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Join co-producers Nahanni Rous and Eric Marcus on a research trip to the YIVO Institute in preparation for the upcoming season of Those Who Were There that focuses on the city of Vilna—a once-thriving center of Jewish life and culture. Their guide on this exploratory dive into YIVO’s archives is Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s academic advisor and director of exhibitions. Among the documents they’re in search of is a rare, typewritten diary of life in the Vilna ghetto during World War II kept by Herman Kruk. Join Nahanni and Eric on what they found to be a revelatory and moving journey through time.
Eric Marcus: Welcome to Those Who Were There: Voices from the Holocaust, a podcast from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. I’m Eric Marcus.
Nahanni Rous: And I’m Nahanni Rous. Eric and I are the co-producers of Those Who Were There. While we’re working on our next season, about Jewish life in Vilna before, during, and after World War II, we want to take you along on a behind-the-scenes research visit.
NR: So where are we, Eric?
EM: We are on the corner of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, also known as the Avenue of the Americas, um, in New York City, in Manhattan. And we are about three-quarters of a block away from the headquarters of the YIVO Institute.
NR: The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded in Vilna, Poland, in 1925, present-day Vilnius in Lithuania.
EM: YIVO’s history is bound up with the history of Vilna, which is why we’ve partnered with YIVO to work with us on the upcoming season of Those Who Were There.
NR: Entrance at right. Here we go. Oh, I better put on my mask.
EM: When YIVO first opened its doors, Vilna was a thriving center of the Yiddish-speaking world, with 55,000 Jewish residents. The scholars who founded the institute wanted to preserve eastern European Jewish history and Yiddish culture in a rapidly changing world.
NR: We’re here to learn about YIVO’s history, including how it survived the devastation of World War II and wound up in New York City.
EM: And we’re here to explore YIVO’s extraordinary archive, which we’ll be drawing from as we create an audio portrait of Vilna through the voices of the people who were there.
NR: We’re especially interested in seeing a rare diary kept by Herman Kruk, who served as the librarian of Vilna’s Jewish ghetto.
EM: Okay, we’re fully masked.
NR: Okay. Ooh, mask and earphones, microphone and recorder, lot to handle.
NR: We’re here to see Eddy Portnoy.
Unidentified Voice: Sure.
EM: He’s expecting us, yes.
NR: And this looks like Eddy!
EM: Oh, looks like Eddy.
EM: I’m Eric Marcus.
Eddy Portnoy: Nice to meet you in person.
EM: Nice to meet you, yes.
NR: Hi, Nahanni Rous.
EP: Nice to meet you in person.
EM: And you are?
EP: I’m Eddy Portnoy, academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
NR: Eddy’s our tour guide this afternoon. But before we go see the collection, we wanted to know how Eddy landed at YIVO.
EM: So, Eddy, how did you wind up here?
EP: So when I was a kid, um, my grandparents spoke Yiddish. It was their, it was the language of the house. And, for whatever odd reason, I really liked it. You know, my immigrant grandparents and their friends, uh, that they played cards with and joked with and sang songs with were just really, you know, funny, unusual people.
Also, my father was born in this country, but Yiddish was his first language and he, because he grew up in an immigrant neighborhood, all of his friends on the street, they also all spoke Yiddish. And so when I was a kid, my father would meet up with his friends and they would tell dirty jokes in Yiddish and laugh hysterically. And when I was, when I was a kid, I thought that was great. And I wanted in on that.
So, I don’t know, when I was about 12, 13 years old, I would follow my grandmother around the house with a paper, piece of paper and a pencil asking what things were; I’d say, what’s this, what’s that? And she’d tell me, and I’d write them down. And when I was in high school, my father bought me sort of a thin book called Der Yiddisher Lerer, The Yiddish Teacher. And I taught myself to read and write Yiddish and I would go and find, you know, old Yiddish books and try to read them. And it was just this kind of strange hobby that I had.
EM: Eddy tells us he found YIVO through a job in publishing. One thing led to another, and he ended up with a master’s in Yiddish and a Ph.D. in Jewish history and eventually back to work at YIVO.
EP: I generally tell people that I turned a fun hobby into a low-paying career.
EP: To me, it’s the perfect place, because it integrates my academic interests, my cultural interests, you know, my love of books and archives and my interest in Jewish history. And I get to sort of swim in this sea of, of cultural treasures every day.
NR: So will you take us to see some of those documents?
EP: I will take you to see some of those things. I’m wondering where I should take you first.
NR: We’re getting in the elevator, and where are you taking us?
