What Now? Episode 10 podcast transcript

Posted On Jul 18, 2019

The following is a transcription of episode 5 of the podcast What Now?, “This One Goes to Eleven” with David Fishman, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors. 


Sara Beth Berman: Welcome to What Now?, a podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS, and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. Almost a decade ago, I had a crisis of faith when my fiancé Rafi, a fifth-year rabbinical student, died after a year of suffering and a month in a coma.

Even all these years later, I’m still trying to find answers to the hard questions, specifically, why? Why do humans suffer, and what now? How does our tradition help us tackle this fundamentally human experience? Tragedy and misfortune strike all of us just about every day. On a scale of one to 10, where one is dropping your freshly-peeled tangerine onto the muddy ground, and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding.

In my continued search to answer my big questions, why and what now, I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater, JTS. Each professor and each person has had their own struggles. My professors have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, I’m hoping my professors can help me find some answers.

In this episode, I sat down with Professor David Fishman, who teaches modern Jewish history at JTS. Dr. Fishman and I spoke about the immense communal tragedy of the Holocaust, looking at it through the lens of his moving new book, The Book Smugglers. I’ll let him introduce himself.

David Fishman: I’m Professor David Fishman. I teach modern Jewish history. My specialty is the Jews of Eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, other countries.

SBB: Can you tell us more about the work that you do both inside JTS and outside of JTS?

DF: Besides teaching, one interesting thing I do is I direct a program by JTS in Russia and Ukraine. Mainly finding Jewish documents and records and archives that are held there and that haven’t been available to researchers for many, many decades.

SBB: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be working in the field of modern Jewish history?

DF: I think it really goes back to my childhood. My parents raised me in Yiddish. And I grew up with a lot of old East European Jews around me, including my grandparents. And often I think what I’m really doing, my whole life and my whole career, is just studying my grandparents and their generation, but from a different way.

SBB: That’s amazing. My mom and my grandma used to talk about me in Yiddish and I would respond in English. And it’s really cool that you were able to turn this into an entire life’s work, and a fascinating life’s work. So here at What Now?, we have a question that we ask all of our guests, which is: on a scale of one to 10, where one is something like you don’t have hot water in your apartment, and 10 is the Book of Job, can you think about experiences that you’ve had or you’ve researched that are on that scale, at the one and the 10?

DF: Well, the book we’re going to talk about, the research I did, which is really on the Holocaust era and on the Vilna Ghetto, the ghetto in the city of Vilna, I would have to put it, I really think an 11. In other words, I don’t think there’s a greater tragedy than this one, which is mass murder, mass starvation. So it’s above the charts.

SBB: Sure. Many of my contemporaries have learned so much about the Holocaust, and you can have people read the Book of Job and it seems really far away, even though it’s very practical sometimes. It’s also complicated. But the Holocaust, many of us have relatives, family, people that we’ve met who went through all of the terrible things that happened back then. It’s interesting to me that the work that you’re doing is trying to raise up some of the beauty that was preserved during that time.

So tell me a little bit more about your book.

DF: Okay. The book’s a historical narrative. It’s a real story, deeply researched, about an amazing case, an amazing case of spiritual resistance during the Holocaust. It’s about the rescue of Jewish books, manuscripts, documents, from the Nazis during the Holocaust by a group of ghetto inmates. And a group of intellectuals that would not let Jewish culture really be destroyed by the Nazis. And risked their lives for the sake of Jewish heritage and Jewish culture.

And the book’s got a second half, because the materials that they rescued, basically under the ground in Vilna, they dug up, those who survived dug up, but the city was now under Soviet rule. And so that those survivor heroes end up having to rescue the material a second time because it’s endangered in a different way, but yet again under the Soviets.

SBB: When you say that there were books, your book is called The Book Smugglers. It wasn’t just books. What other stuff were they saving?

DF: Right. It’s books, manuscripts, documents, artwork. I highlight in the book several different discrete items, like a diary by Theodor Herzl, when he was still a young man, before he founded the Zionist movement. Or the record book of the synagogue of the Vilna Gaon. That’s an important synagogue that existed for almost 200 years. And sculptures, works of art. Letters by Sholem Aleichem, who wrote Tevya the Dairyman. So yes, there are all kinds of old books and rare books, but it’s really a very rich array of cultural items, including kiddush cups and things of that sort.

SBB: This is a book spoiler, so I don’t know if you’re going to want this in here, but at the very opening of the book, Shmerke—

DF: Right.

