Hidden in a Basement for 70 Years, Newly Discovered Documents Shed Light on Jewish Life and Culture Before WWII

The 170,000 pages found might be “the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

This manuscript on astronomy by Issachar Ber Carmoly dates to 1751. Getty images for YIVO

In April 1943, the acclaimed Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever penned an ode to his lone sibling, Moshe, who had fled to Palestine prior to World War II. “To My Brother” was written from the Vilna Ghetto, a community of between 55,000 and 100,000 Jews barricaded within the Lithuanian city of 200,000. The Nazis forced Jews into two ghettos, one for able-bodied workers who were sent to area factories and construction projects, and another for those who couldn’t work, who were soon slaughtered. (The killings sparked an armed resistance movement in the Vilna ghetto.)  Starting in the summer of 1941, and continuing through the final ghetto liquidation in September 1943, some 40,000 Jews were murdered in a nearby forest at the Ponary execution site. The victims included Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother. Here is the second stanza of his short poem:

“And do not search for my songs,

Or for the remnants of my limbs.

But wherever you are, one and only brother,

Taste a handful of desert sand.

And every single grain,        

Will send you greetings from down under,

Where an unredeemed wonder

Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”

Although Sutzkever made it out of the Vilna ghetto to live a long, successful life in Israel, “To My Brother” was never published. Sutzkever is considered one of the great 20th-century Yiddish poets, but this poem was all but unknown until a few months ago, when a handwritten version was discovered in a church basement in the town of Vilnius, Lithuania (formerly Vilna). It’s one piece of a massive cache thought to have been destroyed in the Holocaust. David E. Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, believes the 170,000-page treasure trove is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947.

Hidden in a Basement for 70 Years, Newly Discovered Documents Shed Light on Jewish Life and Culture Before WWII
Three of the documents found in the newly discovered stash. Getty images for YIVO

“It’s miraculous that as far as we are from World War II, the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition,” says Fishman, who translated the Sutzkever poem. “Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom. There’s a real sense these items are holy.”

The lifespan of the collection is a remarkable one. In 1925, the Yiddish Scientific Institute—YIVO is an acronym for Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut—was founded in Berlin, Warsaw, and Vilna by scholars and intellects, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Long before its occupation by the Poles, Germans and Soviets, Vilna had been known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, a spiritual and intellectual center. YIVO built its headquarters in Vilna and began preserving their community’s history and culture, with an emphasis on Eastern Europe and the study of Yiddish language, literature, and folklore. At the beginning of the 20th-century, Vilna was home to more than 100 synagogues and kloizes (study halls), hundreds of schools, and a center of Jewish media and scholarship. During its first 15 years, YIVO published more than 100 volumes of research studies in the social sciences and humanities.

From the beginning, the driving force behind YIVO was linguistics scholar Max Weinreich; the original headquarters was in his apartment. When World War II broke out, Weinreich and his son were in Denmark on their way to New York. In 1940, he brought the rest of his family to America and set up a temporary YIVO home in downtown Manhattan. Following the war, when Nazi horrors started coming to light, the organization made New York City its permanent home. It sought to uncover what was left behind from Nazi looting and what remained of Jewish life in eastern Europe after the Holocaust. Some documents made it to New York City relative quickly, while others are still being found.

In the early days following the invasion of Vilna, the Luftwaffe troops used YIVO’s former headquarters as barracks, and its books for kindling. But Nazi officials in Germany actually had plans for the extensive research left behind. A significant portion of the materials, about 30 percent, were to be saved for a future Frankfurt museum that would explain how the Nazis addressed the “Jewish question.” The looted archives would explain their reasoning for the Final Solution, and the remaining 70 percent would be destroyed. The Nazis forced 40 Jewish scholars to cull through, and whittle down, the holdings for their museum, but in that process, the daring intellects would secretly save thousands of books and papers from destruction. Known as the “Paper Brigade,” the scholars wrapped documents to their torsos and hid them away in the Vilna ghetto, behind walls, beneath floorboards, and in underground bunkers.

“These are the Jewish Monuments Men, but because they came from Eastern Europe, it’s a much more tragic story,” says Fishman, who recently authored The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis“The heroes of the Holocaust were not just those who took up armed resistance. These people gave their lives for our culture, which sends an important message: There are things bigger than ourselves and we can all strive for higher ideals.”

The Nazis nearly wiped out the Jews in Lithuania, murdering between 90-95% of the population, including 34 of the 40 members of the Paper Brigade, although remarkably it wasn’t because of their smuggling operation. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived, and upon the liberation of Lithuania, the squirreled-away documents were sent to New York City as the backbone of the YIVO Holocaust Archive, which was founded in 1945, and holds close to 7 million pages. (The organization has some 23 million in total.)

Hidden in a Basement for 70 Years, Newly Discovered Documents Shed Light on Jewish Life and Culture Before WWII
An autobiography written by a fifth-grade student in 1933. Getty images for YIVO

The impressive Paper Brigade collection remained static until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 1989 and 1991, a 250,000-page stash of books and documents was uncovered in St. George Church in Vilnius, saved by church librarian Antennas Ulpis, who had secretly stored them in the basement. (He died in 1981.)

Another trove in a separate room, wasn’t found until last year, when all of the church documents were transferred from St. George to the National Library of Lithuania. Local archivists couldn’t read Yiddish or Hebrew, so the additional 170,000 pages saved by the Paper Brigade remained in the shadows until this past spring. Finally, in May 2017, almost 80 years after World War II commenced, YIVO was able to excavate and evaluate the materials. A few items were unveiled to the public at YIVO headquarters this week.

Among the ten items on display in New York City, available to the public by appointment only, are The Sutzkever poem; an 1857 contract between the Vilna Union of Water Carriers and the Ramayles Yeshiva; a 1751 manuscript on astronomy complete with solar system from a French rabbi; and a 1910 letter written at a German spa by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose stories of Tevye the Dairyman inspired Fiddler on the Roof. There’s also a 1933-34 fifth-grade autobiography by Bebe Epstein, which led to an unforeseen personal connection for political science professor Jack Jacobs, author of The Frankfurt School, Jewish Lives, and Antisemitism.

“I believe that ‘social history’ is important, that we don’t just focus on the great intellects, but also the rank-and-filers. I’ve only seen a tiny portion of the documents, but strictly by accident I came across a book written by a little girl whose family I knew,” he says. “Perhaps the materials can help humanize the everyday Jewish people who perished to help others see their lives are just like mine, especially in light of the current rise of the anti-Semitic right in Europe and the United States.”

Keeping Eastern European Jewish culture alive is the core mission of YIVO and the plan is to put the full Paper Brigade collection online by 2022. Jonathan Brent, director and CEO of YIVO, says that their goal is goes beyond producing a digital archive, and even beyond scholarship and academia. He considers integrating the material into living memory as a moral responsibility to the Jewish people.

“It’s difficult to put in words, but it’s an extraordinary moment when you realize you can still have a relationship with a society you thought was gone forever. I’m overwhelmed… During the Passover seder, a piece of matzah called the afikomen is hidden and children are told to go and find it. When they bring it back to the table the leader says, ‘What was broken off has been restored to our people.’ This is the afikomen.”

Documents are on display, by appointment only, at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City until January 2018. Email [email protected] or call 917-606-829

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.