EP: You know, I’ll take you to the seventh floor first.
NR: Which is what?
EP: Seventh floor is mixed art storage, but it’s really much more than that.
This section is part of YIVO’s poster collection. You know, this one is a Yiddish theater poster. Yeah, this is, actually, this is printed in Vilna.
EP: Some of these are really stunning.
NR: How would you describe that art?
EP: I guess it’s sort of like modernist caricature?
NR: They’re wearing flapper dress almost.
EP: Yeah, this is doubtlessly from the twenties.
NR: And that’s the original.
EP: This is the original, yeah. And we have, you know, thousands of posters like this, you know, ranging from, Yiddish theater, posters to, um, political posters, to, you know, posters advertising sporting events and lectures, uh, and concerts of all kinds. It’s like, if you could imagine, you know, a cultural life as advertised on walls.
NR: YIVO’s founders didn’t just want to chronicle urban life and what Jewish leaders were doing, they wanted to record what Jewish life was like in the small towns, the shtetls, of eastern Europe.
EM: One way they did that was by enlisting ordinary people to collect materials for the archive.
EP: And these people were called zamlers, which in Yiddish means “collectors.” And these zamlers would collect anything and everything, including posters, the posters that you just saw, restaurant menus, theater programs, you know, in addition to things like jokes and songs and limericks and anything that, you know, had to do with Jewish life. The goal was to kind of create an enormous archive of this world. A world that they felt was changing rapidly, and disappearing, or at least certain aspects of it were disappearing.
Take a left here.
EM: We’re now walking through the offices.
NR: We make our way through a hallway to another part of the archive and stop to look at a series of black-and-white photographs lining one wall.
EM: Is this the city of Vilna?
EP: Yeah, actually. So, yes, these boards along the wall are all about Vilna.
NR: Hmm, let’s walk past them.
NR: The old photos of Vilna from the aftermath of World War II show a bombed-out city—apartment buildings, church spires, whole blocks completely in ruins.
EM: When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, YIVO’s director happened to be in western Europe.
EP: He wasn’t able to get back to Poland. And so he went to New York to work out of the New York office. And his name was Max Weinreich, and he was one of the founders of YIVO. And he remained in New York and in 1940 declared New York the official headquarters of YIVO, because they had lost contact with Vilna.
NR: But YIVO’s archive, with its thousands of artifacts and dozens of staff members, remained in Vilna.
EM: At the beginning of the war, Poland was split between the Nazis and the Soviets. Vilna was in the part that fell under Soviet control, and YIVO was allowed to keep operating.
NR: Then, in the summer of 1941, the Nazis occupied Vilna. They murdered many thousands of Jews and herded many thousands more into an enclosed ghetto. But at the same time, the Nazis took great interest in YIVO’s archive.
EM: Members of its staff and other Jewish intellectuals were enslaved by the Nazis to sort books and documents to ship to Frankfurt, Germany.
NR: The Nazis were collecting materials for an institute they thought would justify their genocide. But the team charged with sorting decided to send more than what the Nazis wanted.
EP: They would also take the extra space in the crates to fill them with all kind, all the materials that they had collected over the years in order to save it because their thinking was, we probably won’t survive the war, but the Germans won’t win and someone will find this when the war’s over and they’ll know what to do with it.
NR: There was also a parallel strategy for saving documents and artifacts. Another group of archivists took some of the rarest materials and smuggled it out of the YIVO offices, which were outside the ghetto, and brought them into the ghetto.
EP: And this group was called, um, sort of jokingly, the Paper Brigade by Jewish ghetto guards who thought it was ridiculous that these people were spending their, you know, efforts to smuggle paper when typically during the war, you, people smuggled food or valuables. But this paper was valuable to these scholars. It was everything to them. This was, you know, this was, you know, what they had spent their lives collecting and studying.
EM: Spiriting material into the ghetto, sometimes under their clothing, risked imprisonment or even execution. But, still, the Paper Brigades brought tons of material into the ghetto throughout the course of the war. Much of it they buried in hidden bunkers.
NR: Vilna was liberated in July 1944 by the Soviet Army after heavy street fighting and bombing.
EM: The original YIVO building in Vilna was completely destroyed and its remaining contents were reduced to ashes.
EP: The surviving materials were those in the ghetto and the materials that were sent to Germany. The materials that were sent to Germany were found by a division of the U.S. Army called Monuments, Fine Arts, and Artifacts, the purpose of which was to find materials that the Nazis had plundered and repatriate them to their countries of origin.
