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

by David E. Fishman

Book, 2017



Call number

736 FIS



Lebanon, NH : ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England, 2017


The Book Smugglers is the nearly unbelievable story of ghetto residents who rescued thousands of rare books and manuscripts--first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets--by hiding them on their bodies, burying them in bunkers, and smuggling them across borders. It is a tale of heroism and resistance, of friendship and romance, and of unwavering devotion--including the readiness to risk one's life--to literature and art. And it is entirely true. Based on Jewish, German, and Soviet documents, including diaries, letters, memoirs, and the author's interviews with several of the story's participants, The Book Smugglers chronicles the daring activities of a group of poets turned partisans and scholars turned smugglers in Vilna, "The Jerusalem of Lithuania." The rescuers were pitted against Johannes Pohl, a Nazi "expert" on the Jews, who had been dispatched to Vilna by the Nazi looting agency, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, to organize the seizure of the city's great collections of Jewish books. Pohl and his Einsatzstab staff planned to ship the most valuable materials to Germany and incinerate the rest. The Germans used forty ghetto inmates as slave-laborers to sort, select, pack, and transport the materials, either to Germany or to nearby paper mills. This group, nicknamed "the Paper Brigade," and informally led by poet Shmerke Kaczerginski, a garrulous, street-smart adventurer and master of deception, smuggled thousands of books and manuscripts past German guards. If caught, the men would have faced death by firing squad at Ponar, the mass-murder site outside of Vilna. To store the rescued manuscripts, poet Abraham Sutzkever helped build an underground book-bunker sixty feet beneath the Vilna ghetto. Kaczerginski smuggled weapons as well, using the group's worksite, the former building of the Yiddish Scientific Institute, to purchase arms for the ghetto's secret partisan organization. All the while, both men wrote poetry that was recited and sung by the fast-dwindling population of ghetto inhabitants. With the Soviet "liberation" of Vilna (now known as Vilnius), the Paper Brigade thought themselves and their precious cultural treasures saved--only to learn that their new masters were no more welcoming toward Jewish culture than the old, and the books must now be smuggled out of the USSR. Thoroughly researched by the foremost scholar of the Vilna Ghetto--a writer of exceptional daring, style, and reach--The Book Smugglers is an epic story of human heroism, a little-known tale from the blackest days of the war.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member book58lover
The author should be commended for the detail in this book and the amount of research it must have taken to dig out all these facts. Art works weren't the only things looted during the Holocaust; libraries were also targets of Nazi theft. Jews risked their lives to save their treasures: books,
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letters, artifacts.
Although there were tons of names and organizations it was not difficult to read this book and I didn't feel that I was overwhelmed with information. I particularly liked the last chapters of the book which described what happened to the treasures and the people involved in the project of smuggling the books. This book is a keeper.
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LibraryThing member bemislibrary
This is a well-researched look at how a small group referred to as the paper brigade worked to sort through books, manuscripts, and various Jewish papers for the Nazis during World War II. The Nazi would ship the most valuable material to select collectors in Germany. The group forced to do the
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sorting smuggled what they could out of the building into hiding places in the Ghetto. The book begins by setting the pre-war environment, followed by the wars year, and ends with the battle after the war to reclaim the hidden materials. There are extensive chapter notes, glossary, and bibliography.
I received this book through a LibraryThing Early Reviewers Giveaway. Although encouraged, I was under no obligation to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
This is an interesting and moving book about a group of prisoners in Vilnius, Poland whose monumental efforts saved Jewish literature for future generations. This is a scholarly work that cannot be read quickly. There is too much to absorb. There is much written on these pages that I already am
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aware of, but there is also still so much recorded there that shocked me. I find that no matter how much I read on this subject, man’s inhumanity to man, man’s justification for it, and man’s implementation of the mass murder of millions of people still retains the power to horrify me. Yet on the flip side, there are these stories of courageous men and women that will live on in perpetuity and that continue to amaze me and challenge my own ideas of whether or not I, too, could have risen to the occasion as they did.
I had not known of the organization Hitler created to study Judaica, using the Jews’ own literature and religious books to justify their criminal status in order to legitimize Germany’s practice of rampant anti-Semitism and mass murder. The persecution of Jews, once begun, permeated German society in every country Germany invaded. Even, although difficult to believe, the church had members who were complicit in the brutality inflicted on those that Hitler deemed unfit. There was little opportunity for escape for the Jew who was caught in the web. Still, many unsung heroes risked life and limb to preserve their history and protect their written culture from literally being burned at the stake.
Books not deemed useful to the despicable effort of Hitler’s minions were burned in bonfires. Books deemed helpful in their effort to justify their heinous behavior were preserved. Jews were recruited and imprisoned for that particular intellectual pursuit. They were to decide which book lived and which book died. This book is the story of the salvation of the Jewish books that would eventually preserve Jewish history, heritage and culture, and defeat Hitler’s effort to destroy an entire people. The people featured in this book were their saviors.
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LibraryThing member hadden
David E. Fishman used personal interviews, primary and secondary sources in English, German, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish languages and museum archives to tell the story of "The Paper Brigade" of Jewish prisoners in the Vilnius, Lithuania ghetto who preserved some of the cultural
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heritage of Judaism of the YIVO and Strashun libraries in Vilna during World War II. The Yiddish and Hebrew language books and archives of the libraries in Vilna were ordered to be scattered or destroyed. About one third of the most valuable or rare books were to be sent to a central location in Germany. The other two thirds were to be destroyed. The "Paper Brigade" of Jewish librarians and book lovers worked to hide many of the books and archives, and either smuggle them into the ghetto for hiding and preservation, or try to preserve them in other locations. If the smugglers were found trying to smuggle books into the ghetto, they would be killed. These were men and women who risked, and sometimes, paid with their lives to protect the Jewish culture of "The Jerusalem of Lithuania" from the Holocaust.

