The Nazis seemed to revel in acts of immense cruelty, even savagery. They did not only want to exterminate the Jews, along with other peoples and groups they considered inferior; it seems that they also wanted to extract every last drop of extra physical and emotional pain they could out of those murders.
Much as they loved their dispassionate lists of the dead, it seems that they loved the act of killing them even more.
Some of what they did, though, was a little more subtle, though not less cruel. Sometimes, instead of inflicting physical pain — or before inflicting physical pain — they demanded soul-wrenching work.
But sometimes the Jews were able to fight back, and sometimes in the end they won.
Take, for example, what happened to a small group of intellectuals who were herded into the Vilna Ghetto.
Dr. David Fishman, who teaches history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, specializes in eastern European Jewish history. His latest book, “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis,” published last year, tells the genuinely thrilling story of those intellectuals, who were tasked with sorting through pillaged Jewish textual and artistic treasures, consigning most of them to destruction, and saving some of them for the Nazis’ museum, where it would show relics of the peoples they had destroyed.
“This is a real story,” Dr. Fishman said. (It also is a story that he will tell in Hoboken next week; there’s more information in the box.) “It’s not a novel, though it very well could be.
“It’s the story of how ghetto inmates in Vilna rescued Jewish cultural treasures from the Nazis, and then again, after the war, from the Soviets.”
That’s the story in his book, which traces how the precious reclaimed objects eventually found their way to two places, YIVO in Manhattan and in Israel. After the book came out — just last fall! — another trove was unearthed, this one in some Lithuanian church basement that had disgorged a smaller one 25 years ago.
The story starts in Vilna, which then was in Poland, in 1942.
The Nazis amassed a huge amount of Judaica. It included material that dated back to the 1700s and contained manuscripts by famous rabbis, the original versions of their insights into Jewish tradition.
They brought their booty — mainly works of Jewish culture, but also some in Polish and Russian — to YIVO, the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, which was dedicated to the study of Jewish life in Europe. In one of many twisted ironies, that building was home to the attempted ruin of Jewish culture — and also to its preservation.
The Nazis used slave labor; it was cheap — no, it was free — and most of the time it was entirely replaceable. But the intellectuals — a group of 40, mostly men but also some women, including poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever, and Rachele Krinsky Melezin — were a more select group, with the skills the Nazis needed. “The Nazis realized that these Jewish slave laborers were very smart and capable,” Dr. Fishman said.
“The Nazis believed that they were the master race, and that everything should belong to them, and that’s why they looted it. But they realized that they needed people with the right knowledge to sort through it.”
So the slave laborers — the Paper Brigade — had to work through these vast piles of precious material. They had to trash most of it, and send some of it to the Nazis’ never-created museum. But they saved some of it by secreting it in their clothing, walking off with it wrapped around their bodies, going past the guards who would have had them executed had they known what was going on literally in front of them. They brought their rescued remnants back to the ghetto and buried them.
They did that every workday for 18 months.
The emotional strain of that work must have been overwhelming. “They were forced to destroy their own culture, and they resisted and hid whatever they could, because of their belief in the Jewish future,” Dr. Fishman said. “There are descriptions of the workers in tears. You can imagine the bulldozers coming in and destroying much of this rare and special material. They felt a lot of guilt. They felt a lot of emotions.”
Still, the workers continued with their tasks. Of course, to be realistic, they had little choice but to show up to the destruction, but they continued with the very dangerous work of saving whatever they could. They did it, Dr. Fishman said, because “they believed that there would continue to be a Jewish people, and that they would need these Jewish treasures.
“They were doing it for the future. For the idea that someday someone would find it.”
In the end, although far more Jewish work was destroyed than saved, quite a bit did survive. “If 20 people smuggle, and if, say, each of them brings out three items on their bodies, that is 60 items smuggled out a day,” Dr. Fishman said. “And they did it for a year and a half, say that’s 400 workdays. That’s 60 times 400, which is 2,400.”
It took foresight, steadiness, and pure courage. And it paid off.
The ghetto was liquidated in 1943, and most of the people who had been caged inside it were murdered. Most of the intellectual slave laborers were killed, just like their families and friends and the rest of the community.
But some survived, and after the war they came back and dug up the work they had saved.
It should have been safe then — but history continued.
“Vilna — Vilnius as it became — was under the Soviet Union, and these cultural treasures were endangered for a second time,” Dr. Fishman said. “For a second time, nobody would be allowed to read them or even to see them. The Soviets did not have a much better view of Jewish culture and Jewish life than the Nazis did.
“So there was an operation to smuggle as much of it as they could over the border from the Soviet Union to Poland, and then eventually it reached the United States and Israel, so this really is a story about two rescues.
“The materials that survived are significant in two ways,” Dr. Fishman said. “They are important in their own right. And then the fact that these materials exist at all is testimony to the amazing heroism of the ghetto inmates who risked their lives so that it would reach future generations.”
They didn’t get to future generations particularly quickly, though.
Once it was retrieved, the material was divided fairly randomly and sent on to Israel or New York, in a way that echoed to some extent the prewar division between Hebraicists and Yiddishists. “One of the people involved in retrieving the material was Abba Kovner, another poet, who was one of the leaders of the resistance,” Dr. Fishman said. “When he came back after the Holocaust, he was very active in retrieving material.
“As a Zionist, he felt that all the material should end up in Israel, so he took whatever he could there, as part of building the new state with some of this Jewish cultural treasure.”
Others felt that because the material originally had come from YIVO, it should go back there. YIVO had relocated to Manhattan, so that’s where the saved work belonged, they believed.
Abraham Sutzkever, although he made aliyah after the war and lived the rest of his life in Israel, “was of two minds,” Dr. Fishman said. “He sent some of it to New York, and brought some of it to Israel.”