The, you know, there’s a problem here, because Vilna, which had been Vilna, Poland, before the war is now Vilnius in the capital of Soviet Lithuania. And because the Cold War has kind of already begun, it’s problematic to send it back. In addition to the fact that 90 percent of Vilna’s Jews have been murdered and the only surviving Jewish organization out of Vilna is YIVO, and it’s now in New York.
So YIVO has to petition the State Department in order to get these materials back. And eventually it takes a few years, but they send these materials—that had been sent from Vilna to Frankfurt during the war—to YIVO New York. So, as a result, we, you know, have this portion of the prewar archive.
EM: Only a few thousand of Vilna’s Jews survived the war.
NR: Two of the survivors were the poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Avrom Sutzkever. They’d been part of the Paper Brigade, so they knew where to find what had been buried, and with the first artifacts they dug up, they started a small Jewish museum in the ruins of the ghetto.
EP: But very quickly they realize that the Soviets don’t really want a Jewish museum to exist. And so they realized that the material that they smuggled out of YIVO during the war and buried in the Vilna ghetto during the war is again in peril. And so they begin giving packages of material to their friends who are emigrating to the West. And they say, “When you get to the West, mail this to YIVO in New York.”
EP: And, in addition, they also collected materials that were, uh, connected to life in the Vilna ghetto. And so that’s something unusual, because, you know, most ghettos were destroyed and their materials were destroyed with them. So this is an incredible archive of documentary evidence of how life was lived in, in the ghetto.
NR: And that includes the Herman Kruk diary, right?
EP: Yeah. Right. It includes a number of diaries, including, uh, Herman Kruk’s. It includes materials from Jewish schools in the ghetto. It includes cultural documentation, theater programs, you know, all kinds of things related to, you know, this, what’s ultimately a very short but incredibly important and also horrible period in Jewish life.
EM: Can we see the Herman Kruk diary?
EP: Sure. That’s on a different floor.
EM: Okay. So, we’re going to travel again.
NR: Okay. So where are we going now?
EP: I am going to take you into the stacks, uh, where few people get to go, but it’s, um, you know, got the, the most interesting material.
These, I believe, first five rows contain the materials that were sent from YIVO to Frankfurt during World War II, wound up in this enormous warehouse in Frankfurt, and were sent to YIVO after the war.
NR: But to find Herman Kruk’s diary, we have to go a little deeper into the stacks.
EP: So this archive 223 is the, uh, Kaczerginski-Sutzkever archive of materials that were buried in the Vilna ghetto and then smuggled out of the Soviet Union after the war and, and sent to YIVO in New York.
NR: And this is all original documents here.
EP: This, these are all original documents. Yeah.
NR: Does this feel like sacred ground to you?
EP: Oh, absolutely. And you know, it is, it’s I, it’s ab—I absolutely look at these materials as sacred. There’s no question.
Um, now, let, I have to see if I can remember which box has the Kruk diary. I’m not sure if it’s this one. I did have… This is not it. Oh, no, it is. This is exactly it. Okay, so…
NR: Oh, my God.
EP: Just put this down. Take this out.
NR: I have been reading this diary in English translation for my research for the upcoming series about Vilna. I can’t believe I’m looking at the original.
EP: So this is, um, part of Herman Kruk’s diary.
NR: And, and so this is, this is typed. So, um, tell us about that.
EP: Wait. I believe that, um, Kruk’s secretary ty—he dictated it and he, and, and his, his secretary typed this.
NR: So he had a secretary in the Vilna ghetto.
EP: Yeah, that’s correct. Right. And you could see, you know, this particular page, you know, says “Vilna Ghetto, October 15, 1941.” Um, Vos iz gevorn mit der lererin tse. So this is an entry about, you know, what happened to, um, a particular teacher. Kruk’s diary is incredibly fascinating and contains all kinds of, you know, stories of sort of minor figures that people aren’t familiar with. And so this is just one of those stories.
NR: Can you tell what happened to the teacher?
EP: Well, I’d have to read this whole thing if you want. If you want me to, I can.
NR: Maybe just read the first sentence.
EP: Uh, sure. “A vokhn a khadoshim hot di farpaynikte lererin [tsaddik] gezukht un genishtert in geto un nit gekent bakumen keyn shayn.” So this is about a teacher who couldn’t get a, um, a registration pass, and was most likely killed because of it.
NR: Can you tell us what happened to Kruk and what happened to his diary, and how it’s here?
EP: Well, Kruk’s diary… Well, Kruk was killed, but his diary survived because it was buried in the Vilna ghetto and was smuggled out of the Soviet Union later, after the war, and ended up in YIVO.
