Split Identity: Jewish Scholarship in the Vilna Ghetto

David E. Fishman


In this essay, David Fishman draws a comparison between yidishe visnshaft, or Jewish studies scholarship, and Judenforschung, the Nazi field of antisemitic Jewish studies used to justify the persecution and extermination of Jews in scientific terms. He examines the work of Zelig Kalmanovitch, who had been a well-known scholar and co-director of YIVO before World War II, during the time when he was forced to produce scholarship as a member of the Jewish slave labor brigade assigned to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Vilna. Fishman notes the remarkable scholarly accomplishments Kalmanovitch was able to achieve in a time of enormous adversity. He also demonstrates several junctures in which Kalmanovitch, a meticulous scholar, omitted facts or altered scholarship in order to save lives. These dual impulses of preserving historical truths about Jewish communities and a willingness to obscure facts over which people could be killed contribute to Fishman’s assessment that Kalmanovitch’s scholarship emerged from erudition, love, and dedication to the Jewish people about whom he wrote, the very opposite of the purposes for which his scholarship was obtained by his Nazi slave masters.

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On June 16, 1942, Herbert Gotthardt, a staff member of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Vilna, instructed Zelig Kalmanovitch to prepare an essay and bibliography on the Karaites. Kalmanovitch, a well-known scholar and co-director of YIVO before the war, was a member of the Jewish slave labor brigade assigned to the ERR which segregated Jewish and other books, manuscripts, and documents into two categories: valuable items that would be sent to Germany, and valueless items that would be destroyed. The former YIVO co-director was an expert bibliographer in this work-brigade, nicknamed the “paper brigade”, and based in the YIVO building, at 18 Wiwulskiego Street. The brigade was headed by librarian Herman Kruk, and consisted of twenty physical laborers and twenty intellectuals, including the Yung Vilna poets Abraham Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski. 1 1 On the “paper brigade”, see my book, David Fishman, The Book Smugglers, (Lebanon, NH: ForEdge Press, 2017).

Gotthardt’s assignment to Kalmanovitch was a new departure for the ERR in Vilna. The Rosenberg-Detail was primarily a looting agency for cultural treasures, but it also had an analytic department that churned out studies and reports on various cultural and historic topics. Gotthardt wasn’t a military man but an academic, who had taught Bible and Semitic linguistics at the University of Berlin before the War. 2 2 On Gotthardt, see the ERR archive at the Central State Archive of Organs of Higher Power in Kiev, TsDAVO, f. 3676, opis 1, delo 128, p. 138; delo 145, p. 167 [Online at]. And thanks to his knowledge of Hebrew, his superiors in the ERR considered him an expert in the field of Judenforschung, the Nazi field of antisemitic Jewish studies that justified the persecution and extermination of the Jews in scientific terms.

Kalmanovitch had been one of the architects of yidishe visnshaft, which was dedicated to the proposition that there was a Jewish way of studying things. Modern scholarship in Yiddish would be the pinnacle of modern Yiddish culture, and would elevate the prestige of the language and of the Jewish people at large. Yidishe visnshaft insisted on the highest methodological standards and theoretical underpinnings, but its ultimate purpose was to advance the self-understanding and intellectual growth of the Jewish people. Judenforschung was its polar opposite: the study of the Jews as alien, inferior, sub-human, and malicious, based on a predetermined racial theory. Its ultimate purpose was to advance the Final Solution of the Jewish question.

By enlisting Kalmanovitch as a slave-labor scholar, Gotthardt decided to exploit yidishe visnshaft, the Jewish way of studying things, for the sake of Judenforschung, the Nazi way of studying things. 3 3 On yidishe visnshaft, see Cecile Kuznitz, YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and my essay, “Max Weinreich and the Development of YIVO” in David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) 126-138; on Judenforschung, see Alan Stein, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

In the privacy of his ghetto diary, Kalmanovitch vented his anger and outrage:

They want to uncover our secrets, to reveal our hidden affairs.
What imbeciles! Their crudeness and fraudulence rules. But I must be dumb with silence - until the danger passes. Then everyone’s eyes will open, and they will see that a lock of hair appeared to them to be a mountain; that they incessantly babbled thoughtless idiocies. 4 4 Zelig Kalmanovitch, “Togbukh fun Vilner geto (fragment)”, prepared for publication by Shalom Luria, Yivo Bleter, New Series, 3 (1997), 94.

