Antagonizing Ultranationalism: The Paper Brigade of the Vilna Ghetto

Our newest special exhibit, Book Smugglers: Poets, Partisans and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis details the efforts made by the Paper Brigade of the Vilna Ghetto to rescue Jewish culture from certain destruction. The Paper Brigade consisted of Jews who had been conscripted to work as intellectual slave laborers in the libraries and learning centers of what was known as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’. Their task was to identify works of great cultural importance, which would then be sent to an emergent institution in Germany whose goal was to prove the intellectual and scientific legitimacy of antisemitism. Everything they did not send to this wretched institution was de facto designated for destruction. Stuck between this proverbial rock and hard place, the Paper Brigade found another route: smuggle and save. Book Smugglers tells this story.

What we know is that this group of poets and partisans were resisting genocide. And not just by virtue of preserving the stories of Jewish life in Vilna, but by antagonizing a form of this crime that is often ignored or forgotten: cultural genocide. To briefly unravel this term, I’ll refer to Raphael Lemkin, the author, intellectual, lawyer, and activist who coined it. It is in a publication from 1944 called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe that Lamkin introduces the term genocide. The neologism combines the Greek genos for kin, nation, or people and the Latin cide for killing. He notes in his writing that this term is intended to name “an old practice in its modern development”. Which is to say, he does not limit the assignment of this word to what is happening in 1944, what was exclusively happening in Europe, or even what may happen thereafter. Instead, he wished to diagnose the epidemic of mass violence as he saw it playing out time and again through history. He believed that genocide was an epidemic, an illness that afflicted communities across time and space.

His definition of the word is initiated with this description:

Genocide “is intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

You’ll notice here that Lemkin is concerned with the destruction of not only biological or physical life, but of culture, national feelings, liberty, health, and dignity. We’re in vastly different territory than what is part of the UN Convention.

Drawing from his sense that Nazi Germany was a colonizing force that came to bear on the European continent, he makes the following formula as a foundational principle of genocide.

Genocide consists of two phases:

1) destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group

2) the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor

The imposition can be made upon the population itself, or merely on the land which has been rid of the oppressed.

At least two things are worth noting here. First, the idea of a national pattern is meaningful to Lemkin and it grounds a substantial part of his criticism of Nazism and other genocidal regimes. By national pattern, he is referring to people and their habituated, acculturated way of living in the world with one another. By using this phrase, Lemkin is attempting to broaden the concept of a war crime to include the aforementioned aspects of culture, dignity, and so on. Rather than simply saying people associated with some inert, lifeless category like race, ethnicity, etc., he was specifically alluding to the way that people actively live with one another as being the most meaningful thing worth saving. For Lemkin, the manner of living life in a community is paramount to what it means to part of a nation or a people; in turn, it is this manner of living that should be protected.

Secondly, he points to the fact that a genocidal regime takes aim at a target that sits outside of the war agreements that were part of the modern era. Starting explicitly with the Geneva Conventions of 1864, international rules were established to determine what was appropriate and inappropriate belligerence. The rules stated, broadly, that war happens between states and their armies rather than against civilian populations. Lemkin saw this as a beautiful step forward in the progress of humanity and he was calling out Nazism for not fighting fairly. Moreover, he was pointing to the fact that Nazism was already a problem by virtue of the fact that it advocated for total war precisely because it saw itself as fighting a righteous battle of a great nation against weaker, lesser nations and people. I would argue with Lemkin and others that genocide is the natural goal of ultranationalism. One such advocate for this idea is Theodor Adorno who suggests in his magnificent piece Education After Auschwitz that “genocide has its roots in [the] resurrection of aggressive nationalism that has developed in many countries since the end of the nineteenth century.”

Given that cultural genocide was a major goal of the ultranationalist Nazis, we can see in the story of the Paper Brigade the power and meaning of the attempt to preserve the spirit, vitality, and manner of living of one ‘nation’ against a force who sought to systematically destroy it. We can also see the insidious foundations of Nazism’s goal to replace multicultural Europe with its own monocultural form of German nationalism.  As an American scholar of genocide, I hear disconcerting resonances between the nationalist rhetoric of our day and the story of Book Smugglers. Yet, it is precisely these radical poets and partisans that give me hope. They demonstrate that humans have the capacity to find ways to tell our own stories, to speak the truth, and to maintain our voice, even in a cacophony of intolerance.

Abraham and Frida Sutzkever. Vilna 1944

Abraham Sutzkever, member of the Paper Brigade, and his wife Freydke, survey documents they rescued.

Courtesy of The Judaica Collection of the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania.

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