Instead of Food, They Smuggled Books Into the Vilna Ghetto

The Paper Brigade set out to rescue Jewish intellectual treasures, first from the Nazis, then the Russians – even at peril of their lives

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Sorting through books that were smuggled into the ghetto library. As if the Germans left the cat to guard the cream.
Sorting through books that were smuggled into the ghetto library. As if the Germans left the cat to guard the cream. Credit: Courtesy of YIVO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Deep sadness overwhelmed David Fishman last summer when the National Library announced that it was closing its doors temporarily under the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. Although Prof. Fishman lives a very long way from the reading rooms of the Jerusalem institution, his study of the heroic operation to rescue Jewish books during the Holocaust had brought home to him how crucial they are for the spiritual and cultural survival of humanity.

In a conversation from his home in New York last month, he said, verging on tears, that he found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that the protagonists of his book – a group of Vilna Ghetto prisoners – had risked their lives to rescue volumes from the clutches of the Germans 80 years ago, but now the Jewish state was being forced to shut down libraries because of the epidemic.

Still, his 2017 work “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis” (ForeEdge Books; recently published in Hebrew by Magnes Press, in translation by Sivan Baskin), radiates an optimistic message, whose crux is the triumph of the human spirit. Fishman, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, put together the true but unbelievable story he relates there during seven years of research in six countries. In the course of his work on the book, which won him a National Jewish Book Award in 2017, he relied on documents in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, English and Russian, including diaries, letters, memoirs and interviews. The result is impressive. Fishman takes a story whose gist was already known, and fleshes it out in sometimes minute detail with new content previously unknown.

His protagonists are several dozen Jewish intellectuals in the Vilna Ghetto whom the Germans recruited in 1942 for an unusual form of forced labor. It did not take place under the broiling-hot sun or in bone-chilling cold, and it did not involve murder, beatings, threats or punishments. It was done almost entirely in an “office,” located outside the ghetto walls, under conditions that seemed luxurious in light of the circumstances and the period.

The task of these forced laborers, both men and women, was to classify tens of thousands of books and manuscripts that the German occupiers of Lithuania had looted from both institutions and private individuals. The purpose: to decide which books were worth keeping and which were of no value and could therefore be destroyed. The books that were found to be of importance to the Nazis were shipped to Germany. Those that were not “selected” were consigned to the flames or were pulped.

The group assigned to the task was led by the poets Shmerke Kaczerginski, who was 34 at the time, and Abraham Sutzkever, who was 29 and would eventually become recognized as the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th century. The members of the “paper brigade” refused to obey the orders to the letter, and took advantage of their relatively good working conditions and lax supervision to save thousands of books and rare manuscripts deemed valuable either because of their authors or the fact that they were antiques. The team pulled them out of the stacks of books and toward the end of the workday would leave, hiding the volumes in their clothing.

In the cold winter months, they wore heavy coats and several layers of clothing in order to facilitate their mission. After leaving their workplace, they would return to their homes via the ghetto gate. Taking their lives in their hands, they would walk past the guards, praying that they would not detect the cultural and spiritual treasures they were carrying on their persons.

The creativity of the “book thieves” was boundless. In one case, they obtained authorization from their German overseers to take paper back into the ghetto to burn in a stove. The guards didn’t imagine that the “wastepaper” consisted of letters and original manuscripts of Tolstoy, Sholem Aleichem and Haim Nahman Bialik, drawings by Chagall and an original manuscript of the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman), the 18th-century leader of non-Hasidic Jewry. On other occasions the group used a toolbox with a double bottom in which they smuggled out books hidden under a hammer, wrench and pliers.

The “chutzpah” displayed by the group was astonishing. One day, for example, one of them returned to the ghetto in broad daylight with a large, tattered volume of the Talmud. To the armed German guard he explained that his commanding officer had ordered him to bring in the book in order to rebind it. Perhaps the guard found it hard to believe that a Jew would concoct such a blatant lie. In any event, he let the man through without making an issue of it.

Sutzkever, left, with a cart full of newspapers and artwork that had been saved, 1944. Credit: Courtesy of YIVO

The other ghetto dwellers looked on them as if they had lost their minds. While regular prisoners tried to smuggle in food, the paper brigade smuggled books. While the efforts of the underground focused on saving lives, the “librarians” sought to save manuscripts. The books are irreplaceable, they said. Their fervent belief was that “the spirit of the Jerusalem of Lithuania [as Vilna was known] would live on, even if its Jews were to perish,” according to “The Book Smugglers.”

Once they were brought into the ghetto, the volumes had to be hidden. At least 10 different venues were used for that purpose – apartments, a bunker and the ghetto library, which offered the Jews an intellectual and cultural haven even in the most difficult moments. Among the priceless original items saved in this way were the diary of Theodor Herzl and the notebook of the Vilna Gaon.

