To write an award-winning book that reads like page-turning novel is a rare achievement for an academic. Yet, “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures From the Nazis” is one of the most thrilling stories of the Holocaust. Written by David E. Fishman, a professor who studied at Yeshiva University and Harvard and now teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, this book is a thoroughly researched albeit relatively unknown account of a group of Vilna Ghetto resisters, melding history with the very human stories of some who participated in the watershed event. On February 1 at 7 p.m., Professor Fishman will be the keynote speaker at the opening reception of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest’s signature exhibition, “From Memory to History,” at UJC Federation’s campus on Route 10 in Whippany.
Fishman’s book won the top prize from the prestigious 2018 National Jewish Book Council, in the Holocaust category. He has no plans for a celebratory party. Such an event, he believes, would be unseemly given that the topic of his book is the destruction of a one of the most vital and important Jewish communities that ever existed. Nonetheless, he is “happy” for the honor and hopes it will spur interest in Vilna and its heroic men and women who engaged in great acts of spiritual resistance.
Vilna was renowned as a center of Jewish scholarship and culture, but the city is now practically and pitifully Judenrein. It produced famed religious leader the Vilna Gaon, who taught that anyone can achieve greatness by aspiration, dedication and determination. No doubt, his teaching empowered resisters, most of them secular Jews with knowledge and respect for Judaism, to fight a war of the powerless against the most powerful army in Europe.
In addition to scholars, Vilna was the home of great Jewish writers, including Chaim Grade and Avrom Sutzkever, the poet known as the Yiddish Shakespeare. Sutzkever would later become one of the “book smugglers.” Fishman focuses on him, Shmerke Kaczerginski, Abba Kovner and Rachela Pupko-Krinsky in his book.
Most of the rescuers of Jewish culture were poets and writers who also served as youth group leaders and armed resisters. They worked to keep the best books and cultural artifacts from being sent to Germany, and smuggled books into the ghetto to provide the residents much-needed distraction from the physical and emotional horrors of ghetto life. Some smuggled books were used to heat icy rooms in the fuel-starved ghetto; technical books enabled the manufacture of bombs and munitions. The fortunate few who escaped the ghetto’s liquidation became partisans in the swamps and forests. They also continued to write. After she derailed a Nazi train, Kaczerginski composed a praise song about Vitka Kemner, who later married Kovner, the commander of Vilna’s fighting organization.
On January 1, 1942, Kovner addressed 150 members of the pioneering youth movements gathered in the ghetto soup kitchen on Strashun Street. In both Hebrew and Yiddish, he read out a call to action, which included “They shall not take us like sheep to the slaughter!” Kovner’s warning of the impending annihilation of the Jewish people spread quickly. Unfortunately, too few then were prepared to believe it and fight. The Nazis had effectively paralyzed them using a combined strategy of terror, promises and punishment, brutal and collective.
April, 2018 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Only after the summer of 1942, with its massive deportations to Treblinka and the knowledge that Treblinka was a death camp, did Jews accept the truth of Kovner’s words. The Warsaw Ghetto resisted the Nazi roundups in January of 1943. Although they didn’t prevail, the fact that they fought shocked the Germans who put a temporary halt on their plans, which resumed on the first night of Passover. By then, the Jews were much better prepared, having built and stocked bunkers, acquired some, albeit very few, weapons and practiced shooting in their cellar-located “training centers.” They expected to die fighting but hoped that some, sequestered in the bunkers, would be able to escape in the ensuing chaos.
Most of the armed fighters were teenagers. By then, they were the sole survivors of their families. Worn out by starvation, forced labor and the traumas they had endured, they persevered. Lacking military training and weapons, and without support from the Poles, their “victory” was miraculous. They had fought only to avenge their loved ones and to die with honor. Most did die, but some survived. Word of their heroism spread to other ghettos and camps and inspired resistance everywhere.
Throughout the war, most Jews engaged in various forms of passive resistance with all the power they could summon, and often at great risk. In the Vilna Ghetto, this took the form of sabotaging the Nazi effort to gather all valuable books, documents, art and artifacts under the auspices of Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories. He was the Nazi’s chief ideologist and the quintessential desktop mass murderer. One of his duties was the acquisition of material to be displayed in a postwar museum of extinct people.
Some Jews in Vilna had other ideas. They strove to outlive the Nazis and willingly risked their very lives to smuggle these treasures into several hiding places within and beyond the ghetto. Many ghetto-dwellers derided them as “The Paper Brigade,” convinced that their efforts during this existential crisis were futile. The smugglers continued with their mission to save Jewish history and culture in the hope that some of Jews, particularly those who had gone into hiding, would survive, and find and share what they had rescued with the world.
Rosenberg’s museum never materialized, as he was tried in Nuremberg and hanged. Sutzkever testified at the trial. Hoping to rebuild Jewish Vilna, Sutzkever and Kaczerginski did eventually set up a museum, which was short-lived as a thriving Jewish community under the Soviets was impossible. The poets and nearly the entire remnant of Lithuanian Jewry ultimately fled to the free world.
By Barbara Wind