Saving Jewish History

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 03.30.17
  • NOVA

During World War II, the Nazis wanted to use Jewish texts to prove their racial theories about Jews correct. So they forced a group of Jewish intellectuals, who called themselves the Paper Brigade, to find these documents by sorting through the vast libraries of Vilna, Lithuania. All other materials were sent to be destroyed. Risking their lives, the Paper Brigade smuggled some of the books they found back into the ghetto in an effort to rescue the culture and spirit of Vilna.

Running Time: 05:21


David Fishman: It may seem surprising but the Germans aspired to have the greatest Judaica library in the world. They developed a whole field of Juden Forschung—study of the Jews—which they thought would prove to the world, you know, the depravity of the Jews, the evilness of the Jews. And they wanted to do it scientifically based on primary sources in books. So they needed the books to prove that their racial theories and their genocidal designs were correct. So the slogan of this field was Juden Forschung ohne Juden—study of the Jews without Jews. The paradox is when they came to Vilna they discovered so many books from so many libraries. Great libraries, middle and small libraries, personal libraries. And they had to figure out what to do with them, how to sort them, what to send to Germany. You can't send everything to Germany. And they don't need twenty copies of a single book.

And they ended up needing to have Jews who can go through the, and do the sorting but pick out. And that's how they created this slave labor brigade, which got the nickname in the ghetto among Jews—Jews called it the paper brigade. You know, most laborers worked in factories, mines, railway station. But these people just work with paper. So they were called the paper brigade. They were all intellectuals. That is, they were educators, scholars, poets, artists, musicians. They were given a quota: 30% will be sent to Germany, 70% will be sent to destruction, actually a kind of a recycling. They'll be sent to paper mills where they'll be re-pulped into new paper. So that's it. And nothing in between.

They decide that they must rescue this material. And rescuing the material means putting it on your body at the end of the workday and smuggling it back into the ghetto, past the guards at the gate. This was impermissible on every ground. First of all, it was stealing property from their workplace. Second of all, there were strict rules. No books or papers may be brought in the ghetto. So they were breaking all the rules, and were risking their lives by smuggling the papers usually into the ghetto.

There were ghetto inmates that said, You're crazy. You know, this is a time of danger. This is a time of life and death. You should be smuggling in potatoes. You should be smuggling in food. What are you smuggling books in?" But one of the leaders of this brigade, the scholar Zelig Kalmanovich, replied, "Books don't grow on trees. We have to preserve this for posterity." I think there was a lot going on here. One was, yes, they believed the core, the essence of Vilna is in these books. It may be that the Jews won't survive. But if the books survive, if the papers survive, if the documents survive, then the spirit of Vilna will survive. So they really saw it as an act of not rescue of individual items but rescuing a whole culture and a whole spirit.

In spare time when the Germans had left for lunch and they were left to their own designs at the lunch hour, the workers would spend that spare time reading. A lot of books around. Not only religious books—poetry, novels. And that was a very both, one of the rare pleasurable moments in the ghetto. To be able to peacefully read poetry and escape. And it was also a poignant moment because they say in their memoirs, "This may be the last book I'm reading."

And it might be for the book that I'm their last reader. We might both might be destroyed very, very soon. So they relished that. So what developed was a very intimate relationship between these workers and the books that surrounded them.

I see the paper brigade as the culmination of the ethos of Vilna, the spirit of Vilna under those terrible conditions of mass murder. Not forgetting who they are. "We may die but culture is eternal. And it must be preserved, even at the cost of our life." I mean, that's not something they realized in the ghetto. That's what they were raised with and then acted upon in the ghetto.



Director of Photography
Daniel Lyons
Jimmy Williams
Digital Editor
Ari Daniel
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017


Archival Photographs
Forward Association


(main image: Newspaper photo of Jewish library)
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017

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