There’s a certain poetic justice to interviewing some of the people most instrumental in getting YIVO’s vast archive documenting Jewish life in prewar Europe online over Zoom.
Those archives now are available to everyone. You just have to be able to get to a computer, or maybe just look at your phone as you walk down the street. (Careful! Don’t walk into anyone! Don’t step in a pothole!) Right there on your phone, or sitting at your desk, you’ll see material that documents Jewish life with the kind of familiarity and intimacy that only ephemera, or at least personal effects never intended to be shared, can give.
Some of what you’ll see is more formal; precious books have been digitized and thus saved from the decay to which all paper is heir.
All you have to do is go to YIVO’s website, vilnacollections.yivo.org, and start clicking. (But make sure that you have hours to spare, as you head down tantalizing, fascinating, deeply sad, deeply moving, deeply human rabbit holes.)
The story of how YIVO came to have this archive, and was able to digitize it, is a story of courage, fortitude, and foresight. Maybe ironically, it’s a very physical story.
It starts in the early 1940s, when the Nazis occupied eastern Europe.
YIVO — the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute, aka the Institute for Jewish Research, which now has its headquarters on West 16th Street in Manhattan — was founded in 1925 in what then was Vilna, Poland, and later became Vilnius, Lithuania. Then as now, YIVO collected materials that described and explored Jewish life. When the Nazis took over the city, they brought it more materials, things they had looted as they ravaged across Eastern Europe. Their goal was to destroy most of it, but to display some of it in a museum they’d planned in Berlin, where they could showcase the works of the people they were working to destroy.
They demanded that the Jewish intellectuals they repurposed as special slave laborers sift through the collections and save the prime bits for the victors’ museum. The laborers — the Paper Brigade — did as they were ordered, but they also saved as much as they could, hiding it on their bodies or smuggling it to non-Jewish friends. It was dangerous work, soul-deadening, not physically difficult but emotionally devastating, and the physical risks to them were enormous.
But they did it.
After about 18 months, the work ended. The ghetto was destroyed, and so were most of the Jews who had been caged there, including the Paper Brigade. But some of them survived, and so did some of the vast trove of papers they’d managed to smuggle out, one piece at a time.
After the war, some of the rescued documents ended up in YIVO’s archives, some went to Israel, and some stayed in Lithuania, in a museum that its creators hoped would become the successor to YIVO.
The Soviets had other ideas. “They took hold of all cultural institutions, and they destroyed the museum,” Dr. Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s executive director and CEO, said. “And in 1948, at the beginning of the anti-Jewish campaign throughout the Soviet Union, they sought to destroy all the materials that remained.
“It was a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, who saved them the second time,” he continued. “He hid them in the church of St. George in Vilnius.”
Why did Mr. Ulpis that take risk? “I think that he was a decent man, and he understood that it was his responsibility as a librarian to save it,” Dr. Brent said. “He was somebody who cared about the Lithuanian people, and he wanted to save the materials of the people who had been so important to Lithuania.”
Later, Mr. Ulpis’s son, Danius, who moved to New Jersey and worked in Jersey City, talked about what his father had done. “He said that when he was a little boy, he’d accompany his father to work at the church,” Dr. Brent said. “He was bored, and went to try to play the organ, but no sound came out.
“His father laughed, he said, and said, ‘Go look in the bellows.’ The son did, and he saw that they were full of Jewish books.
“That’s a metaphor for so much of Jewish history. Jewish words are in the bellows of an organ in a Catholic church. It’s kind of fantastical.”
Antanas Ulpis died in 1981, in Lithuania. “He was a good man, and he deserves to be honored,” Dr. Brent said. “We will put up a plaque for him.”
So until recently, the material that the Paper Brigade had saved once, and Antanas Ulpis saved a second time, was sitting in Manhattan and in Vilnius. And then YIVO saved them a third time, Dr. Brent said.
In 1993, the Lithuanian government shipped YIVO some of the material; since then, despite intercontinental negotiations, the rest of it has stayed in Lithuania. But now it’s all online.
“We’ve digitized it,” Dr. Brent said. “We put it in order, we pieced these fragments together. One part of a document might have been in Lithuania, and another part of the same document was found in archives in New York.
“It’s been an extraordinary process.”
“It has been a monumental job that the archivists undertook and completed,” he continued. “This is a watershed development, not just for YIVO but for the entire community. I don’t simply mean those who lived in Vilna at the time, but for the entire community of Ashkenazi Jews throughout the world. For our entire people. To have this body of material, 1 1/2 million documents, available for the first time, available to the public, available to the world, for the first time.
