Exhibit on view now through January 23, 2018.
“Ghetto inmates looked at us as if we were lunatics. They were smuggling foodstuffs into the ghetto, in their clothes and boots. We were smuggling books, pieces of paper, occasionally a Torah scroll or mezuzahs.” — Shmerke Kaczerginski
Would you risk your life for a book? A group of poets and scholars living under Nazi rule in the Vilna Ghetto did. Under the most harrowing conditions, they saved numerous cultural treasures — first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets. Known as “The Paper Brigade,” they were a group of slave laborers who smuggled and hid rare books and manuscripts in the midst of the Holocaust. Theirs is an incredible story of cultural resistance in the face of almost certain death.
A Nazi Division known as Einsatzstab Rosenberg arrived in Vilna in June 1941 armed with lists of libraries, museums, and other rare collections they intended on looting. Part of their mission was to collect materials for a Nazi “Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question,” an organization that was to study the Jews after they had been exterminated. Among the places on their list were the famed Strashun Jewish Public Library and the YIVO Institute.
As Vilna’s Jews were forced into a ghetto and systematically starved and murdered, the Einsatzstab Rosenberg went about the business of destroying Jewish culture. It appropriated the rare collections of the Strashun Library and took over the entire YIVO building to use as a collecting point for rare Jewish cultural treasures.
But they had a problem: their staff wasn’t sufficiently versed in Jewish culture to adequately organize and catalog all of the material they were plundering. So they created a forced labor brigade from the Vilna Ghetto made up of poets and intellectuals, including Zelig Kalmanovitch, who had been YIVO’s co-director before the war. Every day they were taken from the ghetto to the YIVO building, where their job was to sort, catalog, and pack rare Jewish cultural treasures for shipment to Germany.
While the Nazis were plundering Jewish collections for their own use, they were also systematically destroying what remained. Kalmanovitch understood that rare YIVO materials in which the Germans were not interested would be destroyed. So he and others decided to begin sneaking portions of YIVO’s collection that were not slated for inclusion into the shipments of rare Judaica being sent to Germany. Their rationale was that the Germans would eventually lose the war and, though they themselves might not survive, the treasures would.
Others working in the forced labor unit, among them poets Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, decided to save these rare materials in a different, more dangerous way: they smuggled them into the ghetto, where they hid and buried thousands of books, documents, and works of art in hopes of returning after the war to retrieve them. While their German taskmasters weren’t looking, Sutzkever, Kaczerginski, and a crew of about two dozen brave men and women put rare books and manuscripts underneath their clothing and smuggled them into the ghetto.
These acts were extremely dangerous. If the Germans caught them, they would be executed. If the Jewish and Lithuanian police at the ghetto gate caught them, they might be beaten or arrested. Fortunately, they had contacts among the Jewish police and, in spite of some close calls, managed to avoid getting caught.
Smuggling during wartime usually meant bringing in food for starving ghetto inmates or valuables for bribing guards. Risking their lives for rare books and manuscripts seemed crazy. Even the ghetto police mocked them, calling them “The Paper Brigade.” But they understood that while they themselves might not survive the war, their daring acts of cultural preservation would serve Jews for generations to come.
When the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated, the members of the “Paper Brigade” were dispersed. Some were shipped off to concentration camps, where they perished. Others, notably Sutzkever and Kaczerginski, joined the partisans and fought the Nazis from the forests. When the war ended, the two poets returned to Vilna to find that 90% of the Jewish community had been murdered. But they also found that much of what they had buried in the ghetto had survived. They retrieved what they could and founded a small Jewish museum, a spark of life in an otherwise decimated Jewish Vilna.
The US Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Artifacts Division, “The Monuments Men,” found hundreds of crates of rare materials belonging to YIVO and other Jewish libraries abandoned in a town outside of Frankfurt. Contact was made with YIVO’s New York office, where all were amazed that any of its archives had survived. Because no Jewish organizations had survived the war and because Vilna was occupied by the Soviets, it was decided to restitute the Jewish collections to YIVO in New York. In 1947, 465 crates of Jewish cultural treasures arrived in New York and, after a brief stay at the Manischewitz Matzo warehouse, they became part of YIVO’s collections, where they remain to this day.
The fate of the materials hidden in the Vilna ghetto took a number of different twists. It became apparent to Sutzkever and Kaczerginski that the Soviets were not interested in supporting a Jewish museum. In fact, they recognized the beginnings of a Soviet anti-Jewish campaign that would decimate Jewish culture in the USSR. They arranged for the smuggling of much of the materials to Poland and France, with the ultimate destination of YIVO in New York. The rare documents that were smuggled out of the Vilna YIVO and hidden in the ghetto had to be smuggled again—this time, out of the USSR. These treasures, mute survivors of the Holocaust, are what you see in this exhibition.
After bringing what he could to New York, Sutzkever emigrated to Israel, where he lived as the world’s most renowned Yiddish poet until his death in 2010. Kaczerginski moved to Argentina, where he was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1954. It is thanks to them, to Zelig Kalmanovitch, and the rest of the “Paper Brigade,” that these rare books and documents survived war and genocide.
