Seven years ago, the YIVO Institute launched the Edward Blank Vilna Online Collections project, an attempt to digitize an enormous number of photographs, pamphlets, poems, and other precious artifacts that were rescued from Lithuania following World War II. It is now complete and will soon be available online. Writing about her experiences working on the collection, Alyssa Quint notes that “radical access” to these artifacts stands to transform our understanding of “what East European Jewry was, and . . . our sense of the past.”
This will not be an overnight affair. There is no smoking gun, for instance, no star document that will shine a light on utterly undiscovered worlds. But there are many missing chapters in the story of Ashkenazi Jewry and many more chapters that lack detail and relatability. With instantaneous access to these collections, the energy of scholars, translators, performers, composers, artists, and genealogists will tell these stories with unprecedented ease. It provides an opportunity, not so much to rewrite history, but to write it in a way in which the energy of its historians is finally matched by the availability of primary sources.
And with shifts in history will come shifts in collective memory. In fact, if anything could do this, the digitization of the Vilna Collections might decisively shift Jewish memory away from its center of gravity in the six-year period of World War II, toward and throughout the hundreds of years of creativity that preceded it.