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The Paper Brigade

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  • Brigitte Jünger

Resistance with a Book Under Your Shirt – the ‘Paper Brigade’ of Vilnius Ghetto


Like a tender infant I guard the Yiddish word,

sniffing around in heaps of paper

to rescue a mind from murder.

Digging, planting manuscripts…

 

Abraham Sutzkever, March 1943




In his poem ‘Kerndlech Wajts – Germs of Wheat’  Abraham Sutzkever describes in accurate lyrical terms what he did as a member of Vilnius ghetto’s ‘paper brigade,’ namely search out, retrieve, and hide books and manuscripts of all kinds, in flagrant contravention of the diktat of the German forces of occupation. The working party detailed to sort through the books and papers and hand them in for destruction did whatever they could to sabotage their orders. Discovery would have meant certain death.






On June 22, 1941, in defiance of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, German forces launched ‘operation Barbarossa,’ the attack on the Soviet Union. Lithuania, which had been overrun by Soviet forces and declared a Soviet republic the previous year, was immediately affected. It was only a matter of days before German soldiers and their Lithuanian accomplices started killing the Jewish population of the capital. Vilnius at that time had some 55,000 Jews – a third of the city’s population.

 


Yiddish – a cultural language


Known as Yerusholayim d’Lite – the ‘Lithuanian Jerusalem’ – Vilnius was an ancient cultural center of eastern European Jewry. Jews had resided there since the 14th century, and important rabbis and scholars like the 18th century Elijah Ben Salomon Salman, known as the ‘Gaon of Vilna,’ worked and taught there. In the 19th century the realization grew that Judaism had developed a unique secular as well as religious culture, and Yiddish began to emerge from its Hebrew shadow, asserting its presence and achieving recognition. Vilnius had an academic Yiddish secondary school and a university of technology, as well as five Yiddish newspapers and Yiddish theatrical performances, youth clubs, and libraries.


The most important of these latter was the Strashun Library, the first Jewish public library worldwide, founded in the early 20th century on the basis of the personal collection of Mattityahu Strashun (1817–1885). By 1940 the library contained some 50,000 books, as well as rare prints and valuable manuscripts from the early period of book production in both Hebrew and Yiddish.


Another large library with up to 85,000 books, along with an extensive archive of Jewish historical artifacts, belonged to the Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) – still a leading research institute today. Founded in Berlin in 1925, YIVO saw its mission in the multiethnic world of Eastern Europe as a Yiddish-speaking center linking the past and present of eastern European Judaism and cultural history. From the mid-1930s it took on the additional task of building up and intellectually supporting the Jewish community in a world of increasing anti-Semitism.


That was the cultural situation when the Nazis marched into Vilnius in 1941 and began their planned destruction of Jewish life. Thousands of people were shot and hastily buried in Ponary, a woodland recreational area near the city. At the end of August the Vilnius ghetto was set up in the old part of the city, comprising a ‘small ghetto’ for the old and infirm and a ‘big ghetto’ for all others. Former residents were forced to leave, and the area was fenced and guarded. Some 40,000 Jews were crammed in under inhuman conditions. They were subject to repeated raids, searches, and ‘selections’ – the so-called ‘actions’ – which led to many thousand more deaths. By October 1941 only 18,000 people lived in the ghetto.

 


Human annihilation – cultural eradication


But the extermination of Vilnius’s Jewish inhabitants alone did not satisfy the German forces of occupation: their declared aim included the plundering and eradication of the Jewish cultural heritage. In charge of this campaign was Alfred Rosenberg, personally appointed by Hitler in 1934 to supervise National Socialist intellectual and ideological training.


A passionate anti-Semite and Nazi ideologist, Rosenberg established the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Action Group), which organized the plundering of cultural artifacts in German-occupied territories, in the course of which thousands of artworks belonging to Jews passed into National Socialist hands. After the artworks came the Jewish libraries, ostensibly for ‘opponent research’ in line with the racist goals of National Socialism. Such ‘opponents’ included communists, freemasons, homosexuals, and others, as well as Jews. Artworks, books and manuscripts were taken to the Institute for Research into the Jewish Question (Judenfrage), a National Socialist Party foundation whose archives and library were to be integrated into a future elite university, the so-called Hohe Schule.


In 1941 Rosenberg was appointed Reichsminister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, a position that enabled him to extend his campaign of theft to Vilnius. Shortly after the invasion by the German forces, Herbert Gotthard took command of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in the city. To expedite the sorting and shipment to Germany of the Jewish cultural artifacts, Gotthard had three of Eastern Europe’s most eminent scholars – Noah Pryłucki (Head of YIVO), Abraham Goldschmidt (Director of the Ethnographical Museum), and Khaykl Lunski (Director of Strashun Library) – arrested and tasked with the compilation of lists of the most valuable books, manuscripts and early printed works in the city.


Pryłucki, a lawyer by training, a philologist by choice, had published research into Yiddish and its dialects and was among the founders and editors of the learned journal Yidishe filologye. Lunski had been collecting books for the Strashun Library since 1895 and was among the founders of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographical Society. All three scholars were killed by the Nazis once their lists were complete.