SBB: So Shmerke is saving a Torah cover. And I was really moved by that image of trying to wrap a Torah cover around your torso to get it out. And you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but there’s such beauty in this cover for this particular book. And that’s how you open the book. And the narrative is beautiful and interesting and it reads like a novel.

I was moved specifically with the Torah cover as an example of, it’s not just books. There’s so much in our cultural history. And then I was standing on the subway imagining what it would look like if I were wearing a Torah cover under my coat, like no one would notice because it’s very cold right now. This is how my mind works, you’re welcome. There’s so much. There’s so much to be saved. And there’s also so much to be destroyed.

So I’m actually wondering, when you’re doing that research, do you have an idea of what didn’t get saved?

DF: Yes. First of all, this group of people were obviously trying to save the rarest, most valuable things. So that I know that a lot of duplicate copies, triplicate copies of the same book, they didn’t save. We know, the vast majority, it’s hard to nail down when it comes to documents. But the vast majority of material was not saved. That is, the Germans sent it to be destroyed, to be re-pulped into new paper.

But what you said, my wife’s from Italy. Italian Jews. And I’m always impressed how many things they have from grandparents and great-grandparents. Jewelry and other things. Because the Holocaust was somewhat different in Italy. Only a quarter of Italian Jews were killed, and most survived and most could hold on to their belongings. And when I think of me, and I think most American Jews, if you asked them, what do you have, objects, from the generation of your, whatever it is. Great-grandparents, grandparents. Physical objects. Do you have any books? How many photographs have you got? Have you got the kiddush cups?

And the answer is usually, I either have nothing, or I have very, very little. In other words, it’s not only that this Jewry was exterminated, but we don’t even have the physical objects to remind us of our ancestors, because they were destroyed. So therefore the things that they rescued really become very important. It’s almost all we’ve got of a whole world of Jewish life.

SBB: One side of my family did not go through the Holocaust. They were in Chicago already. The other side did. But the longer-term American side of my family, when my Zayde passed away, we were cleaning out his apartment. We had to decide what we were keeping, what we were saving. Everybody got one of his watches. My cousin got a shot glass that my Zayde got from his father-in-law. There’s a ridiculous story around that as well. I ended up with a lot of Judaica that my grandparents had that my siblings and cousins were like, you should be the one to take that.

And so one of the things that I like to do with one of the Hanukkiyot that I took from their apartment—and it’s nothing special. It was probably like 20 bucks in the Shuk in Jerusalem, probably 40 years ago. But I like to bring it and use it for large-scale lightings, because my grandparents aren’t lighting it anymore, and I worked in a day school. And so I like having those objects as a way to bring light to their memory. We don’t have anything physical from my mom’s family from Poland. There’s just no way. So I’m identifying strongly with that.

I want to ask about the book smugglers, what were they doing? How did they accomplish this smuggling operation? How did they decide that they were going to do this?

DF: Okay, that requires some explaining. The Germans didn’t want to only destroy Jewish cultural treasures. They wanted to keep some of it for their own purposes, for anti-Semitic Jewish research, what they called Judenforshung. So they wanted to send the most valuable items to Frankfurt, to an Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, where anti-Semitic scholars would use it to justify Nazi ideology, Nazi designs on genocide.

But to do that, you have to sort. You have to decide what will be sent to Germany and what will be destroyed. Who can do that? Who can do this sorting? You have to know Hebrew. You have to know Yiddish. You have to know Jewish history. They ended up creating a slave labor brigade of Jewish intellectuals. Jews who would do the sorting, with a quota that you could only send 30% to Germany. 70% would have to be destroyed.

And so you get this slave labor brigade. They’re called the Paper Brigade. That was their nickname. And they are all, you know, a librarian, couple of poets, educators, scholars, and that’s their job. Day in, day out, they march to a building outside the ghetto. Spend the day sorting. This to be destroyed, this to be sent to Germany. And then they go back home, into the ghetto.

The short story is, they can’t live with themselves being complicit in the destruction and looting of Jewish culture. And they come up with all kinds of plans, how to hide stuff from the Germans and smuggle it back into the ghetto, where they bury it. The main way they smuggle stuff is literally on their bodies, underneath their clothing. In their boots, in their shoes, around their torsos, diapers. And then they have to pass inspection at the ghetto gate. A body search at the ghetto gate. Which if they’re found, they’ll definitely be beaten very badly, and several of them were beaten very badly, and they could have been sent to their deaths just for smuggling in these papers into the ghetto.

So that’s what they do, and they do it for 18 months. This work brigade functioned for 18 months between February 1942 and August 1943. And when you’ve got 20 people smuggling in items just about every day, for 18 months, you can rescue a lot of material.

SBB: That’s quite a library.

