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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As Dawidowicz sorted through the materials, she began to identify those that belonged to YIVO. “I had a feeling akin to holiness, that I was touching something sacred,” she wrote in her memoir of her YIVO experience, From That Place and Time. “Every surviving book from that world had become a historical document, a cultural artifact, specimen, and testament of a murdered civilization.”

Among the materials Dawidowicz found that belonged to YIVO included bound periodicals, books with YIVO accession numbers, some inscribed in Yiddish or Hebrew to the YIVO, others had YIVO founder Max Weinreich’s distinctive handwriting in the margins. Among the mountains of books and documents were irreplaceable archival collections on the history and ethnography of Jews in Vilna, material on Yiddish language and literature, photographs, music collections, and communal records, to name just a few. It was a bitter reunion for Dawidowicz, who had studied at the prewar YIVO. “The smell of death emanated from these hundreds of thousands of books and religious objects - orphaned and mute survivors of their murdered owners,” she said.

Dawidowicz also found the books of the famed Strashun Library of Vilna, a massive collection of valuable rabbinic volumes and other works. Dawidowicz recalled that there had been an attempt in 1940 to try to get the YIVO and Strashun Libraries from Vilna to New York and made note of this fact to MFA&A. Now that the Strashun Library was an heirless collection, it was argued that it should travel together with the rest of the collection to to YIVO in New York. After enlisting Pomrenze to negotiate with various authorities, among them the State Department, the materials were packed in 420 wooden crates, and placed on a train under armed guard to Bremen. In June, 1949, the remnants of the Vilna YIVO and the Strashun Library were loaded on the American ship, S.S. Pioneer Cove and sent to begin a new life in New York.

The YIVO building was completely destroyed during the war, so it is miraculous that these archives survived at all. George Clooney’s film doesn’t recount the YIVO story, as it is but one of the many archival rescues made by the 300-plus soldiers of the MFA&A. But what’s remarkable here is the survival of Jewish cultural artifacts in the midst of the Nazi terror and the catastrophe of WW II. With their own survival in question, the Jews of the Paper Brigade desperately wanted to ensure the survival of their cultural heritage. With the help of the Monuments Men, they succeeded.


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