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.
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Others feared what might happen to the Jewish materials in Germany and some them smuggled archival material back into the ghetto, where it was hidden and would hopefully be retrieved after the war. Ghetto residents called these scholars and writers who would return each day with archival documents under their clothing, the “Paper Brigade.”

Sadly, most of those who performed these dangerous tasks did not survive.

Avrom Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginsky, both poets and members of the Paper Brigade who did manage to escape, returned to the site of the Vilna Ghetto after the war and managed to find some of the materials they hid. Less than two weeks after the Nazis retreated from the city in July 1944, the two poets created a Jewish Museum. The first of its kind in Eastern Europe, the museum became the address for hidden Jewish materials. Twenty tons of YIVO materials were found at a paper mill. More was found at a trash depot. Those who had hidden Jewish materials sent them to the museum.

After the war’s end, the YIVO materials that had been sent to Frankfurt by the Rosenberg task force were found in the Offenbach Archival Depot near Frankfurt by soldiers who were part of the “Monuments Men.”

In 1946, Simon Rifkind, Advisor on Jewish Affairs to General Eisenhower, appointed one of these “Monuments Men,” [Seymour Pomrenze(http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/the-heroes/the-monuments-men/pomrenze-col.-seymour-j.), who had worked at the US National Archives, in charge of this trove of valuable Jewish archival materials. The material had already been seen by the scholar, Koppel Pinson, who was working as the education director of the Joint Distribution Committee. Pinson wanted to help Jewish survivors by providing books to DP camp libraries in the American Zone and had received permission to remove 25,000 heirless, non-valuable books for distribution to DP camp libraries.

Rifkind and Pinson were concerned about the care of the millions of books, manuscripts and ritual objects that comprised the material at Offenbach. Lucy Dawidowicz, a scholar who had come to Europe at Pinson’s behest to work for the JDC, jumped at the chance to work with the Jewish materials at Offenbach, initially to locate more non-valuable books to send to DP camp libraries.


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