Resistance came in many forms in response to the Holocaust’s atrocities. Some militants fought back by transporting guns and food into Jewish ghettos. Tonight, we’re going to tell you about the Paper Brigade, a resistance group with a really unique name.
Members risked death by smuggling artwork, books, and rare manuscripts, concealing them in underground bunkers. Today, 80 years after the Paper Brigade fought back against cultural genocide, their heroism is still unfolding. There is an ongoing search-and-rescue campaign underway in Vilnius, where troves of hidden materials continue to be found, discovered, and rescued.
Jonathan Brent: My objective is not to seize it and transport it to a specific location. It is to make it accessible to the public.
Put it out there, says Jon Wertheim.
And publish it to the world, Jonathan Brent.
Jonathan Brent is the executive director of YIVO, a New York-based institution containing 24 million Jewish cultural items.
Since World War II, a portion of the YIVO Institute’s collection has been missing from Vilnius, where the institution was founded in 1925 and where a portion of its collection has been missing. Brent inspected records in a storage closet in the national library of Lithuania as we observed.
This is an active investigation, according to Jon Wertheim.
The answer is: Yes, this past is not yet complete. Brent, Jonathan
Vilnius wears its history with dignity beneath the hill of three crosses. Its beauty, however, conceals a dark chapter. Before the Second World War, Vilnius was nearly 50% Jewish and a magnet for artists, musicians, writers, and actors from throughout Eastern Europe. The majority of their writings were in Yiddish, the German-Hebrew vernacular of Eastern European Jews.
Jonathan Brent: The vast majority of Americans are unaware of this city’s significant contribution to the development of Jewish culture.
The Germans then invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and conquered Lithuania. Within six months, 50,000 of the 70,000 Jews of Vilnius were murdered due to the collaboration of many locals with the Nazis.
One of the Holocaust’s most heinous massacres, according to Jonathan Brent. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the Jewish population of Lithuania was ruthlessly, savagely, and sadistically exterminated. Jon Wertheim: I assume [the camps] are not frequent?
Jonathan Brent: The shot exploded. Hideous.
Additionally, the Nazis were intent on eradicating Jewish culture. And in Vilnius, there was no institution more vital to Jewish culture than YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, a type of Smithsonian that combines museum, library, and university. Its archive was both diverse and vast. Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud sat on YIVO’s first board; Marc Chagall, who painted Vilnius’ synagogues, established its art section.
Jon Wertheim: It seems someone had a regrettably prescient understanding of all of this, as you are creating this collection and documenting this history before others.
Yes, destroy it, says Jonathan Brent.
Trying to remove it — Jon Wertheim
Jonathan Brent: Well, the Jews have a rich history that has prepared them for this possibility.
After the German invasion of Vilnius, a special squad of Nazis seized the offices of YIVO with the intention of plundering the art and rare books and destroying the rest. But the Nazis needed assistance determining what was valuable, so they enlisted 40 Jewish writers and painters, derisively dubbed the Paper Brigade, to sift through YIVO’s collection, which was housed in countless rooms. The Paper Brigade, however, had other plans. They placed aside the most important papers and works of art, including a Picasso drawing, and prepared a smuggling operation to return to the ghetto. The contraband was hidden from the Nazi guards by homemade diapers stitched into their pants. They had eleven hiding places, the largest of which being a 60-foot-deep, sewage-only tunnel beneath a house.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve stated that some people resisted by taking up arms or smuggling food and medical supplies. And this also constituted a type of resistance?
Hadas Kalderon: Yes, because they understood that if they did not survive, the Jewish people would once again have their culture to remember.
Avrom Sutzkever, a Vilnius-based avant-garde poet in the 1930s, is the grandfather of Hadas Kalderon. He was one of the Paper Brigade’s leaders during the conflict.
The Paper Brigade was a moniker, said Hadas Kalderon. They were mocked by ghetto residents. “Oh, you’re smuggling papers? Smuggle food. We’re hungry.”
Jon Wertheim: What was the subsequent response?
Hadas Kalderon: You must realize that poetry, literature, and culture were an integral part of their soul.
We invited Kalderon to join us in Vilnius, Lithuania, from her home in Israel since she grew up listening to her grandfather’s war memories. We retraced Suztkever’s smuggling path, and she recounted how her grandfather narrowly escaped the Nazi guard at the Jewish ghetto’s entrance. Hadas Kalderon
He was knocked down, Hadas Kalderon. He then produced the documents. And he snatched the guard’s revolver and stated, “You are not permitted to bring anything in, anything.”
He claims he told the security guard that the papers were required for kindling.
Hadas Kalderon: And he let him in.
Among the artifacts that Sutzkever hid were the genuine works of Sholem Alecheim, well known as the Mark Twain of Eastern Europe and the author whose stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In 1944, the Soviets liberated Lithuania and recovered it as a territory of the Soviet Union. Eight of the Paper Brigade’s forty members had survived the war.
This is an incredible image, Hadas Kalderon, with them returning to determine what may be preserved.
With improvised wheelbarrows and shovels, they excavated the valuables from their hiding places.