But perhaps on some level, Kalmanovitch was also pleased to spend his working days engaged in research and writing, rather than sorting books and helping liquidate the library and archive of the institute he had once built.

Before long, Kalmanovitch became the head of an entire team of slave labor scholars working at the behest of the ERR. The group worked in the ghetto-library, where reference literature was readily available, and where there were no German “masters” standing behind their backs. Associated with the research group was a translation group, which rendered existing studies on Jewish topics of interest to the ERR into German. The translation-group worked in the YIVO building, which was outside the ghetto but supervised closely by the ERR staff. Kalmanovitch “floated” between both worksites. 5 5 See for instance, “Togbukh fun Vilner geto (fragment)”, 81.

Gotthardt’s charge to Kalmanovitch was that the studies he and his team composed be thorough and objective. After a conversation with his “master,” Kalmanovitch wrote in his diary: “propaganda disgusts him (any kind); he wants scientific facts.” 6 6 Zelig Kalmanovitch, Yoman be-geto vilna ve-ketavim me-ha-‘izavon she-nimtsa ba-harisot, (Tel Aviv: Moreshet, 1977), 112 (July 13, 1943). The Germans trusted Kalmanovitch’s academic integrity and commitment to Wissenschaft, values which he had imbibed as a student at German universities, in Berlin and Koenigsburg at the turn of the century. The visiting German professor Hans Floeter was so impressed by Kalmanovitch’s rigor and erudition, that he offered him a position as a researcher in his institute in Dorpat. (Knowing better than Floeter than this was unrealistic, he politely declined.) 7 7 Memo to ERR headquarters in Berlin, October 15, 1942, ERR collection, TsDAVO, f. 3676, opis 1, delo 233, p. 122; Zelig Kalmanovitch, Yoman be-geto vilna, 93.

The Germans were mindful that Kalmanovitch’s scholarship had a Jewish perspective, but that didn’t pose a major problem for them. They planned to extract factual data from the studies he wrote or supervised, and envelope them with the appropriate National Socialist interpretation and commentary. As Alan Steinweis has shown, this was a common method employed by Judenforschung. It utilized Jewish scholarship in order to subvert it. 8 8 Steinweis, Studying the Jew, passim.

The Karaite Project

The research group’s first project, on the Karaites, ended up being its largest. There were more than 1,000 Karaites in Vilna and neighboring Troki (Trakai), and the group was of particular interest to the ERR, which argued that they should not be considered Jews. The translation group was instructed to translate Hebrew and Yiddish books and articles on the Karaites, including four published pieces by the YIVO affiliated historian Raphael Mahler. Kalmanovitch penned a critical review-essay on the historiography on the Karaites since the 17th century, and expanded his bibliography, which, in its final form, consisted of 425 entries in half a dozen languages. 9 9 Kalmanovitch, “Togbukh”, 94 (June 16); 97 (June 26); Yoman, 76 (August 9). The translations, bibliography and essay are found in the YIVO Archives, RG 40 “Karaites”, and in the Lithuanian Central State Archive, fond R-633, “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg”, opis 1, files 18, 22.

Gotthardt also hired the Karaite Hakham of Vilna, Seraya Szapszal, to participate in the research project. In October 1942, Szapszal was commissioned to compose a study on the history and descent of the Karaites in Lithuania, and Kalmanovitch translated the manuscript from Russian to German, chapter by chapter, while it was still being written. As Kalmanovitch translated, he mocked the author’s treatise in the privacy of his diary: “How narrow is his horizon! His genius is in delineating his Turkish-Tatar descent. He knows more about caring for horses and handling weapons than he does about the teachings of his religion.” 10 10 TsDAVO f. 3676, opis 1, delo 233, pp. 122; delo 118, pp. 118, 146-7; Yoman, 82 (October 11); quote from Yoman, 90 (November 15, 1942). On Szapszal, see Mikhail Kizilov, Sons of Scripture: The Karaites in Poland and Lithuania in the Twentieth Century (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 216-283 and passim.

