‘Book Smugglers’ exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

‘Book Smugglers’ exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee 

In 1942, in Vilna in what is now Lithuania, a group of Jews worked to hide books, art, and other cultural artifacts from the Nazis. Led by poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginskithe group was known as the Paper Brigade of Vilna, and it took and hid the items that had been part of the YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute). 

Even after the war ended, the Paper Brigade continued their work, protecting the materials from the Soviets instead of the Nazis.  

Now, an exhibit about that little-known but fascinating episode of Holocaust history is heading to Milwaukee. “The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis,” which runs from Jan. 19-May 19 at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee.  

The exhibit is set for a preview at the museum on January 18, with an introduction by Dr. Dan Haumschild, the museum’s education director, about the exhibit’s themes and their modern-day parallels. The preview will also include musical accompaniment from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, along with kosher wine and hors doeuvres 

The exhibit debuted at the Holocaust Museum Houston. Molly Dubin, Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s curator, said she was eager to bring it to Milwaukee.  

“Part of the Nazis’ grand plan in dealing with Jews was not just the eradication of life, but an intentional plan to eradicate culture,” Dubin said. “And part of that was towards looking to the completion of a successful genocide, and once that genocide had occurred, they really needed to know, prior to that happening,” all about the Jews.  

The Nazis, she said, dedicated resources to looting books, documents, arts and other Jewish artifacts.  

“The Nazis formed the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg – an agency for looting of cultural treasures, which operated all across Europe. There was a Special Department in the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg for looting of Judaica – books, manuscripts, documents, art and artifacts on Jewish religion, history and culture,” Durbin said. “This was used for the benefit of Judenforschung, Nazi-sponsored anti-Semitic Jewish Studies. Judenforschung served as the intellectual basis for the persecution of the Jews.” 

“They needed to study the Jews, because they needed to have all of this information about what his extinct culture would be,” she added. And because Vilna was known at the time as “Little Jerusalem.”  

The people known as the Paper Brigade, she said, “devised a plan to rescue material.”  

“The people at the heart of the Paper Brigade were these very heroic everyday individuals who were literally risking their lives to save a book,” Dubin said. “They knew that culture was at the center of so much about their expression of humanity and representing all that they had developed and was kind of part of the foundation of who they were. So it was imperative to them to rescue some of those materials, clandestinely and at great risk to their lives.”  

The exhibit is based on a book of the same name by David E. Fishman, which was published back in 2017; the exhibit was first launched as a collaboration between the author and the Houston museum. The exhibit includes everything from film clips to text panels to graphic panels and photos.  

“We’re able to shine a light on this important story,” Dubin said. “And kind of pay tribute to these heroic individuals, and really the central role of the written word… to have had these individuals realize that there was chance that all of this could be destroyed, and there would be no record of this incredible culture and people and accomplishment, to have the forethought to risk their lives to save it.”  

Community free days will take place during the exhibit, including some in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Library. 

The Offenbach Archival Depot, in the American zone of occupied Germany – Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Israel
Strashun Library – Courtesy of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum