their numbers were too small compared
to the enemy forces which had begun to reorganize, particularly in the
north and west of the town, and prepare a counterattack.[20] Belina
sent a message reporting that "enemy is resisting with extreme
strength"[5] and asking for immediate reinforcements;[24] around 8 in
the evening the train sent in the morning returned with first infantry
reinforcements; the Polish troops were also supported by city's
predominantly Polish population which formed militia to aid them.[20]
By the evening of 19 April half of Vilna was in Polish control;[23]
however the Red Army troops and supporters put up a stubborn and
coordinated defence.[20] Only upon the arrival of the main force of
Polish infantry under Generał Śmigły on April 21, did the Poles gain
the upper hand attacking decisively those parts of the town still held
by the Red Army.[20] The Polish infantry was able to reinforce the
cavalry in the city center; during the night with help of local guides
Polish forces crossed the river and took one of the bridges.[2] On
April 20 bridges were under the control of the Poles, and more of the
city fell within their control.[2] During the afternoon of that day,
after a three-days long city fight the city was in Polish hands.[23]
Piłsudski arrived in Vilna on the same day.[23] The last Soviet forces
were pushed out of Surpiszki on 21 April.[2]

[edit] Atrocities
The final phases of the assault on Vilna, as well as in some other
cities, like Lida[25] and Pinsk was carried, according to Russian
historian Mikhail Meltyukhov, with routine excesses against the local
population.[citation needed][dubious — see talk page] Therefore,
Meltyukhov claims that uprisings of local population took place
immediately upon the Polish advances.[26][dubious — see talk page]
Aggravation of the adversity forced Piłsudski to abandon the idea of
supporting the Belarusian nationalist idea.[26] While in March of the
same year some Polish newspapers expressed their outrage about the
atrocities carried by the military in the east, the violence
continued.[citation needed]

The occupation of Vilna was accompanied, according to Meltyukhov, by
several weeks long retaliatory campaign of violence against the city
defenders and Soviet sympathizers with arrests, tortures in prisons
and wide-scale looting. Meltyukhov claims that among executed without
trial were elderly, women and children.[26] Norman Davies noted that
indeed dozens of people connected with Litbel were arrested, and some
were executed; citing a death toll of 65 under Polish rule - and 2,000
under the coming brief 1920 Soviet return.[27]

According to Russian sources, abuses directed against the Jewish
populations commonly took place when Poles entered the cities;[28][26]
however those claims were not supported by Polish sources.[29]
International reactions were mixed; following the reported massive
pogrom in Lemberg (Lviv)[30] the world community became wary of such
abuses but since Jews were often painted to the West as Bolshevik
sympathizers, the US military representatives have accepted the fate
of the Jewish population.[30]

In only two weeks after the infamous Pinsk massacre dozens[4] to over
a hundred Jews fell victims in Vilna in the immediate aftermath of the
Polish capture of the city.[30] Claiming being fired at from the
Jewish homes, Polish soldiers broke into the Jewish homes and stores,
beating the Jews and robbing them, stealing even shoes and blankets,
desecrating synagogues, arresting hundreds, keeping them with no food
and drink for days and deporting them from the city;[30] such abuses
were however not supported by and even specifically forbidden by
Polish high command.[30][4][29]

Polish army stated that any Jews it killed were militants and
collaborators engaged in actions against the Polish army;[31][29][30]
The US Army representative on the scene, colonel Wiliam F. Godson
agreed with the version of events presented by the Polish general
staff.[30] In his reports Gordon wrote that "Jews constituted at least
80 % of every Bolshevik organization" and that unlike the "harmless
Polish Jews" (who really "had become Poles") the "Litwaks or Russian
Jews" are "extremely dangerous" making the "Jewish question [] the
most important one [for the country]".[30] Neglecting the plight of
the Jews[30], Godson had only noted in his report the instances of
Bolsheviks executing and mutilating civilians and Polish prisoners of
war.[30] The Polish leader, Józef Piłsudski and Nobel-prize winning
author, Władysław Reymont also denied that pogroms took
place[29];[dubious — see talk page] however the Anglo-American
Investigating Commission of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. while in its report
alleviating Polish side from the accusations of organized pogrom,
noting the wartime confusion and the fact that some Jews indeed shot
at the Polish forces,[29] was highly critical of the activities of
Polish Army in Vilna, noting that 65 Jews with no proven connections
to Bolsheviks were killed, many arrests, robberies and mistreatments
occurred and soldiers guilty of them have not been punished[4].