Jon Wertheim: Your grandfather took a substantial risk by doing so. Did he ever ask you whether or not it was worthwhile?
Hadas Kalderon felt that if he survived, he had a responsibility to be the deliverer for the dead, the stories, and the culture. So this is the purpose of existence.
With the Soviets now in control of Lithuania, however, the Jewish population was once again targeted. Everything for which the Paper Brigade had risked their lives was once again in jeopardy.
Jonathan Brent: These artifacts that linked you to a 700-year-old past instilled in you a sense of your own history’s value and significance. In addition, the Soviets fervently desired to eradicate this and convert you into a Soviet citizen.
Another sort of erasing, per Jon Wertheim.
Absolutely, says Jonathan Brent.
Avrom Sutzkever and others launched a second covert mission. They loaded their suitcases with literature and hired couriers to reroute the materials to YIVO in New York City, where the institute had relocated during World War II. The remaining items were presumed to have been destroyed. However, a courageous Catholic librarian in Vilnius, Antanas Ulpis, took up the fight. Ulpis, at the risk of his own life, hid whatever was left in this abandoned Catholic church.
However, remnants of Vilnius’ Jewish community disappeared nearly fifty years ago. And no mention was made of the city’s Jewish past.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, a professor at Vilnius University, grew up as a devout Catholic and later became the minister of culture for Lithuania. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: When I was a teenager, my understanding of Jewish history and culture, as well as the Holocaust, was very limited.
Jon Wertheim, you were not instructed in school about the Holocaust.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: No. No. I was on my own in discovering this inheritance.
When he finally stumbled upon faded Yiddish inscriptions in the historic district, he was 17 years old. As his curiosity grew, he began to study Yiddish and claims to have become intoxicated by the culture it embodied.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: For me, Yiddish literature is the intersection of poetry, beauty, and human fate. It is filled with the voices of survivors, victims, and heroes who attempted to save this culture and community from the evils of totalitarianism.
Kvietkauskas heard rumors in Vilnius of a hidden literary treasure, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Jewish culture could emerge from hiding. Kvietkauskas was invited inside the 18th century Catholic Church where Ulpis, the courageous librarian, hid the books. Over the years, Ulpis had created a book sanctuary, with literary works rescued and concealed from the Red Army, stacked floor-to-ceiling beneath dusty baroque arches. The church is currently deserted and awaiting renovation. However, we asked Kvietkauskas to transport us there.
And demonstrate where the books were concealed – underground, in the confessional. Even in the 18th century organ’s bellows.
Jon Wertheim: I’m just trying to imagine you entering this undiscovered Book Palace.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: Some of these books had blood stains, and some had inscriptions from readers who were most likely murdered.
According to Jonathan Brent, who became YIVO’s director in 2009, these books are slowly reviving the legacy of the Holocaust.
Jonathan Brent: The materials that YIVO had amassed represented a body of materials that, if lost, would never be replaced. In addition, it would result in total cultural deprivation for any Jews who might survive.
The rescued artifacts in Lithuania continue to reappear like literary Easter eggs. All of this has caused a familiar custody dispute. The Lithuanians argued for the collection to remain in Lithuania, YIVO’s executives insisted the material be reunited with its collection in New York out of concern that the documents would continue to deteriorate, and Brent negotiated a deal in which YIVO would fund the preservation now and determine ownership later.
Correspondents Jon Wertheim and Stefanie Halpern examine materials preserved by the Paper Brigade.
Stefanie Halpern: These are book fragments that were excavated from the YIVO building’s charred rubble and transported to New York, where they have been preserved in these containers.
Stefanie Halpern, the director of archives for YIVO in New York, has just completed a seven-year, $7 million project to catalog and digitize the entire Paper Brigade collection.
Do we know whether or not the Paper Brigade preserved this?
They did, per Stefanie Halpern.
These are the surviving pages, according to Stefanie Halpern. We do not have access to the entire manuscript. Approximately twelve pages in length.
Voices from a century ago are amplified as new works are discovered. Consider the works of Avrom Sutzkever, who, years after his passing, is now being recognized as a towering poet of the twentieth century. His memoir from 1946 was translated into English only last year.
Hadas Kalderon: Not only in Lithuania, but also in the United States, Canada, China, and Japan, students are learning Sutzkever in a multitude of universities.
Presently, only 4,000 Jews reside in Lithuania. But it is because of the Paper Brigade and ongoing discoveries that the nation is beginning to confront the Nazi atrocities and its unsettling history. Even schools are beginning to teach how the Jews of Lithuania lived and died.
Jon Wertheim: Are you familiar with CPR? It appears that you are doing an excellent job of reviving it.
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: I hope so. In our society, however, there is still a lack of wider recognition. During the past two decades. Our culture has become more accepting of alternative interpretations of its own history.
And consequently, Lithuanians have begun to learn how an unlikely group of Jewish and Catholic resistance fighters risked their lives to ensure the survival of the arts and letters.
Julie Holstein’s production. Elizabeth Germino is a broadcast associate. Edited by Stephanie Palewski Brumbach