The Germans’ treatment of the Karaite Hakham and the Jewish scholar was worlds apart. They referred to Szapszal as “Professor,” and paid him an honorarium of 1000 Reich Marks for his manuscript. They promised that his study would be published under his by-line, and would be distributed to German government agencies. Kalmanovitch, on the other hand, was a man without a name. He was paid the standard slave laborer’s wages – 30 Reich Marks per month – and on rare occasion received a loaf of bread for a job well done. Gotthardt took Kalmanovitch’s studies, rewrote them in an antisemitic spirit, and submitted them to Berlin as if they were his own original work. 11 11 On Szapszal’s honorarium, see TsDAVO f. 3676, opis 1, delo 170, pp. 204-205; on German plans to disseminate his study, see delo 118, pp. 146-147. On Kalmanovitch’s extra loaf of bread, Yoman, 87.

The Karaite project culminated with an arranged scholarly debate between the two men on the descent of the group, held in the presence of German officials. According to an unpublished account by Abraham Sutzkever, written in July 1944, Kalmanovitch argued that the Karaites were descended from the Jews. But a member of the translation group who worked closely with Kalmanovitch, Akiva Gershater, reports that during the course of the staged debate, Kalmanovitch reversed himself and conceded that the Karaites were racially unrelated to the Jews, in order to help the group avoid persecution. 12 12 Sutzkever, “Tsu der geshikhte fun Rozenberg shtab,” YIVO Archives, Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, RG223, file 678.1, p. 11; A. Gershater, “Af yener zayt geto,” Bleter vegn Vilne (Lodz: Farband fun vilner yidn in poyln bay der tsentṭraler yidisher hisṭorisher ḳomisye, 1947), 44-45; and similarly Mark Dworzhetsky, Yerushalyim delita in kamf un umkum, (Paris: Yidisher folksfarband in frankraykh, 1948), 332 This was the first instance when Kalmanovitch decided to put saving lives ahead of scientific truth. There would be others.

Lithuanian Jewry

Kalmanovitch’s Nazi-imposed research-agenda expanded rapidly. In early August 1942, Gotthardt instructed him to prepare essays on the Jewish ghettos in Lithuania and the Baltics, both past and present, using the word “ghetto” in its borrowed sense of “Jewish community.” The ERR analytic department in Berlin had ordered all working groups in Ostland (embracing the Baltics and Belorussia) to submit such studies. 13 13 TsDAVO fond 3676, opis 1, delo 118, pp. 341-342. Kalmanovitch not only complied, but used the order as an opportunity to work on topics of interest to him. He composed two studies on pre-war Lithuanian Jewry – one historic and the other focused on Jewish demography and economics in inter-war Lithuania. He also supervised preparation of a comprehensive catalogue of synagogues in Vilna, and a study on the history and art of local Jewish cemeteries (which was accompanied by the transcription of tomb-stones at the historic Zarecha cemetery). The research group also prepared a history of the Jewish “ghettos” - that is communities - of Vilna, Kovna, and Keidan, and a study on the contemporary Nazi-imposed ghetto in Vilna. 14 14 These studies are found in the Lithuanian Central State Archive, fond R-633, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, files 9, 15-17,26 , and fond R-1421, Vilnius Ghetto, files 233, 494, 504, 505.

Kalmanowicz was struck by the bitter irony – first the Germans exterminated the Jews, and then they wanted to study them. “They want to know the height of the mountain that they have leveled,” he remarked sardonically in his diary. 15 15 Kalmanovitch, yoman, 76 (August 9, 1942); 78 (August 21, 1942).

Officials in Berlin were extremely pleased with the quality of the studies they received from Vilna: “The work provided by Dr. Gotthardt is excellent. It is the most extensive and reliable; especially his study on the ghetto.” 16 16 TsDAVO, fond 3676, delo 118, p. 315.

