George Clooney may never have worked in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a Jewish academic organization dedicated to studying and preserving the culture of east European Jewry, but his new film, Monuments Men, portrays a group of soldiers who was very much responsible for saving and securing a significant portion of YIVO’s archives that had been stolen by the Nazis.
These American brigades, known as MFA&A (Monuments, Fine Arts, & Archives) stealthily traveled through wartime and postwar Europe searching for the huge numbers of cultural materials the Nazis had expropriated. In a strange twist of fate, the YIVO building in Vilna became a collecting point for Nazi plunder.
The first Jewish academic institute of its kind, YIVO was founded in Vilna (now Vilnius) in 1925 as a Yiddish research academy that focused on the study of Eastern European Jewry — then the largest Jewish community in the world. During its existence from 1925-1940, it amassed the largest collection of Jewish ethnographic and scholarly materials in the world, and functioned as a kind of Yiddish university in a region where academic study of Jews was unusual. But as the Nazis marched into Vilna in 1941, it all came crumbling down.
After the Nazis occupied Vilna, they commandeered a local building to serve as the headquarters of the Einsatzstab des Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi bureau charged with raiding archives, libraries, and museums for valuable books, documents and works of art. The building they took over ironically happened to be YIVO’s.
As cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis from all over eastern Europe began to pour into the Vilna offices of the Rosenberg task force, the Nazis needed multilingual scholars to sort the mass of material. To this end, they forced Jews from the Vilna ghetto to select the books, documents and artworks and prepare them for shipment to Germany. The rare and valuable Jewish materials selected by them were to become primary source materials in a Nazi-run, Frankfurt-based, “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.”
These Jews, scholars and writers among them, understood that YIVO’s archives, which were still in the building, were in danger. As a result, some of them decided to hide books and documents among the materials being shipped to the Reich, where they thought they would survive the war.