Photo Credit: Professor David Fishman
Professor David Fishman

Late last month, Ukraine elected its first Jewish president. Russia is led by a man widely regarded as a friend of the Jews. Romania and Hungary may move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem. How are we to understand all these developments in countries that were deeply anti-Semitic only a short while ago?

To gain some perspective, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Professor David Fishman, an expert on Eastern European Jewish history and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. This award-wining has been translated into several foreign languages, including Lithuanian, Italian, Dutch, Czech, Japanese, and Chinese.

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The Jewish Press: What was your reaction to the news that a Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, had been elected president of Ukraine, a country that historically has not always been friendly to Jews?

Fishman: Well, I was following the election for many months, so it wasn’t a surprise. I was surprised, though, that it was not even an issue in the campaign. I was expecting at least some people would make a big deal out of the fact that Zelensky is Jewish and not a “real” Ukrainian. But nobody tried to exploit that.

How do you explain the absence of anti-Semitism from this campaign?

I think the hostility to the oligarchs who basically run Ukraine is greater than the hostility toward Jews. The previous president, Poroshenko, was a big businessman and was seen as a failure in terms of making real reforms in Ukraine. He didn’t deliver what he promised, and I think the pent-up anger at him and all the standard politicians in Ukraine was just much bigger than any other issue.

Does Zelensky’s election indicate something about anti-Semitism in Ukraine? Has it decreased in recent decades?

Ukrainians have changed over time. I’m not going to say there’s no anti-Semitism. In fact, I am very worried about the extreme right in Ukraine. Right now they’re engaged in acts of violence against gypsies and, to some extent, [homosexuals], but they are very anti-Semitic and under the right circumstances could also begin attacking Jews and Jewish institutions.

But anti-Semitism ebbs and flows. Right now, it’s at a relatively low point for many reasons, which I can go into if you want.

Please.

Some of it is very pragmatic and calculating. Ukraine really needs help from the United States, and everybody understands that Jews play an important role in American life. So you don’t act anti-Semitic if you want to get help from the United States.

Also, five years ago there was a [mini] revolution in Ukraine and the most prominent Jews in Ukraine supported that revolution – very vocally and very visibly. Ukrainians remember that. So I think Jews right now have a pretty positive image in the eyes of most Ukrainians.

What do you make of the fact that Russia – another country with a great deal of anti-Semitism in its past – is now run by a philo-Semite?

I don’t know if I’d call Vladimir Putin a philo-Semite. It’s true that he has not persecuted Jewish life. He’s even supported Jewish life. But the government allows an extreme right-wing Russian nationalism to exist, and I would say there is more anti-Semitism today on the Russian Internet than on the Ukrainian Internet.

So it’s interesting. Putin himself is not anti-Semitic, but he does allow these extremist anti-Semitic groups to function even though he doesn’t allow a democratic opposition to function, for example. So Putin is, a little bit, playing a double game.

The biggest problem with Putin, though, is his foreign policy. The Russian presence in Syria has facilitated Iran’s presence there, which has made life for Israel much, much harder.

You mentioned earlier some practical reasons why Ukrainians may be less hostile to Jews today. But have hearts and minds changed, too? So many Eastern European countries that used to be regarded as anti-Semitic – for example, Poland and Romania are just two examples – seem pro-Jewish and pro-Israel today, which seems unusual.

I’m surprised to hear you say that about Poland. Poland is pro-Israel, but Poland vociferously denies any involvement of Poles in the Holocaust….

What we’re seeing in Eastern Europe is countries that are pro-Israel but [may not be pro-Jewish]. Those are two different things. You can support Israel and say you want the Jews to live in Israel – in fact, you’d rather Jews lived in Israel than in your own country.

So you can be hostile toward your local Jews and supportive of the state of Israel, and I think that’s pretty much the trend in most Eastern European countries.

Has there been no change at all in these populations’ attitudes toward Jews?

I think the long-term trend with the younger generation is toward more pluralism and tolerance, which of course affects the attitude toward Jews. People in their 20s are less anti-Semitic than people in their 60s.

