The Last Books
“A person is born to live a long life. But if he dies before his time, what happens to his unlived life, his joys and his sorrows?”—S. Ansky, The Dybbuk
On my first trip to Lithuania three years ago, I checked to make sure that I would be able to use my credit card there. The operator who assisted me was excited by my plans. “Oh,” she remarked, “Lithuania. That’s wonderful. What country is Lithuania in?”
I was in Lithuania again last month with my colleague, Lyudmila Sholokhova, head of the YIVO Library, to work out an agreement between the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Lithuanian National Library and the Lithuanian Central State Archives to microfilm and digitize the many thousands of books and manuscripts that belonged to YIVO before World War II and miraculously survived in Vilnius after YIVO moved to New York in 1940. As I sat in the office of Lara Lempert, the Judaica librarian of the Lithuanian National Library, I remembered the operator’s question. What country is Lithuania in? What country is the Jewish world of Lithuania in? The Vilna of YIVO was in Poland; the Vilnius I now visit is the capital city of Lithuania. What world do I inhabit when I attempt to restore a past through the books and manuscripts—the voice—of a lost world?
Lara Lempert and her husband showed us some of the physical remains of a world that has mostly disappeared. They took us to Max Weinreich’s apartment, where YIVO was founded in 1925, and pointed across the street to where the scholar Zalman Reisen, another YIVO founder, once lived. Not far away was the apartment where the great historian and father of Jewish “non-territorial nationalism,” Shimon Dubnow, resided in the early 1900s. YIVO’s building was burnt to the ground in the course of the war, and in its place now stands a newish unmarked structure that bears no relation to the modest but proud emblem of Jewish national liberation in the Diaspora that stood there in the middle of the last century. We soon found ourselves in the center of what Lara’s husband told me was the Vilna Ghetto, liquidated in 1943. About four inches of snow were on the ground. The air was crisp. I was not dressed properly, and my feet were cold and wet. It is an open space, an ordinary city square with ordinary people going about their ordinary business. No trace remains of all the horror that transpired there 70 years before. I could not fathom this absence and the emptiness it signified. For the first time in my life, I felt I understood the concept of silence.
We sat and talked in Lara’s wood-paneled office the next day, with her handsome young son stationed behind a computer, cataloguing books. On her bulletin board was a small photograph of Max Weinreich, YIVO’s first director. Weinreich conceived of the wildly popular and successful zamler campaign. The zamlers (“collectors”) were mostly ordinary people who went about the East European Jewish world from YIVO’s founding in 1925 until 1939 collecting every kind of object, document, book, or artifact for the YIVO archive and library. They collected music, folklore, dialectical variants of the Yiddish language, obscenities, lullabies, posters, photographs, and films, in addition to rare manuscripts, political and religious documents, letters, and books of every sort in every European and Jewish language. In this way, YIVO amassed the greatest library and archive in the world of East European and Jewish materials. When the Germans arrived in 1941, instead of destroying these materials wholesale, they forced YIVO workers to cull the most important parts and pack them up to be dispatched to Frankfurt. There they would be stored until after the war, when the Germans intended to establish a Museum of the Extinct Race in conjunction with an institute for the scientific study of the Jewish people.
I ask how many peers Lara’s son believes he has in Vilnius. “Peers?” he wonders. “What do you mean?” “I mean young people such as yourself with an interest in Jewish heritage, history, culture.” “None,” he declares. He then explains that he himself has little interest in Jewish affairs. He’s a dancer. He is interested in “other things.” These old books mean little or nothing to him. He is here only to help out his mother until September, when he intends to leave. There will be no one to replace him; there is no young generation of Jews in Lithuania to whom these materials mean anything. “This is the state of affairs,” Lara fervently interjects. “All this means nothing to anybody any more. So it has become meaningless even to me, but I do it nonetheless.”
What does she do? What is its meaning or purpose today?
Shortly before the war broke out, the library of Matisyahu Strashun, the first Jewish public library ever established, consisted of some 50,000 volumes, many unique and rare and hundreds of years old. According to oral accounts from that confused time, it was put into the safekeeping of the YIVO Institute. This library and others, as well as the rest of YIVO’s holdings, were divided into three parts after the German invasion. The Germans looted one part, taking it to Frankfurt; another part they destroyed or did not have time to process; the third part was hidden by YIVO workers in 1941-1942 during the heroic period of the Paper Brigade, in which many thousands of books and documents were concealed by YIVO workers in the Vilna Ghetto or given to Gentile friends on the outside. The books and documents removed to Frankfurt were discovered after the war by the U.S. Army. This material was eventually shipped to the United States, where it became the core of the library and archive of the reconstituted YIVO Institute, which had relocated to New York in 1940.
In July 1944, after the Soviets had liberated Vilna, the writers Avrom Sutskever and Schmerke Kaczerginski, who were among the YIVO workers in the Paper Brigade, returned to Vilna to establish a new Vilna Museum of the Jewish People. The foundation of this museum would be the books, documents, and other artifacts that they and others had managed to hide and now endeavored to recover. Indeed, they were able to find an enormous quantity of material. But their ambitious project was shut down by the Soviets in 1947. When Sutskever and Kaczerginski realized that the museum would be liquidated, they sent as many books and documents out of the country as they could, before they themselves had to flee for their lives. But much remained.
Stalin’s order to destroy these surviving remnants of Jewish culture would have achieved its goal if it had not been for Lara Lempert’s predecessor, the Lithuanian librarian Antanas Ulpis, who hid them in the basement of a church for some 40 years. Ulpis, who was not Jewish, could read Yiddish and Hebrew. He did not save these tens of thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of documents from destruction by the Soviets because they contained secret state records or accounts of German war crimes, as was the case with the Oyneg Shabbos archive from the Warsaw Ghetto. He saved them because he understood that these materials represented a different kind of legacy and inheritance.
Working under Ulpis, Jewish staff members did their best to create an old-fashioned card catalog; but they did not microfilm or take other steps preserve what they had salvaged. In the late 1980s, the first Judaica librarian, Fira Bramson, and her colleagues began to reshelve and organize the books. Now Lara and her small staff are taking steps toward the creation of an electronic catalog of Yiddish and Hebrew titles, but a great many of these irreplaceable items are continuing to rot away in the basement of the church where they were first stored. In the YIVO Institute in New York City, the remnant transported by the Germans to Frankfurt has been catalogued; but much is still not microfilmed or digitized. Today we are undertaking significant efforts in New York to protect this Jewish legacy.
Lyudmila Sholokhova and I went to Vilnius with the hope of digitally uniting the materials in Vilnius with their other half in New York, so as to re-create the original YIVO Vilna Library and make it, for the first time, available to scholars and the general public worldwide. The Lithuanian government, librarians, and archivists all favor this project. All we need is money, perhaps as much as $2 million.
But is money all we need?
Lara’s words ring in my memory: is it meaningless? If these materials have meaning still, what is it? Die-hard activists and keepers of the flame of Yiddish language and culture immediately grasp the almost talismanic importance of these materials. For many who work and breathe in this world, salvaging East European Jewish traditions and objects, and the Yiddish language itself, is a sacred duty. But for others the immediate importance of this work is not so clear. One extremely wealthy Jewish philanthropist told me that he was interested in the living, not the dead; another said he felt it was more important for him to give money to his local schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, and parks—the “other things” Lara’s son referred to—than to preserve yellowing East European Jewish documents and the memory of the culture that goes with them.
S. Ansky’s Dybbuk (1914) is one of the great works of modern Jewish-Yiddish literature and of modern European literature in general. It created an idiom of possession and defiance that still resonates deeply among Jews throughout the world. The first seven minutes of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) are devoted to a version of it. But as much as Ansky’s play is about the possession of a young girl by the spirit of her lover, it is also a play in which the dead call the living to account and, by extension, the past calls the present to account. Ansky wrote the play after his famous Ethnographic Expedition, in which he collected a vast quantity of material relating to Jewish folklore and tradition in the Pale of Settlement that he and others feared was rapidly disappearing.
