Eighty years ago a small group of Jewish men and women embarked on an extraordinary mission, which they might have thought at the time was doomed — to save from the Nazis thousands of documents, books and artefacts, detailing pre-war Jewish life.
The group, who became known as the Paper Brigade, would surely have been astonished at the final result of their work. For next week, YIVO, the New York-based Institute for Jewish Research, and three Lithuanian libraries, will unveil the end result of a seven-year-long project, costing $7 million. Painstaking digitising and conservation work in New York and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, will reunite materials from both cities and place them online for the first time. The work, says YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent, showcases “the sacred secular history of the Jewish people in Europe”.
YIVO was founded in 1925 in Vilnius and continued to operate there until the outbreak of the Second World War. The YIVO founders had a single object — to record Jewish life in all its forms, cultural, religious, communal, and the pedestrian everyday. YIVO collated hundreds of thousands of documents and artefacts, forming a unique archive of the lives of Eastern European Jewry.
By 1940, with the advent of war, YIVO “temporarily” — as it thought — relocated to New York. This became the de facto headquarters of the organisation. And meanwhile, in Lithuania, the Nazis had their eyes on YIVO and its treasures.
Their aim, says YIVO’s chief of staff Shelly Freeman, “was not just to kill Jews, but to kill their culture”. To further this, the Nazis built a special museum in Frankfurt, called the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. Its intention was to study “why the Jews had to be annihilated and what were their evil ways”. Around 30 per cent of YIVO’S irreplaceable collection was destined for the Frankfurt centre: the rest was to be destroyed, by being pulped or burnt.
In order to ensure that Frankfurt, which operated through the war, received the cream of the archives, the Nazis picked out, as forced labour, around 30 intellectuals and academics in the Vilna ghetto, many of whom had previously been associated with YIVO. And these were the men and women who formed the Paper Brigade, who simply could not bear to see these materials destroyed. So they hid them — on their bodies, in their clothing, smuggling these precious documents out of the sorting centre and back into the Vilna ghetto, where they were buried.
“They really risked their lives saving these documents”, says Shelly Freeman. “If they were caught, they were shot on the spot”. Some members of the Paper Brigade thought the material would be safer in Frankfurt and tried to put more in the boxes destined for Germany. As it turned out, after the war, when the “Monument Men” — the American Army unit charged with finding and restoring cultural artefacts — came across the rich YIVO material in Frankfurt, they returned it to YIVO in New York.
But there was still a wealth of YIVO material in Vilnius. Some was recovered after the war, when surviving members of the Paper Brigade returned to Vilnius and dug up the documents from their hiding places. For a brief time they established a Jewish museum in Vilnius, only to be forced to flee for their lives when the Soviets took over the country and cracked down on any manifestations of Jewish culture or religious life.
Once again the YIVO material was in peril, only to be rescued, this time by a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis. In 1948 he squirrelled away the books and documents into the basement of the Church of St George in Lithuania, even hiding some of the material from the Soviets in the church’s organ. These documents lay undisturbed until 1989; a further cache of YIVO material, including rare and unpublished works, was discovered in the Lithuanian National Library in 2017.
In 2014, the mammoth task of reuniting the YIVO material began. With the discovery of the 2017 documents, the total amounted to 4,100,000 separate pages, all to be carefully treated and preserved, before being digitised and put online.
The Lithuanian government did not want to return the physical material, arguing that it had been assembled in Vilna and had not been stolen or looted by Lithuanians. But they enthusiastically agreed to online reunification — and so it will now mean that researchers from anywhere in the world can access the bulk of the YIVO pre-war collection, at a keystroke.
The collection, known as the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project, now becomes the single largest digital collection related to East European Jewish civilisation, including the largest collection of Yiddish language materials in the world.
The collections tell us how Jews lived, where they came from, how they raised and educated their families, how they created art, literature, music and language itself. “Furthermore, these documents reveal the relations between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours, how they understood their place in the world both politically and socially and how they faced the turmoil and promise of modernity”.
Jonathan Brent says that “YIVO always had a global mission”, which explains why there are materials from London in the archive, including posters for Yiddish theatre posters and for local unions, from trouser-makers to bakers. “In the past the mission was to collect material from all over the world. Today we are able to disseminate material all over the world, thanks to the internet”.
For the New York team — led by YIVO’s head of archives, Stefanie Halpern — there was particular joy in the jigsaw effect of uniting the collection. “For instance,” Stefanie says, “YIVO collected youth autobiographies throughout the 1930s, and some of them were missing three or four pages. And those pages have been found in Vilnius.”
In the material found in 2017, says Jonathan Brent, “there was an extraordinary cosmological handwritten manuscript, made in Alsace in the 18th century. It’s in Hebrew, and somehow made its way to Vilnius — and now it’s online.” Or there are communal record books, whose existence was previously unknown, but each new discovery gives YIVO “a bit more insight into Jewish life in that town”
There are still gaps: “We know”, says Halpern, “that there was an art collection in Vilna, and we have none of that; and there were incunabula, [books printed using metal type up to the year 1500], and we do not have them today — they were never recovered. We have about a quarter of the original folklore collection”.
On the other hand, says Jonathan Brent, there is still optimism that more material might yet turn up. “There is no question but that Antanas Ulpis hid material in different places — and in those different places, materials were hidden in different places So it’s quite conceivable that in the National Library — or possibly at a site yet unknown — we will find more material. Eastern Europe is still recovering from the Soviet period: it will take a generation or more to overturn certain cultural patterns that had been established by the Soviet regime— and one of those is intense secrecy about anything which could be considered controversial. I believe there will be yet more to come — and we have to be patient”.
Richard Ovenden, of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, wrote a recent book on those who destroy books. He hailed the project: “We must remember and celebrate the heroic efforts of the Jewish librarians, archivists, poets, and scholars in the Paper Brigade, who risked their lives to ensure the survival of an astonishing trove of documents that preserve the rich culture of Jewish life across Eastern Europe.” Antanas Ulpis, he said, “should also be added to the list of those willing to risk everything, so that later generations could access the records of an entire civilisation, attacked in the most vicious way imaginable, but which has endured. This history can now be accessed thanks to the great work of YIVO and their Lithuanian partners”.