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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Fleishman has given us a well-documented, fascinating book about the men and women
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.
The second half of
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.