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YIVO Archives Under Nazi Occupation

Under the Nazi occupation the YIVO collections fell into the hands of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, the Nazi unit created by Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories. This group was charged with the looting and disposition of Jewish cultural treasures. The YIVO building in Vilna (which was located outside the ghetto) was converted into a processing center for ransacked Jewish libraries and archives from Vilna and the surrounding area. A group of twenty inmates from the Vilna Ghetto was taken each day to the YIVO building, where selected collections were being prepared for shipment to the Institut der NSDAP zur Erforschung der Judenfrage in Frankfurt-am-Main. The group included Zelig Kalmanovitch, Uma Olkienicka, Abraham Sutzkever, Szmerke Kaczerginski, Rokhl Pupko-Krynski, and Daniel Feinstein. The members of this group resolved to take the risk of hiding the more valuable YIVO documents from the Nazis. After the war, this hidden collection of several thousand items was retrieved and returned by Sutzkever and Kaczerginski to YIVO in New York, where the Institute had reestablished itself in 1940. [This chapter in YIVO's history is chronicled in Embers Plucked from the Fire: The Rescue of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Vilna by David E. Fishman. New York: YIVO, 2009.]

The materials selected by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg were shipped to Frankfurt in 1941 and 1943; the remaining collections from the YIVO Library and Archives were to be either destroyed on the spot or sold to paper mills for recycling. It appears, however, that not everything that was sent to Frankfurt reached its destination. Some crates ended up in Prague, where their contents are presumed to be stored until the present day. Moreover, not all the materials that remained in Vilna were destroyed. After the war, a Jewish museum was established in Vilna, which received a large quantity of Jewish records found in the city. The museum was closed in 1949 and its collections were transferred to several Vilna repositories. Meanwhile, the books and archival records from Vilna that were sent to Frankfurt survived the final years of the war intact and were reclaimed by YIVO in New York in 1947. Finally, the archival collections of YIVO's Historical Section remained in the personal possession of Elias Tcherikower, the Section's chairman. Tcherikower lived in Berlin from 1920 to 1933, and in Paris until 1940, and the collections traveled with him. Following the Nazi occupation of France, these records were placed in hiding in southern France. After the war, they were returned to YIVO.

In 1990, as the political rigors of the Soviet state began to give way to openness, and reforms and contacts with Vilna became possible again, YIVO was advised that parts of its prewar library and archives had been found hidden among the Lithuanica collections of the State Bibliographic Center (commonly known as the Book Palace, since then merged with the Lithuanian National Library). After five years of negotiations for the return of these collections to YIVO in New York, an agreement with the General Directorate of the Lithuanian Archives was signed in 1994. YIVO archival collections were sent in installments to YIVO in New York for processing, preservation, and photocopying. The originals were returned to Vilnius and YIVO retained the photocopies. In accordance with its long term mission to reunite and integrate the Vilna Archives, as well as the Vilna YIVO Library, into the YIVO Collections, YIVO continues to plan, in partnership with the Lithuanian State Archives and the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, the microfilming of the documents processed in the 1990s, as well as the continued search for undiscovered prewar YIVO archival and library materials.

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