Heroes of Jewish Heritage

By :  David Fishman Professor of Jewish History Posted On Mar 23, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (ForeEdge, 2017)

Several months ago, I gave a lecture in Lviv, Ukraine, on my new book to a young non-Jewish audience. There are very few Jews left in Lviv (formerly Lemberg), even fewer than in Vilnius (formerly Vilna), where my book’s events take place. The audience listened attentively as I described the rescue of cultural treasures from the Nazis by a group of ghetto inmates nicknamed the Paper Brigade: a diary by Theodore Herzl, rabbinic manuscripts, Sholem Aleichem’s letters, paintings and sculptures.

During the Q and A, a young Ukrainian educator asked: “I’m sure this story is universally known in the Jewish community, that it is taught in schools, commemorated by plaques and public ceremonies. So how does your treatment of the Paper Brigade differ from earlier studies?” I had to reply that this story is not very widely known among Jews, that this is the first full-length book on the subject. There are no plaques, no commemorations. And as I did, her jaw dropped.

We must ask: Why did it take so long for this story to be told? I’d suggest that we need to revise our notion of heroism during the Holocaust, which has largely been limited to armed resistance. Any time a ghetto inmate risked his or her life for a cause that was larger than their own survival, she or he was a hero. I consider the Paper Brigade to be the equivalent of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the annals of Jewish spiritual resistance.

These heroes were poets, educators, scholars, librarians, and artists who wanted their remaining life—and possible death—to have meaning. They preferred to die for smuggling books than  for smuggling potatoes. They believed that while the Jewish community of Vilna would not survive, its spirit and essence, as contained in its great collections of books, manuscripts, and art, could be saved. They did it for future generations— for us.

While working on the book, I had a realization. This story is not only a great historical event, it’s also a metaphor. The members of the Paper Brigade preserved Jewish treasures, those who survived the Holocaust retrieved them, and eventually transferred them from Soviet Vilnius to the safety of America and Israel. They preserved, retrieved, and transmitted. Today we are challenged to do the same. To preserve our heritage, to retrieve from oblivion those parts that are valuable and precious, and to transmit them to the next generation. When we do those things, we are following in the footsteps of the Paper Brigade.