Anders Rydell is the author of The Book Thieves: The Nazi Loot­ing of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Lit­er­ary Inher­i­tance. We couldn’t resist draw­ing read­ers’ atten­tion to the Paper Brigade of the Vil­na Ghet­to, for which Jew­ish Book Council’s annu­al print jour­nal is named! Anders will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I arrived in Vil­nius, the cap­i­tal of Lithua­nia, for the first time on a burn­ing hot day in August 2015. I had expect­ed, per­haps prej­u­di­cial­ly, some­thing gray and gloomy — how we in the West typ­i­cal­ly pic­ture East­ern Europe. Instead I met a city buzzing with life, with cof­fee shops full of hip­sters, veg­e­tar­i­an restau­rants, and young peo­ple. The city was beau­ti­ful, almost pic­turesque, with old stone hous­es from the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Much of the old­er parts of Vil­nius had been saved dur­ing the War and the city was there­fore spared the con­crete archi­tec­ture of the Sovi­et era. I walked around in the crooked medieval streets of the old Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood, where Yid­dish words on the walls and above the entrances can still be seen from the street.

It was beau­ti­ful, to be sure, but there was some­thing very sad about this part of the town. The hous­es had been saved, but not the soul of Vil­nius. It was the same feel­ing of walk­ing in the ruins of Pompeii.

It was no coin­ci­dence that the YIVO (Yidish­er Visnshaftlekher Insti­tut) head­quar­ters were estab­lished here before the Sec­ond World War. The insti­tute was found­ed around a mis­sion to both save and devel­op the Yid­dish cul­ture and lan­guage. Hun­dreds of researchers col­lect­ed man­u­scripts and books and doc­u­ment­ed songs and folk tales. They soon built one of the most impor­tant col­lec­tions of Yid­dish cul­ture in the world, boast­ing high­ly influ­en­tial board mem­bers like Albert Ein­stein and Sig­mund Freud.

Vil­nius was the true heart of the Euro­pean Yid­dish cul­ture in its time. This was a city known the world over for its libraries, intel­lec­tu­als, poets and rab­bis like Eli­jah ben Solomon Zal­man. When this city and its large Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty were swept away by the cat­a­clysmic event we call the Holo­caust, or the Shoah, Yid­dish cul­ture nev­er real­ly recovered.

When the Nazis con­quered Vil­nius, in the ear­ly days of the Bar­barossa inva­sion, they found an immense amount of intel­lec­tu­al trea­sure — libraries, archives, and oth­er col­lec­tions amassed by gen­er­a­tions of Jews and eth­nic Lithua­ni­ans. In the his­to­ry of the Sec­ond World War, we rarely talk about the impor­tance of Vil­nius com­pared to cities like Leningrad and Stal­in­grad. But for Nazi intel­lec­tu­als like Hein­rich Himm­ler, Alfred Rosen­berg, and Joseph Goebbels, Vil­nius was extreme­ly impor­tant. The city was not a mil­i­tary cen­ter, it had no impor­tant for­ti­fi­ca­tions, but here the walls and resis­tance were built on ideas and cul­ture. Vil­nius was per­ceived as a cen­ter for Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al­ism: in the Nazi war of ideas and ide­ol­o­gy, this city was one of the most dan­ger­ous in the world.

The Nazi’s imme­di­ate steps to break the spir­it of Vil­nius were to tar­get the city’s books and schol­ars. The loot­ing of books and archives had two main pur­pos­es: to take away the weapons — that is, books — of the intel­lec­tu­als, and to build a foun­da­tion of Nazi research on the plun­dered col­lec­tions. Only by also con­quer­ing the words of their ene­mies could the Nazis ensure that they would also con­trol his­to­ry. When you own” the libraries and archives, the writ­ten mem­o­ry of your ene­mies, you have the pow­er to con­trol their history.

But the Nazi loot­ers had a prob­lem: they stole more than they could han­dle. The Nazis did not have enough Jew­ish experts” that could read Yid­dish and Hebrew, there­fore they could not iden­ti­fy or sift out the most impor­tant or pre­cious works.

The solu­tion to this prob­lem was typ­i­cal for the Nazi regime: they let their vic­tims do the job. The Nazis formed slave labor groups of aca­d­e­mics, writ­ers, poets and librar­i­ans; the very same peo­ple who had recent­ly built, stud­ied, and pro­tect­ed these col­lec­tions were now assigned the hor­rif­ic task of sort­ing and pack­ing them for the Ger­mans. For mem­bers of this group, like the poet Andrew K and Her­man Kruk, it was a quin­tes­sen­tial Catch-22: if they did not car­ry out this work it could cost them their lives, and impor­tant col­lec­tions could be lost for­ev­er, owing to the Nazi researchers’ incom­pe­tence; if the Jew­ish pris­on­ers did the work, there was at least a chance that both they and the col­lec­tions could sur­vive — if the Nazis lost the war. But the hor­rif­ic truth was that the pur­pose of this work was to destroy the Jew­ish peo­ple and their culture.

The mem­bers of the sort­ing team did their best to slow down their work, to win time, with­out mak­ing the Ger­mans sus­pi­cious. But for some mem­bers, like the poet Andrew Sutzkev­er, there was only one moral solu­tion to their dilem­ma: resis­tance. The resis­tance of librar­i­ans and collectors.

Sutzkev­er and his com­rades start­ed hide and smug­gle out impor­tant man­u­scripts and books. The group soon became known in the ghet­to as the Paper Brigade. As oth­er Jews in the ghet­to tried to hide pota­toes or loaves of bread for their sur­vival, the mem­bers of the sort­ing par­ty risked their lives to smug­gle let­ters and diaries. Even if they only suc­ceed­ed in sav­ing a very small por­tion of the archives, their resis­tance was the work of true heroes.

Only a hand­ful of the mem­bers in the Paper Brigade sur­vived World War II, but among those who escaped was Suztkev­er, who joined the Jew­ish armed resis­tance to assist in the lib­er­a­tion of Vil­nius in 1944. Return­ing to the remains of the Vil­na Ghet­to, Suztkev­er suc­ceed­ed in retriev­ing some of the hid­den books and man­u­scripts. Suztkev­er con­tin­ued in his efforts to pre­serve Yid­dish cul­ture even after the war, writ­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing con­tem­po­rary poet­ry that embod­ied Judaism’s rich lit­er­ary heritage.

Anders Rydel­lis a jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and author of non­fic­tion. As the Head of Cul­ture at a major Swedish media group, Rydell directs the cov­er­age of arts and cul­ture in 14 news­pa­pers. His two books on the Nazis, The Book Theives and The Loot­ers, have been trans­lat­ed into 16 lan­guages. The Book Thieves is his first work pub­lished in English.