On Tuesday, ten documents that are part of an enormous collection, went on display in New York, giving a rare glimpse into Lithuanian Jewish culture from before the Holocaust. The documents are part of a large and precious trove, saved through a series of brave acts.
The Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut [Yiddish Scientific Institute] (YIVO)announced they had discovered 170,000 documents previously believed to have been destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. The trove contains unpublished manuscripts by famous Yiddish writers as well as religious and community documents. Among the finds are letters written by Sholem Aleichem, a postcard by Marc Chagall, and poems and manuscripts by Chaim Grade. The collection also includes a 1751 astronomy manuscript with descriptions and drawings of the solar system and an 1883 Russian censor’s copy of a theatrical poem by Abraham Goldfaden, founder of the modern Yiddish theater.
“The troves discovered in Lithuania are the most important body of material in Jewish history and culture to be unearthed in more than half a century, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” said David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at The Jewish Theological Seminary, who went to Lithuania in July to evaluate the documents.
“Not only were the Jews annihilated, but also the record of their history was destroyed,” he said. More than 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust.
They are “startlingly large in volume, and remarkably diverse in character and subject matter,” Fishman said. “All of East European Jewish life passes through your eyes. It will take researchers many years to digest and analyze these documents.”
The story behind the document is truly remarkable. When the Nazis occupied Lithuania, they ordered the majority Jewish documents and artifacts to be destroyed, while some documents and artifacts were sent to Germany to be studied by anti-Semitic researchers. 170,000 documents were hidden by a group of Jewish intellectuals known as the Paper Brigade in six different locations in the Vilnius ghetto.
After the war, the documents came into the possession of Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian who defied a Soviet order to destroy the documents, storing the documents in the basement of St. George Church in the Lithuanian capital. They remained there until late 2016, when they were moved to the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania.
In May of this year, authorities in Lithuania realized the importance of the artifacts that had been removed from the church. Lithuanian officials contacted the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which has worked to ensure the preservation of other document troves found in Lithuania.