A Trove of Yiddish Artifacts Rescued From the Nazis, and Oblivion

By: Joseph Berger, The New York Times

In one of their odder and more chilling moves, the Nazis occupying Lithuania once collected Yiddish and Hebrew books and documents, hoping to create a reference collection about a people they intended to annihilate.

Even stranger, they appointed Jewish intellectuals and poets to select the choicest pearls for study.

These workers, assigned to sift through a major Jewish library in Vilna, Vilnius in Lithuanian, ended up hiding thousands of books and papers from the Nazis, smuggling them out under their clothing, and squirreling them away in attics and underground bunkers.

In 1991, a large part of the collection was found in the basement of a Vilnius church, and were hailed as important artifacts of Jewish history.

But months ago curators at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan, the successor to the Vilnius library, were told that another trove, totaling 170,000 pages, had been found, somehow overlooked in the same church basement.

These documents, experts say, are even more valuable and compelling. Among the finds:

• Five dog-eared notebooks of poetry by Chaim Grade, considered along with Isaac Bashevis Singer as one of the leading Yiddish novelists of the mid-20th century.

• Two letters by Sholem Aleichem, the storyteller whose tales of Tevye the Milkman formed the core of "Fiddler on the Roof."

• A postcard written by Marc Chagall, the Jewish modernist painter.

"These are gold," said David E. Fishman, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who traveled to Vilnius in July at YIVO's behest to assess the trove's importance. He came back with the sort of enthusiasm one might find in an explorer who has just discovered unknown lands.

A selection of 10 items from the newly found literary manuscripts, letters, diaries, synagogue record books, theater posters and ephemera will go on display on Oct. 24 at YIVO headquarters on West 16th Street.

In interviews, Mr. Fishman and Jonathan Brent, YIVO's executive director, discussed other findings, including, an early poem by Abraham Goldfaden, the father of the flourishing Yiddish theater in Europe and on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and 10 poems handwritten in the Vilna ghetto by Abraham Sutzkever, among the greatest Yiddish poets. In one poem, Sutzkever expresses his fear that "Death is rushing, riding on a bullet-head/To tear apart in me my brightest dream."

Mr. Brent and his staff said they were just as excited by more quotidian items like scripts of "Sherlock Holmes" and other popular entertainments that delighted prewar Jews and an astronomical guide with a set of dials to calculate when religious holidays should fall, given variations in the lengths of Jewish lunar months. A 1933 "autobiography" by a malnourished fifth grader, Bebe Epshtein, describes how her parents forced her to eat by telling her beguiling stories. When "I would open my mouth," she wrote, "they would pour in food."

Many of the items, the experts said, offer glimpses into the hardscrabble everyday lives of the Jews of Eastern Europe when the region, not Israel or the Lower East Side, was the center of the Jewish world.

Almost as intriguing as the cache is the serpentine story of the documents' rescue and rediscovery, much of which had been known before but which has been updated with the new find.

When the Nazis occupied Lithuania from 1941 to 1944, they were determined to incinerate or grind up the country's Jewish collections, particularly those at YIVO, which from 1925 to 1940 in Vilna was the world's foremost library of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. With characteristic incongruity, though, they decided to save a third of the YIVO collection for a research center near Frankfurt that would study "the Jewish question" even if they planned to make sure the Jews would be extinct. (In Lithuania alone, 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population of 160,000 was murdered.)

They needed Yiddish speakers to analyze and select the materials, and deployed 40 ghetto residents like Sutzkever and another raffish poet, Shmerke Kaczerginski, as slave laborers. Risking death by a firing squad, this "paper brigade" rescued thousands of books and documents.

When the Germans were pushed out of Lithuania by the Soviets, survivors like Sutzkever spirited some hidden treasures to New York. (The Soviets frowned on anything evocative of ethnic or religious loyalties.) Meanwhile, a gentile librarian, Antanas Ulpis, who was assembling the remnants of the national library in a former church, St. George's, stashed stacks of Jewish materials in basement rooms to hide them from Stalin's enforcers. He is, as a result, regarded by YIVO as a kind of Oskar Schindler of document rescue.

The bulk of the basement collection - documents totaling 250,000 pages - was recovered after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Last year, the entire basement collection was transferred to the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania, which had reopened in a grand colonnaded building, and in May officials there informed Mr. Brent, of the new trove of 170,000 documents. They had been stored in a separate church basement room and had never been evaluated because none of the assigned archivists could read Yiddish or Hebrew.

Lithuania has chosen to hold onto all the Jewish documents in the library's Judaica center as part of its national heritage. But it has allowed YIVO to digitize them for the use of the general public - and to have select items to display in Manhattan later this month.

"It's going to take decades for scholars to analyze all of this," said Mr. Fishman, who this month published "The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures From the Nazis."

Among the more mundane curiosities that were salvaged is a weathered agreement from 1857 between a yeshiva in Vilna and a union of water carriers.

What is a water carrier, a Talmud student might ask?

In Vilna at that time, water carriers were needed to deliver buckets of water to homes from available wells. The ragtag Jewish water carriers formed a guild, which promised to donate a Torah scroll and a set of Talmuds to the yeshiva if members were given a room of their own, rent-free, for worship.

The crew that rescued these records largely did not survive the war. Some 34 of the 40 people viewed by experts as having been members of the "paper brigade" died, according to Mr. Fishman, some in death camps like Treblinka or in labor camps or in more random fashion. Mr. Kaczerginski was killed in 1954 in a plane crash in the Andes. Sutzkever had an illustrious career as a poet in Israel and died at age 96 in 2010. Mr. Ulpis, who helped save the documents later found in the church basement, died in 1981.