Film screening of renowned artist and Holocaust Survivor Harry Somers
We’re proud to partner with the Jewish Family Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia and Lise Marlowe, a teacher at Elkins Park School, to present a film screening about world-renowned artist and Holocaust Survivor Harry Somers. There will be a screening of the film, as well as children from Ms. Marlowe’s 6th-grade class last year who will read poems that they wrote about Harry Somer’s paintings. The Director of the film will be joining us for a Skype Q&A session. There will also be books for sale.
The story of the late Harry Somers is no ordinary one: He escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany as a teenager, making a new life for himself that included creating remarkable works of art and becoming a renowned impressionist artist. Now, his story — and his words of wisdom — have become the subject of an engrossing and heartfelt documentary, “Portrait of Harry,” directed by Cinematographer, Erik Angra.
This event is open to the public.
- Thursday, May 31st, 2018
- 6:30 pm – Registration and light refreshments
- 7:00 pm – Film screening and Skype Q&A with director Erik Angra
- Post Q&A – Local author and educator, Lise Marlowe, will also speak about her book, “Bringing Beauty Into the World,” accompanied by students of the Elkins Park School, who contributed poems inspired by Harry Somers’ paintings.
- The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center of JFCS, 345 Montgomery Avenue, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
- Registration is $18 per person or $20 at the door.
Authorities in western Germany arrested serial Holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck on Monday after the 89-year-old failed to show up at prison last week to start her sentence.
“After the convict failed to report to the relevant penal institution within the deadline, prosecutors in Verden on May 4, 2018 issued an order to execute the sentence and have charged police with its implementation,” prosecutors said. Police found Haverbeck at her home on Monday and transferred her to prison to begin her two-year term.
Haverbeck was sentenced for incitement by denying the mass murder of millions of Jews during the Nazi era in Germany.
Haverbeck, who German media often refers to as the “Nazi Grandma,” has never spent time in prison despite several previous convictions for denying the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis between 1941 and 1945.
She was supposed to start her prison sentence in the town of Bielefeld last Wednesday.
The Nazis may not have known art, but they knew what they liked, and much more so what they didn’t. We’ve previously featured here on Open Culture the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937, put on by Hitler’s party four years after it rose to power. Following on a show of only Nazi-approved works — including many depictions of classically Germanic landscapes, robust soldiers in action, blonde nudes — it toured the country with the intent of revealing to the German people the “insult to German feeling” committed by Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), a Nazi-defined category of art created by the likes of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and others, a roster heavy on the abstract, the expressionistic, and the Jewish.
Now, thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum, we know exactly which works of art the Nazis condemned. “The V&A holds the only known copy of a complete inventory of ‘Entartete Kunst’confiscated by the Nazi regime from public institutions in Germany, mostly during 1937 and 1938,” says the museum’s site.
“The list of more than 16,000 artworks was produced by the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) in 1942 or thereabouts. It seems that the inventory was compiled as a final record, after the sales and disposals of the confiscated art had been completed in the summer of 1941.”
Daunting though the inventory itself may seem, Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer points out “a way to connect many of these pieces to the present day: an online database maintained by the Freie Universität Berlin. You can plug an artwork’s inventory number from the Nazi log books directly into their search engine, and it will pull up a record.” Here you see Max Beckmann’s Zwei Auto-Offiziere, El Lissitzky’s Proun R.V.N. 2, and Paul Klee’s Garten der Leidenschaft, just three examples of the thousands upon thousands of images that Hitler and company considered a threat to their regime. Today, the artistic merits of work by these and other artists once labeled Entartete Kunst have drawn more admirers than ever — though the very fact that the Nazis didn’t like it constitutes a decent reason for appreciation as well.
A fascinating story of a man recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
The 2018 Giro d’Italia is the 101st edition of the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s Grand Tour races. The Giro started in Jerusalem on 4 May with a 9.7 km (6 mi) individual time trial, followed by two additional stages in Israel. After a rest day, there will be 18 further stages in Italy to reach the finish in Rome on 27 May.
The 2018 Giro d’Italia Israel start paid tribute to legendary Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia. Bartali helped rescue hundreds of Italian Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2013 as Righteous Among the Nations.
The short film I am sharing with you today may feel made-for-Netflix, but I assure you every word is true.
It’s the story of famed cyclist Gino Bartali, and how he helped rescue 800 Jews from under the Nazis’ nose.
Bartali could have used his popularity to keep himself safe; there was no reason to put himself in danger. Instead, he used his fame as cover, cycling thousands of miles to smuggle forged documents in his bike, or distracting Nazi guards, allowing Jews to escape trains bound for concentration camps.
Amazingly, Bartali didn’t talk about his exploits. After the war, the two-time Tour de France winner and three-time Giro d’Italia victor returned to competitive racing.
Bartali died in 2000, and was only publicly honored for his incredible actions in 2013, when he was recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations;” the highest accolade awarded to individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis during the holocaust.
To honor Bartali and to perpetuate his life-defining mantra “good is something you do, not something you talk about,” please watch this story and recognize a true hero who stood up for others in danger.