Hidden from the Nazis, Thousands of Lost Jewish Records are Discovered in a Basement

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Hidden from the Nazis, Thousands of Lost Jewish Records are Discovered in a Basement

By Kim Tucker

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research recently made documents public from a rare collection of previously lost Jewish Holocaust-era literary and religious materials. This collection, which totals over 170,000 pages, has never before been published.

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Dubbed the ‘Vilna Discovery,’ these materials were rescued by the YIVO Paper Brigade during WWII and stored in the basement of St. George Church by a Lithuanian librarian Antanas Ulpis. Their discovery more than doubled previous record finds in this same church.

“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,” the YIVO Institute said in a press release.

This new discovery is still in the planning stages but since it is similar to others that were discovered in the 1980s and 90s, the institute has a blueprint for handling this massive discovery.

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“These are just the missing pieces of a larger picture of which a large portion is now being digitized in New York,” said Jonathan Brent, Executive Director and CEO of the YIVO Institute.

You can learn more about the mission of the YIVO Institute here.

“The troves discovered in Lithuania are the most important body of material in Jewish history and culture to be unearthed in more than half a century, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said David Fishman, professor of Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary and author of the The Book Smugglers.

“The troves are startlingly large in volume, and remarkably diverse in character and subject-matter. All of East European Jewish life passes through your eyes. It will take researchers many years to digest and analyze these documents. Lovers of culture everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to the heroic ghetto-inmates that rescued these materials from destruction.”

The collection includes many names and communal logbooks, records of organizations and unions, as well as several school books and autobiographies written by youths.

“With this discovery, Jewish and Lithuanian heritage has become richer and many students and researchers will benefit from it,” said Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Vilnius was the Jerusalem of the North. These resurfaced manuscripts and the virtual reunification of the YIVO holdings will help my compatriots to better understand the importance of Vilna as center of Jewish life…”

Any family historian researching someone who was Jewish and lived in the 1920s can benefit from the recovery of these records. If you’re trying to uncover whether or not a family member survived the war an archivist at YIVO may be able to help you find proof of survival in their New York records.

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Once you find a name in the new discoveries, YIVO can then help you connect to the records in their current holdings, including thousands of records in the Mutual Aid Society. The YIVO library also has a fantastic collection of nearly 1,000 books that memorialize towns with lists of Holocaust victims in the backs of the books.

The most valuable treasures of the Jewish People are the traditions, experiences and culture that have shaped our history. So to us, the documents uncovered in this discovery are nothing less than priceless family heirlooms, concealed like precious gems from Nazi stormtroopers and Soviet graverobbers. We have a responsibility to absorb the traditions, experiences and culture within these manuscripts, poems and letters, and to remember how much more has been lost. May they serve us today by strengthening our identities, and recommitting to ‘Never Again’, said Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York.

Here are some highlights of the collections, as provided by the YIVO Institute. Items denoted with an asterisk will be on display at the Center for Jewish History in New York, located at 15 W. 16th Street, from October 24, 2017 until January 2018.

  1. Lost poems, manuscripts, and fragments of Chaim Grade, one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century;
  2. Letters by Sholem Aleichem, whose writings inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof’s character Tevye the Dairyman;
  3. Astronomical Manuscript by Issachar Ber Carmoly, displaying the theoretical contributions being made to society*;
  4. Yiddish postcard written by Marc Chagall to Khaykl Lunski, librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilna, 1935;
  5. 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.*;
  6. 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);
  7. 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;
  8. 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;
  9. Abraham Goldfaden’s early Yiddish poem, Dos Yidele, with censor’s permit from 1883*;
  10. 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.”

If you’d like to schedule an appointment to view these materials, contact YIVO at vilnatreasures@yivo.cjh.org or call (917) 606-8290. You can also make a donation to the project here.

Kimberly Tucker is a faculty member at the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. Kim taught a four-week beginning genealogy class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa and also wrote a series of columns for the Association of Personal Historians about how to incorporate genealogical research in personal histories. Prior to being a full-time genealogist and personal historian, Kim was a Communications Director, Designer, and Managing Editor at the University of South Florida and worked in film and television production, primarily for PBS. Find her at www.rootstories.com.

Image: Pinkas (Communal Record Book) of the Hevra Lomde Shas (Learners of the Talmud Society) in Lazdijai, a town in southwestern Lithuania, 1836. Courtesy of Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

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