DHHRM exhibit explores rescuers of Jewish treasures
Photos: Courtesy Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum
“The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis” exhibit at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum runs through January 2, 2002

By Deb Silverthorn

The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum will pay tribute to Jewish heroism in a new traveling exhibit open through Jan. 2: “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis.”

Set in Vilna, Lithuania, known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its Jewish culture rich with art, music, literature, poetry, theater and opera, the exhibit shares the true story of a small group of partisans and poets who risked everything to save Jewish cultural treasures. It was curated by and debuted at the Holocaust Museum Houston and is based on a book of the same name by David E. Fishman. 

 “Would you risk your life to save a book?” asked Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. “We are all about heritage and if or what would we do to hold on to that in its physical form. The response has been incredible. It is a sad, but enlightening, book and exhibit and the response and the exhibit’s artistic elements absolutely draws our guests in.”

Before World War II, literature and art enabled Vilna residents to rise above everyday persecution. When Vilna’s Jews were forced into the ghetto, the “Paper Brigade” was formed by intellectuals, writers, educators and activists to save Judaica for the next generation.

The Brigade, smuggled tens of thousands of books and manuscripts past German guards and stored them in an underground bunker 60 feet beneath the Vilna ghetto. Weaponry was hidden as the group prepared for resistance.

Together, the group rescued Jewish artifacts, books  photographs, works of art, diaries, and literature from the Nazis by smuggling them into the ghetto or hiding them in plain sight. 

After the Soviets pushed the Nazis out of Lithuania, some of the hidden treasures were whisked away to New York, while others were concealed in the basement of St. George’s church where a gentile librarian was putting together a national library.

In June, author Fishman was featured in a webinar discussion with Annie Black, the museum’s director of programs and volunteers. 

“Before World War II, Vilna was the center of Jewish and Yiddish life, with more than 100 shuls and five daily papers,” said Fishman, who received a 2017 National Jewish Book Award for the title. In 1988, he was invited to Vilna, where many of the hidden materials were in the book chamber of what had been St. George’s church. 

Fishman is a professor of Jewish history at The Jewish Theological Seminary and director of Project Judaica, JTS’ program at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow and National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has written numerous books and articles on the history and culture of East European Jewry. 

“There was Theodore Herzl’s diary, a 150-year-old record of the operations of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a medical manual from 1843, letters by Shalom Aleichem and a bust of Leo Tolstoy by a Jewish sculptor. It really was a treasure trove,” Fishman said of the Vilna artifacts he reviewed.

Guests of the exhibit walk through the “gate into Vilna,” experiencing aspects of Yiddish music, theater, literature and other printed materials. The experience outlined through murals, videos and photographs allows participants to learn of the history of Vilna and life before the war, the arrival of the Nazis, the murders and deportations of Jews and the heroic efforts of those who formed the Paper Brigade to save what they could. 

For Sara Abosch-Jacobson, the Barbara Rabin Chief Education Officer at the museum, the exhibit displays the lively, rich Jewish community and intellectual culture was rescued by the Paper Brigade.

“In the midst of it all, the Paper Brigade attempted to save whatever aspects of their culture that they could—books, film, art, secular pamphlets, music, historical and religious pieces,” said Abosch-Jacobson. “Dr. Fishman’s book, and our exhibit, explore how the written Jewish word through the ages was preserved. These are materials that, through the Museum and other sources can be learned from, respected and appreciated for generations to come.” 

The “Paper Brigade” lived in jeopardy and many of them did not survive.

“These heroes, who risked their lives for something bigger than themselves, should inspire all of us to do whatever we can to perpetuate our culture and our tradition,” said Fishman. “Culture matters and the memory of Vilna endures as a special place. Art and books are not peripheral in life.” 

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