The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was ordered to destroy the cultural heritage of Jews in the occupied countries, and with establishing a museum on Jews and Jewish culture which could be used for historical studies after the Jews were murdered. Thus, the main collections of Jewish literature were to be recycled or destroyed, with a sampling preserved for the future museum. Johannes Pohl was in charge of the the branch of the ERR, and those books which weren't re-pulped in paper mills were used in other ways. Leather covers of Torahs were used to re-sole the boots of German soldiers, other paper was burned for heat during the winter or as scrap paper.

Although lives were lost in protecting some of the books, the evil of antisemitism continued under the Russian occupation and when Lithuania became a Soviet Republic under Stalin. Being able to re-constitute the collections dispersed into numerous hiding places after the war were stymied by official orders from Moscow and local communists to close the Jewish libraries and museums that re-opened after 1945.

An excellent book for history of books and printing collections, WWII and Jewish history collections, Holocaust Studies programs and Library Science collections. I also highly recommend this book to bibliophiles and other book lovers, as a re-affirmation of the love of books so many people have. For example, even during the time of famine and overwork in the ghetto, the library remained open and people struggled to find reading material to fight the intellectual starvation that also was part of ghetto life. People who must read should also read this story.
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LibraryThing member mysterymax
Libraries have always been among the first targets marked for destruction by an invading enemy. Throughout history unsung heroes have given their all to protect and save for prosperity the books in their care.

David Fleishman has given us a well-documented, fascinating book about the men and women
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who saved many of the most valuable Jewish and Yiddish books in Vilnius, Poland. They were called 'The Paper Brigade' and they managed to save Torahs, historical records, and art from Nazi, and later Soviet, destruction in WWII.

The Jewish community in Vilnius valued books. The Strasham Library was built next door to the synagogue and remained open seven days a week, including the Sabbath and holidays. The library was well known and people contributed valuable items from all over Poland, Europe and the world. Before the war the library held over 40,000 items.

The Paper Brigade eventually managed to save over 20,000 items, at the cost of several dedicated lives.

The book is well written, full of information and will leave you in awe of those who risked so much to keep the books from being stolen and/or destroyed.
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LibraryThing member lindapanzo
This is a fascinating look at the book brigade who, as best as they could salvaged Jewish books, papers, and other cultural items from the Nazis in Vilna, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" during the war. This portion of the book makes for an incredible story of survival and daring.

The second half of
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the book, while interesting, was a bit of a letdown for me, as the book brigade survivors had to attempt, once again, to save the books, this time, from the Soviets. This portion of the book focused more on political and bureaucratic maneuverings and was not nearly as dramatic.

An excellent, well-researched book about a lesser-known chapter of the war and one I'd recommend to those who like to read nonfiction.
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LibraryThing member ikeman100
Very interesting history book. If you want to know more about what was going on in Baltic states during WWII then this need to be one of your sources. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Quite an incredible story about Vilna's "Paper Brigade," a group of committed men and women who saved books and manuscripts from destruction by the Nazis (and later by the Soviets). This is a fascinating tale, and Fishman's thorough research is very impressive. I wish, though, that the book had
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spent some more time with an editor: after the tenth time the author noted that Vilna was known as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania" before the thirtieth page, I was ready to fling the book across the room. I persevered, and am glad I did, but I admit that such stylistic infelicities did color my opinion of the volume.
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