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

April 21 2020

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


Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy