How the Remnants of One of Europe’s Most Outstanding Jewish Libraries Were Rescued after the Holocaust

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).

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Books, East European Jewry, Holocaust, Lucy Dawidowicz, Max Weinreich, Vilna, YIVO

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict