A unique Jewish archive has been given a new lease of life in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Thousands of books and documents have recently resurfaced after gathering dust for more than seven decades, split between storage rooms in the National Library, the Lithuanian State Archive and a basement in the former St George’s Church.
Pre-war Vilnius was home to countless Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations. The most significant was the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO), which was established in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe; it collected memoirs, books and folklore.
During the Nazi occupation 40 Jewish scholars — the so-called “paper brigade” — were tasked with sorting the collections belonging to YIVO and the Strashun Library, one of the richest Jewish libraries in Eastern Europe.
“Their task was to send the most valuable manuscripts to Frankfurt and the rest was to be destroyed,” said David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who travelled to Vilnius to examine the documents on behalf of YIVO’s New York branch.
“But they smuggled them into the ghetto under their clothes and hid them in bunkers and under floorboards.”
The collection includes manuscripts by famous Yiddish authors, religious writings, poetry and record books of shuls and yeshivas. There are letters by Sholem Aleichem, a prolific and much-loved Yiddish writer, and a Yiddish postcard written by the artist Marc Chagall in 1935.
“There are letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies of pogroms in 1919 in Ukraine,” Professor Fishman said. “There are Yiddish plays and poems written in the Vilna ghetto by the acclaimed Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever. What is striking is the diversity –– the documents cover every aspect of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.”
After the war, a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, stashed away stacks of what remained of the Jewish materials in the basement of St George’s Church to hide them from the Soviets. Parts were moved to the National Library and the State Archive after the fall of Communism in 1990.
“The documents were in storage for a long time but no one was working on them because it was politically dangerous to do so,” said Lara Lempert, the head of the newly opened Judaica Research Centre within the National Library.
In May, 170,000 pages of boxed-up documents and manuscripts became available for study in the Library, and yet more papers came to light when the basement of St George’s Church was finally cleared out. They are now being sorted, catalogued and restored by the archivists in the National Library in collaboration with YIVO.
“For many years there was little desire to work on this collection, but now we have new colleagues who think differently,” Ms Lempert said.
And were it not for the “paper brigade”, as well as the defiance of Antanas Ulpis, these documents would not be seeing the light of day.
“The most amazing thing is that this is a gift to us by the heroes who hid the materials from the Nazis,” said Professor Fishman.
“They risked their lives every day.”