Franya’s Yid­dish Actors Union card. Res­cued by The Paper Brigade, YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research, NY, NY. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

I don’t remem­ber a time when I was not aware of the Holo­caust. I grew up in an Amer­i­can house­hold where there was inten­tion­al­ly lit­tle talk of the past, but I under­stood from a young age that our his­to­ry was filled with loss.

My par­ents them­selves were not Holo­caust sur­vivors, but much of my mother’s extend­ed fam­i­ly had been mur­dered and dis­ap­peared by the Nazis. As a small child, I would dig deep into the recess­es of my par­ents’ TV cab­i­net and unearth a worn mani­la enve­lope full of pho­tographs of these miss­ing rel­a­tives. I would pore over sepia-tint­ed pic­tures mount­ed on card­stock while Bewitched played in the back­ground. Many of the por­traits were for­mal, but one per­son always seemed to stand out in liv­ing col­or: My cousin, a famous actress of the time named Franya Win­ter. She was fea­tured mug­ging for the cam­era in wild cos­tumes, evok­ing some­thing riotous, play­ful, even sexy. I was instant­ly com­pelled by her. That inter­est was only enhanced by the fact that her death was a mystery.

Rec­og­niz­ing my attach­ment to my family’s mem­o­ry, my aunt Mol­lie even­tu­al­ly entrust­ed me with a Yid­dish book called, Twen­ty-One and One, which described the lives and deaths of actors who per­ished in the Vil­na Ghet­to – includ­ing Franya. Keep it and pass it onto your chil­dren,” my aunt com­mand­ed. But don’t read it.” She nev­er said why.

Thus began my search for knowl­edge beyond the for­bid­den book. I would keep my promise to my aunt while unearthing answers to the ques­tions that had plagued me my entire life, and still hon­or­ing my fam­i­ly in their death. That quest took me across con­ti­nents to meet sur­vivors, search archives, and wan­der the streets my rel­a­tives once tread. My search took me to the YIVO archives where I found a cache of essen­tial doc­u­ments res­cued by The Paper Brigade.

—Meryl Frank

A break­through came when I start­ed research­ing at YIVO, the Yid­dish Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research found­ed in Vil­na before the war, now based in New York, and obtained copies of a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of doc­u­ments relat­ing to Franya — play­bills, pho­tographs, and so on. 

Most of these had been smug­gled out of Vil­na in an aston­ish­ing oper­a­tion spear­head­ed by Vil­na intel­lec­tu­als like Avrom Sutzkev­er, Shmerke Kacz­erg­y­n­s­ki, and Her­man Kruk. They led a team of Jew­ish work­ers recruit­ed by the Nazis to go through the cul­tur­al trea­sures of Vil­na — includ­ing books, man­u­scripts, and rit­u­al orna­ments from the Great Syn­a­gogue, from the fabled Straszun Library, from dozens of prayer hous­es, and from YIVO’s vast col­lec­tions — and send the most valu­able arti­facts to Ger­many. The Nazis were intent on build­ing an unprece­dent­ed col­lec­tion of Judaica as a per­verse sym­bol of tri­umph over peo­ple they were in the process of anni­hi­lat­ing. This was a twist­ed type of memorializing.

Every­thing came through the YIVO build­ing before being sort­ed and shipped, and the mate­ri­als piled up so fast that the num­ber of Jew­ish work­ers expand­ed over a few months from twelve to almost fifty. Sutzkev­er and his friends con­clud­ed, reluc­tant­ly, that the books the Nazis had their eye on were prob­a­bly as safe in Ger­many as they would be any­where else as long as the war was rag­ing. But Johannes Pohl want­ed only about twen­ty thou­sand vol­umes, one-fifth of the total. The rest was to be sold to paper mills for recy­cling. So the YIVO work­ers start­ed smug­gling as much mate­r­i­al as they could into the ghet­to, stash­ing it in cel­lars, behind walls, even in holes in the ground.

Sutzkev­er asked his Nazi boss if he could bring some of the reject­ed mate­r­i­al into the ghet­to to burn as fuel, and his boss not only agreed but also wrote a note to ensure that the mate­ri­als would not be con­fis­cat­ed at the gate. The mem­bers of the Paper Brigade,” as they called them­selves, pro­ceed­ed to slide all sorts of pre­cious mate­ri­als under their cloth­ing — let­ters writ­ten by the likes of Leo Tol­stoy, Max­im Gorky, and Romain Rol­land, as well as Theodor Herzl’s diary, the only sur­viv­ing man­u­script writ­ten by the impor­tant rab­bi, the Gaon of Vil­na, and so on. Their paper cuts were badges of hon­or as they stuffed crum­pled relics like so much buried trea­sure beneath their shirts.

