The Paper Brigade: Rescuing cultural artifacts throughout and after WWII


The horrors of the Holocaust have been met with numerous types of resistance. Some insurgents fought again by smuggling meals and weapons into Jewish ghettos. Tonight, we’ll let you know a few very completely different sort of resistance group nicknamed the Paper Brigade. Made up largely of writers and intellectuals residing in what’s now Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, the members risked demise, smuggling art work, books and uncommon manuscripts – hiding them in underground bunkers. Today, 80 years after the Paper Brigade fought again towards cultural genocide —their heroics are nonetheless unfolding. There’s an energetic search-and-rescue mission underway in Vilnius, the place troves of hidden materials proceed to be uncovered, found and recovered. 

Jonathan Brent: My intention is to not seize it and take it and produce it someplace. It’s to open it up so the general public can see it 

Jon Wertheim: Put it on the market.

Jonathan Brent: And put it on the market on the planet.

Jonathan Brent is the chief director of YIVO, an institute based mostly in New York which homes 24 million Jewish cultural artifacts. 

This previous spring, we met him in Vilnius, the place the YIVO Institute originated in 1925 and the place a few of its assortment has been unaccounted for since World War II. We regarded on as Brent examined paperwork in a storage closet at Lithuania’s nationwide library. 

Jon Wertheim: This could be very a lot an energetic investigation. 

Jonathan Brent: Yes, this historical past isn’t over. 

  Jonathan Brent

Beneath the hill of three crosses, Vilnius wears its historical past with grace. But its magnificence masks a darkish chapter. Today the town is generally Catholic, however earlier than the second world warfare Vilnius was nearly half Jewish – and a magnet for artists, musicians, poets and dramatists from throughout Eastern Europe. They wrote, largely in Yiddish, the German-Hebrew dialect of Eastern European Jews. 

Jonathan Brent: Most folks in America know nothing of the nice flourishing of Jewish tradition that occurred on this metropolis.

Then in the summertime of 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and occupied Lithuania. Many of the native residents collaborated with the Nazis and inside six months, 50,000 of the 70,000 Vilnius Jews have been killed.

Jonathan Brent: One of the worst slaughters through the Holocaust. Some 90% to 95% of the Jewish inhabitants of Lithuania was murdered brutally, cruelly, sadistically.  

 Jon Wertheim: Not usually in [the] camps I collect? 

Jonathan Brent: Shot burned. Hideous.

The Nazis have been additionally decided to extinguish the Jewish tradition. And, in Vilnius, there was no place extra central to Jewish tradition than YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, a Smithsonian of types, half museum, half library, half college. Its archive was as assorted because it was huge. Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein sat on YIVO’s authentic board; Marc Chagall, who painted Vilnius’ synagogues, opened its artwork wing.  

Jon Wertheim: It strikes me somebody had an unhappily prescient sense of all this, that you just’re creating this assortment and capturing this historical past proper earlier than different individuals are 

Jonathan Brent: Wipe it out, sure. 

Jon Wertheim: Trying to erase it–

Jonathan Brent: Well, the Jews have had– fairly a little bit of historical past that ready them for that eventuality.

Rescued artifacts

After the Germans’ invaded Vilnius, a particular squad of Nazis commandeered YIVO’s headquarters with designs of looting the artwork and uncommon books and burning all the pieces else. But the Nazis wanted assist assessing what was priceless, so that they rounded up 40 Jewish writers and artists mockingly nicknamed the Paper Brigade to kind via rooms upon rooms housing YIVO’s assortment. But the Paper Brigade had different concepts. They put aside essentially the most important manuscripts and artwork, together with a sketch by Picasso, and arranged a smuggling operation again to the ghetto. Homemade diapers sewn into their pants hid the contraband from the Nazi guards. They had ten hiding locations, the most important was beneath a home, 60 toes down and accessible solely via a sewage tunnel.

Jon Wertheim: you’ve got stated that some folks resisted by taking over arms, or by smuggling meals or medical provides. And this was a type of resistance additionally?

Hadas Kalderon: Yes, as a result of they knew that if they don’t seem to be going to outlive the Jewish folks would have their tradition once more to recollect.

Hadas Kalderon is the granddaughter of Avrom Sutzkever, an avant garde poet in Vilnius within the Thirties. During the warfare, he turned one of many leaders of the Paper Brigade.  

Hadas Kalderon: It was a nickname, the Paper Brigade. folks within the ghetto laughed at them. “Oh, you’re smuggling papers? Smuggle food. We need food.” 

Jon Wertheim: What was the response to that?

Hadas Kalderon: You have to grasp that poetry, literature, and tradition was a part of their soul. 

Kalderon grew up listening to her grandfather’s warfare tales, so we invited her to fulfill us in Vilnius from her residence in Israel. We retraced Suztkever’s smuggling route and he or she advised us concerning the evening her grandfather barely escaped the Nazi guard on the gate of the Jewish ghetto.

  Hadas Kalderon

Hadas Kalderon: He was knocked down. And the papers got here out of him. And he took the gun, the guard, and stated, “what you’re not allowed to take anything in– anything.” 

He says he advised the guard that the papers have been wanted for kindling. 

Hadas Kalderon: And he let him in.

Among the gadgets Sutzkever hid, the unique writings of Sholem Alecheim, often called the Mark Twain of Eastern Europe, whose tales impressed “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In 1944, the Soviets liberated Lithuania and reclaimed the nation as a part of the Soviet Union. Only eight of the 40 members of the Paper Brigade had survived the warfare.

Hadas Kalderon: This is an unbelievable image of them coming again to see what might be saved.

Armed with a home made wheelbarrow and shovels, they dug up the treasures from their hiding locations.

Jon Wertheim: Your grandfather put himself at big danger doing this. Did he ever talk about with you whether or not it was price it or not?

Hadas Kalderon: he felt that if he survived than he has a mission to be the deliverer for the useless, for the tales, for the cultural. So that’s the level of residing. 

But with the Soviets now controlling Lithuania, Jewish life once more got here below assault.  Everything the Paper Brigade risked their lives to guard was endangered for a second time.

Jonathan Brent: These treasures that related you right this moment with a previous of 700 years in the past gave you a way of your personal historical past and the worth of it and significance of it. And the Soviets needed desperately to destroy that and make you a Soviet citizen.

Jon Wertheim: Another type of erasure.

Jonathan Brent: Yes, completely

Avrom Sutzkever and others started a 2nd secret operation. They stuffed their suitcases with books and enlisted couriers, redirecting supplies to YIVO in New York City, the place the institute had relocated through the warfare. The remainder of the fabric was assumed destroyed. But Antanas Ulpis, a courageous Catholic librarian, took up the trigger in Vilnius. Risking his personal life, Ulpis hid no matter was left behind on this empty Catholic church.

But for nearly 50 years, remnants of vilnius’ Jewish life vanished. And the town’s Jewish previous was not mentioned.

Vilnius University Professor Mindaugas Kvietkauskas grew up Catholic and would change into Lithuanian’s minister of tradition.

  Mindaugas Kvietkauskas

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: My information about Jewish historical past and tradition and the Holocaust was very obscure after I was an adolescent.

Jon Wertheim: you were not taught concerning the Holocaust at school.

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: No. No. I needed to uncover this legacy on my own.

He was 17 when he lastly chanced upon pale Yiddish inscriptions within the outdated part of city. As his curiosity grew, he studied Yiddish and says he turned intoxicated by the tradition that it encompassed.

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: Yiddish literature for me is that this nexus of poetry, of magnificence, and human destinies. It is filled with voices of survivors, of victims, and likewise of heroes who tried to rescue this tradition, this group towards the evil of totalitarianism.

Kvietkauskas heard whispers in Vilnius a few hidden literary bounty, nevertheless it wasn’t till the breakup of the Soviet Union within the early 90s that Jewish tradition may emerge from hiding. Kvietkauskas was invited contained in the 18th century Catholic Church, the place Ulpis, the courageous librarian, had hidden the books. Through the years, Ulpis had created a e book sanctuary, with literary works rescued and hid from the Red Army, ground to ceiling below the dusty baroque arches. The church is now empty and awaiting renovation. But we requested Kvietkauskas to take us there. 

And present us the place the books have been hidden – underground, within the confessional. Even within the bellows of the 18th-century organ.

Jon Wertheim: I’m simply attempting to image you strolling into this unexplored Book Palace. 

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: Some of these books had blood stains, a few of them had inscriptions made by the readers who likely have been killed.

Today, these books are slowly bringing legacy again to life so says Jonathan Brent, who turned YIVO’s director in 2009.

Jonathan Brent: The supplies that YIVO had collected represented a physique of supplies which if it have been worn out would go away an absence that might by no means be stuffed in. And it will result in complete cultural deprivation for these Jews who may survive. 

The literary equal of Easter eggs, the rescued artifacts preserve popping up in Lithuania. It’s all triggered a well-known custody battle. The Lithuanians argued for the trove to remain in Lithuania, YIVO’s executives insisted the fabric be reunited with its assortment in New York, fearing the paperwork would proceed to deteriorate, Brent brokered a deal, YIVO would fund the preservation now and iron out possession particulars later.  

Correspondent Jon Wertheim and Stefanie Halpern examine supplies preserved by by the Paper Brigade

Stefanie Halpern: These are fragments of books that have been scooped out of the burnt rubble of the YIVO constructing introduced right here to New York preserved in these bins. 

YIVO’s director of archives in New York, Stefanie Halpern, simply accomplished a seven-year, $7 million venture overseeing the cataloging and digitizing of the Paper Brigade’s total assortment.

Jon Wertheim: Do we all know if the Paper Brigade preserved this?

Stefanie Halpern: They did. 

Stefanie Halpern: And these are the surviving pages. It’s not the complete manuscript that we’ve got. Only a few dozen or so pages.

As new works are found voices from a century in the past are amplified. Consider the works of Avrom Sutzkever, who now, years after his demise, is coming to be appreciated as a towering twentieth century poet. His 1946 memoir was revealed in English simply final yr.

Hadas Kalderon: They are studying Sutzkever in lots of, many universities, not simply in Lithuania, additionally within the United States, and in Canada, and in China, and in Japan.

Lithuania is now residence to solely 4,000 Jews. But it is on account of the Paper Brigade and persevering with discoveries, that the nation is beginning to reckon with the Nazi atrocities and its uncomfortable historical past. Even colleges are actually beginning to educate about how Lithuania’s Jews died—and the way they lived.

Jon Wertheim: Do you understand the phrase CPR? Strikes me you are actually bringing it again to life.

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas: I hope so.  But we still– lack wider recognition in our– in– in our society. In the course of final 20 years. [The] mentality of our society turned extra open in direction of completely different variations of its personal previous.

And within the course of, Lithuanians have began studying about how, an unlikely group of resistance fighters each Jewish and Catholic took the final word danger to guarantee arts and letters would survive.

Produced by Julie Holstein. Broadcast affiliate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Stephanie Palewski Brumbach.


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