Ansky’s play demands a cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul. It searches the conscious and the unconscious thoughts of its characters. Every voice has a second voice inside it. The beautiful Leah speaks with the male voice of Khonon. Her father’s conscious protestations of innocence before the spirit of his dead friend bear the burden of his unconscious ambition and guilt. Ansky originally wrote the play in Russian; then, at Stanislavsky’s urging, he translated it into the language “of his people.” So in some sense, the play as a whole is possessed: the Yiddish words are animated by a Russian voice inside them—or vice versa—just as Leah is possessed by the spirit of Khonon. Yet this double-voicedness, this possession of one language by another, is complemented by yet one more. When the delegation of Leah’s father comes to Reb Azriel to beg him to exorcise the dybbuk, the aged rebbe muses, “To me? To me? How could he have come to me when the ‘me’ in me is no longer here?” Leah is possessed by a foreign spirit, while Reb Azriel has been dispossessed of his own.
Fragments of the original manuscript of The Dybbuk are among YIVO’s most precious collections, even while the question of “the ‘me’ that is not me” continues to bedevil much contemporary Jewish history and culture in the Diaspora. As I stood in the square that was once the Vilna Ghetto, I felt the weight of Reb Azriel’s lament.
Yiddish literature flourished briefly and was destroyed before its time. Nevertheless, it could boast many classic works of fiction, poetry, and drama, while the larger Jewish culture produced an astonishing array of world-class artists, musicians, filmmakers, political thinkers, critics, philosophers, social and hard scientists. Not a single cultural endeavor was unrepresented by this awakening of secular, and specifically Eastern European, Jewish creativity from the early part of the 19th century to 1939. It was a time that could without hyperbole be deemed the Jewish Renaissance, comparable to any Europe had produced.
Behind the locked door of what Lara calls her “treasure of treasures,” in the basement of the soon-to-be-evacuated church, is a small fraction of the civilization of unlived life, joys, and sorrows, ideas that had no time to mature, the unborn children of a lost world, such as those over which Leah weeps in The Dybbuk’s final scene. But unlike Ansky’s dybbuk, these souls are bound in tattered, broken, molding bindings. The room itself reeks of decay. These are the books hidden from the Germans, then saved from the Soviets, kept under lock and key for 40 years like an illegitimate offspring in a Dickens novel. And now, because they are in Yiddish, nobody in Lithuania reads them. In the past year there have been no visitors.
But they haunt us. They represent a life that we, their descendants from Eastern Europe and Russia, did not, could not lead. In the Lithuanian State Archives, Lyudmila and I inspected boxes of the documents saved first by the YIVO workers from the Germans, then recovered by Kaczerginski and Sutskever in July 1944,then rescued yet again by Antanas Ulpis. These documents have gone through many hands, and I cannot help but wonder about the hands that wrote them. Among the unsorted documents we saw were handwritten books of plays that might have been performed in the Vilna Ghetto during the war. Other materials in those boxes represent missing pieces of the correspondence that we have, in part, at YIVO in New York City.
Shimon Dubnow long ago pointed out that the Jewish people of Europe did not make monuments to themselves, did not have a parliament, an army, a flag, a fortress, a royal park or palace. They possessed no crown jewels on view in a Jewish Tower of London, no moats, no castles or towering cathedrals that took centuries to complete. Instead, what for a thousand years they made and possessed was for the most part invisible: a life of activity, structures of thought rather than things—which is not to deny the material reality of the international banking houses of the Rothschilds, Brodskys or Efroses, but these are the exceptions. The invisible structures created by the Jewish people of Eastern Europe over a thousand years were given shape and transmitted through the books and the documents collected by YIVO. These structures still move us. If we do not know what they are, we do not know ourselves.
If these documents and books disappear, the visible reality of the Jewish people of those thousand years will disappear with them. All that will remain will be a few street plaques and public monuments in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere, along with a public record told without their voice. Establishing the narrative voice of that public record was the driving motive and mission of YIVO’s massive collection effort in 1925. The irony is that what the Germans so clearly recognized as the power of those documents and books is visible to so few in America and Europe today.
Lara embraced me fiercely before I left. She will continue her work with all the might she can summon, while YIVO’s task in New York remains locked in that same fierce embrace of pride, loyalty, and care and returns us inevitably to Lithuania.
Jonathan Brent is Executive Director of YIVO Institute of Research. He wishes to acknowledge the help of Lyudmila Sholokhova in the preparation of this article.
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