The Book Smugglers of the Vilna Ghetto: Choosing a Life of Meaning Under the Specter of Death

By :  David Fishman Professor of Jewish History Posted On Dec 21, 2020 / 5780 | Living a Life of Meaning Monday Webinar

Part of the series, Living a Life of Meaning

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In Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” a group of Jewish writers and intellectuals risked their lives to rescue Jewish books, manuscripts, and art from the Nazis. While working as slave laborers for a Nazi looting agency, they “stole” Jewish cultural treasures from their masters, smuggled them into the ghetto, and hid them in underground cellars and bunkers. The few members of this group who survived the war returned to Vilna after its liberation, and led an operation to retrieve the treasures.

The book smugglers of the Vilna Ghetto believed that culture and Jewish heritage were ultimate values, greater than their own life or death. They chose to engage in a life of meaning, even as their deportation and murder was imminent. This inspiring story of Jewish spiritual resistance can help us reflect on what ultimate values we might lay down our lives for today. 


The disruption to our normal life, and for many, close encounters with mortality, provides an opportunity to evaluate what is truly important in our lives. Guided by JTS faculty and fellows we discuss the role of values, ethics, and Torah in the quest for a well-lived life.

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