[edit] Soviet counteroffensive
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The Polish victory angered the Soviets; dozens of people connected
with Litbel were arrested, and some were executed [27]; the former
Litbel leaders began accusing one another of culpability for the loss
of their capital. Lenin considered the city vital to his plans, and
ordered its immediate recapture (the Red Army in late April 1919
attempted a counteroffensive).[32]

Near the end of April about 12,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 210 HMGs
and 44 guns were gathered by the Soviets in the area of Szyrwiany,
Podbrodzie, Soły - Oszmiana. Polish forces in the area under general
Stanisław Szeptycki numbered 11,000; in Vilna Rydz-Śmigly had 8
infantry battalions, 18 cavalry squadrons and 18 guns.[2] Rydz-Śmigły
decided to engage enemy forces before they combined their strengths.
On the night of 28 to 29 general Stefan DÄ…b-Biernacki took Podbrodzie,
taking one of the Soviet formations. Soviets attacked in
Deliny-Ogrodniki direction, south of Vilna. Polish counterattack
stopped that thrust and pushed Soviets back towards
Szkodziszki-Grygajce. In reply Soviets launched another counterattack
from the north of Vilna; this one is more successful and broke through
the Polish defences in that area and stopped several kilometers from
Vilna when Soviets delayed the attack not wanting to storm a hostile
city in the night; during that time Poles strengthened their defence
and counterattacked, forcing the Soviet's retreat toward Mejszagoła
and Podberezie; Poles pursued and took those two settlements as well
as Giedrojsc and Smorgoń. By mid-May Poles reached the line of Narocz
lake - Hoduciszki - Ignalino - Lyngniany, leaving Vilnius behind the

[edit] Aftermath

Polish Army badge commemorating the fighting over Vilna in the spring
of 1919.Because of the successful surprise attack, the Polish army in
Vilna managed to appropriate sizeable stocks of supplies, and hundreds
of prisoners.[5] When Piłsudski entered the city, a victory parade was
held in his honour. The city's Polish citizens on the whole were
delighted; their politicians envisaged a separate Lithuanian state
closely allied with Poland;[33] majority of the Jewish population, the
only other sizeable community in Vilna, also welcomed the Polish
government[33] although a significant pro-communist minority actively
cooperated with the Bolsheviks.[29] Representatives from the city were
immediately sent to the Paris Peace Conference, and the Stefan Batory
University in Vilna, which had been closed in 1832 following the
November 1830 Uprising, was reopened.[33]

Acting in accordance with his vision of a Polish-led "Międzymorze"
federation of East-Central European states, Piłsduski on April 22,
1919, issued a bilingual statement, in Polish and Lithuanian, of his
political intentions — the "Proclamation to the Inhabitants of the
Former Grand Duchy of Lithuania," pledging to provide "elections
[which will] take place on the basis of secret, universal and direct
voting, without distinction between the sexes" and to "create an
opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious
affairs in a manner that you yourself will determine, without any kind
of force or pressure from Poland."[34] Piłdudski's proclamation was
aimed at showing good will both to Lithuanians and international
diplomats; the latter succeeded as the proclamation dealt a blow to
the image of 'Polish conquest' and replaced it with the image of
'Poland fighting with Bolsheviks dictatorship and liberating other
nations'; however the Lithuanians who demanded exclusive control over
the city were much less convinced.[35] Piłsudski's words caused much
controversy also on Polish political scene; they were not discussed
with Sejm, and caused much anger among Piłsudski's opponents from
endecja faction; deputies from PSL Piast demanded incorporation of the
Vilna Region into Poland and even accused Piłsudski of treason;
however Piłsudski's supporters in the PPS managed to deflect those

Piłsudski's bilingual "Proclamation to the Inhabitants of the Former
Grand Duchy of Lithuania" (April 22, 1919).Notwithstanding the fact
that Vilna' population consisted mostly of Poles, the Lithuanian
government in Kaunas, which viewed the city as the historic capital of
the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, saw the Polish incursion as an
occupation. Relations between the Polish and Lithuanian governments,
unable to reach a compromise over Vilna, continued to worsen,
destroying the prospects for Piłsudski's plan of a Międzymorze
federation and leading to open hostilities in the ensuing
Polish-Lithuanian War (1920).[36] In 1920, also, the Soviets
recaptured Vilna, followed by the Poles' establishment of short lived
puppet state[37] the Republic of Central Lithuania.

Polish capture of Vilna set the stage for further escalation of Polish
conflicts with Soviet Russia and Lithuania. In the coming months, the
Polish forces would be pushing steadily to the east, launching the
Operation Minsk in mid-August.[38]

[edit] See also
1st Lithuanian-Belarusian Infantry Division
Lucjan Żeligowski
Central Lithuania
other battles of Vilna
Wilno Voivodeship

[edit] References
^ For controversies about the naming and dating of this conflict,
refer to the section devoted to this subject in the Polish-Soviet War
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Janusz Odziemkowski, Leksykon Wojny
Polsko-Rosyjskiej 1919-1920' (Lexicon of Polish-Russian War of
1919-1920), Oficyna Wydawnica RYTM, 2004, ISBN 8373990968
^ a b c d Davies, p.49
^ a b c d Mission of The United States to Poland, Henry Morgenthau, Sr.
^ a b c d Collection of Polish military comminiques, 1919-1921, "O
niepodległą i granice", Wyższa Szkoła Humanistyczna, Pułtusk,
Pages - 168-172.Part available online in this letter to
^ Davies, p.30
^ Speaking of Poland's future frontiers, Piłsudski said: "All that we
can gain in the west depends on the Entente — on the extent to which
it may wish to squeeze Germany," while in the east "there are doors
that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how
MacMillan, Margaret, Paris 1919 : Six Months That Changed the World,
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003, ISBN 0-375-76052-0, p.212"
^ a b Davies, p.25-26
^ Davies, p.25
^ Davies, p.48
^ Davies, p.48-49
^ a b THE REBIRTH OF POLAND. University of Kansas, lecture notes by
professor Anna M. Cienciala, 2004. Last accessed on 2 June 2006.
^ a b Norman Davies, God's Playground. Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present.
Columbia University Press. 1982. ISBN 0231053525. Page 40
^ a b Davies, p.62
^ a b c "Josef Pilsudski was born in 1867 in Zulovo of the Vilna
region in the family of the impoverished landowner from a very old and
distinguished in the Rzeczpospolita line... The first of many
paradoxes that surrounded Josef Pilsudski all his life and even after
his death is that the future restorer of the Polish statehood
essentially was not... a Pole. Similarly to Adam Mickiewicz he was a
Litvin. Litvin is not exactly the same as the Lithuanian in a modern
sense of this term. This is a szlachcic of the Lithuanian or
Belarusian origin from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, originally
independent, and later united with the Polish kingdom into the
Rzeczpospolita. By the 18th century, the overwhelming majority of them
became Catholic and Polonized to degree that they did not even
understand the Lithuanian, which preserved among the peasantry.
Litvins spoke Polish exclusively (well, some spoke Latin as well) and
did not see the future of their beloved Lithiania other than the
common with Poland, but still they were not Poles to a full degree."
Oleksa Pidlutskyi, Postati XX stolittia, (Figures of the 20th
century), Kiev, 2004, ISBN 9668290011, LCCN 20-04440333. Chapter
"Józef Piłsudski: The Chief who Created Himself a State" reprinted in
Zerkalo Nedeli (the Mirror Weekly), Kiev, February 3-9 February 2001,
in Russian and in Ukrainian.
^ MacMillan, Margaret, Paris 1919 : Six Months That Changed the World,
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003, ISBN 0375760520, p. 213-214.
^ Jews of Vilna had their own complex identity, and labels of Polish
Jews, Lithuanian Jews or Russian Jews are all applicable only in part.
See also: Ezra Mendelsohn, On Modern Jewish Politics, Oxford
University Press, 1993, ISBN 0195083199, Google Print, p.8 and Mark
Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Houghton
Mifflin Books, 2003, ISBN 061823649X, Google Print, p.205
^ Davies, pp.48, 53-54
^ a b Antoni Czubiński, Walka o granice wschodnie polski w latach
1918-1921 Instytut Slaski w Opolu, 1993 p.83
^ a b c d e f g Adam Przybylski, 1928, Poland in the Fight for its
Borders, April – July 1919 - this chapter contains an account of the
battle, mostly identical with the one presented by Davies
^ Grzegorz Lukowski, Rafal E. Stolarski, Walka o Wilno, Oficyna
Wydawnicza Audiutor, 1994, ISBN 8390008505
^ (Polish) Zachodnia Dywizja Strzelców. WIEM Encyklopedia. Last
accessed on 9 April 2007
^ a b c d e Davies, p.50
^ a b c (Polish) Bohdan Urbankowski, Józef Piłsudski: marzyciel i
strateg (Józef Piłsudski: Dreamer and Strategist), Wydawnictwo ALFA,
Warsaw, 1997, ISBN 8370019145, p. 296
^ Joanna Beata Michlic, Poland's Threatening Other: The Image of the
Jew from 1880 to the Present, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, ISBN
0803232403Google Print, p.118
^ a b c d Meltyukhov, p. 24
^ a b Davies (p. 240) cites a death toll of 65 under Polish rule, and
2,000 under the brief 1920 Soviet reoccupation)
^ РатьковÑ?кий И. С., ХодÑ?ков Ðœ. Ð’. ИÑ?ториÑ?
СоветÑ?кой РоÑ?Ñ?ии (History
of Soviet Russia) - СПб.: "Лань", 2001. - 416 Ñ?. ISBN
Chapter V. Apogee of the Civil War. Section: Soviet-Polish War and
falling of the White Crimea
^ a b c d e f (English) Tadeusz Piotrowski (1997). Poland's Holocaust:
Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide....
McFarland & Company, p. 41-42. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3.
^ a b c d e f g h i j Joseph W. Bendersky, The "Jewish Threat":
Anti-semitic Politics of the American Arm, Basic Books, 2000, ISBN
0465006183, Google Print, p.84-86
^ Norman Davies, God's Playground: A History of Poland, Columbia
University Press, 2005, ISBN ISBN 0231128193, Google Print, p.192
^ Gintautas Ereminas, Ochrona toru Wilno - Lida
^ a b c Davies, p.53-54
^ Davies, p.51
^ a b Czubiński, p.92
^ Davies, p.57
^ (English) George J. Lerski. Historical Dictionary of Poland,
966-1945. 1996, p.309
^ Davies, p.51-53

[edit] Further reading
Davies, Norman [1972] (2003). "White Eagle, Red Star: the
Polish-Soviet War, 1919–20". Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-0694-7.
Davies, Norman [1984] (2001). "Heart of Europe The Past in Poland's
Present". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280126-0.
Przemysław Różański, Wilno, 19-21 kwietnia 1919 roku (Vilna, April
19-21, 1919), Jewish History Quarterly (01/2006), C.E.E.O.L.
(Russian) МельтÑ?хов, Михаил Иванович (Mikhail
Meltyukhov) (2001).
СоветÑ?ко-польÑ?кие войны.
Военно-политичеÑ?кое противоÑ?тоÑ?ние 1918—1939
гг. (Soviet-Polish Wars. Political and Military standoff of
(in Russian). Moscow: Вече (Veche). ISBN 5-699-07637-9. , LCCN
(Polish) Å?ossowski, Piotr (1985). "Po tej i tamtej stronie Niemna.
Stosunki polsko-litewskie 1883-1939". Warszawa: Czytelnik. ISBN
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