DF: Mm-hm.

SBB: Why? Why would you risk beatings, potentially being killed, for intellectual property?

DF: Maybe the simplest answer is simply to say they had no choice. They couldn’t live with themselves doing anything else. They were book lovers and scholars and they had to. That’s often the case, that you do things just because you feel you have to. More deeply, first of all, they thought the Jewish people, there will be a Jewish people after the war. And they will need this. These books, these papers, these things. And so they were doing it for the future. They were not doing it for themselves. They all expected to be killed, eventually. Sooner or later. So they were doing it for future generations, they were doing it for us.

So it was a statement. Also a statement about what mattered in their lives. They had limited time left, they thought. And they wanted to spend it on something important. As you were sort of implying, they made a self-conscious choice to smuggle books rather than potatoes. Or at least, on most days. And some people said, you’re crazy. You should be smuggling in potatoes. What they were saying was, as far as the survival of the Jewish people, maybe these books are more important than potatoes. So that was what they were saying.

SBB: Well, now I want a potato. So there was a group of people in the Paper Brigade, you said about 20?

DF: Yes.

SBB: Who were you focusing on in the book?

DF: I have five main heroes. And everyone’s got their own personal story, their own personal tragedies. And their own personal predilection. So you know, political affiliation, things like that. Of those five, one’s a librarian, one’s a scholar, two are poets, and one’s a educator. They’re all compelling stories. And of those five, two perished. Three survived. Which is atypical, in other words. Of the 20, 15 perished and five survived.

The most compelling story, for me and for most people, is the story of Rachela Pupko-Krinsky. She was a high school teacher of history, before the war. She had a Master’s degree from Vilna University. She was married just before the war. The Germans came into Vilna in 1941. Her husband was rounded up and sent to his death just about immediately, in July 1941. The ghetto has not yet even been formed and she’s already a widow. They had an 18-month-old daughter. And when the ghetto is formed, which is September 1941, Rachela decides not to take her daughter with her into the ghetto.

Instead, she hands over her daughter to her Polish nanny. So Rachela enters the ghetto alone. No husband, no daughter. All she has is friends. And doesn’t see her daughter for the next four years. The nanny moves to another part of the city, raises this girl as if it were her daughter. Tells everyone, takes the girl to church on Sundays. And one of the things that kept Rachela going, alive, was her love of poetry. She said, it’s my friends and it’s poetry. And she would recite at work, either by memory or during the lunch hour when there were no Germans around, she’d just pick up a book of poetry and read it. That’s what keeps her going.

She does survive, Rachela Krinsky. After the ghetto, she’s sent to various camps including death camps, which she miraculously survives. She’s a broken woman at the moment of her liberation. Deeply depressed, doesn’t even write to her brother in New York to tell him that she has survived. But she does have the maternal instinct, and she writes to her friends, I just want to reunite with my daughter. Not that I can do anything for my daughter. The nanny, I hear, has been a great mother to my daughter, but maybe my daughter can help me. Maybe my daughter can help me find some kind of meaning and purpose in this new life.

And she does eventually reunite with that daughter. It’s difficult, because the daughter doesn’t recognize her, doesn’t know who she is, hasn’t seen this woman. She was 18 months old when they separated, now she’s basically six years old. But they re-bond. It takes a lot of work and time. And eventually Rachela and the daughter move to America. And Rachela does get remarried, something she never expected she would do. So I think she is a most extraordinary life story there.

SBB: That’s an incredible story. And each of the five main heroes in the book also have a rich narrative about who they are and where they came from in their lives.

DF: Absolutely. But every one of them is overcoming personal tragedy. In other words, every one of the five has lost either a spouse or a mother or a child during these years. And yet they have this amazing internal strength not to be broken by that. And this purpose which is to rescue books and other objects, it keeps them moving forward. It really does give them a focus. So they’re really a model, all five of them are models of strength under great tragedy.

SBB: It’s really incredible. I think people often have said to me, “Oh, you’re so strong.” And I’m just like, this is what I have to do. This is my life and I have to live it. Their circumstances were far more dire than any of the things I complain about, even though they were terrible. And preserving history and beauty I think is pretty amazing.

So you were saying that Rachela really loved poetry. Is there poetry in the book? Do you have some favorites?

DF: There’s actually a lot of poetry in the book because the two poets write a lot in this period, and even in that very building in the lunch hour when they’re free they’re writing poems. And their poems are quite popular, even in the ghetto. So as I tell their stories, I’m also sharing their ghetto poetry. But I guess the most appropriate poem for our conversation is the one that Abraham Sutzkever, one of the two poets, writes about this very experience. The experience of rescuing and then hiding underground books and cultural treasures.

It’s called Grains of Wheat, and it’s written in March 1943. This is from the translation by Benjamin Harshav, who translated much of Sutzkever’s ghetto poetry.

“Caves, gape open,
Split open under my ax!
Before the bullet hits me—
I bring you gifts in sacks.

Old, blue pages,
Purple traces on silver hair,
Words on parchment, created
Through thousands of years in despair.

As if protecting a baby
I run, bearing Jewish words,
I grope in every courtyard:
The spirit won’t be murdered by the hordes.

I reach my arm into the bonfire
And am happy: I got it, bravo!
Mine are Amsterdam, Worms,
Livorno, Madrid, and YIVO.

How tormented am I by a page
Carried off by the smoke and winds!
Hidden poems come and choke me:
—Hide us in your labyrinth!

And I dig and plant manuscripts,
And if by despair I am beat,
My mind recalls: Egypt,
A tale about grains of wheat.

And I tell the tale to the stars:
Once, a king at the Nile
Built a pyramid—to rule
After his death, in style.

Let them pour into my golden coffin,
Thus an order he hurled,
Grains of wheat—a memory
For this, the earthly world.

For nine thousand years have suns
Changed in the desert their gait,
Until the grains in the pyramid
Were found after endless wait.

Nine thousand years have passed!
But when the grains were sown—
They blossomed in sunny stalks
Row after row, full grown.

Perhaps these words will endure,
And live to see the light loom—
And in the destined hour
Will unexpectedly bloom?

And like the primeval grain
That turned into a stalk—
The words will nourish,
The words will belong
To the people, in its eternal walk.”

SBB: I think the last time I read Sutzkever was in a Yiddish literature class that I took here at JTS. I would love to hear it in the original Yiddish.

DF: I’ll do one or two stanzas in Yiddish, for posterity.

SBB: [whispering] Yes, Yiddish!

DF: I’ll do the end, which is after all the point of it all. [Reads last stanza in Yiddish]

SBB: I don’t know any of those words. Those are new Yiddish words for me. I mostly know about like, dress code Yiddish.

DF: No, Sutzkever is actually a very intellectual and highbrow Yiddish poet. It’s amazing that he could write such rather sophisticated poetry, in a ghetto.

SBB: I feel like a lot of the compelling stories that we get out of tragedies in our history, so the Holocaust or narratives around Temple destruction—there are so many options. But I think one of the things that happens, the compelling narratives that come are from people who are able to rise above all the terrible circumstances. Still be in them, but have this poetry pouring out of them while they’re in a terrible situation.

And so I’m wondering what we learn from this beautiful poetry coming out of this experience. What we learn from saving objects of beauty and of history in a terrible time. What do we learn from that?

DF: I think one of the things to learn—there’s a lot to learn here—is to never let the tragedy define you. Never let the tragedy overwhelm you. Never let the external circumstances totally define who you are. These people, the Germans wanted to make them subhuman. And they said, no, I’m human. And being human as opposed to being just animal means I don’t just eat and drink. I also think. I also sing. I also read. And that was what they were doing, they were asserting their humanity.

I think what we learn is not to let yourself be diminished. Not to let yourself be anything other than your full self. Even under conditions of great tragedy and great stress. So I mean, that’s a model for every human being, those people.

SBB: Has this model helped you at all in your personal life?

DF: First of all, as you can hear, of course I carry it with me always. And that’s why I could write the book. You know, when I connected it to my personal life, I thought of tragedy that was not as, not an 11 on the scale, but still, when I was divorced. And when you’re divorced, often it’s overwhelming. There are so many problems. Everything is changing. There’s money and there’s children and there’s new lives being created. And it can get to the point where all you feel is the pain and the trauma. And you have to say to yourself, no, I’m more than just my pain and my trauma. I am all of me, and I refuse to give up. And so, I guess everybody, when they face a tragedy has to have that image. I will not let this break me.

SBB: I’m glad that you didn’t let it break you. You seem to be thriving with your newly published book and the teaching that you do. I’m wondering what you hope other people will get from The Book Smugglers, and from the research that you’ve been doing around it.

DF: Well, one of the things I’m trying to do is, I think a lot of times there’s an image of East European Jews as being weak, submissive, just victims. And that’s really unfortunate. So I wanted to, through the stories of these five people, first of all get across just how rich Jewish life was before the Holocaust. What kind of diversity of people you could have. And also that a lot of East European Jews were very strong and very committed to perpetuating Jewish life. And that took a kind of special strength in its own right.