Although Fishman’s book is set in a ghetto, it is not a “regular” Holocaust study. Its focus is not on Jewish prisoners but on the struggle for to ensure the survival of Jewish treasures of the mind and the spirit. “The Book Smugglers” is not occupied with the deportation, “selection” and annihilation of human beings, but of their written works. The “Auschwitz of Jewish culture,” an “Aktion of a different kind – directed against books,” “a cemetery of books” – these are the terms used to describe the fate of the important Jewish works. For they too underwent a process of selection: some for shredding, some for recycling, some for Germany, some for the underground.

The drama went on for 18 months. On the German side it was overseen by the staff of “Operation Rosenberg,” referring to the “German looting agency” headed by Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, which had the mission of organizing the plunder of cultural treasures – Jewish works of art, books and manuscripts – from museums, libraries and private collections across occupied Europe. The Germans used these items as source material for their study of the “Jewish question,” a field called Judenforschung, Fishman writes, explaining that this investigation of “the depravity of the Jews… legitimized in scientific terms the Nazi policies of persecution and later – extermination.”

The guards didn’t imagine that the “wastepaper” consisted of letters and original manuscripts of Tolstoy, Sholem Aleichem and Haim Nahman Bialik, drawings by Chagall and an original manuscript of the Vilna Gaon, the 18th-century leader of non-Hasidic Jewry.

In charge of the operation in Lithuania was Dr. Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic priest-turned-Nazi. A few years before being tasked with the assault on Jewish cultural and spiritual works in Vilna, he had taken courses at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Jerusalem, specializing in the Bible, archaeology and Hebrew. He also probably attended lectures at the then-young Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During Pohl’s time in Jerusalem, in 1933, the Nazis came to power in Germany, and he and his fellow students celebrated by sitting around a campfire and singing “Deutschland über Alles” and “other patriotic songs,” Fishman writes.

When Pohl returned to Germany he developed a career as an antisemitic propagandist who took pride in being an expert in Hebrew who also spoke Yiddish, could read the Talmud and was knowledgeable even in the commentaries of Rashi, the medieval Talmud and Bible scholar.

Pohl arrived in Vilna in the summer of 1941, a week after the Germans occupied the city. Under threat of arms, he and his staff forced the directors of the important Jewish libraries and museums to hand over their books and other treasures. Afterward they recruited Jewish intellectuals and cultural figures to classify and sort the stolen books.

“The question was whether the Jewish intellectuals would be accomplices in carrying out the Germans’ designs or the saviors of their threatened cultural treasures,” Fishman notes. The answer is detailed in the book’s more than 300 pages. The Jews exploited the German project to rescue as many books as possible from perdition. A drop in the ocean, yes, but a highly significant drop. In a sense, it can be said that the Germans left the cat to guard the cream, as it were. Still, the rescue operation was clouded with fears, difficulties and moments of weakness and pessimism.

“No, I’m not a guardian; I’m a gravedigger!” declared Zelig Kalmanovitch, codirector of Vilna’s Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO, which was established in 1925 and was systematically looted by the Nazis. He was referring to the demise of the volumes he had looked after so meticulously before the German occupation. “Yes,” he added, “I am YIVO’s gravedigger. I helped build a cultural building, but now it’s being laid to rest!”

Kaczerginski, left, and Sutzkever. Boundless creativity.Credit: National Library of Israel

The term “paper brigade” was given to the group by the guards at the ghetto entrance, Fishman writes, “to suggest that there was no substance to their work. They were just pushing papers.” He notes that “some took the joke a step further” and dubbed them “the brigade made of paper,” suggesting dismissively that they were “weak-bodied intellectuals.”

Herman Kruk, the ghetto librarian, wrote, “The Jewish laborers who are engaged in this work are literally in tears. Your heart breaks just looking at the scene.” And, on another occasion, upon contemplating the destruction of books the paper brigade could not save, he wrote, according to Fishman’s book: “No matter how much we have become used to it, we still don’t have enough nerves to look at the destruction calmly.”

In one case, the Germans authorized members of the paper brigade to bring into the ghetto furniture from the building where they worked. Among the tables, cabinets and other items they crammed books and documents, including textbooks for distribution to the ghetto’s schools, as well as rare editions, manuscripts and paintings, which were then safely hidden.

Their fervent belief was that “the spirit of the Jerusalem of Lithuania [as Vilna was known] would live on, even if its Jews were to perish.”

Fishman poses the question, in our conversation and in his book, of why these men and women risked their lives “for the sake of books and papers.” His reply is that “they were making an existential statement,” namely, that “literature and culture are ultimate values, greater that the life of any individual or group. Since they were sure they would soon die, they chose to connect their remaining lives, and if necessary their deaths, with the things that truly mattered.”

But it was not only matters of the spirit that impelled the paper brigade. Fishman notes that two people in the group were also members of the United Partisan Organization, or FPO: Michael Kovner (the younger brother of the resistance fighter and future poet Abba Kovner) and Reizl (Ruzka) Korczak (Abba Kovner’s right-hand person). They scoured the stacks of books earmarked for classification, looking for Soviet manuals on how to make ammunition that the Nazis had confiscated from Lithuanian libraries. “The booklets had everything the FPO wanted: Instructions on how to make mines and lay them, how to assemble and use hand grenades, and how to maintain and repair weapons,” Fishman writes.

