The story of Dawidowicz's early years and a tribute to the Jewish community and culture of Vilna (then in Poland, now in Soviet Lithuania). When Dawidowicz (The Holocaust and the Historians: On Equal Terms; etc.) arrived at the Vilna Scientific Institute (YIVO) in 1938, it was a major force in the preservation and dissemination of Yiddish culture and language; and its base, the ancient city of Vilna, enchanted and also disturbed her. Its baroque churches and 500-year-old Great Synagogue delighted her, as did concerts by the Jewish Symphony orchestra, Yiddish dramas and poetry readings, and the Jewish artists, writers, and intellectuals she met there. But she was appalled by the filthy twisting streets of its old Jewish quarter, swarming with ragclad, hollow-eyed children and bands of aggressive beggars. Escaping as WW II broke out, Dawidowicz worked for YIVO-in-exile in N.Y.C., gathering information about Nazi looting of its archives and the deaths of 75,500 of Vilna's 80,000 Jews. The war over, she worked for an agency that helped displaced Jews still in Germany. Her job ultimately brought her to the warehouse where the collections of looted Jewish libraries were stored. In sorting through "unidentified" material, she discovered nearly 25,000 books and other items from YIVO, which were added to the 347 cartons of identified material later sent to YIVO in New York. This accomplishment helped absolve Dawidowicz's "survivor guilt" and "laid to rest those thoughts of Vilna that had haunted me since 1939." Crammed with descriptive details of a people and culture now destroyed and of WW II's chaotic aftermath: chastening, compelling, powerful.
Read full book review >