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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

People of the books

Anna Katharina Schaffner on the survival of literature in the darkest days of the twentieth century

Because the question of good and evil has rarely been as unambiguous as it was in the case of the Nazis and their victims, resistance to the Third Reich still epitomizes the modern heroic act par excellence. The figure of the resistance fighter still looms large in the cultural imagination because the people who stood up to the forces of fascist oppression risked their lives – and often the lives of their loved ones – to defend their humanitarian and political convictions.

The Jewish poets and scholars in Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) who are the subject of David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, poets, and the race to save Jewish treasures from the Nazis certainly risked their lives, but they did so for a reason that was far less common: they were prepared to die for books and manuscripts. In addition to murdering millions of European Jews, the Nazis waged a concerted war against the ­Jewish cultural heritage, looting, confiscating, destroying and transporting vast quantities of books and artefacts to the so-called Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt am Main. There the objects were studied under the auspices of an anti-Semitic Judenforschung, the aim of which was to acquire a knowledge of the mores and customs of the enemy, and to legitimize in pseudo­scientific terms the persecution and ultimately the attempted annihilation of the Jews in Europe.

Part of Poland until the Soviet Union seized its eastern regions under the terms of the German–Soviet non-aggression pact, Vilnius was occupied by the Germans in 1941. Considered the cultural capital of East European Jewry and known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, it offered rich pickings for the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, an agency tasked with looting cultural treasures. An article in the Wilnaer Zeitung, the local organ of the German occupants, described the mission of the Einsatzstab in the following chilling terms:

The political-military struggle against Jewry and Bolshevism is now being followed up by something else: struggle on the level of scientific research. We must not only fight our opponents, we must know their essence, their intentions and objectives . . . . The men of the Einsatzstab are the shock troops of science.

Owing to the vast stock of Judaica in ­Vilnius, and a lack of cultural and linguistic expertise that prevented them from sifting through it, the Einsatzstab had to rely on local scholars to identify for them those books and manuscripts that were valuable enough to warrant looting. In 1942, a group of scholars and writers was recruited from the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius for that purpose, among them the poets Shmerke Kaczerginski and Abraham Sutzkever. They were forced to work at ­Vilnius’s Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), where most of the Jewish material had been accumulated, and which lay outside the ghetto. Knowingly risking execution, the members of what was dubbed the “paper brigade” defied orders and strapped precious manuscripts to their bodies whenever they found the opportunity, smuggling thousands of texts back into the ghetto where they were then hidden, in the hope that they might be retrieved after the war.

Drawing on a vast archive of diaries, memoirs, letters and other documents, as well as on interviews with surviving participants of the “paper brigade”, Fishman recounts in vivid and moving terms the story of these courageous men and women who realized that, while there was little hope of survival for the ghetto’s inmates, there was at least some hope of saving their cultural heritage. They believed that the “very essence of their community lay in its books and documents”. Their heroism was grounded in what Fishman terms the “existential statement” that “literature and culture were ultimate values . . . greater than the life of any individual or group”. As the poet Sutzkever put it:

Perhaps these words will endure And live to see the light loom – And in the destined hour Will unexpectedly bloom?

And like the primeval grain That turned into a stalk – The words will nourish The words will belong

To the people in its eternal walk.

In the summer of 1943, the paper brigade was dismissed, and, shortly thereafter, thousands of the ghetto’s inmates were rounded up for deportation to labour camps in Estonia, to Treblinka, or to an execution site in nearby Ponar. Most of the paper brigade’s members died, although Sutzkever and Kaczerginski joined Soviet partisans and a few others managed to emigrate. Yet even for the few survivors, the horror did not end with the defeat of the Nazis, as anti-Semitic pogroms, persecution, lack of institutional support and bureaucratic bullying continued under the returning Soviets. After much resistance, Sutzkever and Kaczerginski eventually succeeded in establishing a Jewish Museum in Vilnius, the holdings of which included some of the treasures that they had managed to unearth after the war, among them Torah scrolls, the Record Book of the Vilna Gaon’s Synagogue, manuscripts by Maxim Gorky, and the diary of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

Yet the two poets soon realized that in the hands of the Russians their treasures were far from safe, and they smuggled them out of Vilnius, exposing themselves once again to considerable physical danger. Their aim was to ensure that the papers would make it to New York, where Max Weinreich, the former president of the YIVO, had established a new institute in 1940. After some dangerous cross-border ­trafficking, and considerable lobbying by Weinreich, they were successful in their endeavour. Much of the material shipped by the Einsatzstab to Frankfurt also eventually found its way to the American institute, and, in the post-war part of the story, Fishman provides insights into the political and ethical complexities that shaped this remarkable act of restitution.

Jews are referred to in the Qur’an as the “people of the book”. Having lived in diaspora for almost 2,000 years, Jews had to find forms of cultural and religious self-validation that were mobile. In The People and the Books (2016), Adam Kirsch argues that the destruction of the Temple ushered in a transformation from a temple-based to a text-based culture, with books and especially the Torah and the Talmud effectively replacing temples and monuments. In the Jewish ghetto in ­Vilnius, books served to strengthen the spirit in the face of appalling suffering, and also to provide a form of escapism. One of the texts rescued from destruction by the efforts of the paper brigade was the diary of the ghetto librarian Herman Kruk, a meticulous record-keeper and the intellectual architect of the book-smuggling operation. Many of the manuscripts trafficked back into the ghetto were in fact hidden in the bowels of the ghetto library. A notice in the part of the library that was open to the public read:

Books are our only comfort in the ghetto!

Books help you forget your sad reality.

Books can transport you to worlds far away from the ghetto

Books can still your hunger when you have nothing to eat.

Books have remained true to you, be true to the books.

