Earlier this year, a trove of Jewish documents that was smuggled into the Vilna ghetto in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation came to light. Containing writings by leading figures in Yiddish culture, the collection has been described as the most important Jewish discovery since that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was one of several Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations in Vilnius prior to World War II. It was founded in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe and its library contained memoirs, books and folklore gathered by scholars and volunteers.
Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the Nazis started looking into Jewish material found in the YIVO library. They wanted to preserve material for a museum in Frankfurt, which would explain how the Nazis addressed ‘the Jewish question’ and their reasoning behind the Final Solution.
Several books and documents from the YIVO headquarters had already been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which was using the building as a barracks. A Reich department charged with collecting and preserving Jewish literature hired a group of 40 Jewish scholars from the ghetto to examine the archive. They were ordered to find the most valuable manuscripts, which would be preserved at the proposed Frankfurt museum. They were only allowed to keep 30% of the material, the remainder would be pulped.
But members of this so-called ‘paper brigade’ smuggled books out under their clothing and hid them either inside the ghetto or amongst gentiles elsewhere in the city and managed to save much of the collection. Some members of the brigade were also involved in armed resistance and used the opportunity to sneak weapons into the ghetto.
After the war, Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, hid much of what remained of the material in the basement of a local church to save it from the Soviet authorities. From 1989-1991, some 250,000 pages were discovered in St George’s church. Some of the documents were moved to Lithuania’s national library, while others ended up in the state archive.
But a separate stash wasn’t uncovered until this year, when all the documents and manuscripts were transferred to the national library. In May, an additional 170,000 pages saved by the paper brigade were made available in the library. These are being examined, catalogued and restored by archivists at the library, in collaboration with YIVO, which now has its headquarters in New York. The find is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, according to David E Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s miraculous that the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition. Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom,” he says.
The documents shed light on Jewish life and culture before the war and include writings by famous Yiddish cultural figures, including letters by the author Sholem Aleichem (creator of Fiddler on the Roof), a post card from artist Marc Chagall and poems written by the poet Avrom Sutzkever inside the ghetto. The archive also contains letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies from those who witnessed the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, during the Russian Civil War – a particular interest of mine.
The Nazis killed 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population, including 34 of the 40 members of the paper brigade. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived. Below is part of a poem he wrote from the ghetto to his brother Moshe, who had fled to Palestine before the war. Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother had both been executed in a nearby forest when he wrote this poem.
“And do not search for my songs,
Or for the remnants of my limbs.
But wherever you are, one and only brother,
Taste a handful of desert sand.
And every single grain,
Will send you greetings from down under,
Where an unredeemed wonder
Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.