A part of the newly-identified documents are currently on display in New York and there are plans to show the collection to the Lithuanian public in the future as well.
“New documents are identified daily, which allows us to say with confidence that our National Library has preserved one of the most significant collections of Jewish documentary heritage in Lithuania and globally,” Renaldas Gudauskas, director of the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, told BNS.
Hidden in a church
Vilnius was home to hundreds of Jewish social, religious, cultural and scientific organizations before World War Two. The most significant of them was the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute, or YIVO), which was established in Vilnius in 1925 to document and study Jewish life in Eastern Europe. YIVO collected Jewish folklore, memoirs, books and communal documents, and published dictionaries, pamphlets and monographs.
Most of the documents, some of which date back to the 17th century, were written in Yiddish and Hebrew.
The Nazis destroyed the Jewish community and plundered its cultural wealth after they occupied Vilnius in 1941. The Germans sent a portion of books and manuscripts of YIVO and other institutions to Frankfurt. In 1946, the US Army discovered the materials and moved them to YIVO’s New York branch, which took over all of the institute’s functions after the war.
After the war, the Soviets wanted to destroy the part of manuscripts and printed materials that remained in the ruins of the Vilna ghetto as part of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, but Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, saved the unique documents and stored them in a basement of St. George Church.
Efforts to research the documents started after Lithuania regained independence in 1990, but more detailed studies began only several years ago with the launch of a joint project with YIVO in New York. The opening of the Judaica Research Center at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library this year gave a fresh impetus to the project.
Parts of Jewish heritage reuniting
Lara Lempertienė, head of the Judaica Research Center, says that librarians had been aware of the existence of the manuscripts, but it was not until this year that “a combination of the necessary institutional, professional and partnership circumstances emerged, making it possible to evaluate these documents and initiate work on them”.
“Once our center was established, our colleagues informed us that a considerable number of documents, supposedly of Jewish provenance, were stored in the manuscript department in the central building (of the National Library), and suggested that we had a look at them,” Lempertienė told BNS.
“The number (of Jewish manuscripts) we found was large enough for us to be allocated a special room for storing them,” she said.
According to Lempertiene, what is the most valuable is that the documents that were scattered among different places “are now conceptually, intellectually and physically reuniting”.
Ten of the most important newly discovered documents from the National Library’s Jewish heritage collection in October went on display the YIVO Institute’s headquarters in New York.
Among the documents are a 1751 astronomy manuscript by Issachar Ber Carmoly, an 1883 copy of a Yiddish theatrical poem by Abraham Goldfaden, a contract handwritten by Isaac Leibusch Peretz in Warsaw in 1914, a letter written by Simon Dubnov, one of the most famous Jewish historians, to Zalmen Reizen in Riga in 1943, and a collection of poems by Abraham Sutzkever handwritten in the Vilna ghetto in 1943.
The National Library’s officials say that, in view of the newly identified documents, the lists of materials to be documented, preserved and digitized will be reviewed. The library will also look at possibilities to give the general public access to the unique collection of Jewish documents.
The National Library said that it had digitized 2,668 books of the Jewish collection since December 2015 as part of the joint project with YIVO.