 

The paper brigade – an unwilling task force


At the beginning of 1942 another fanatical anti-Semite, Johannes Pohl, joined the Institute for Research into the Jewish Question in Vilnius. He ordered the Jewish Council to nominate a task force to sift through the Vilnius libraries for anything, whether Jewish or not, that was still worth keeping. The Rosenberg Action Group planned to destroy 70 percent of the books and to ship the rest back to the Reich.


This task force became known as the ‘paper brigade’: it comprised 40 men and women familiar with the field, led by the Jewish philologist-translator Zelig Kalmanovich and the journalist-librarian Herman Kruk.


Until 1939 Kruk had been a library director in Warsaw, from where he had established a network of 30 other libraries across Poland. After the subjection of Poland he fled to Vilnius, where he immediately set up yet another library that was eagerly used by the inhabitants of the ghetto to enrich their otherwise desolate lives. On December 13, 1942 his library celebrated the loan of its hundred-thousandth book.


Both Kalmanovich and Kruk kept diaries, which the latter began to use as the basis for a chronicle of the ghetto, written for safety’s sake in three copies. After the war Abraham Sutzkever found one of these copies and saved it for posterity. Kruk’s diaries and chronicle have only been edited and published in their entirety in English.



 

Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, in the 1930s (© public domain)




Among those conscripted for the paper brigade were two young poets, Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, who had both made a name for themselves since the mid-1930s. Other members included Rozka Korczak, who, like the writer Abba Kovner, belonged to the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, and was at the same time active in the partisan group Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye. Zelig Kalmanovich’s diary entry for August 26, 1943 reads:


I have spent the whole week looking through library holdings and discarding several thousand books that passed through my hands. Books are piling up on the YIVO reading room floor. A charnel house of books: a mass grave. […] We might be able to save the few I have sorted out; and if rescue comes soon, we might even save some of the rest. Let us hope we will live to see it!


The YIVO Institute served as central sorting house for the brigade. All the books and writings from Vilnius University Library, the Strashun and Ethnographical Museum libraries, the libraries of the region’s some 350 synagogues, and all other collections were brought there. Much of this material was pulped simply to save space. A paper mill in Vilejka (near Vilnius) bought some of the paper for 19 reichsmarks the tonne; much of the rest was used to fuel heating systems.

 


Letters under your hat


Faced with the eradication of their cultural heritage, members of the paper brigade began to salvage whatever they could, concealing valuable letters, manuscripts and drawings in their clothing, boots, or hats, and smuggling them into the ghetto. If anyone was caught with such material, they would say they needed it for heating. Not everyone in the ghetto agreed with these actions.

Shmerke Kaczerginski noted:


We didn’t even notice the mortal danger we were in, and started stealing whatever we could hide in this way from the Germans. The [ghetto] Jews thought we were mad. In their clothes and boots they smuggled in food from the city; we smuggled books, papers, sometimes even a Torah scroll, as well as mezuzot and other religious objects etc.


The books and artifacts were hidden in various places in the ghetto: in well-aired cellars, in the ghetto library, or in metal boxes buried in the earth. Another hiding place was the malinas, a tunnel system also used to conceal weapons. Particularly valuable objects were given to trustworthy non-Jewish friends in the underground movement. If the Jews themselves were murdered, at least their cultural heritage should survive.


The ghetto was cleared in September 1943, and Zelig Kalmanovich and Herman Kruk were deported to Estonia and killed in the labor camps there. Other inhabitants of the ghetto were taken to labor camps in the vicinity and also killed. Abraham Sutzkever and some of the partisans managed to escape into the woods, where he and his wife held out for six months. Then there was an unexpected turn of events: on March 12, 1944 the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow, led by the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, sent some planes to rescue them. That was how Sutzkever ended up in the Soviet capital.



 

Abraham Sutzkever, 1962 (© public domain)




When the war ended, Sutzkever and some other members of the paper brigade like Shmerke Kaczerginski set off immediately for Vilnius to retrieve the hidden books. Some hiding places had survived intact, others – like the central sorting room at YIVO – had been damaged or wholly destroyed. Thousands of books were still in the Monastery of St. Catherine. Sutzkever and Kaczerginski put together what they found and established a Museum of Jewish Art and Culture in the rooms of the former ghetto library.


Meanwhile the Allies had discovered three million writings and ritual artifacts stolen from Eastern Europe in the depots of the City of Offenbach (near Frankfurt). Nothing, however, from this hoard was returned to Vilnius: 420 crates of books from the Strashun Library were shipped to the YIVO Institute in New York, where they form the core of the world’s biggest Yiddish library.

 

Who will remain?

Who will remain? What will remain?

The wind will remain.

The blindness of the blind

that slips away.

A sign of the sea will remain

a handful of spume –

a small cloud caught high in a tree.

 

Who will remain? What will remain?

A word will remain:

the grass of creation will germinate

today and evermore.

 

Abraham Sutzkever



Brigitte Jünger is a journalist and author.



Title image: Shmerke Kaczerginski looking through the books (© public domain)

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