Toward the end of 1942, Kalmanovitch began working on topics related to classical Jewish literature and culture: the birth of Moses in the rabbinic tradition, a lexicon of Jewish Biblical exegetes, an essay on the origins of the Star of David as a Jewish symbol, etc. ERR staff member Willy Schaefer, who was a Doctoral student of Theology at Berlin University, proposed to his professors back in Berlin that he write his dissertation on the image of Moses in rabbinic legend, using the “Judenkrafte” at his disposal as researcher assistants. But his dissertation committee rejected his proposal, noting: “A dissertation must be the product of original research, and may not be based on the work of others, all the more so on the work of Jews.” 17 17 Kalmanovitch, yoman, 93 (December 7, 1942), and 103 (April 25, 1943). TsDAVO f. 3676, opis 1, delo 128. p. 356.

At the same time, Kalmanovitch worked on scholarly translations, such as rendering Elia Falkovitch’s Yiddish grammar into German, so that students of “Judenforschung” could master the language. The former YIVO co-director didn’t know whether to grit his teeth or laugh. Before the war, he had been a fierce opponent of Soviet Yiddish linguistics, because of its de-Hebraization of the language, of which Falkovich was a major representative. Now he was forced to translate Falkovitch’s book so that the Germans could study the wrong kind of Yiddish. 18 18 Kalmanovitch, “Togbukh” (fragment), 83 (May 26, 1942), 93 (June 15, 1942).

Kalmanovitch’s historical studies were highly professional. “The Jews of Lithuania,” an overview of the history and culture of Litvaks (22 typed pp.), and “The Jewish Population of Lithuania,” on the socio-economic position of Jews in the inter-War period (26 typed pp.) were masterpieces of historical synthesis, complete with statistical tables and rich bibliography. They do not differ from encyclopedia articles or textbook chapters that Kalmanovitch could have written before the war. A “blind” reader would never guess that the author resided in a Nazi-imposed ghetto, in a single room with his wife and eight other people, that he ate little, endured frequent humiliation by Germans soldiers, and lived in fear of the next Aktion and possible deportation to Ponar, the mass-murder site outside of Vilna. 19 19 ”Die Juden Litauens,” “Die Juedischen Bevoelkerung Litauens,” Central State Archive of Lithuania, Fond R-633, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, files 15, 16.

The ERR adaptation of these studies, called “Jews in Historic Lithuania,” 20 20 Ibid. delo 16. bore the traces of Kalmanovitch’s research, but was infused with antisemiticanalysis and commentary. It brought, for instance, Kalmanovitch’s statistical tables on Jewish occupations in inter-war Vilna and Lithuania, and added the following interpretation.

Jews avoid work in machine-operated heavy industry (according to the observation of Wladyslaw Studnicki), because such places have a strict work-discipline, and the hours of the beginning and end of the work-day are strictly enforced. The occupations of the Jews are tailoring, shoe-making, and other home-based crafts, because Jews are always ready to drop their work as soon as an opportunity arises to make some money from commerce and brokering. 21 21 p. 10 of typescript. Professor Wladyslaw Studnicki, a conservative Polish nationalist who had published an anti-Semitic treatise before the War, believed in the desirability of a Polish-German alliance. He worked as a salaried assistant to the ERR in Vilna. See Mikolaj Kunicki, “Unwanted Collaborators: Leon Kozłowski, Władysław Studnicki, and the Problem of Collaboration among the Polish Conservative Politicians in World War II,” European Review of History 8, no. 2 (2001): 203-22.

In short, Jews were averse to discipline and hard work, and were always eager to make a quick buck through huckstering. After a survey of Jewish political parties and movements in Lithuania, the ERR author, presumably Gotthardt, added darkly: “The secret, special Jewish organizations, are not known to me.” 22 22 P. 8 of the typescript.

