Vilna Discovery: Planning a Workshop

On the 8th of January 2018, the Association for Jewish Libraries’ New York chapter, NYMA (AJL-NYMA), held its annual Reference Workshop on the Vilna Discovery of lost Jewish documents at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

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Front entrance of YIVO by Gryffindor – This panoramic image was created with Autostitch. Stitched images may differ from reality., Public Domain.

 

As a Judaica Librarian I have been attending these workshops for years, but this one was special. It was the first one I helped put together as Reference Workshop Co-coordinator for AJL-NYMA. I accepted the position shortly after the AJL annual conference last year and naturally had no idea what I was going to do or how to do it!

Thankfully I had a partner in crime, my co-coordinator Deborah Schranz, lots of help from some very nice people, and a germ of an idea. A New York Times article published in October caught my interest: “A Trove of Yiddish Artifacts Rescued from the Nazis, and Oblivion,” by Joseph Berger

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The Paper Brigade exhibit banner at YIVO. Photo by author.

This article told the story of a crew of Jewish intellectuals and literary experts known as the Paper Brigade.  They had been assigned by the Nazis to sift through important Jewish documents in Vilnius (Vilna) and cherry-pick items for a reference collection about the people they were planning to annihilate. The Jews of the Paper Brigade were able to smuggle out and hide thousands of books, papers, and other important “pearls for study” (Berger, 2017). Much of the collection had already been found back in 1991 in the basement of a Vilnius church that was being used as the town archive, but in late 2016 another cache was found while clearing out that basement: over 170,000 pages of valuable documents and ephemera. According to Berger’s article, these include two letters by Sholem Aleichem, the famous Yiddish storyteller, and a postcard written by Marc Chagall, the Jewish modernist painter, among other fascinating finds.

 

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Letter written by Yiddish Author Sholem Aleichem from a health spa in Germany. Picture by author.

The article interviewed Dr. David Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who had first evaluated the first collection in the 90’s and wrote a book about it entitled The Book Smugglers.

 

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Book available at Touro Libraries.

Dr. Fishman was called back to Vilna to evaluate the new findings, and called them “gold.”

This caught my attention and held it. My co-coordinator was currently working at the Jewish Theological Seminary! Could we contact Dr. Fishman and ask him to speak about his experience with the collection? Further, was it possible to view the collection? We did and it was! Dr. Fishman graciously agreed to speak, and I found that selected items from this discovery would be on display at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research through January 2018. I could schedule a private tour!

 

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The Strashun Library, where the Vilna Discovery Exhibit is on display at YIVO. Picture by author.

Wait-but what about event space? Now that we were in contact with Dr. Fishman, where would he speak? Did YIVO perhaps have a room? They did! Emails flew back and forth between me, my co-coordinator Deborah, former coordinators, NYMA members, and YIVO staff, particularly Lyudmila Sholokhova, the YIVO Director of the Archives and Library, and Olivia Reid, YIVO’s Program Assistant. YIVO was willing to give us a room, Dr. Fishman was willing to speak, and we were able to set up not just one, but two guided tours: one to the Vilna Discovery itself, and one for the Paper Brigade, which told the story of the book smugglers and showed findings from the 1991 discovery. A beautiful flyer was put together by Ms. Shaindy Kurzman, shown below:

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All was falling into place, and it all came from a thousand (and change) word article from the New York Times.

On the day itself, the workshop went smoothly thanks to the intense planning and organizing we had done and Olivia’s invaluable assistance, barring a few hiccups (I’m looking at you, faulty hot water urn!) Dr. Fishman’s presentation was fascinating and well-designed for the time constraint, giving us a peek at some choice items in the discovery that were not on display as well as a brief history of the Paper Brigade and how they managed to rescue such important documents. After Dr. Fishman spoke our tour guides brought us up to YIVO’s rare book room to see the Vilna Discovery documents on display, then led us out to the Paper Brigade exhibit, where we saw items from the first collection.

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Manuscript on astronomy, 1751, by Issachar Ber Carmoly from the Vilna Discovery Exhibit at YIVO. Picture by author.
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Diary of young Theodore Herzl from 1882, from the Paper Brigade Exhibit at YIVO. Picture by author.

Deobrah and I were very happy to receive kudos from attendees after our successful workshop. It was a great learning experience. I look forward to co-coordinating the next one!

Contributed by Toby Krausz, Judaica Librarian at Midtown.

 


 

For more about YIVO, visit their website at https://www.yivo.org/

To learn more about the Association of Jewish Libraries New York Chapter, visit their website at http://www.ajlnyma.org/

The Touro College Library is pleased to have an electronic copy of Dr. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers, located here.

You can check out the New York Times article by Joseph Berger that started it all by searching the title of the article “A Trove of Yiddish Artifacts Rescued From the Nazis, and Oblivion” in the Touro College Library Quick Search box on the library home page, www.tourolib.org. The full citation is as follows:

 

 

 

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