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Liberating looted Jewish texts

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The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis; The True Story of the Paper Brigade of Vilna, by David E. Fishman (ForeEdge Book Collectors, Nefarious and Noble)

At the very same time that the Nazis were murdering one-third of world Jewry, they were, amazingly, gathering Jewish books, archives and Judaica to be preserved. With characteristic efficiency, they created an agency, the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg or ERR) that looted Judaica on a huge scale from European countries they captured.

The ERR was particularly interested in the thriving Jewish community of Vilnius (or Vilna), the so-called “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Vilnius, where the towering religious figure Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, (the Vilna Gaon, 1720-1797) had lived, was at the time the leading centre for the study of (generally secular) Yiddish literature and culture.  The world-famous YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Institute for Jewish Research), which today houses 23 million archival items and 400,000 volumes in its transplanted home in New York, was founded in Vilnius in 1925 and attracted scholars from around the world.

Even after the Soviet Union occupied Vilnius in 1940, YIVO and other Jewish institutions continued with their work. The most popular book in the thriving Vilnius Jewish lending library was, ominously, Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which told the story of one town in Turkey during the Armenian genocide.  The Vilnius Jews apparently sensed that they could be facing a similar fate. Soon after the Nazis captured Vilnius in June 1941, Jewish cultural life came to a crashing halt and the ERR started looting its cultural institutions.

The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis; The True Story of the Paper Brigade of Vilna, by Prof. David E. Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells the gripping tale of the efforts of a few brave Jews to save the Vilnius community’s cultural treasures, especially those of YIVO. 

The Nazi plundering effort in Vilnius was co-ordinated by Johannes Pohl, an ordained Catholic priest, who had trained in Semitics and Hebrew and even studied in Jerusalem from 1932 to 1934. He left the priesthood, joined the Nazi party, and, once his Jewish colleagues were fired, found work in the 1930s as a Judaica librarian. When Pohl took charge of the ERR in Vilnius, he appointed Noah Prylucki to organize the looted material. Prylucki was then the director of YIVO, having succeeded to the position after Max Weinreich, YIVO’s founding director, moved to New York in 1940. Prylucki was killed by the Nazis in late 1941. (On Prylucki, see the Canadian Jewish Book Award-winning book by my York University colleague, Prof. Kalman Weiser: Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland.)

The ERR assembled a team of knowledgeable Jews to sort and select books, artwork and archives to send to Germany for preservation; rejected material would be destroyed or recycled.  (Dozens of Torah scrolls were sent to leather factories; other books and papers were incinerated or sent to paper mills.)

Other Jews derisively called this team “the paper brigade.” The Nazis kept many Jews alive for awhile to do back-breaking physical labour. The paper brigade had easier conditions, but they had to do the terrible work of handing over the “best” Jewish materials to the Nazis and supervising the destruction of the rest.

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Fishman tells the moving story of the brave members of the paper brigade who often risked their lives to smuggle and hide Jewish books and materials. Most were killed in the war, some after escaping and joining the partisans. When the Soviets recaptured Vilnius in 1944, many hiding places in the ghetto and the YIVO building had been reduced to rubble, so only some precious materials survived. Incredibly, the Soviets insisted that these materials belonged to them, although they had no interest in preserving or making them accessible. So once again, after the war, Jews took clandestine actions to liberate their cultural materials.

After the defeat of Germany, some 100,000 Hebrew and Yiddish volumes, and even more archival materials, were found in the Nazi Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Amazingly, in the last months of the war, while Germany, including Frankfurt, was being bombed by the Allies and the Nazis were redoubling their efforts to kill Jews more quickly, they found time to ship a million volumes of Jewish books from Frankfurt to the nearby town of Hungen for safekeeping, assuming that the Allies would not bother bombing it. (The disputes about repatriating the books and materials found in Hungen and Frankfurt make for intriguing reading.)

As a result of the Nazi period, many Jews soured on the famous German Wissenschaft, “scientific” or scholarly study. In 1946, even the scholarly Max Weinreich wrote Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People.

On the other hand, the Jews of the paper brigade had noble scholarly motivations. “Why did these men and women risk their lives for the sake of books and papers?” asks Fishman. He answers: “They were making an existential statement … that literature and culture were ultimate values … greater than the life of any individual or group. Since they were sure that they would soon die, they chose to connect their remaining lives, and if necessary their deaths, with the things that truly mattered … (They) were also expressing their faith that there would be a Jewish people after the war, which would need to repossess its cultural treasures.”

Thanks in part to their bravery, we did.

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