Once the work was divided, it pretty much was forgotten, even though it offered much to scholars; some of it, left behind in the Soviet Union, was rediscovered when that behemoth fell in the 1980s, and YIVO rediscovered its own cache during that same decade.
“This is one of the great stories of Jewish spiritual resistance in the Holocaust, and it is largely unknown,” Dr. Fishman said. “There was armed resistance, and there was spiritual resistance.” We know more about the armed resistance — the Vilna Ghetto uprising, for example — than we do about the spiritual kind, because closer to the war’s end there was a greater need to concentrate on those stories. Now, though, he suggested, we can be more sophisticated in our understanding of what resistance looks like, and we can understand that it can encompass a wide range of activities, some visibly soul-stirring, others more quietly so.
Dr. Fishman’s book, which just won a National Jewish Book Award, in the new Holocaust category, took six years of researching and writing. “Some of my heroes kept diaries in the ghetto, and though they perished, their diaries were discovered,” he said; the memoirists saved their own work alongside the other buried treasures. “They knew that this was an enormous historical event,” Dr. Fishman said.
His book tells the story of some of these Paper Brigade members.
“One of my heroes — a central one — is Rachele Krinsky Melezin, who lived in Teaneck from 1970 to the late 1990s.” In fact, Ms. Melezin was the grandmother of Alix Wall, who was a managing editor of the Jewish Standard in the 1990s, and whose own work about the Holocaust Larry Yudelson wrote about in our June 1 issue, in a story called “The Song Plays On.”
“She was a very refined woman, who had a master’s in history,” Dr. Fishman said. “She was 32 when she was forced into the ghetto. She was a great lover of poetry; when the Germans would leave the worksite for lunch, she would read. She’d mainly read poetry.”
There is a poignant passage in her memoir, Dr. Fishman said, where she says that the one thing that still gave her satisfaction was reading. “She says, ‘This might be the last book that I read in my life, so I want to savor it.
“‘But on the other hand, for this book, I might be its last reader.’
“‘These books are in danger. They might be destroyed.’”
“Rachele was the only one of my heroes who survived German concentration camps,” Dr. Fishman said. “The others either fled with the partisans, like my poets, or they went to the camps and were killed there.
“She survived the camps and the death march. But she was deeply, deeply depressed. She didn’t even bother to write to her brother in New York when she was liberated. She said that it didn’t matter.
“What is amazing is how she gradually pulled her life together again. She remarried” — she had been a widow; her first husband was a Holocaust victim — “and that was something she thought she could never do again.
“She said she could never listen to people talking about love — she said, ‘I don’t know what they are talking about, I could never feel that again’ — but by the end of her life, she is writing to Sutzkever, and she says, ‘We are the fortunate ones. We have had such a long and rich and happy life.’
“That’s amazing. That is an amazing story of fortitude and rebuilding.”
The material Dr. Fishman examined for his book “was very voluminous,” he said. Despite all the years he devoted to the project, there was not enough time to read them in depth. “There were things that were emotionally powerful, like poems by Sutzkever,” he said.
And then that big new trove came to light, too late for the book, but certainly not too late for Dr. Fishman. He went to Lithuania to look at it — as if anyone or anything could have kept him away — and “I saw so many things,” he said.
“We found a couple of letters by Sholem Aleichem, one handwritten, one typed but signed by hand. We found rabbinic manuscripts. One is from an offshoot of Chabad Lubavitch” — that is, from one of the three rival sons of the reigning Chabad rabbi at the time — “and other Chabad-related manuscripts. We found a manuscript by the rosh of the Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania.
“We found a script from the Yiddish theater. We found testimonies from survivors of the 1919 pogroms. The list goes on.
“You see all of eastern European Jewish history come in front of your eyes, period after period, region after region, theme after theme, every topic, every aspect is in this material.
“And there is political material, Zionist material. And there are hundreds and hundreds of photographs, in good shape, in good condition.
“And there are autobiographies, especially by young people, teenagers and children. YIVO had asked them to write them. When you ask a child to write an autobiography, it’s going to be mainly about their parents, their teachers, their school, their family. So they give a lot of insight into daily life.”
One of his happiest discoveries was “a contract from 1853 between the main yeshiva in Vilna and the Association of Jewish Water Carriers there,” he said. “There was no running water, so you had to have professional water carriers.
“The water carriers were too poor to have their own synagogue, so in the contract, they ask for some place where they can have services. The yeshiva will give them rent-free room to pray, and in return the water carriers will donate a set of the Talmud to the yeshiva.
“That gives you insight into daily life in the 19th century. There are shared values and bonds between the yeshiva — the top elite — and the water carriers, who are the poorest of the poor.
“It is very poignant, and very beautiful,” Dr. Fishman said.
Much of what the Paper Brigade saved is emotional, and their story is very evocative. It is also emotional and evocative for Dr. Fishman. “I became part of the story, in a sense,” he said. “I became part of the chain of the people who hid it, the people who found it. I can be part of it by making it known.
“This story is a metaphor of Jewish life,” Dr. Fishman said. “We have to preserve our heritage. We have to retrieve it. We have to dig into it, we have to get it up from under ground, and we have to pass it on.
“That’s what they did.
“So it’s not only a great story, it also symbolizes something about Judaism — preserve, retrieve, and then transmit. That’s why it talks to us. It is a great story, and anyone who is committed to Judaism immediately identifies with it.
“It is a story of Jewish spiritual resistance — and we all should know about it.”
Who: Dr. David Fishman
What: Will talk about his book, “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis,” and the new discovery that followed its publication, at a book brunch
Where: At the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave.
When: On Sunday, February 4, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
How much: Members pay $18; nonmembers pay $25.
For more information or reservations: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (201) 659-4000.