Digitizing the Paper Brigade
January 8, 2020 7:00 PM   Subscribe

When the Nazis occupied Vilna, Lithuania, they assembled a group of Jewish intellectuals and poets to compile a reference collection of Jewish culture at the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question. Rather than destroy unwanted documents, a "Paper Brigade" smuggled works - poetry, documents, journals - to safety from the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) into caches around Vilna. YIVO moved to New York after WWII, smuggling books and papers out Soviet-occupied Lithuania. In 2017, a cache of documents was rediscovered in a church basement (nyt). Miglė Anušauskaitė, a Lithuanian woman who is not Jewish, but learned Hebrew and Yiddish, has been involved with translating autobiographies written for sociological contests run by YIVO in Vilna in the 1930s.

You can search the digitized collections in Yiddish and Hebrew and look at some of the featured artifacts, which have been at least partially digitized, with context and some PDFs. Some highlights:
- 5th grader Beba Epstein's Autobiography from 1933

- Der Landarbeter: Luacḥ far ḳolonisṭen un gerṭner (The Farmer: Almanac for colonists and gardeners) - an instruction manual from 1902 for Jewish farmers in the Pale of Settlement

- A scouting manual published in 1927

- A Yiddish Passover song from Ukraine, written down as part of the Ethnographic Commission in the 1920s and 1930s that collected Jewish folklore

- The program from the annual carnival of Der Groyser Kundes (the Big Stick) - a satirical Yiddish publication in New York from 1909-1927 that hosted a carnival in Manhattan in 1921

- Documents in Russian, Ukranian, and Yiddish related to the 1919-1921 pogroms after WWI in Ukraine, Belarus, and eastern Poland

- A book of poetry from 1924 that "straddles the boundary between secular art and prayer."

- A Yiddish translation of Wild Animals I Have Known, published in 1920

- A revolutionary Yiddish song from 1928, sung to a YIVO collector by Basha Leye Lipski, who had been in the Jewish Labor Bund but was now a "shtot-meshugene" - a town crazy.

- "Remedies and Advice, or How To Rescue People From Sudden Life-Threatening Accidents" from 1836.

- A fragment from a review of "The Dybbuk", which opens with a discussion of the importance of language for art.

- a 1938 letter from a friend in New York to Chaim Grade in Vilna - both members of Yiddish literary groups on opposite sides of the Atlantic
posted by ChuraChura (5 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
"All the roads of the Gestapo lead to Ponary.
And Ponary is death!
Doubters! Cast off all illusions. Your children, your husbands, and your wives are no longer alive.
Ponary is not a camp—all are shot there.
Hitler aims to destroy all the Jews of Europe. The Jews of Lithuania are fated to be the first in line.
Let us not go as sheep to slaughter!
It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only reply to the enemy!
Brothers! It is better to fall as free fighters than to live by the grace of the murderers.
Resist! To the last breath".

January 1, 1942, Vilna Ghetto.

Fantastic post.
posted by clavdivs at 7:19 PM on January 8, 2020 [12 favorites]

This is great, and I think it may help me with a family research project - thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:22 PM on January 8, 2020 [6 favorites]


Is this Yiddish song from Ukraine a lost song? Or will someone sing it at a seder somewhere in the world this week? It was written down by a volunteer researcher in the 1920s or 1930s for YIVO’s Ethnographic Commission, which collected folklore from Jewish communities all over the world.

This particular song focuses on the sensory pleasures of the Passover table, which apparently include not only good food, but also flirtation and even hanky-panky with other guests

Passover Song. From Sabbath and Holiday Songs, RG 8000: YIVO Institute Records in the Lithuanian Central State Archives, Series 4: Shipping List IV: YIVO Ethnographic Committee (RG 1.2), Folder 23
Passover Song
(Original is in rhyme)

Revered and honored is the seder night in all Yiddish homes.
Revered and honored—all the houses are swept as clean as the king’s palace.

Every home must have matzoh, wine, horse radish, bitter herbs, and kharoses
An onion, an egg, in salt water is at hand
And especially the four cups of wine.

The king reclining in bed at the table
Gives the queen a kiss, a caress
Everyone feels as if they are in the Garden of Eden
In honor of Pesach, and the wonderful guests, we eat and drink the best
Because the seder is certainly a delight.

It’s simply sweet as sugar
Every time a cup of wine is poured
Boys, girls, plump matzoh balls
Party at the seder.

Arn Doctor is his name
Raised to be a pious Jew
He takes it upon himself
He’d never forget
From year to year
To organize the seder.

He behaves in a fine way
With many of the staff in his house
But with one in particular he feels the urge
To joke around with her and laugh
The entire seder night
He’d like to take her as his queen.

He’s no fool when it comes to his profession
He knows his wife is sick and frail
He sent her off to the spa
Because when the wife isn’t home
That’s the best time for the husband
To make for himself a cozy seder [arrangement]

The seder is a wonderful thing
There aren’t many nights like these
Boys, girls, plump matzoh balls
Party at the seder.

It’s simply sweet as sugar
Every time a cup of wine is poured
Boys, girls, plump matzoh balls
Party at the seder.

posted by affectionateborg at 2:42 AM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Whoa. Vilna's really the only place I'm sure I have roots, in the mishmash of it all. Thanks, ChuraChura.
posted by wellred at 6:51 AM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

My sister is the YIVO archivist in the New Yorker article! (I'm obviously biased, but I was a little disappointed that the article focused so much on Migle when my sister has been doing equal work in New York. So it goes.) When the cache in the church basement was discovered they sent her to Vilnius to look through the material. She opened boxes that had been hidden for 70 years. She said that when she opened them feathers burst out, which was puzzling until she realized they were from pillowcases that the books had been smuggled out in.

The autobiographies are truly a treasure. So much of our understanding of Eastern European Jewry is filtered through the distorting lens of the Holocaust. The nature of the Shoah is such that it came to define both survivors and victims; the overwhelming number 6,000,000 cannot but obscure the individuals that compose it. These autobiographies let us see Jewish youth as they were before the cataclysm, in all their full humanity and in their own voices. They are priceless resources. I've heard so much about them, and I'm so glad they're being preserved. In translating them my sister dived into the lives of dozens and dozens of young people, almost all of whom were ultimately killed. It was emotionally taxing work which benefits us all.

I think my favorite autobiography is one my sister shared with me by an American high school girl, who was pretty clearly in love with her English teacher, and writes about how beautiful and intelligent she is and how much she admires her. When her teacher is going to go on a trip to Europe the girl imagines going with her, how much fun they would have on their grand European adventure. And then quite suddenly there's a newspaper clipping about a car accident, followed by a poem expressing terrible grief over the teacher's death. It was such a profound personal drama, and deeply moving. In another memorable autobiography a young man speaks of being sent to yeshiva as poor boy. He had no shoes, and was advised to ask the rosh yeshiva (headmaster/head rabbi) for help. So he went to the rosh yeshiva, who kicked him out of his office. These people had so little, and yet the autobiographies let us see their rich interior lives.

YIVO does incredible work, both in preserving the Yiddishe past and ensuring a Yiddishe future. My sister is part of a small but vital community of Yiddishists who are keeping the language alive as a continuation of the secular Jewish European world that was all but destroyed. As this excellent post shows (thanks ChuraChura!), it was a rich culture, full of art and poetry and life. I'm grateful to be able to spectate through my sister. Consider supporting YIVO in their work.
posted by cosmic owl at 9:15 AM on January 9, 2020 [13 favorites]

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