“Even in 1939,” before the Nazis invaded Eastern Europe, “these documents weren’t available to the world, because of physical barriers. And now they are available to scholars, and to the general public, around the world.”
What is this material?
They’re documents written in at least a dozen languages. “Some are handwritten in Yiddish that is often difficult to read. They’re in Russian, German, Lithuanian, Romanian, and a host of other languages.” They’re posted online in their original languages — what you see when you click on a link is an image — but they’re accompanied by explanations. Someone on YIVO’s staff of 11 conservators and other specialists who worked on the project was able to read every single document. At least one person on the staff can understand and contextualize every single image.
The trove contains a wide range of material, as my colleague Larry Yudelson, then working for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, described in a story he wrote in 1995.
The surprises that archivists unpacked from what Larry described as “the attic of Eastern European Jewry” included “a letter from Albert Einstein, a poster for what might have been the Vilna premiere of ‘The Dybbuk’ in 1921, an invitation to the Lubavitcher rebbe’s wedding, and a pink 1937 ticket to the women’s section of the Vilna Great Synagogue.
“The crates are crammed with letters, minutes, student newspapers, children’s notebooks, photographs and posters documenting Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust,” Larry wrote then.
“This isn’t just scholarly material,” Dr. Brent said now. “There are poems, songs, lullabies that mothers sang to their children. There are recipes, and reports about the health of people in the community by one of the most famous doctors of the time. There were Shabbat sermons by famous rabbis. There was pornography.
“There was everything. This is revelatory of how we as a people lived. That is a gift.
“And it is a gift that we want to share with the whole world.”
“I am particularly fond of the posters advertising various health-related lectures, including one about the benefits of hypnotism,” Stephanie Halpern, YIVO’s archives director, said. “There are posters about women’s health issues, and a poster about preventing disease that’s particularly relevant to this time. It says, ‘Wash your hands!’ And there are images of various health-related classes that are being given accompanying them.”
“I am really moved by the autobiographies,” Shelly Freeman, YIVO’s chief of staff, said. “YIVO had a competition in the 1930s to find out about Jewish life. About how Jewish teenagers lived. They wanted them to be honest. There are about 600 of those autobiographies. They’re heartbreaking and moving and incredible.
“You see these teenagers living their lives. You see how relatable they are. They describe very human feelings. This is a powerful example of how these people really were like us.”
“We have school notebooks from kids as young as 4 or 5,” Dr. Brent said.
“One of the most fascinating autobiographical details was a description of the first movie one of the teenagers, a young girl, saw,” he continued. “It wasn’t the ‘Dybbuk.’ It wasn’t in Yiddish or Polish. It was the silent film of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ This was what Jews in Vilna, Poland, were watching in 1933.
“It shows you that they were looking out of their community, into the larger world.
“Another remarkable thing that comes through a lot of these autobiographies and pamphlets is the drawings they have, of anatomy, of botany. It’s the working out of geometrical theorems. It’s these children’s amazing abilities, mathematically and scientifically. It’s their interest in scientific knowledge.
“This was a community that was exploding with interest in the world.”
Dr. Brent told a personal story about that interest going both ways.
“One of the most surprising finds to me was a poster, in Vilna, of a performance of the play ‘Kuni Leml’ in the Douglas Park Jewish Theatre in Chicago.
“When I was growing up, my father always told me about seeing Kuni Luml in Douglas Park — and then I came across the poster for it! In Vilnius!
“There was a real thrill to that discovery. And it also tells you what the Jewish community in Chicago was thinking. My family wasn’t from Vilnius. They were Ukrainian. But they realized that YIVO was their home base, and therefore they sent the poster over there. So now, about 100 years later, I can reconnect to my father through this poster.
“This is a very small little thing, but for me it has tremendous value.”
Dr. Brent described how the project to digitize the material — that enterprise’s formal name is the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project, snappily known as EBVOCP — happened.
Because of his background, he knew that the digitization would be possible, at least technically. Before he went to YIVO, he was at Yale. “I had spent some 20 years working in the Soviet archives,” he said. He was in Russia; this was before the work became remote. “We had gotten a big grant from the Mellon Foundation, and we digitized the whole archives, all of Stalin’s papers. The relationship with the Russian archives was beyond disturbing. It took a lot of time and effort.
“But I knew that it could be done.