To skirt the lim­i­ta­tions on how much they could bring out by this method, the brigade also built a secret repos­i­to­ry beneath the YIVO build­ing and hid five thou­sand books and man­u­scripts there. Oth­er valu­ables end­ed up in the base­ment of a Carmelite monastery around the cor­ner from the cathedral.

One of the Paper Brigade mem­bers, Uma Olkenic­ka, had been the direc­tor of YIVO’s The­ater Muse­um before the war. It was like­ly under her influ­ence that many of the the­atri­cal arti­facts, includ­ing the records relat­ing to Franya, were scooped out of the trash. Olkenic­ka was also a tal­ent­ed graph­ic artist who designed YIVO’s logo and did the art­work for the for­bid­den book Twen­ty-One and One. Heart­break­ing­ly, like so many, she did not survive. 

Retriev­ing all the rare books and doc­u­ments after the war was far from a sim­ple mat­ter. Even after the mate­ri­als were tracked down and iden­ti­fied, it was dif­fi­cult to deter­mine where they should go. Vet­er­ans of the Paper Brigade were deter­mined to get them to YIVO in New York, where they knew they would be cat­a­loged and pro­tect­ed prop­er­ly, but they ran into con­sid­er­able resis­tance from the US gov­ern­ment. It was not until 1949 that most of the Nazi col­lec­tions, sit­ting in ware­hous­es in and around Frank­furt, made their way across the Atlantic.

Pro­gram for Tevye the Milk­man (see F. Win­ter as his eldest daugh­ter Cajtl.). Res­cued by The Paper Brigade, YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research, NY, NY. Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

The mate­ri­als hid­den in Vil­na proved an even greater chal­lenge. Poet Abra­ham Sutzkev­er, one of the orig­i­nal Paper Brigade mem­bers, smug­gled some out when he trav­eled to Nurem­berg to tes­ti­fy at the war-crimes tri­als in 1946. By that time, he under­stood that the Sovi­ets were not like­ly to val­ue the doc­u­ments and books. Oth­ers he gave in dribs and drabs to a vari­ety of couri­ers, includ­ing mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee, the orga­ni­za­tion for which my aunt Mol­lie had worked. In one spec­tac­u­lar case, Sutzkev­er deliv­ered two large bags of valu­ables to vet­er­ans of the War­saw Ghet­to Upris­ing. The vet­er­ans sneaked them across an unguard­ed sec­tion of the Pol­ish-Czech bor­der, car­ried them to Prague just a step or two ahead of the Czech secret police, and then hand­ed the mate­r­i­al back to Sutzkev­er through the open win­dow of a train as it pulled out of the sta­tion head­ed for Paris. Some, includ­ing the col­lec­tion at the Carmelite monastery, were not recov­ered and sent to the Unit­ed States until the 1990s — fifty years lat­er!— when Lithua­nia was once again free of the Sovi­et yoke.

By the time I con­sult­ed the YIVO archives in New York, I was awed by the sto­ries and by the many acts of brav­ery that had allowed the doc­u­ments I was han­dling to sur­vive. To me, it spoke vol­umes about the endurance of cul­ture that what was deemed most impor­tant to save, despite risk­ing life and limb, was the writ­ten word. Even after all the dec­i­ma­tion and destruc­tion, the core of Vilna’s Jew­ish cul­ture shone through — the belief that art and ideas were the great­est treasures. 

As I con­tin­ued my research, I was grow­ing ever more attached to Franya, as if I’d known her. I was now delv­ing into every aspect of her upbring­ing, her the­atri­cal career, her per­son­al pas­sions, and the many kind­ness­es she was said to have lav­ished on oth­ers. All of it seemed to dis­solve the decades of dis­tance between us and bring us closer. 

Adapt­ed from Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a For­bid­den Book, and a Search for Life in the Shad­ow of the Holo­caust by Meryl Frank. Copy­right © 2023. Avail­able from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

If you want to read more about The Paper Brigade, for whom we have named our annu­al lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade, learn more with A Brief His­to­ry of the Orig­i­nal Paper Brigade” by Lenore J. Weitzman. 

Ambas­sador Meryl Frank (ret.) is an inter­na­tion­al cham­pi­on of wom­en’s lead­er­ship, human rights, and polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. She was select­ed as one of The Fifty Most Influ­en­tial Jews in the World” by The Jerusalem Post, and was appoint­ed as the Unit­ed States Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations Com­mis­sion on the Sta­tus of Women (CSW) by Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma in Feb­ru­ary 2009.