Without seeking permission from their colleagues in the paper brigade, the two members of the underground smuggled the manuals into the ghetto and provided the group led by Abba Kovner with the instructions for producing a land mine, which they planted on the train tracks outside Vilna on July 8, 1942. “It was the first major act of anti-German sabotage in the Vilna area,” Fishman observes. The mine derailed and destroyed a German train. “No one even suspected that Jews in the ghetto were behind the land mine, let alone that it was constructed thanks to a booklet stolen from the YIVO worksite.”

Some members of the paper brigade succeeded in escaping into the forests ahead of the ghetto’s liquidation in September 1943; Sutzkever and Kaczerginski were among them and survived the Holocaust. Others were murdered in the ghetto or in death camps. Following Vilna’s liberation from the Nazis and its occupation by the Soviets in July 1944, a few members of the group returned to the city to look for the books they had hidden; some had been buried in the ground.

“On a daily basis, sacks and baskets of treasures are transferred from the bunker – letters, manuscripts, and books by famous Jewish personalities,” Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote in his diary. “The Polish inhabitants of the courtyard… think we are digging for gold. They can’t understand why we need the dirty pieces of paper that are stuffed amid feathers inside pillows and blankets. None of them realize that we have found letters by I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Bialik and Abraham Mapu; the handwritten diary of Theodor Herzl; manuscripts by Dr. Solomon Ettinger and Mendele Mokher Seforim.”

Now the survivors of the paper brigade set out to complete the mission they had embarked on under the Nazis. This time they had to smuggle out the material from under the noses of the Soviet authorities, who were intent on suppressing Jewish life.

YIVO-New York staff examine books and documents that survived WWII.Credit: Courtesy of YIVO

The books and documents that were plucked from the places of hiding were smuggled to New York, where YIVO had been “reborn” after the Nazi invasion of Vilna. Members of the Bricha movement – including survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – which smuggled Jews to Palestine, helped get the books across borders, until they were placed on ships for their journey across the ocean.

To the question of why the books were not transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem (formerly the Jewish National and University Library), Fishman replies that it was the poet Aaron Glants-Leyeles who persuaded Sutzkever to drop that idea. In 1946, about two years before Israel’s establishment, he wrote to him, “Here [in New York] the cultural treasures will be located among living Jews and will have living value. In the Jerusalem university, they will, under current circumstances, be relics, and the attitude toward them will be far from brotherly and warm.” For his part, Sutzkever, who immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and settled in Tel Aviv, took with him several hundred documents from the ghetto archive and kept them for years in his home. In 1984, he donated them to the Hebrew University library.

What befell the majority of the material rescued by the paper brigade, which remained in Vilna, behind the Iron Curtain? “Who would have imagined that the Jewish books and documents that remained in Vilnius would spend the next 40 years lying in St. George’s Church?” Fishman writes. Until 1989 the treasures had no readers. “But they were lucky,” he notes, surviving intact even the incinerators of Stalin’s antisemitic campaigns. The person responsible for their final salvation, Antanas Ulpis, the director of the Book Chamber of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, deserves to be the subject of his own study.

At the end of the war, Ulpis organized excursions throughout the country in search of printed matter, including Jewish books, that the Germans had sent to paper mills and garbage dumps. Because the Book Chamber was charged with preserving copies of all printed items in Lithuania, he safeguarded the Jewish books as well, hiding them in the church, which served him as a warehouse. “He was the last member of the paper brigade,” Fishman writes.

In the 1990s, after Lithuania became independent, dozens of crates made their way from Europe to New York. This time not by dubious routes but on regular flights – and with the permission of the authorities. They contained the items still remaining in Vilna and Jewish books that the Allies found in Germany.

David Fishman, whose scholarly expertise is the history of East European Jewry, took part in a project that was devoted to researching and cataloging the books rescued from Vilna. The fact that he was the last link in the chain that started with the paper brigade inspired him write “The Book Smugglers,” which reads almost like a historical novel. The book has been translated into Japanese and Chinese.

In 2012, Fishman mentioned the heroism of the paper brigade in passing during a talk he gave about the Vilna ghetto. Afterward, he was approached by Michael Menkin, 93, then residing in an assisted-living facility in New Jersey. “You know, I worked in that brigade for a few months. I slipped quite a few books and papers past the German guards myself,” Menkin told him. Fishman was astounded: He didn’t think that anyone from the paper brigade was still alive. (Sutzkever had died in 2010.)

“We were all certain we would soon be killed. So why not do a good thing and rescue some treasures? I don’t remember the names of the books and manuscripts I ‘stole’ from work, but I often lie in bed at night and think to myself, Who knows? Maybe I rescued something important,” he added.

“He did,” Fishman writes. “He rescued his humanity and ours.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism