The goal was to preserve 500 years of cultural history marked for destruction by German Nazis.
The dramatic story was told and illustrated in a slide presentation by Dr. David E. Fishman, speaker at the 15th annual Richard J. Yashek Memorial Lecture held Wednesday in the McMillen Student Center at Albright College.
More that 150 people packed the South Lounge to hear Fishman, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Fishman is the author of “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis,” winner of a National Jewish Book Award.
“These are a people who wanted to do something important and meaningful and perhaps die for smuggling rare books rather than die for smuggling a potato,” Fishman said. “They were making an existential statement knowing they probably would be killed. They did it for future generations and that's what makes them heroes, risking themselves for something bigger than themselves. They did what they could … this is a story that truly inspires.”
Fishman explained that Vilna, an historic center of Hebrew and Yiddish printing since the 1500s, once claimed by Poland and Russia, but located in Lithuania, was a city of 70,000 Jews, one-third of the total population.
Two-thirds of those Jews were massacred, machine-gunned down and dumped into pits outside the city, after some six months of Nazi occupation that began in 1941 and lasted to 1943 with Soviet liberation.
“The Nazis actually arrived there late,” Fishman said, noting Vilna's Jewish ghetto story was somewhat different than what occurred in Warsaw, Poland, where 300,000 Jews resided.
After the Vilna massacre, some 20,000 Jews living on seven streets remained in the city, forced into a ghetto and slave labor, often terrorized, beaten and even killed if found trying to smuggle food upon entering the ghetto gates after a day of labor.
“An opera singer was sent to death for trying to smuggle a bag of peas,” Fishman said, describing the horrors of living conditions as well as the oppressive regulations such as not allowing Jewish women to give birth.
A year and half of so-called stability ensued in Vilna, Fishman said, when Nazis decided to loot Jewish museums, libraries and a scientific institute, to remove literary treasures and artwork and take them to Germany.
Fishman said the Nazis were attempting to establish their own science dedicated to the study of Jewry with the express purpose of proving how inherently evil and depraved Jews were, justifying the Nazi need to exterminate them.
Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic marketing himself as a Judaic expert, became the leader of the looting mission that set a goal of destroying 70 percent of all manuscripts and sending the remaining 30 percent to Germany, Fishman said.
Such a task became so daunting that he decided to enlist what became known as the Paper Brigade, 20 Jewish intellectuals and 20 technical workers, well-educated in Hebrew and Yiddish and viewed as able to make discriminating choices on the fate of thousands of priceless manuscripts.
“For the Jews, this was excruciating work , forced to be complicit in the destruction of their own culture,” Fishman said.
It was this onerous task that prompted individual Jews to risk their lives to smuggle literary and religious treasures into the ghetto, hide them in bunkers, where guns were already being hidden and stored for a potential future uprising.
In his lecture, Fishman focused on the personal trials of two poets, Shmerke Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever, and a Jewish woman Rachela Krinsky, who gave up her daughter to be raised by a Polish nanny after her husband was killed. The trio were key players in smuggling efforts and managed to survive the World War II atrocities.
A fourth smuggler, Ona Simaite, a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian, also had a role in saving books by claiming to collect overdue books from Jews, while secretly supplying some food and removing smuggled treasures and even some children when she departed the ghetto after her regular visits.
Unfortunately, many literary works were destroyed when the Soviets entered Vilna, but those taken to Frankfurt, Germany, wound up in the American occupation zone after the war and were ultimately preserved in New York or Israel, Fishman said.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, more than 40 years after the war, more saved treasures became accessible in Lithuania.
“I'm sure there are materials still underground somewhere there (in Vilna),” Fishman said.
The annual memorial lecture at Albright College is named for Holocaust survivor Richard J. Yashek (1929-2005) and is supported by the Lakin Holocaust Library and Resource Center at Albright's Gingrich Library and the Jewish Federation of Reading.