Review of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David Fishman

Jules Riegel

David E. Fish­man. The Book Smug­glers: Par­ti­sans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jew­ish Trea­sures from the Nazis. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017. Pp. xv, 322. $24.95

In The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, David E. Fishman tells the story of the “paper brigade,” a group of mostly poets and intellectuals imprisoned in the Vilna (then Wilno, today Vilnius) ghetto who risked their lives to save Jewish books, manuscripts, and documents from theft and destruction. The story centers on several members of the brigade, particularly the poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever; the philologist Zelig Kalmanovitch, prewar director of Wilno’s Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO); the high-school teacher Rachela Krinsky; Herman Kruk, prewar director of the largest Jewish lending library in Warsaw, who fled to Wilno when the war began and eventually created a library in the ghetto there; and Johannes Pohl, Judaica expert with the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), tasked with the looting of Jewish cultural treasurers. The ERR gathered these items as “valuable sources for the field of anti-Semitic Jewish studies called Judenforschung” (27). The ERR selected a handful of Wilno’s Jewish scholars, headed by Kruk and Kalmanovitch, as forced laborers. This “paper brigade,” as other ghetto inmates mockingly dubbed them, had to sort through books and documents and select the rarest and most valuable for shipment to Germany. The remainder was slated to be destroyed.

The items under the ERR’s purview came from YIVO, the Strashun Library (the Wilno Jewish community’s communal library), the city’s synagogues, and a number of other cultural and academic institutions, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The ERR exploited not only the labor of the “paper brigade,” but also the academic knowledge of brigade members like Kruk and Kalmanovitch—even forcing them to produce research based on the materials they sorted, research that the ERR’s leadership claimed as their own and perverted with anti-Semitic interpretations. And yet, as the “paper brigade” processed these materials—not only books, but also Torah scrolls, works of art, collections of documents, community records, and many other priceless items—they also worked to save what they could. They covertly set aside those items that they judged worth the terrible risk of smuggling into the ghetto, knowing that they might face beatings or execution if caught.

The members of the “paper brigade” constantly faced impossible choices: should they hand over some valuable items to the Germans, knowing that anything shipped back to Germany might well be safer than it was hidden in Wilno—but not knowing if the Germans might decide to destroy it anyway, or if they would ever be able to get it back? Did handing over items make them accomplices to the Nazi project of cultural destruction? How much could they place themselves—and others—at risk for the sake of books? What should they choose to save, knowing that they could only rescue a fraction of the books, documents, and artifacts they sorted, and that anything they could not save would almost certainly be destroyed or lost? These desperate quandaries come to life in Fishman’s highly readable prose, which brims with detail about the brigade members’ lives and personalities, sometimes including conversations reconstructed (or imagined) from textual sources. Chapter two, “The City of the Book,” is even framed around Kaczerginski giving a tour of prewar Jewish Vilna, as he often did for visitors to the city; the reader is swept along, from synagogues to shops to cultural landmarks, with Fishman-through-Kaczerginski providing the histories of notable sites. This is an unusual choice in an academic monograph, and one requiring a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from the reader, but in this case, it works. In Holocaust scholarship, it can often be challenging to describe and analyze victims’ actions and choices without referring to their eventual fate, but Fishman’s narrative strategies limit our purview to the victims’ perspectives: they did not have the benefit of foresight, and made choices without it. Fishman’s stylistic choice means that the titular book smugglers emerge as individuals who had to make agonizing decisions that profoundly affected the future of their community and its cultural heritage, as well as their own survival, without knowing whether they had made the right choices.

The brigade hid books and other items inside their clothes, bringing them from the YIVO site where they were sorted and into the ghetto. Fishman describes the smuggling process in detail, giving the reader insight into why and how the smugglers chose to risk their lives—and the lives of those around them—to bring books through the ghetto gate. From there, items were dispersed to a number of hiding spots, both inside and outside the ghetto, often with substantial cooperation from others—including armed resistance organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Their work came to an end on August 1, 1943, when the ghetto was sealed; despite attempts at armed resistance by the fighters - Kaczerginski among them - of the Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (United Partisan Organization, FPO), on September 23, 1943, German forces and Estonian auxiliaries liquidated the ghetto. The majority of ghetto inmates, including Kruk and Kalmanovitch, were sent to labor camps in Estonia, where both men died. The others were killed, either at Ponar (the site outside Wilno where the SS and Lithuanian auxiliaries shot tens of thousands of Jews) or in the gas chambers at Treblinka. A few resistance fighters, including Sutzkever and Kaczerginski, fled to the forests outside Wilno, where they sought to join Soviet partisans. Sutzkever and Kaczerginski found a cold welcome among the partisans. The fighters’ ranks were rife with anti-Semitism, and both men, who had hoped to help fight back against the Nazis, were disappointed. Even when contacts of Sutzkever’s in Moscow sent a military airplane to collect him and his wife, who had also escaped the ghetto, and even though Sutzkever found near-instant fame in Moscow, their frustrations among the partisans presaged their postwar struggles. Here, Fishman introduces another major theme of the book: the Soviet Union and its anti-Semitic functionaries and policies also posed an existential threat, if not to the smugglers themselves, then to the books and other materials they had worked to save.

