[lg policy] Yiddish documents rescued from the Nazis

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Nov 2 14:00:36 EDT 2017


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

By JOSEPH BERGER <https://www.nytimes.com/by/joseph-berger>OCT. 18, 2017
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Photo
A pinkas, or a kind of registry, of the Lomde Shas Society in Lithuania
from 1836, one of the documents rescued from the Nazis and soon to be
displayed at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan. Credit
Kevin Hagen for 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.
Photo
The former church of St. George in Vilnius where a trove of Yiddish
documents had been hidden in the basement. Credit Andrej Vasilenko for The
New York Times

But months ago curators at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
<https://www.yivo.org/> 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.
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These documents, experts say, are even more valuable and compelling. Among
the finds:

• Five dog-eared notebooks of poetry by Chaim Grade
<http://www.nytimes.com/1982/07/01/obituaries/chaim-grade-yiddish-novelist-and-poet-on-the-holocaust-dies.html>,
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.
Photo
The autobiography of a fifth grader, Bebe Epshtein, with her picture, was
among the items found in the church basement. Credit Kevin Hagen for The
New York Times

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
<http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft5q2nb3z7&brand=ucpress>,
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.
Continue reading the main story
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Photo
A collection of Yiddish artifacts was recently discovered in the basement
of St. George’s, a former church in Vilnius, Lithuania. Credit Andrej
Vasilenko for The New York Times

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.)

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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.
Photo
A page from an astronomical manuscript written and illustrated by Issachar
Bee Carmoly in 1731, part of a forthcoming display at the YIVO Institute
for Jewish Research. Credit Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

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.

from the NYTimes 10/19/17


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