Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save
Jewish Treasures from the Nazis


Vilna, Nazi-occupied Poland. July 1943.

The poet Shmerke Kaczerginski (pronounced Catcherginsky) leaves work to return to the ghetto. A slave laborer, his brigade sorts books, manuscripts, and art. Some will be shipped to Germany. The rest ends up in incinerators and paper mills. He works in the Auschwitz of Jewish culture, responsible for selecting the books that will be deported — and the ones that will be destroyed.

Compared to the work other slave laborers are doing across Nazi-occupied Europe, he is not digging fortifications to stave off the Red Army, clearing landmines with his body, or dragging corpses from gas chambers for incineration. Still, it’s been a hard day, toiling away in the Vilna University Library’s gray hall, stuffed to the ceiling with books. The brigade’s brutish German master, Albert Sporket from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, had caught Shmerke and a few other workers reading a poem from one of the books that morning. Sporket, a cattle merchant by profession, burst into a shouting fit. The veins on his neck throbbed. He waved his fist at the workers and then flung the book across the room.

“You cheating thieves, you call this work? This isn’t a lounge!” He warned them that if it ever happened again the consequences would be grave. The door slammed behind him.

The workers worked nervously all that afternoon. The cattle merchant treated them and the books like livestock — he would exploit them until it was time for their slaughter. If Sporket reported them to the Gestapo, their lives were over.

Shmerke’s coworker and lover, Rachela Krinsky, a tall high school teacher with deep brown eyes, walked over to him.

“Are you still going to carry stuff today?”

Shmerke replied with his typical buoyant enthusiasm. “Of course. That madman might suddenly decide to send everything away. Or dump it all as wastepaper. These treasures are for our future. Maybe not for us, but for those who will survive us.”

Shmerke wrapped an old embroidered Torah cover around his torso. Once it was snug, he stuck four little books inside his new girdle — old rarities published in Venice, Salonika, Amsterdam, and Krakow. Another tiny Torah cover swaddled him like a diaper. He buckled his belt and put on his shirt and jacket. He was ready to leave for the ghetto gate.

Shmerke had done it many times before, always with a mixture of determination, excitement, and fear. He knew the risks. If caught, he would likely face summary execution — like his friend, the singer Liuba Levitsky, who was found carrying a bag of beans on her person. At the very least, an ss man would give him twenty-five blows with a club or whip. As Shmerke tucked in his shirt, the irony didn’t escape him. A member of the Communist Party and longtime committed atheist who hadn’t gone to synagogue since childhood, he was about to risk his life for these mostly religious artifacts. He could smell the dust of past generations on his skin.

The line of returning workers was unusually long, twisting and turning for two city blocks before the ghetto gate. Word came back from the front of the line. ss Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel was personally inspecting people at the gate. Kittel — young, tall, dark, and handsome — was a trained musician and a natural, cool-headed murderer. He sometimes entered the ghetto to shoot inmates for sport. He’d stop someone on the street, offer the person a cigarette, and ask, “Do you want fire?” When the person nodded, he’d take out his pistol and shoot him in the head.

With Kittel present, the Lithuanian guards and Jewish ghetto police were more thorough than usual. From a block away, you could hear the shrieks of inmates being beaten for hiding food. The workers around Shmerke reached into their clothing. Potatoes, bread, vegetables, and pieces of firewood rolled into the street. They hissed at Shmerke, his puffed-up body obvious. In a landscape peopled with hungry, enslaved bodies, his inexplicably sturdy-looking torso could not have stood out more as he moved toward the inspection point.

“Dump it. Dump it!”

But Shmerke wouldn’t unload. He knew it wouldn’t save him. Even if he left the Hebrew books and Torah covers lying on the street, the Germans would trace them back to his team. Unlike potatoes, books had ex libris. Kittel might decide to execute the entire work brigade — including Rachela and Shmerke’s closest friend, fellow poet Abraham Sutzkever. So Shmerke took his chances and tried to prepare himself for the blows that would follow.

Everyone else in line double-checked his or her pockets for coins or papers that might arouse Kittel’s wrath. Shmerke began to tremble. As the line grew, it blocked traffic on Zawalna Street, one of Vilna’s main commercial thoroughfares. Trolleys honked their horns. Non-Jewish pedestrians gathered across the street to watch the spectacle, some helping themselves to the discarded contraband.

Suddenly, voices called back into the crowd. “He went inside the ghetto!”

“Let’s go. Faster!”

Kittel, apparently tired of supervising the repetitious body searches, had decided to take a stroll through his fiefdom. The line surged forward. The guards, startled and relieved by Kittel’s departure, turned to see where he was headed, making no effort to stop the rushing crowd. As Shmerke passed through the gate, the books pressed tightly against him, he heard jealous voices call out in his direction.

“Some people have all the luck!”

“And I left my potatoes on the street!”

They had no idea that he wasn’t carrying food.

As his boots clanged against the cobblestones of the ghetto’s Rudnicka Street, Shmerke started singing a song he had written for the ghetto youth club:

Anyone who wants to can be young,
Years don’t mean a thing.
Old folks can also, also be children,
In a new, free spring.

In a secret bunker deep beneath the ghetto, a stone-floored cavern excavated from the damp soil, metal canisters were stuffed with books, manuscripts, documents, theater memorabilia, and religious artifacts.

Later that night, Shmerke added his treasures to the desperate depository. Before resealing the hidden doorway into the treasure room, he bade farewell to the Torah covers and old rarities with a loving caress, as if they were his children. And Shmerke, ever the poet, thought to himself, “Our present is as dark as this bunker, but the cultural treasures radiate with the promise of a luminous future.”

David E. Fishman teaches history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His involvement with the story recounted in The Book Smugglers began twenty-five years ago, when he was invited to consult on items discovered in a former church in Vilnius. He is the author of four scholarly monographs and one textbook.