The remarkable story of a group of Jewish ghetto inmates who “would not let their culture be trampled upon and incinerated.”
In a work that is scholarly and intimate, descriptive and personal, Fishman (History/Jewish Theological Seminary The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, 2005, etc.) reminds us that the Holocaust was not just “the greatest genocide in history.” It was also “an act of cultural plunder and destruction” in which “the Nazis sought not only to murder the Jews but also to obliterate their culture.” The author proceeds to demonstrate this in wrenching detail. Focusing on the Jewish community in Vilna (aka Vilnius) in Lithuania, Fishman engagingly tells the astonishing story of a group of dedicated bibliophiles and religious and cultural caretakers determined to save a massive number of Jewish manuscripts and books and other artifacts from the Nazis, who intended to destroy most and to use others for their academic “study” of “the race they hoped to exterminate.” To personalize his narrative, Fishman follows some key figures, including Shmerke Kaczerginski, a poet, humorist, and songwriter; Abraham Sutzkever, a prolific poet; and Rachela Krinsky, a teacher who risked everything to save materials. The author also follows some of the Nazis, virtually all of whom escaped punishment for what they did and attempted to do. Fishman teaches us about what these items were, how the so-called “Paper Brigade” sneaked them out of libraries into hiding (and, later, out of the country), how the Nazis responded, and how the postwar celebrations were a little premature—the Soviets eventually became as openly anti-Semitic as the Nazis. The United States does not escape censure, either. Among other things, the American government would not allow Kaczerginski into the country because he had once been a communist.
First-rate scholarship that pulses with the beat of a most human heart.