Fira Bramson, a Vilna librarian who was crucial to the post-Communist rescue of Lithuanian Jewry’s literary legacy, passed away at the age of 91 on June 12.
Over the past 30 years, anyone researching the past or present of Jewish life and culture in Lithuania, eventually came to Bramson, one of the only archivists and librarians in Lithuania knowledgeable enough to work with Jewish collections in the post-World War II period. More crucially, Bramson played a key role in safeguarding the survival of Jewish books, periodicals, and documents that the Nazi occupiers of Lithuania tried to rob or destroy during World War II, as did the Soviet government that followed them.
Bramson was born in Kovne (Kaunas), a city in central Lithuania. Her father’s family had for generations been active in intellectual circles within the Jewish community. Her father, Tuvye (in Russian - Timofey) studied mathematics in St. Petersburg, Russia and one of her uncles, Leon Bramson (1869-1941), was a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, and founder of the global Jewish organization ORT. Bramson’s mother, Lean Mane, was a midwife.
Bramson was educated at the Yiddish-language Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium in Kovne. After graduating she planned to study biology in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was by then renamed under the Communists. But the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union ended those dreams. She spent World War II as a refugee in Kazakhstan and lost her entire family in the Holocaust. After the war, she returned to Lithuania, which was absorbed into the Soviet Union, and found work in the court system in Vilnius, the capital, thanks to her multilingual skills. She simultaneously studied law at the University of Vilnius.
In the late 1980s, during the more liberal Perestroika period, Bramson was able to renew her connection to Yiddish culture when she was invited to collaborate in the recovery of a huge repository of Jewish books, documents, and artifacts that a group of Jewish slave laborers had secreted from the Nazis during Germany’s World War II occupation of Lithuania.
After the Soviet post-war takeover of Lithuania, surviving members of the same group had retrieved many of these items from their hiding places and smuggled them out of the country into the hands of YIVO, the center for Yiddish culture that had relocated from Vilna to New York during World War II. The rest were thought to have been lost.
But in 1988, as the Soviet Union was dissolving with Lithuania’s re-emergence soon after as an independent state, it was revealed that tens of thousands of books and documents had survived, hidden by a brave Lithuanian librarian, Antanis Ulpis, in the basement of the Lithuanian Book Chamber, a Vilna archive.
Bramson became their chief cataloger, working tirelessly to rescue the large quantity of the Yiddish cultural treasures of Lithuania spanning hundreds of years. Today, these materials sit in the collections of the National Library of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Central State Archives. These institutions are, in turn, cooperating with YIVO on a project to digitize the materials and put them online.
It is thanks to Bramson’s bibliographical work that these rare documents, religious books and periodicals are now accessible to scholars, students and anyone else. Bramson was also the last remaining member of the once highly esteemed pre-war Lithuanian Jewish intelligentsia. Till the end of her life she devoted herself to humanistic causes and a secularist worldview, while also remaining deeply connected to the Yiddish language and the Jewish people.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Bramson lectured at research conferences and international seminars in many cities, including New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Potsdam and, of course, in her beloved Vilna. She was fluent in Lithuanian, Russian, German and Polish, yet insisted on giving most of her lectures in Yiddish. In 2009, in honor of Bramson’s 85th birthday, the Lithuanian State Library decided to publish a collection of her articles and lectures in the Lithuanian language. She insisted, however, that it be a bilingual edition: that all of her work be presented in both Lithuanian and Yiddish, and the government concurred.
*Dr. Yitskhok Niborski is Professor of Yiddish at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, and the founder and director of the Paris Yiddish Center—Medem L
This obituary was originally published in Yiddish in the Forverts at yiddish.forward.com/articles/197418/vilna-yiddish-librarian-fira-bramson-has-died/*