EM: What’s in the diary?
EP: It’s, uh, an enormous amount of information about daily life in the Vilna ghetto. It discusses a huge variety of individuals, you know, things that happen to them. It discusses, you know, matters that the Nazis are engaging in. It deals with the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, and activities that they’re engaged in. It’s really an incredible document that provides a huge amount of information of what life in the Vilna ghetto was like, you know, from the perspective of someone who’s deeply involved in a wide variety of cultural activities.
NR: Kruk was involved in the Paper Brigade that you mentioned, too, right?
EP: Right. So, there was a bunker of material that was hidden underneath the Vilna ghetto library, and it’s my understanding that Kruk was, uh, was responsible for having created that.
EM: How unusual is Kruk’s diary? Are there many diaries like that? Or this is a rare diary to have?
EP: You know, in consideration of what ghetto diaries are like, first of all, most of them are not typed. That’s interesting. It takes on the guise of, kind of an official document. It looks official, it feels official. It reads official. It’s, you know, he’s describing, you know, daily life, in this, in this hellscape.
NR: So, of the people who were involved in the Paper Brigade, how many of them survived?
EP: I believe of about three dozen people who worked on this Paper Brigade, I believe that about six survived.
NR: But hundreds and hundreds of documents survived because of what they did.
EP: Well, thousands of documents. I mean, you know, what, what, you know, what they did was incredibly heroic.
EM: I just wanna describe this space, because we are standing in a very large room with row after row after row after row of shelves with gray storage, light gray storage boxes, they’re archival storage boxes. And I feel as if I’m standing in… There are ghosts, and it’s a culture that is gone, a people who are gone.
EP: Yeah, these documents are kind of like mute survivors of the Holocaust, except in a way they’re not mute because they tell stories. And they tell incredible stories.
NR: Hmm. Earlier when we were walking in here, you said that you feel like this is sacred ground. Can you say more about that?
EP: These archives comprise the remnants of a great Jewish civilization that was destroyed and exterminated. And whether it’s, you know, something like the diary of Herman Kruk, something produced by an intellectual, or it’s a drawing of a child created in the Vilna ghetto or, uh, Yiddish theater poster from before the war—the people who produced these materials are all gone, and this is what’s left of them. And if we wanna learn about our history and what’s produced us as a people today, these are the materials that you need in order to try to figure out how we became who we are.
EM: It reminds me of, of archaeology and coming across the dinosaurs and the impressions left behind. And this is what we have from our, our ancestors, our dinosaurs.
EP: Right. And, and, you know, the difference is, is that this is recent history.
EM: That’s the difference. And it’s also, it makes it chilling. This didn’t happen centuries ago. This happened to people—and I grew up in a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors—this happened to people who, who we lived with.
NR: Well, and also the, the paper is so fragile and time-sensitive and temperature-sensitive, and yet it has survived.
EP: Yeah. That, yeah, that’s actually one of the amazing aspects of this. You know, paper proves, you know, certain kinds of paper prove to be incredibly resilient. To think that these materials were, in the chaos of, of the Holocaust, were smuggled out of the YIVO building into the Vilna ghetto, buried in the Vilna ghetto, exhumed from the Vilna ghetto, and then smuggled out of the Soviet Union and brought to New York, it’s, you know, it’s incredible. These materials are survivors unto themselves.
NR: And they’re, they’re surrounding us in hundreds of gray boxes all over these shelves.
EM: It’s uh, it’s overwhelming. And now it’s been digitized. They survived long enough to be digitized so that they could be shared with the world.
EP: Right, exactly.
NR: In the years since the war, after the Soviet Union dissolved, other caches of YIVO materials have continued to turn up. Time will tell whether more of YIVO’s lost archive will come to light.
EM: For the upcoming season of Those Who Were There, we’ll provide a window into Jewish life in Vilna before, during, and after World War II by weaving together some of the documents from YIVO’s archive with recorded interviews from Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
NR: In the meantime, you can listen to all the past episodes of Those Who Were There at thosewhowerethere.org or wherever you get your podcasts. And you can find all of the materials recovered from YIVO’s original Vilna collection online at yivo.org.
EM: Special thanks to Eddy Portnoy at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for being our tour guide. And thanks, as well, to composer Ljova Zhurbin.
NR: Those Who Were There is produced by Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
EM: I’m Eric Marcus, Nahanni’s co-producer of Those Who Were There.
NR: And I’m Nahanni Rous. Thank you for joining us for our behind-the-scenes journey through the YIVO archives. So long, until next time.