Preserve our spiritual treasures – books!

In his diary, Kruk observed that reading was akin to a narcotic for many of the ghetto’s inhabitants, likening himself to a drug pusher: “The aspect of, I wouldn’t even call it reading, but self-intoxication, is so prevalent. There are people who on the most difficult days read incessantly but only cheap crime novels. Some intelligent readers won’t pick up anything else”. To Kruk’s dismay, the books that were borrowed most regularly by the ghetto inmates were pulp fiction. Among the most popular works were Edgar Wallace’s crime novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and Vicki Baum’s German romances. Flaubert, Gorky and Dostoevsky, by contrast, were consistently shunned. According to Krug, children were the most avid readers in the ghetto. Their demand far outstripped the meagre ­supply, and many were so desperate for reading matter that they tried to steal it.

Michele K. Troy’s Strange Bird also provides insights into the reading habits of war-torn Europe. Troy tells the ­fascinating story of the Albatross Press, a publishing house that ­produced affordable books in English for a Continental European readership in the darkest years of the twentieth century. The press was registered as a German firm, financed largely by British-Jewish money, and had an editorial office in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement. It emerged on the publishing landscape just before Hitler came to power, in 1932, and, remarkably, continued trading during the years of the Third Reich and into the 1950s.

The Albatross Press specialized in high-quality literature in paperback format, and many Anglo-American modernists featured on its list, including Sinclair Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Aldous Huxley. Under its Odyssey Press imprint, the Albatross Press published Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Its elegantly designed and affordable editions were coded according to genre in the colours of the rainbow, and soon put the German publisher Tauchnitz out of business; Tauchnitz had hitherto dominated the paperback market in English in Continental Europe, its principal market being Anglo-American travellers. The Albatross Press, by contrast, aimed to satisfy a more general appetite for cutting-edge Anglo-American literary culture.

As Troy observes, the obvious question when considering this “strange bird” is how and why it was allowed to publish Anglo-American literature in Nazi Germany, especially given its Jewish ties. Remarkably, it was precisely the press’s international make-up that proved its strength. Albatross’s founder, John Holroyd-Reece, was a formidable wheeler-dealer who knew exactly when to emphasize a specific aspect of his European publishing venture to make it work to his advantage. Adept at exploiting bureaucratic loopholes in the Nazi censorship and prop­aganda machine, he capitalized on the conflicting interests of the economic and the ideological wings of the Third Reich. Born in Germany to a British mother and German father, Holroyd-Reece was someone who “nimbly crossed national and cultural boun­daries”, a master of all kinds of legal and financial hocus-pocus, with a penchant for marrying rich heiresses and using up their capital. He was suspected of being a German spy by the French and the British, and a British spy by the Germans. It is very possible that he was the latter.

Like many other publishing houses at the time, the Albatross Press practised a precautionary form of self-censorship, cutting explicitly damning references to the Nazis as it saw fit (for example, in Aldous Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay, 1934). At no point either before or during the war was the press banned outright. Ultimately, the Nazis felt that English-language books printed in Germany were “less culturally troublesome than they were economically useful”, generating, as they did, much-needed foreign currency for the regime.

Troy paints a complex picture of collusion on both sides, showing that Nazi ­censorship was, “in some cases, as much ­economic as moral”. Furthermore, much like Herman Kruk in the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, Joseph Goebbels was acutely aware of the escapist and even narcotic power of books: “There is no doubt that a very strong need for pure entertainment is currently present in the German people”, he wrote in his diary, “and not only at home but also at the front, and for this reason we are right, while giving the war its due, also to ensure that the nation can find the necessary relaxation in art, theatre, film, and radio”.

Troy’s account of the Albatross Press’s interactions with the Nazis reveals how “the myth of centralized control and efficiency ­traditionally associated with the Nazi regime breaks down when we look at actual behaviour”. In her meticulously researched study, Troy not only provides valuable insights into National Socialist literary policy, but also demonstrates that Nazi bureaucracy was more fragmented than one might imagine, marked as it was by inconsistencies resulting from multiple and often conflicting layers of regulation.

The Albatross Press began to decline in the fast-changing world of post-war publishing, and was soon overshadowed by a publishing house that adopted many of its branding and business strategies, and even used a bird as its logo: Penguin. The Albatross Press ceased to exist in 1955. While Fishman recounts a clear battle between the forces of good and evil, Troy shows us that grey zone between resistance and collaboration; her central figure, Holroyd-Reece, practised “a well-honed amorality” in love as in business. Although he made much of his ensuring that readers on the Continent had access to Anglo-American literature, some of it subversive, during the darkest of times, referring in the press’s brochure of 1947 to the mythological significance of the Albatross as a creature that carries “living souls across the water”, he also writes elsewhere of having chosen the Albatross trademark for rather more pragmatic reasons: the word is the same in various languages, and, according to tradition, “it is exceedingly dangerous to try to shoot down the Albatross”. Ultimately, the Albatross Press cannot be adjudged to have been an inherently subversive force under National Socialism.

Both Fishman and Troy narrate their stories with verve and considerable literary skill, practising narrative history in the literal sense, borrowing tropes and strategies from detective fiction (Troy) and from overcoming-the-monster stories (Fishman). Fishman even includes a list of dramatis personae. It is his story that provokes a stronger affective reaction, and that is the more gripping narrative, one that it is easy to imagine being adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster. Troy’s narrative, by contrast, is ultimately too complex and ethically murky to be the stuff of high drama. Pragmatic and realpoliticking, those involved in the ­Albatross venture did not risk their lives for the books on the press’s list, but instead hoped to turn a profit, even if it involved recurrent dealings with the devil.

Image: Henry Be @Unsplash

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