The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research today announced the discovery of a trove of lost Jewish materials thought to have been destroyed during the Holocaust. The new Vilna Discovery contains never before published literary manuscripts from some of the most famous Yiddish writers as well as numerous religious and communal works. It is a watershed moment for understanding the dimensions of Jewish history and marks an important new chapter in the dramatic story of Nazi looting during the Holocaust, when the Germans were seeking to destroy not just the Jewish people (in Lithuania approximately 90 to 95 percent of the Jewish population was murdered) but their memory and culture.
Containing more than 170,000 pages, this trove of materials was first hidden from the Nazis by the YIVO Paper Brigade during WWII and subsequently preserved for decades by the heroic efforts of Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, who saved the documents from the pulping mills and stored them in secret in the basement of St. George Church, where he worked.
Similar to Oskar Schindler and other heroes of the Holocaust, Ulpis risked his own life and his family’s well-being to keep these documents hidden and preserve the memory of the Jewish people.
“With the rise of nationalist extremism in the world today, this discovery takes on new relevance and urgency. It reminds us of the perpetual attempt at wiping out a people by erasing their memory from history,” said Jonathan Brent, Executive Director and CEO of YIVO.
“But it also reminds us that preserving culture is the work of a community, in this case of Jews and non-Jews working together to save the spirit and memory of a people. These newly discovered documents will allow that memory of Eastern European Jews to live on, while enabling us to have a true accounting of the past that breaks through stereotypes and clichéd ways of thinking,” Brent said.
The new discovery is of particular note for its wealth of manuscripts, precious religious writings—in Hebrew and Yiddish—record books of shuls and yeshivas; mystical writings, and more. Additionally, the collection contains post-war and wartime materials, such as poetry written while in the Vilna Ghetto by Abraham Sutzkever. All other materials that have previously been found from this time period in Eastern Europe precede the outbreak of WWII.
Some highlights of the collection:
Lost poems, manuscripts and fragments of Chaim Grade, one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century;
Letters by Sholem Aleichem, whose writings inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof’s character Tevye the Dairyman;
Astronomical Manuscript by Issachar Ber Carmoly, displaying the theoretical contributions being made to society*;
Yiddish postcard written by Marc Chagall to Khaykl Lunski, librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilna, 1935;
Poems written by Paper Brigade members Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski. One of the poems, written by Sutzkever in the Vilna Ghetto, has been translated and documented as an original work.*;
A never before seen manuscript of a novel by Leyzer Volf entitled in toyznt yor arum: fantastisher roman (A Thousand Years From Now: A Fantasy Novel);
Yiddish theatre scripts: Peretz Hirshbein, Miriam (1910), in “German,” with stamps by Russian censor. Sherlock Holmes, translated/ adapted by the head of the Lemberg Yiddish theatre, Norbert Glimer (1883-1926). Both items from the YIVO theatre museum;
A letter and Hebrew manuscript by Rabbi Shapiro also known as Devar Avraham. He famously said, “The captain is the last to abandon his sinking ship, not the first. At this time of danger, my place is with the people of my city. I am going to Kovno.”He died in the Kovno Ghetto in 1943;
Abraham Goldfaden’s early Yiddish poem, Dos Yidele, with censor’s permit from 1883*;
Fragments of manuscripts by Yankev Dinezon, author of the first Yiddish bestseller in 1877. A note on one of the manuscripts identifies it as one of the author’s earliest writings.
Ten of the documents from the discovery will be on display at YIVO, located in the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th Street) through January 2018.