The Book Smug­glers: Par­ti­sans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jew­ish Trea­sures from the Nazis

  • Review
May 16, 2017

David Fishman’s beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book tells the sto­ry of the brave men and women in the Vil­na ghet­to who, while work­ing under Nazi sur­veil­lance, risked their lives to smug­gle and hide rare books, man­u­scripts, paint­ings, Torah scrolls, and oth­er Jew­ish trea­sures that the Nazis were intent on steal­ing or destroying.

It was an impor­tant form of Jew­ish resis­tance dur­ing the Holo­caust — the strug­gle to pre­vent the destruc­tion and oblit­er­a­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture. No one is more qual­i­fied to tell this sto­ry than Pro­fes­sor David Fish­man, who spent twen­ty-five years con­duct­ing archival research and inter­view­ing sur­vivors in sev­er­al coun­tries and languages.

The sto­ry of the Nazis’ inten­tion­al destruc­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture and the sim­ple hero­ism of the book smug­glers is at once hor­ri­fy­ing, depress­ing, amaz­ing, and inspir­ing. Fish­man cap­tures this com­plex tapes­try with great clar­i­ty, in spare and vivid prose.

It is not sur­pris­ing that Vil­na (Vil­nius), the Jerusalem of Lithua­nia,” was a prime tar­get for the Ger­mans. In 1942 the Nazis ordered Her­man Kruk, head of the Vil­na ghet­to library, and Zelig Kalmanovich, a direc­tor of pre­war YIVO, to col­lect the very best Jew­ish books, art­work, and muse­um valu­ables” for ship­ment to Ger­many (where they were to be dis­played after the Jews of Europe were mur­dered). Kruk recruit­ed Jew­ish poets, writ­ers, and schol­ars to join his staff of forty men and women.

They were ordered to select a third of the books for the Ger­mans; the rest were to be destroyed. As Rachel Krin­sky, one of Kruk’s team, recalled, the books were, like us, in mor­tal dan­ger.” When the Nazis car­ried out selec­tion” they threw 70% of the books from the YIVO trea­sures into the trash as scrap paper.” Kruk wrote that his staff was lit­er­al­ly weeping…Your heart can break as you watch.”

In an effort to save some of the Jew­ish trea­sures, mem­bers of Kruk’s staff (who became The Book Smug­glers) wrapped rare man­u­scripts around their bod­ies and hid cher­ished books and arti­facts in their cloth­ing and shoes. They risked being shot if they were caught by the Ger­mans, but Jew­ish police­men might let them pass into the ghet­to because they were only car­ry­ing papers.” (Thus the police dubbed them the paper brigade.”)

The lead­ers of the paper brigade, the Yid­dish poets Avrom Sutzkev­er and Shmerke Kacz­er­gin­s­ki, emerge as larg­er than life in Fishman’s por­traits. We fol­low their auda­cious, risky, and inge­nious schemes — Sutzkev­er, for instance, used a per­mit allow­ing him to burn waste paper in his oven in order to res­cue man­u­scripts by Max­im Gorky, Sholem Ale­ichem, Hay­im Nach­man Bia­lik, and Theodore Her­zl; draw­ings by Marc Cha­gall; and a rare man­u­script by the Vil­na Gaon.

Between March 1942 and Sep­tem­ber 1943, the paper brigade” res­cued thou­sands of books and tens of thou­sands of doc­u­ments from Nazi hands. Most of their trea­sure was hid­den in a con­cealed base­ment in the ghet­to library and in under­ground bunkers spread through­out the ghet­to. For exam­ple, in Octo­ber 1942 Her­man Kruk record­ed 200 Torah scrolls in bunker #3.

While I found the chap­ters on the ghet­to smug­glers the most com­pelling in the book, Fish­man also fol­lows the res­cued trea­sure over the next eighty years — from imme­di­ate post­war peri­od, when the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the paper brigade dis­cov­ered that the Sovi­ets were as hos­tile to Jew­ish cul­ture as the Nazis, and then faced the mon­u­men­tal task of smug­gling every­thing they had saved out of the USSR — through the (con­tin­u­ing) post – Cold War inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­a­tions about com­pet­ing claims to the right­ful own­er­ship of the books.

All of this is told in Fishman’s mas­ter­ful prose. What a plea­sure it is to have a good read, a first-rate his­to­ry, and a new per­spec­tive on Jew­ish cul­tur­al resis­tance all wrapped up in one fas­ci­nat­ing book.

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