David Fishman on Saving Jewish Documents during World War II
Date: November 26th, 2017

During the 1930s and ’40s as part of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime in Germany attempted to round up any and all Jewish cultural artifacts including artwork, books, and other documents.  Prof. David Fishman, a professor of modern Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, shares with us the heroic efforts of a group of authors and poets in Vilna, Lithuania who fought these efforts and managed to smuggle hundreds of thousands of pages of documents out of a prison camp for safe keeping.  This group became known as “The Paper Brigade” and the results of their courage we rediscovered recently in a cache of documents stored in St. George’s Church in Vilnius (formerly Vilna).  This recent discovery added to a previous find that is documented in David’s monograph, The Book Smugglers (see below).

Our conversation begins with some historical context, first probing how Dr. Fishman became interested in the topic of modern Jewish history and then laying out the historical context of Jews in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century.  We learn that Jews were present in the region as far back as the 1300s with Vilna becoming the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” (or the “Jerusalem of the North”) by the 1500s.  By the turn of the 20th century, roughly 40% of Vilna’s inhabitants were Jewish, although this number decreases to 29% on the even of the Soviet and German invasions largely due to the flight of many individuals to safer territory.  Our discussion then moves to the present when Tony asks about the discovery of 170,000 pages of documents discovered in 2016, which added to the roughly 150,000 pages discovered in 1991.  Tony was curious about how such a large stockpile of works could go missing for such a long time.  David explains that instead of destroying the documents as per Soviet orders following World War II, clergy with foresight of their value hid them at the bottom of other stacks of books and documents.  Eventually, when folks started to go through these mountains of literary works they eventually came across a portion of the piles that had manuscripts written in Hebrew and Yiddish.  We talk about the significance of such documents, including even the most seemingly mundane ones.  David provides a fascinating example of a contract between a local rabbi in Vilna and a guild of Jewish water porters.  (Lacking plumbing, buckets of water had to be carried to various establishments each day.)  The Association of Water Carriers of Vilna agreed to bring water to the synagogue in exchange for a place to pray, a seemingly simple transaction but one that reveals the importance of faith in the lives of everyday individuals at all socio-economic levels.  Tony wonders what it is like to just merely touch some of these historical documents as it provides an opportunity for someone in our age to be transported back in time.  We also talk about the necessity of preserving cultural documents as attempts to destroy such treasures are really efforts to erase the memory of entire groups of people.

This discussion about the importance of cultural memory then takes us directly into a discussion of how The Paper Brigade risked their lives to preserve all sorts of documents.  Prof. Fishman conveys to us the danger and desperation for Jews in Vilna at this time, noting how the Nazis rounded up all Jews into a small ghetto and summarily murdered over 50,000 Jews as an extension of the Holocaust into Lithuania.  We also discuss the efforts of Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic priest who became the Nazi director tasked with gathering and destroying Jewish documents around Europe.  Part of the documents collected by the Nazis were preserved for propaganda purposes in an effort to show the evil nature of Jews, but any other documents not used for that purpose were ordered to be destroyed.  In Lithuania, the primary target of this documentary round up was YIVO, an academic center for gathering and studying Jewish historical records that was founded in 1925.  David tells the fortuitous tale of how the director of YIVO was in Denmark on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Lithuania (as result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) and how he escaped to re-establish YIVO in New York City, where the recent discoveries we mentioned earlier are now being archived.  Because most non-Jewish Lithuanians were not able to read Hebrew or Yiddish, the Nazis used Jewish slave laborers to sort through the various documents of YIVO (and other sources) to determine which were to be saved and which to be destroyed.  It was amongst these slave laborers that a group of about forty brave individuals formed “The Paper Brigade,” and began smuggling documents past German and locally-employed guards.  The risk of being caught often entailed execution.  David tells us of a number of creative ways that the “book smugglers” were able to get these documents to safe-keeping, including hiding some in scrap paper or promising small gifts to the guards.  We are also told about some of the leaders of this group — Schmerke Kaczerginiski (a local poet in Vilna) and Abraham Sutzkever, two of the member of The Paper Brigade that survived through the war.

We finish our discussion with David reviewing some of the remarkable finds within this treasure trove of documents, including a handwritten diary of Theodore Herzl and the original versions of poems written by Sutzkever and Kaczerginski.  Prof. Fishman also shares his reflections on what he has learned about the human condition over the course of his studies related to The Paper Brigade as well as his more general research into East European Jewish life.  He notes how fragile human life and culture can be if not cared for, the importance of a chain of generations to preserve the identify of a people, and how humans can both be intensely cruel and heroic.  Most of all, he notes how ordinary people can courageously rise to the call of an occasion where hope seems highly dim.  Recorded: November 22, 2017.


Prof. David Fishman’s bio at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, by David Fishman.

The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, by David Fishman.

Russia’s First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov, by David Fishman.

From Mesopotamia to Modernity: Ten Introductions to Jewish History and Literature, edited by Burton Visotzky and David Fishman.

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Five Amazing Discoveries from Trove of Documents Hidden During the Holocaust,” article on recent find in Vilnius from The Jerusalem Post.


Mark Glickman on the Cairo Genizah.

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