Local Researchers digitize Holocaust documents




Elliot "Elya" Palevsky discusses pre-war Vilnius at YIVO's Nusakh Vilna Memorial.

Elliot “Elya” Palevsky discusses pre-war Vilnius at YIVO’s Nusakh Vilna Memorial. Photo: Alex Weiser.

Nearly 200 people gathered at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research recently for the 63rd annual Nusakh Vilne Memorial commemorating the Jewish community of Vilnius, Lithuania, which was largely wiped out during the Holocaust.

The event, at the group’s Chelsea headquarters, was presented in alternating English and Yiddish and began with a welcome greeting, the lighting of memorial candles and the recitation of a series of Yiddish poems and songs either about Vilnius or by authors from Vilnius. That was followed by the central presentation and a recitation of Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer, by Mikhl Baran, a Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Soviet Red Army during WWII.  The event ended with a group recitation of the Partisan’s Hymn, a song written in the Vilnius ghetto during the war that became the anthem of the Jewish guerrillas who fought in the woods of Eastern Europe alongside the Red Army.

Vilnius, or Vilna as it is known in Yiddish, holds a special place in pre-war Jewish history. Colloquially known as “Yerushalayim d’lite” or the Jerusalem of Lithuania — a name supposedly given by Napoleon when he passed through the city on his ill-fated invasion of Russia —  the city was known as a home to Jewish scholars and intellectuals, both religious and secular.

Jonathan Brent shows off the different types of documents in YIVO's archives.

Jonathan Brent shows off the different types of documents in YIVO’s archives. Photo: David I. Klein.

This year the presentation focused on YIVO’s Vilna Collections Project, an effort to digitize over a million documents from YIVO’s original archive in Vilnius,  gathered from 1925 to 1939, when the YIVO was still based in the city. In those years YIVO’s goal was to document the history and everyday life of Jews in eastern Europe, so the collection consists of everything from report cards and tax records to rabbinic manuscripts and original works by artists such as Marc Chagall.  “They said ‘give us everything,’” explained Jonanthan Brent, executive director of YIVO.

The documents are themselves Holocaust survivors, Brent often says. Documents in New York were looted from Vilnius by the Nazis and returned to YIVO’s post-war headquarters there by U.S  soldiers who discovered them in Frankfurt. The portion still in Vilnius are documents that Jews in the Vilnius ghetto hid, to dig up if they survived the war. The Lithuanian government today is reluctant to hand over these documents to YIVO in New York as they consider them a piece of Lithuanian history.  The Vilna Collections Project is an effort to reunite the documents digitally.

Just a few of the several hundred thousand books in YIVO's archives. Photo: David Klein

Just a few of the several hundred thousand books in YIVO’s archives. Photo: David I. Klein.

According to Brent, 90 percent of the $5.6 million needed to fund the project has already been raised from both individual donations and grants, including a grant of over $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project is ahead of schedule, having already completed the digitization of most of the 12,000 books contained in the collection. Brent expects that it will take another five years before the entire collection is available on YIVO’s website.

Throughout the crowd you could hear voices conversing in English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish, and while the audience consisted mostly of older attendees, there were young faces present as well.

Doron Gopstein, a lawyer who works in lower Manhattan, said he came because a connection to Vilnius was instilled in him by his parents.  “When I grew up they would tell me stories of when they were younger, and Vilna, which is the [place] this organization commemorates every year, is where they studied, where they spent many years,” he said.

Others like Hannah Halpern, a retired art teacher from Long Island, came for a different reason. “I came here today to hear more Yiddish, after my mom died and my grandma I died I don’t hear it anymore and I miss it. It’s a part of my heritage,” she said.

While today the memorial event is run under the auspices of YIVO, Nusakh Vilne, which means the Way of Vilnius in Yiddish, was originally a separate organization founded in in 1953 by Holocaust survivors from Vilnius. This year’s master of ceremonies, Elliot “Elya” Palevsky, is the son of two of Nusakh Vilne’s original founders. “At first, it was an association of folks who needed to share their loss, their mourning, their comradeship and their appreciation of the extraordinary place Vilna was,” said Palevsky. An archive of photographs from Nusakh Vilne has been included in the Vilna Collections project.