Mon, Dec 25, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Jewish trove hidden from Nazis, Soviets gives up its secrets

By Vaidotas Beniusis and Mary Sibierski  /  AFP, VILNIUS

For decades, a confessional in a church in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, kept a precious secret: a trove of documents offering an unprecedented glimpse into Jewish life in eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust.

The cache, with documents dating back to the mid-18th century, includes religious texts, Yiddish literature and poetry, testimonies about pogroms, autobiographies and photographs.

“The diversity of material is breathtaking,” David Fishman, professor of Jewish History at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said by telephone, describing the discovery as a “total surprise.”

“It’s almost like you could reconstruct Jewish life before the Holocaust based on these materials, because there is no aspect and no region and no period that is missing,” he said.

The trove was discovered earlier this year during a clean-out of the church that was used as a book repository during Soviet times.

The documents, together with a larger cache found in Vilnius nearly three decades ago, are “the most significant discovery for Jewish history since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s,” Fishman said.

Among the most treasured finds are several original manuscripts of poems written in the Vilnius ghetto by celebrated Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, including the haunting To My Brother.

“We had the versions that he reconstructed from memory and published right after the war,” Fishman said of Sutzkever, who survived the Holocaust. “Now we have the manuscripts that he actually wrote in the ghetto and there are differences — that was a very powerful find.”

An 1857 agreement between the Jewish water carriers in Vilnius and the city’s famous Ramailes rabbinic Talmudic academy, or yeshiva, offers a telling insight into everyday life 160 years ago.

In exchange for copies of the Bible and Talmud, the yeshiva agreed to let the water carriers use a room for prayers on the Sabbath and holidays free of charge.

A ledger of the patients of Zemach Shabad, a famous Jewish doctor and social and political activist, whose monument stands in central Vilnius, was also among the documents.

Known as the “Jerusalem of the North” before World War II, Vilnius — Vilna in Hebrew and Vilne in Yiddish — was a hub of Jewish cultural and religious life and home to hundreds of Jewish social, religious, cultural and scientific organizations.

Established in 1925, the YIVO Yiddish Scientific Institute was among the most important. Cofounded by Shabad, it documented and studied Jewish life in eastern Europe. Its New York branch was founded in 1926 and became the institute’s headquarters in 1940 as Nazi Germany invaded eastern Europe.

After occupying Vilnius in 1941, the Nazis destroyed the Jewish community and plundered its cultural wealth.


Jewish poets and academics were coerced by the Nazis in the Vilnius ghetto into selecting Yiddish and Hebrew books and documents for a planned institute in Germany about the people they had slated for annihilation.

Their story has been chronicled in a book written by Fishman entitled The Book Smugglers.

The Germans sent a portion of the plundered texts to Frankfurt, but the Jewish archivists risked their lives to hide a vast array of precious documents from their tormentors.

However, that was not the end of the threat.

After the war, Lithuanian librarian Antanas Ulpis intervened to save those documents that had survived the Nazis from the nation’s new Soviet occupiers, who were bent on destroying them as part of dictator Joseph Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges.

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