How Real 'Monuments Men' Saved Priceless YIVO Yiddish Treasure

Nazis Turned YIVO Headquarters Into Looted Trove Center

Monumental: YIVO staffers examine looted artwork liberated from Nazis.
alexander archer/YIVO
Monumental: YIVO staffers examine looted artwork liberated from Nazis.

By Eddy Portnoy

Published February 03, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.