“That was the deep background for this. That’s what made it possible for me to propose to the Lithuanians that we should undertake it together, and to my delight they agreed enthusiastically.” Three Lithuanian institutions — the central state archives, the national library, and the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Science — joined the partnership with YIVO.
That was in 2014. “It took a year just to do the initial survey, to raise a tiny bit of seed money, which suggested that we weren’t just whistling in the wind. But I had made up my mind that if the Jewish world would not support this project, then we might as well just hang up our hats and go home. And that’s what I told our board.
“But even though $7 million was more than we had ever raised in our whole history, I knew that everyone who believed that history is important would believe in what we were trying to do.
“And wonderfully, the community stepped up! Large donors stepped up. Anonymous donors made foundational gifts. The U.S. government stepped up. The project really galvanized the whole community.”
“But it couldn’t have happened without the work of the archivists.”
That’s where Dr. Halpern came in.
In 2019, she said, she decided to move from outsourcing the digitization to moving that work inhouse. That way, YIVO controlled the entire process. “We opened our own digital lab,” she said. That means that when the pandemic began, the work didn’t stop.
“There are two parts to this project,” Dr. Halpern said. “There are about 1.1 million pages in New York, and about 400,000 in Lithuania, so the process ran parallel, and in New York, where we had our lab, we were lucky because we had built up a surplus of digital material.
“So when we shut down we had people working from home. Everyone took on new roles in the project. People who had never worked with digital materials before were doing it now. This kept us sustained with work through July 2020.
“And then, when we ran out, we sent small rotating teams into the building to continue to digitalize. You’d digitalize there, then work at home.
“We did that through January 2021, and then in February the whole team came back, and we finished the project. Everyone learned new skills that would allow them to pitch in wherever they were needed. We now have conservators who can do digitization, and we have a team of people who can do everything in the archives.”
The technology continues to improve. “We now use an overhead camera, digitizing at the highest industry standard,” Dr. Halpern said. “That was a learning experience for us. It was the biggest project that YIVO has ever done, and it allowed us to create a team and workflows that will allow us to digitize on the next big project.”
That project already is underway. “We’re digitizing the 3.5 million archival pages of the Bund,” she said. “It’s three times the size of the Vilna collection.”
There are many ways into the collection, she said. “We are open to everyone.” That means that when people come to the building, when they can, when it’s safe, “it doesn’t matter if you are a high school student or a scholar.” Still, there is a barrier. “You have to be able to come to New York.” To look at the online collection, all you need is a connection. “You can look at it from anywhere, and it’s totally free,” she said.
Where should someone start looking? “The catalogue allows for a keyword search,” Dr. Halpern said. “That’s always a good place to start. But in something like theater or bar mitzvah — something broad — that will get you to an overall description of a collection. You’re likely to find one that might be of interest.
“The question we often get is if we have information on your family. Sometimes we do, but sometimes we don’t.” This is not a genealogical database; some collections have some family histories, but you’re better off looking elsewhere for it.
The Vilna project is not unique, in that other museums have digitized collections, but “there is no archive in the world like this one,” Dr. Brent said. “This is unique.
“It’s very hard for Jewish people in the United States to reckon with the fact that almost everything was destroyed. It’s hard for that to sink in, even if you know it. Even though you read it.
“For me, it sank in when I went to Moscow and met with the head of the Russian Jewish Congress, Yuri Kanner. He very proudly told me that they had contributed to the creation of the Jewish museum there, and it has 5,000 original artifacts. I said, ‘That’s fantastic.’ And he said, ‘There isn’t much else anywhere.’ In this Vilna collection, we have 1.5 million pages, and overall YIVO has 24 million such artifacts and 400,000 books. It’s the largest collection of Yiddish material in the world.
“This is a very precious thing, and with it comes an immense obligation to save it, to preserve it for the future, and to insure that people know what it is, and how to use it for the benefit of the Jewish people, in understanding ourselves and our relations with the outside world, with the non-Jewish world.”
As she thought about the keywords, “The one word I don’t think you’ll find is Holocaust,” Ms. Freeman said. Dr. Halpern elaborated, with a slight correction. “You might find it, because we describe the document’s custodial history,” she said, but it would be only in the context-providing explanations, not in the documents themselves. That’s because “it’s all about life,” she said.
“That’s right,” Dr. Brent said. “This is about how we lived. Even though there are materials from inside the Vilna ghetto, it’s not about how we died. It’s about how we lived.”
Start your exploration of the collection at vilnacollections.yivo.org.