Pre-war Vilna online

January 11, 2022 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has completed the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project (EBVOCP), a historic 7-year, $7 million initiative to process, conserve and digitize YIVO’s divided pre-war library and archival collections.

Victims of a pogrom in Zhitomir, 1920.

In 1941, the Nazis ransacked the YIVO Institute in Vilna. Many documents were destroyed and a group of Vilna ghetto workers (many of whom had been associated with YIVO) were forced to sort through the collections and select materials to be shipped to Frankfurt, for use in the Nazi Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. In 1946, the U.S. Army recovered these documents and sent them to YIVO in New York.

These Ghetto workers, who became known as the Paper Brigade, risked their lives by also hiding materials on their bodies to smuggle into the Vilna Ghetto where they were secretly hidden. These rescued materials were uncovered after the war and then again saved in 1948 from the Soviets by the Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, and remained hidden in the Church of St. George (converted by the Soviets into the Lithuanian Book Chamber) until they were discovered in 1989.

In 2017, approximately 170,000 additional documents were also discovered in the National Library of Lithuania, including rare and unpublished works.

These surviving books and documents – split apart by history and located in New York City and Vilnius, Lithuania – are cultural survivors of the Holocaust. Comprised of approximately 4.1 million pages of original books, artifacts, records, manuscripts, and documents, the EBYVOCP is the first of its kind in Jewish history and represents a milestone in preserving Jewish history.

This unparalleled collection sheds new light on prewar Jewish history and culture throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, benefiting scholars, students, and the global public for generations to come.

YIVO’s original prewar archives and library are the preeminent source of documentation on the subject of East European Jewish civilization, which spanned over 1,000 years. The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project has created the single largest digital collection related to East European Jewish civilization, including the largest collection of Yiddish language materials in the world.

The collections tell us how Jews lived, where they came from, how they raised and educated their families, how they created art, literature, music, and language itself. Furthermore, these documents reveal the relations between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours, how they understood their place in the world both politically and socially and how they faced the turmoil and promise of modernity.

Through the Project, these materials have been digitally reunited through a dedicated web portal and are accessible worldwide for the first time.

The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project is an international partnership between YIVO and three Lithuanian institutions: the Lithuanian Central State Archives, the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, and the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

Gitanas Nausėda, President of the Republic of Lithuania, said: “The project marks a historic step in presenting to the public the most comprehensive collection so far of the world-famous heritage of YIVO. It has been an immense achievement that, after 7 years of the precise work by the Lithuanian and US experts, the unique collection of documents is available online for the global audience for the first time.”

Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė added: “You succeeded to recover and bring back a part of lost Jewish history. YIVO has collected the largest library and archive in the world in Vilnius during the interwar period, which has now been turned into the largest digital library of the history and culture of East European Jewry. I am especially glad that this virtual library will be available to everyone wishing to discover and understand the life, language, and culture of the centuries-old Jewish civilization from Lithuania and the entire Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the project has shown, how much we – Lithuania and the world – have lost.

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