In his book The Lost Library, Dan Rabinowitz tells the story of the library founded in the city of Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) in the late 19th century by the polymath, talmudist, and bibliophile Matityahu Strashun. The story of how a group of residents of the Vilna Ghetto saved its books and manuscripts—which Allan Nadler, in his review, terms “the most valuable bibliographic remnants of the vanished civilization of East European Jewry”—in the midst of the Shoah is itself a tale of epic heroism. But Rabinowitz focuses on how these books, which the Nazis sent to Frankfurt to be used in a projected “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question,” eventually ended up in the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which had relocated from Vilna to New York during World War II.
Rabinowitz argues that YIVO’s official story about how it came to possess the books isn’t quite accurate, and that its representatives employed some not-quite-legal maneuvers to gain possession of them. While Nadler takes no issue with Rabinowitz’s “superb” account of the facts, he does not doubt that the linguist Max Weinreich—the only one of YIVO’s founding directors to survive the Holocaust—and his then-disciple the great Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz acted nobly:
YIVO’s ultimate success in rescuing these books resulted in a far-from-unhappy outcome, and its leaders, especially Weinreich and Dawidowicz, must, in the end, be celebrated as heroic figures who did everything they could to return Jewish cultural treasures to their people. As even Rabinowitz ultimately avers, the successful, if less than scrupulously honest, methods employed by Weinreich and Dawidowicz resulted in the rescue of the Strashun Library’s treasures. Had they not acted as they did, the books likely would have been returned to Poland or, theoretically, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. But Jewish survivors who returned to Poland were themselves being murdered by Poles, as Rabinowitz sharply notes. “Restitution” to Lithuania was no more tenable.
Despite Rabinowitz’s often aggressively legalistic pursuit of the less than honest tactics and false historical narratives employed by Weinreich, Dawidowicz, [and others] to secure Strashun’s books, nothing he documented can reasonably be viewed as impugning the nobility of their goals or the moral necessity, given the extreme situation in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, of lying for the sake of a higher purpose.
I am aware of no religious [or] moral argument that would condemn what Weinreich (whose reputation for impeccable integrity equaled his unmatched scholarly greatness) and his collaborators felt the need to do to: save these sad but sacred remnants of the Jerusalem of Lithuania. In Jewish law and lore, books—especially sacred ones of the type that filled the Strashun Library—attain the closest status to human life. Although not a religious Jew, Weinreich was versed in “the ways of the Talmud” and almost certainly perceived his rescue of as many Jewish books as possible as a belated act of pikuaḥ nefesh (the saving of souls).