Vilna, Lithuania, was among the many cities the Nazis looted during World War II because of its rich Jewish heritage and culture. Vilna (now Vilnius) contained religious relics, libraries, synagogues and prominent scholars.
According to Lenore Weitzman’s “A Brief History of the Paper Brigade,” the Nazis ordered the head of the Vilna ghetto library, Herman Kruk, and the director of prewar research institute YIVO, Zelig Kalmanovich, to collect the best Jewish books, museum valuables and artwork for shipment to Germany, where they would be placed in a museum after all the Jews were slain.
Kruk recruited Jewish intelligentsia, however, to rescue thousands of books and documents, which were hidden in the ghetto or sent to friends outside Lithuania. The workers called themselves the Paper Brigade, and although not all the workers survived, their legacy lives in the Vilna Museum of the Jewish People.
To pay homage to the rescuers, the Jewish Book Council’s annual publication, Paper Brigade, contains stories of Jewish interest from across America and around the world. The AJT talked with JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter.
AJT: Can you describe JBC’s annual literary magazine, Paper Brigade?
The first publication from the Jewish Book Council came around 1942 and reflected modern Jewish happenings at the time. The JBC circulated from the early 40’s to 1999 and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community while serving as an access point for readers. The Paper Brigade itself was published in late 2016. The 2017 issue pays homage to the original publication and reflects the 21st century aesthetic and mindset of Judaism not just in America but also abroad, such as Greece, Turkey, Iran and Israel. We aim to preserve Jewish text, memory and history through stories which make up who we are. We see a lot of value in that, especially right now, as they play an important role for community members who are interested in their heritage and history. This edition is particularly special because we were also able to attain the rights to publish some of Abraham Sutzkever’s poems, who was one of the original rescuers. While the publication pays tribute to the workers, a separate publication, due in October, will recount the Paper Brigade’s mission in Professor David Fishman’s book “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures From the Nazis.”
AJT: How does the Paper Brigade’s history intertwine with the Holocaust?
Firestone-Teeter: We have been a very important vehicle in sharing survivors’ stories since the ’40s. Not only sharing their narratives, but also the history, scholarship, biographies and even fiction of what happened during the Holocaust. We have also been instrumental in bringing different kinds of truths to the Holocaust to a very wide audience. I hope that has encouraged people to continue producing and preserving memories of those who perished, especially since we are nearing the last chapter of survivors. It is important that we do everything we can to keep it as part of our collective memory, retain the facts and continue to save their accounts.
AJT: Why is preserving Holocaust survivors’ stories important to the JBC?
Firestone-Teeter: Text and written word is the foundation of who we are in every possible way. I think at times people are overwhelmed with so much media and false information out there. However, with an organization such as ours, it’s our job to create a platform for those who truly have a story to tell and have truth on their side. This year we are also giving out the Holocaust Book Award in memory of Ernest W. Michel in response to the events of the Holocaust and preserving Jewish accounts.
AJT: Can you explain the Jewish Book Council’s work?
Firestone-Teeter: The JBC is a nonprofit geared toward promoting Jewish culture. Our goal is to encourage Jewish-interest literature and to make sure Jewish stories are produced, published and reach the hands of countless readers. Each year we work with about 250 to 280 authors who have a book out and wish to participate in Jewish book fairs or JCCs. We help pair the authors with Jewish organizations and synagogues who wish to meet them and perhaps promote their work at community events. Throughout the year we also publish a few hundred book reviews on our website and promote them across our digital channel and social media. In addition to the Paper Brigade, we also have the National Jewish Book Award, which we’ve been giving out since the late ’40s.
AJT: What future endeavors would the JBC like to pursue?
Firestone-Teeter: Diversity. It’s the idea behind this issue, and I think as we continue to move forward we hope to reflect on diverse Jewish experiences. Whether it pertains to the Holocaust and 20th century or the future. We are obviously a very eclectic community. We share a lot of experiences and also possess a lot of unique experiences. I think it’s important to highlight those and give an opportunity for a wide spectrum of individuals to be heard.
AJT: How do authors find you? Does the JBC conduct its own research?
Firestone-Teeter: The JBC is open to anyone that meets our eligibility requirements during our publication year and can sign up online. However, if we see a book that will have a significant impact, we will conduct our own outreach to get the author and publisher on board. In many instances the book must be of interest to a Jewish audience, meaning either the author is Jewish or the author is not Jewish but the book contains Jewish content.
AJT: Where do the authors originate?
Firestone-Teeter: The authors hail from all over the world, but the key for us is that the works are in English. We have had authors from Australia, England and Israel. However, we especially enjoy working with writers who share their personal experiences in short pieces.