The revised ERR study contained an additional section regarding the Jews of Vilna during the Soviet occupation (1940-1941). It noted that “the entire population of Vilna is of the opinion that the Jewish masses welcomed the Bolsheviks with enthusiasm. In contrast, the Christian population shunned the Soviet-Russian army…. The Comsomol was made up entirely of Jews. The Bolsheviks conducted election propaganda and campaigns mainly with the help of the Jewish youth.” This, just a few pages after its detailed entries on Agudas Israel, Mizrachi, and the Zionist movement, lifted from Kalmanovitch. 23 23 P. 12 of typescript.

Studies by Other Authors

The study on Vilna’s “New Ghetto,” that is the Nazi-imposed one, was penned by Dr. Moshe Heller, who had been the instructor of history in the Vilna Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary. The fragment of the manuscript which has survived is an excruciating document, not so much because of what it told, but because of what it left unsaid, and what its editor, Kalmanovitch, crossed out and deleted. 24 24 “Das Neue Ghetto,” YIVO Archives, RG 223, Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, pt 1, file 612. Sutzkever identified the author as Heller. See letter from Isaiah Trunk to Sutzkever, January 25, 1957, National Library of Israel, Sutzkever Collection, ARC 4*1565, correspondence, section 1, file 880. 1 (“YIVO”, file 1).

The study opened with a statement that the Jewish population of Vilna before the beginning of the German-Soviet War on June 22, 1941, had been 76,000, but that the number of Jews of who entered the ghetto, when it was established two and a half months later, on September 6, was much, much smaller. Thousands of Jews had been “taken away” off the streets, or from their homes, between June and September, “and the overwhelming majority of them did not return home.” The study did not mention that these people had been taken to Ponar and shot there, a fact that its author knew full well, writing in the second half of 1942.

The omission was intentional. Any explicit reference to Ponar would have been a breach of the German-imposed code of silence about the mass-murder site. The taboo on Jews uttering the word Ponar in public was absolute: when the ghetto chorus performed Szmerke Kaczerginski’s foreboding poem “shtiler, shtiler” (“quiet, quiet, let’s be silent, graves are growing here”), the choral director decided to alter one of the poem’s lines. “Roads are leading to Ponar, there is no road back” was changed to “roads are leading over there.” 25 25 Kaczerginski, introduction to collection of songs of the Vilna, Kovna and Shavl ghetto, Central State Archive of Lithuania, fond R-1390, Vilnius Jewish Museum, file 50, p. 5. Heller knew that if he violated the code of silence, and wrote the impermissible word, he could be sent to Ponar.

Heller’s original draft text gave the dates of Aktionen and round-ups, and the number of Jews that were seized in each instance. “On September 15, 2,000 persons were taken away from ghetto number 1 [….] on the night of October 4, 2,000 Jews were taken out of ghetto no. 2. ” But Kalmanovitch crossed out these passages. It wasn’t that he wanted to conceal the numbers of victims from the Germans – they already knew the numbers from their own meticulous record-keeping. Rather, he was concerned that including such detailed information would reveal to the Germans that the Jews maintained underground records on the events that had transpired to them, including a ghetto archive. This could lead them to search for the documents and their authors – which would lead them to Herman Kruk, and his monumental ghetto-diary. Better to speak in general terms, without specific numbers, than reveal just how precise the Jews’ statistics were regarding the mass murder.

There were also some necessary bald-faced lies. Heller’s study reported that the current population of the Vilna ghetto (in the second half of 1942) was 15,000. This corresponded to the number of food ration cards issued in March 1942. He knew full well that there were an additional 5,000 inhabitants in the ghetto, or more, who were there “illegally,” without a work-permit or food ration-card. Needless to say, Heller was not about to give that number the Germans.

In the midst of mass-murder, slave labor scholars couldn’t afford the luxury of absolute dedication to truth and science if it would cost lives. Yidishe visnshaft, the Jewish way of engaging in scholarship, was devoted to strengthening the Jewish people, and its representatives refused to knowingly play into the hands of those who were perpetrating mass-murder.

Perhaps the most remarkable study in this corpus of slave labor scholarship is “Synagogues and Houses of Prayer in Vilna,” a 76 page typed manuscript written by Rabbi Avraham Nisan Ioffe. Ioffe was a former secretary to Vilna’s renowned Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, a shokhet (ritual slaughterer), and the author of two rabbinic books. 26 26 “Wilna und Wilnaer Klausen,” Central State Archive of Lithuania, fond R-1421, Vilnius Jewish Ghetto, file 505; on Ioffe, see Szmerke Kaczerginski, Khurbn Vilne (New York: CYCO, 1947), 218, and the introductions and letters of approbation to Ioffe’s books Bikure Nisan (Vilna, 1919) and Zera Avraham (Vilna, 1939). The study was a catalogue of 106 synagogues (“kloyzn”) that operated in Vilna prior to the German occupation, and of eight yeshivas that held regular prayer services. It provided a portrait of each synagogue: its history, artistic features, lay and rabbinic leaders, the social composition of the congregants, and the current condition of the building and its ritual objects as of late 1942. The study stands to this day as an extremely useful reference tool, unmatched in scope either before the War or since. 27 27 Ioffe’s study was used extensively in the recent two-volume reference-work “Synagogues in Lithuania: A Catalogue”, by Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė, Vilnius: VDA leidykla, 2010.

Ioffe’s portraits of Vilna’s smaller or less famous synagogues were gems. They were based on his first-hand knowledge of these kloyzn, drawn from conversations with their rabbis and congregants. But beyond the value of its content, the most striking feature of Ioffe’s “Synagogues and Houses of Study” was its unabashed love and enthusiasm for Jewish religious life in Vilna. Knowing full well that his study was intended for German readers, Ioffe did not refrain from using affectionate poetic imagery to describe the shulhoyf (Synagogue Courtyard).

If the Jewish quarter of Vilna is reminiscent of Jerusalem, then the Synagogue Courtyard must remind us of the heart of Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall. There [in Jerusalem], the Holy Wall represents the focal point of Jewish history; here [in Vilna], the shulhoyf represents the heartbeat of East European Jewry and of Jewish piety. 28 28 “Wilna und Wilnaer Klausen,” 12.

He lamented the current condition of the shulhoyf compared to its past glory: “Today all of this is desolate, empty and abandoned. The ornaments have been taken over by the Rosenberg Detail. Only a fraction of Vilna’s Jews are in the ghetto, and the shulhoyf remains outside of its boundaries.” 29 29 “Wilna und Wilnaer Klausen,” 13-14. One can only wonder how the ERR staff reacted to such passages.


Kalmanovitch’s and Ioffe’s studies stand out as expressions of devotion to the values that animated their lives – yidishe visnshaft in Kalmanovitch’s case, and Jewish piety in Ioffe’s. As slave labor scholars, they had to research and write, but they did not have to research with such energy, or write with such erudition and love. Even in the face of the German murder machine, they were not willing to relinquish their Jewish way of saying things. Mindful that their studies had no chance of altering their readers’ thinking about the Jews, Kalmanovitch and his team pursued thoroughness and original research as if they were metaphysical values.

The Vilna staff of the ERR continued to submit antisemitic studies to their superiors months after their Jewish researchers had been deported or killed. The “paper brigade” was dissolved in late August 1943. Kalmanovitch was deported to a camp in Estonia in early September, and eventually perished there; Rabbi Ioffe was executed at Ponar on the day of the ghetto’s liquidation, September 23, 1943. The last ERR Judenforschung study went out from Vilna to Berlin on January 28, 1944. 30 30 Kaczerginski, Khurbn Vilne, 109, 218; Willy Schaefer, “Die Juden als wirtschaftlicher un politischer Faktor, unter besonderer Berucksichtigung des Ostjudenthums,” Central State Archive of Lithuanian, fond R-633, file 26.

Never was the contrast between the Jewish way of saying things and the German way of saying things starker or more tragic.

David E. Fishman. “Split Identity: Jewish Scholarship in the Vilna Ghetto.” In geveb, June 2020:
David E. Fishman. “Split Identity: Jewish Scholarship in the Vilna Ghetto.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Jul 04, 2020.


David E. Fishman

David E. Fishman is Professor of History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.