Sutzkever, Kaczerginski, and Krinsky all survived the war. Kaczerginski and Sutzkever returned to Wilno, worked to uncover the precious cultural treasures they had left behind, and attempted to create a Jewish museum. Yet they were forced to work once again to rescue Jewish Wilno’s remaining cultural treasures, this time from a Soviet bureaucracy that was at best neglectful and at worst actively hostile; Fishman describes the oppressive atmosphere of “‘liberated’ Vilna” as “a Soviet prison camp” (177). Kaczerginski, a devoted communist since his youth, rapidly became disillusioned and ultimately fled Lithuania—by then part of the Soviet Union—with as many of the rescued books and other materials as he could smuggle out. Sutzkever soon followed. They both coordinated with Max Weinreich, head of YIVO in New York, to transfer whatever rescued books and other materials they could to the United States, out of reach of Soviet officials (who had already allowed some surviving materials to be pulped).

Remarkably, American officials discovered more than a million stolen Jewish books, including many originating from YIVO, in occupied Germany. By tirelessly advocating his case to the American authorities, Weinreich prevented the repatriation of those books to Lithuania, bringing them instead to New York. Meanwhile, Sutzkever and Kaczerginski undertook schemes that Fishman narrates in terms befitting a spy thriller—smuggling books across borders, dodging police to pass off a suitcase filled with books through the window of a departing train—in order to rescue what they could. Back in Wilno, Antanas Ulpis, who ran the newly created Lithuanian Book Chamber (a national library of sorts), independently made the decision to rescue and hide Jewish books and papers in his institution’s archives, preserving thousands of volumes for more than forty years. It was not until 1988 that the hidden materials came to light, and not until 1995–1996 that they finally arrived at YIVO in New York. Though Kaczerginski had died in a plane crash only a few years after the war, Sutzkever and Krinsky were still alive to see this bittersweet victory.

Throughout the book, Fishman advances a case that the Holocaust not only killed human beings; it also involved the systematic theft and destruction of Jewish cultural treasures. He describes the ERR’s work as “an Aktion…directed against books, not against people” (55). He calls the YIVO building where the “paper brigade” sorted books, designating them for transport to Germany or for destruction, a “Ponar for books” (67). Additionally, he details how Nazi policies and institutions co-opted some Jews into the task of their own destruction. An excerpt from Zelig Kalmanovitch’s diary—“I sent several thousand books to their destruction with my own hands…a mass grave”—suggests comparison with the dilemmas faced by Jewish officials and police in the ghettos of Eastern Europe who were forced to participate in the deportation of their own communities to the death camps (quoted on 73). At the same time, the work of the “paper brigade” appears as a clear act of moral defiance in the face of genocide, an “existential statement…that literature and culture were ultimate values” worth preserving, and an “[expression of] faith that there would be a Jewish people after the war, which would need to repossess its cultural treasures” (87). Their work could not save lives or achieve justice for the lives lost; even Johannes Pohl escaped justice after the war. Despite a stint in U.S. military custody, during which he admitted to his work for the ERR, Pohl never faced trial for his actions and was released after the Nuremberg tribunal concluded, returning to a quiet life in academia until his death in 1960. Yet Fishman makes a strong and convincing argument that the “paper brigade’s” work constituted a meaningful form of resistance to genocide.

Fishman’s study contributes to a literature on the efforts of Holocaust victims and survivors to document and preserve information on their own experiences. It joins works such as Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (2007), which details the efforts of historian Emanuel Ringelblum and Oyneg Shabes, the clandestine organization he established, to document life and death in the ghetto, and Laura Jockusch’s Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (2012), which examines survivor-historians’ efforts immediately after the war to collect thousands of documents, testimonies, and artifacts from the genocide. Importantly, all three works demonstrate the crucial role of victims and survivors in preserving and—eventually—disseminating this information. Taken together, they are a useful corrective to the misconception of survivors’ silence after the Holocaust, a silence purportedly only broken almost two decades later in the Eichmann Trial. Fishman shows that the “paper brigade” were anything but silent or passive: they risked their lives to rescue the cultural heritage of Jewish Wilno from both Nazi and Soviet destruction, driven by a conviction that their efforts, and the documents themselves, would matter in the postwar world. Fishman’s The Book Smugglers is testimony to the value of their work.

Riegel, Jules. “Review of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David Fishman.” In geveb, May 2019:
Riegel, Jules. “Review of The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David Fishman.” In geveb (May 2019): Accessed Feb 27, 2024.


Jules Riegel

Jules Riegel received their PhD in Modern European History at Indiana University Bloomington in 2021. Their research interests include modern Polish-Jewish cultural history, the Holocaust, and music during war and genocide.