Let me give you an interesting example. A university in Ukraine several years ago gave an honorary doctorate to a history professor who openly blamed Communist rule in Ukraine [during the Soviet era] on the Jews, calling it “Jewish-Bolshevik rule.” When he got the honorary degree, students at university – not one of whom was Jewish – protested: “We don’t want our university to glorify anti-Semitism.” The faculty didn’t have a problem giving an honorary degree to this author, but many students did.

In 2017, you wrote The Book Smugglers, which received the National Jewish Book Award. What is it about?

It’s about an amazing story of heroism in the Holocaust – the rescue in Vilna of Jewish cultural treasures from the Nazis and then later the Soviets. The Nazis wanted to destroy Jewish books or send them to Germany, and a group of Jews risked their lives to hide them.

They buried them underground, and those who survived dug them up, only to have to rescue them all over again from the Soviet Union. Today these materials are mainly in New York and Yerushalayim.

How many books, manuscripts, etc. did they rescue?

Approximately 30,000.

Why did the Nazis want Jewish books?

For very perverse reasons. They had a field of anti-Semitic Jewish studies. They were heirs to the German tradition of scholarship and science, so they had a field of scholarship to prove that the Jews are evil and a threat, and they needed Jewish books and papers for their work.

Why did Jews risk their lives to save Jewish books?

Because they were not going to be complicit. They were all book lovers and couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t resist in some way.

I think they also decided: “I’m not going to live long; I’m probably going to be murdered, and I’d rather lose my life doing something meaningful and valuable – smuggling and rescuing Jewish books – than being killed for smuggling a potato or for no reason whatsoever.”

Did this group survive?

Of the 40 people involved in the operation – 20 intellectuals, and 20 technical workers – 33 perished and seven survived. The 33 weren’t killed by the Nazis for smuggling books; they were killed like all the other Jews killed by the Nazis.

You said the Nazis wanted to keep some of these books while destroying others.

That’s right. They actually had a quota: 70 percent should be destroyed and no more than 30 percent should be sent to Germany.

Why did the Nazis conduct this operation in Vilna?

They were looting Jewish treasures all over Europe, but they realized that Vilna had several very precious collections, so they built up a [particularly] large operation there. Vilna was home to the Strashun Library, YIVO, and a Jewish museum that had, not only art, but also rare manuscripts.

There were also collections by individuals – books that belonged to Chaim Ozer Grodzinki, books that belonged to the kloiz of the Vilna Gaon. There was also a Lubavitch yeshiva in Vilna, one of only two in Poland.

Are there any rare works that exist today only because of these Jewish book smugglers?

Yes. One of them is the pinkus of the kloiz HaGra. The kloiz of the Vilna Gaon was founded in his lifetime – in the 1750s – but it continued to function until World War II, and there’s a minute book of the kloiz that covers more than 150 years.

Also rescued were a diary by Theodor Herzl from the 1880s and many letters by Sholem Aleichem. A lot of chassidishe material was also rescued, including letters by chassidim to their rebbe, kvitlach. The material is very diverse.

You mentioned that these smugglers had to later rescue these same books from the Soviets. Why did they need rescuing from the Soviets?

The Soviet Union was a country of censorship, so they didn’t let free access to books in any language. Second, the post-World War II years were a period of intense anti-Semitism led by Joseph Stalin.

In general, the Soviets were against religion. They were against Christianity and they were against Judaism. The Soviet Union was based on Marxism, and Marxism believes that religion is a harmful force; it distracts people from their [economic] problems to illusionary imaginary things such as G-d. So religion has to be eliminated.

Churches and synagogues were also seen as allies of the bourgeoisie. The church supported the czar and the rabbis were seen as always supporting the rich Jews.

The Book Smugglers was translated into several foreign languages, including Chinese and Japanese. Why these languages?

I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, but obviously part it has to be that while this story is very important to Jews, it’s inspiring and touching to all human beings because it’s about the struggle of culture against brute force and of people who recognized the importance of the spiritual.

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