By David Fishman
This is story is as exciting as a spy thriller. But instead of smuggling information across enemy lines, here a dedicated band of scholars, writers and teachers in the Vilna Ghetto save priceless books, letters, artwork, Torah scrolls and Judaica from destruction by the Nazis.
Among the treasures they saved were the record book of the Vilna Gaon’s kloyz (house of prayer) covering events from 1768 to 1924; early chapters of Zionist Theodor Herzl’s diary; letters and manuscripts by writers Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Sholem Aleichem and poet Hayim Bialik; a drawing by Marc Chagall; and sculptures by Ilya Gintsburg.
That these heroic rescue operations should take place in Vilna (now known as Vilnius), Lithuania, is particularly apt. Before the Holocaust, Vilna was described as “the Jerusalem of Eastern Europe.”
It was the home of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which used the research and analytic methods of the humanities and social sciences to study Jewish life around the world. YIVO had put together the largest collection of Jewish ethnographic and scholarly materials in the world between 1925 and 1940.
It was also the home of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797); the Kletzkin Press, the most prestigious Yiddish publishing house in the world at the time; and the Strashun Library.
For the Nazis, it was not enough to eliminate the Jewish people, they wanted to destroy Jewish culture. They aimed to “detoxify” libraries, archives and booksellers of Jewish materials and to collect them for the “Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question.”
Because of the logistics of crating and transporting materials, the Nazis determined that no more than 30% of the materials found would be sent to Germany. The remainder would be sent to paper mills for recycling or other uses. (They sent Torah scrolls to leather factories to be used to line German soldiers’ boots and the Kletzkin Press’ lead plates for printing copies of the Talmud were sent to an armaments factory.)
Author David Fishman’s fascinating tale spans the 1941 Nazi invasion of Vilna to 1994 when the last of the books, recovered after the war and hidden for decades in Lithuania’s Book Chamber (a repository for one copy of every book published in Lithuania), were finally again accessible to YIVO.
The story shines a well-deserved spotlight on a fascinating cast of characters. Key among them was Herman Kruk, the man the Germans assigned to manage the processing of books, documents and artifacts. Kruk had been director of the Grosser Library, the largest Jewish lending library in Warsaw, before he fled to Vilna. In Vilna, he ran the ghetto library.
Throughout the Nazi occupation, he kept a diary and hid three copies in the ghetto. He continued keeping a diary in a labor camp; he buried it before he was executed. Eventually one copy of his ghetto diary and all the volumes of his labor camp diary were found and came to YIVO in New York.
Other leaders of the processing team, nicknamed the Paper Brigade, included Chaikl Lunski, the librarian at the Strashun Library; and Zelig Kalmanovitz, a YIVO deputy director.
Poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever played key roles in the smuggling operation and in saving books uncovered from their hiding places after the war ended. When the ghetto was liquidated, both became partisans and survived the war.
Kaczerginski, a bold, charismatic man, immigrated to Buenos Aires and was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1954. Sutzkever, described by the New York Times as “the greatest poet of the Holocaust,” immigrated to Israel and died in Tel Aviv in 2010.
Author David Fishman became involved in the third chapter of this fascinating story in 1988, when a cache of books and documents that Sutzkever and Kaczerginski hadn’t been able to get out of Vilna after the war were being held by the Lithuanian government.
Fishman, then a young assistant professor who had just moved to New York was contacted by YIVO and asked to go with the chief archivist and director to Vilnius to evaluate what was there.
He became deeply interested in how they came to be there. Relying on memoirs written after the war by people directly involved, diaries of people living at the time and an interview with one participate who was alive and living in New Jersey, Fishman was able to put the story together.
This book was the 2018 winner of the Jewish Book Council’s Holocaust Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel.
The Author: David Fishman
David Fishman is a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where he also serves as director of Project Judaica, JTS’ program in the former Soviet Union. He directs its Jewish Archival Survey and publishes guides to Jewish archival materials in the former Soviet Union.
From 1988 to 2003, he was editor in chief of YIVO-Bleter, the Yiddish-language scholarly journal of YIVO. He is a member of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and serves on the editorial boards of Jewish Social Studies and Polin.
A native New Yorker, he has taught at Brandeis University, Bar-Ilan University, the Russian State University in Moscow and Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He has been a fellow at the Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies and the University of Pennsylvania’s Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.
He holds a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University and master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard University.