December 2, 2020

YIVO Announces Discovery of 170,000 Lost Jewish Documents Thought to Have Been Destroyed During the Holocaust

From YIVO:

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research today [Tuesday] announced the discovery of a trove of lost Jewish materials thought to have been destroyed during the Holocaust. The new Vilna Discovery contains never before published literary manuscripts from some of the most famous Yiddish writers as well as numerous religious and communal works. It is a watershed moment for understanding the dimensions of Jewish history and marks an important new chapter in the dramatic story of Nazi looting during the Holocaust, when the Germans were seeking to destroy not just the Jewish people (in Lithuania approximately 90 to 95 percent of the Jewish population was murdered) but their memory and culture.

Containing more than 170,000 pages, this trove of materials was first hidden from the Nazis by the YIVO Paper Brigade during WWII and subsequently preserved for decades by the heroic efforts of Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, who saved the documents from the pulping mills and stored them in secret in the basement of St. George Church, where he worked. Similar to Oskar Schindler and other heroes of the Holocaust, Ulpis risked his own life and his family’s well-being to keep these documents hidden and preserve the memory of the Jewish people.

“With the rise of nationalist extremism in the world today, this discovery takes on new relevance and urgency.  It reminds us of the perpetual attempt at wiping out a people by erasing their memory from history,” said Jonathan Brent, Executive Director and CEO of YIVO. “But it also reminds us that preserving culture is the work of a community, in this case of Jews and non-Jews working together to save the spirit and memory of a people.  These newly discovered documents will allow that memory of Eastern European Jews to live on, while enabling us to have a true accounting of the past that breaks through stereotypes and clichéd ways of thinking.”

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The new discovery is of particular note for its wealth of manuscripts, precious religious writings—in Hebrew and Yiddish—record books of shuls and yeshivas; mystical writings, and more. Additionally, the collection contains post-war and wartime materials, such as poetry written while in the Vilna Ghetto by Abraham Sutzkever. All other materials that have previously been found from this time period in Eastern Europe precede the outbreak of WWII.

Some highlights of the collection are below. Items denoted with an asterisk will be on display at YIVO.

  • Lost poems, manuscripts and fragments of Chaim Grade, one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century;
  • Letters by Sholem Aleichem, whose writings inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof’s character Tevye the Dairyman;
  • Astronomical Manuscript by Issachar Ber Carmoly, displaying the theoretical contributions being made to society*;
  • Yiddish postcard written by Marc Chagall to Khaykl Lunski, librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilna, 1935;
  • Poems written by Paper Brigade members Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski. One of the poems, written by Sutzkever in the Vilna Ghetto, has been translated and documented as an original work.*;
  • A never before seen manuscript of a novel by Leyzer Volf entitled in toyznt yor arum: fantastisher roman (A Thousand Years From Now: A Fantasy Novel);
  • Yiddish theatre scripts: Peretz HirshbeinMiriam (1910), in “German,” with stamps by Russian censor. Sherlock Holmes, translated/ adapted by the head of the Lemberg Yiddish theatre, Norbert Glimer (1883-1926). Both items from the YIVO theatre museum;
  • A letter and Hebrew manuscript by Rabbi Shapiro also known as Devar Avraham. He famously said, “The captain is the last to abandon his sinking ship, not the first. At this time of danger, my place is with the people of my city. I am going to Kovno.”He died in the Kovno Ghetto in 1943;
  • Abraham Goldfaden’s early Yiddish poem, Dos Yidele, with censor’s permit from 1883*;
  • Fragments of manuscripts by Yankev Dinezon, author of the first Yiddish bestseller in 1877. A note on one of the manuscripts identifies it as one of the author’s earliest writings.

The discovery is the culmination of YIVO’s successful partnership with the Lithuanian institutions and government and carries on the work by the famed Paper Brigade, which included Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski. The Paper Brigade of Vilna, formed during WWII, was a small group of Jewish intellectuals who took it upon themselves to save as many documents as possible from Nazi destruction, in an effort to preserve the memory of Jewish culture. YIVO was originally founded in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), before the Nazis ransacked and destroyed their building in 1941.

The newly discovered documents more than double previous finds from the basement of St. George Church, which included books and documents found in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The new discovery had been held in a separate room in the church and remained undocumented until now. When combined with the existing Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Collections, which already contains 1 million documents, YIVO will now have saved approximately 1.2 million original documents from the Jewish world of Eastern Europe.

Ten of the documents from the discovery will be on display at YIVO, located in the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th Street) from October 24 – January 2018. These rare treasures of Jewish history and culture from the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Collections Project, are on loan from the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania, and will be on exhibition Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 1:00pm to 4:00pm (by appointment only). The rest of the documents will remain in Lithuania for the time being while YIVO and the Lithuanian government work to archive and ultimately digitize the find. Long term, both are committed to ensuring this important part of history is never lost again and are actively exploring ways to permanently share the materials with the general public and facilitate scholarly research.

Read the Complete Announcement

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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