So one thing I wanted to do was change a little bit the image we have of Jews in Eastern Europe. Another thing, again, for me these people should be an inspiration. We are all engaged in a struggle at JTS for Jewish continuity. For creating a Jewish future, for securing it, and it is a struggle. And these people were willing to risk everything for a Jewish future. I often say, what did they do? They preserved what they could preserve, and later they came back and they dug up whatever they could dig up. And then they actually took it out of Vilna. These materials ended up in America and in Israel. They moved it on.

I said, that’s what we should be doing. We should be preserving our tradition. We should dig up the parts that are important and meaningful to us. And we should pass it on to our children, to next generation. So for me, the whole book, it’s a real event, but it is also a metaphor for the struggle for Jewish continuity.

SBB: We do have a rich tradition. There’s a lot to learn. And it’s horrifying to think that pieces of it get lost. I find it compelling thinking about finding the Cairo Geniza, and just the layers and layers and layers and layers that were there of discovered history, discovered information and arguments and all the other sorts of things that you find in a geniza. And with the book smugglers, they had created their own version of that. Layers and layers and layers of Jewish history.

I did notice that you didn’t give a one on the scale of one to 10, so I’m wondering, you know, what’s your one?

DF: Oh, East European Jews don’t have a one. [laughter]

SBB: Oh, Yiddish proverbs say otherwise! I just believe that there’s something that annoys you. I believe that in my heart. It must be true.

DF: Oh, in writing the book, the annoying thing was I wanted to know more. I always felt like I don’t have the whole story. That was very annoying. That’s still very annoying, that I dug for so much and I dug in so many places, and yet I still felt like this is just a fragment of the story.

SBB: When you say you dug, right? They buried things in dirt. So what kind of digging were you doing.

DF: First of all, of my five main heroes, all five either wrote diaries during the ghetto or wrote memoirs later when they survived. Four of the five are in Yiddish. One’s in Hebrew. So I had their diaries. And I have their memoirs. I also have their letters between each other after the war, when they write about their experiences to each other. I have German records. That was emotionally the hardest thing, because the Germans in charge of this operation, you know, they’re real bureaucrats. So they send reports to Berlin. So I can see the whole thing, not just from the Paper Brigade’s perspective, but from the Germans’ perspective.

And you know, I probably read every memoir there is to read about the Vilna ghetto, at least in the languages I can read. And I was pulling from many different directions, including post-war Soviet records, which is about Vilna, Vilnius, right after the war.

For a long time I didn’t think there’s enough material to write a book. The reason I didn’t write this book many years ago is I said, okay, I can write an essay, but I can’t write a book. There’s not enough material. But as I kept adding and adding, I saw, okay. There is a book. How I found the topic? 30 years ago, I’m a young freshly-minted PhD. The YIVO Institute here in New York asked me to go to Vilnius. That put the topic on my radar, in other words. How does it happen that in what was actually a former church in Vilnius in 1989, I’m seeing all these rare Hebrew and Yiddish books and papers. I didn’t think this would be a book, but I kept on collecting material. You could say the collection phase lasted 25 years.

SBB: To make a comparison and not to make you feel old, but rather accomplished, I started at Hebrew school in 1989. Trust me, I’d been hearing Yiddish before that, lots of critiques and what have you. But I started my learning journey that got me here to talk to you today just around that time as well.

DF: Great. So let’s both continue the learning journey.

SBB: Yeah, like I can stop! [laughter] I have no choice. I’m here to learn. It’s who I am. Professor Fishman, it was lovely to talk to you about your work and your book and to hear you read poetry in English and in Yiddish. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

DF: Thank you.


SBB: What now, Professor Fishman? As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I’m grateful for his incredible work preserving the history that his heroes smuggled in Lithuania. Dr. Fishman’s book reads like rich narrative fiction, and it’s a good story when you think about tragedies that go to 11. Focusing on saving beloved books and ritual objects, and focusing on what matters when you’re suffering, this is a way to survive. And, when you’re the children and grandchildren of survivors, you never stop thinking about the tragedy. You never stop banging your head against the wall. Why, tragedy, why, doesn’t ever go away, and how could it? In a lot of ways, our communal tragedies are always on our person, and in our person, just under the surface, like a smuggled Torah mantle. There’s only one thing to do. Keep asking, what now?

What Now? is produced by Michal Richardson and editorial oversight is by Rabbi Tim Bernard. Funding for this series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? is recorded by JTS’s delightful and hardworking new media staff, Larry Cameola and Brian Hart.

Hit subscribe, give us a review, help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sara Beth Berman, JTS Davidson School class of 2009. It has been real banging my head against the wall with you.