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The Vanishing of the Strashun Library

YIVO and the legacy of the Jews of Vilna

Dan Rabinowitz
February 15, 2022
Wikimedia Commons
'In the Strashun Library,' Vilnius, 1922-23. Part of the Vilner Yidishe Geto (Vilnius Jewish Ghetto) postcard series, featuring illustrations by Ber ZalkindWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
'In the Strashun Library,' Vilnius, 1922-23. Part of the Vilner Yidishe Geto (Vilnius Jewish Ghetto) postcard series, featuring illustrations by Ber ZalkindWikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research announced that it had completed the digitization of a massive archive, consisting of over 4 million documents, from its holdings. The materials contained in the archive are encyclopedic in their coverage of Eastern European Jewish life and culture. From broadsheets to manuscripts of Yiddish plays and hundreds of autobiographical essays, to records of museums and yeshivot, it is a nearly endless cache attesting to hundreds of years of Jewish existence. While the archive has always been an indispensable repository of materials for any serious research into Eastern European Jewish history, digitization transformed this important ephemera into a permanent record of that history. At the same time, YIVO missed an opportunity to sustain the memory of an extraordinary institution whose works are part of this project.

In the city of Vilna, at No. 4 German Street, one of the most prosperous streets where Jews were permitted to live, stood an impressive three-story house equipped with its own wine cellar, wherein resided Mattityahu Strashun and his wife, Sara. During the mid-19th century, when the house was built, they lived among 30,000 Jews, over 50% of Vilna’s overall population. By 1940, there were 60,000 Jews in Vilna; by 1945 there would be less than 5,000. Most of the 95% of Vilna’s Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were shot and left in pits, which would eventually be dug up by conscripted Jews so that the bones of their dead parents and siblings and cousins could be crushed into powder, in a vain attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities.

By war’s end, only one of Vilna’s estimated 160 synagogues and kloyz (combination of study hall and synagogue) remained in operation. Most of the old Jewish quarter stood in ruins; whatever was left was razed by the Soviets, who obliterated the headstones of the two Jewish cemeteries and used the pieces for building materials. Mattityahu’s building was also demolished in an aborted attempt to create a highway through the center of the Old City.

Mattityahu Strashun
Mattityahu StrashunHaAsif, 2 (1886)

Mattityahu Strashun could not be erased from history so easily. His father, Rabbi Samuel Strashun (known by his acronym as RaShaSh), studied with an elite circle of scholars and wrote Talmudic commentaries that cover nearly every one of the over 2,700 pages of Talmud; he also spoke Polish. Mattityahu, born in 1817, too was a scholar, a communal leader, an award-winning Bank Chair, as well as a major philanthropist. Yet, most of these accomplishments might well be lost to history if not for the passion that made him world-famous: his book collecting. He ultimately housed his collection in the famous library to which he lent his name—the Strashun Library. Located in the center of Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” the library was an egalitarian space whose broad and deep holdings served as an intellectual meeting place and scholarly resource for every segment of Jewish society—political, religious, economic, and nationalistic.

Mattityahu had received a traditional Jewish education including Tanakh (Bible), Talmud, and rabbinic literature, with an emphasis on Midrash, in addition to Hebrew grammar, mathematics, and geography; he was fluent in Polish, Russian, Greek, Latin. From a young age, Mattityahu’s appreciation of scholarship fed his book collecting. When he died at the age of 68 in 1885, he had amassed over 7,000 books and manuscripts.

The composition of the Strashun library was deliberately diverse and multilingual. Unlike nearly all his peer scholars, Mattityahu collected a broad range of books, ranging from traditional texts including over 500 responsa books to German Jewish academic works by Leopold Zunz and others to Christian Latin translations of the Bible. His collection included five incunabula (books printed in the infancy of the movable type press until 1500), approximately 300, 16th-century Hebrew books, and manuscripts authored by his father and the Vilna Gaon. It also included works on poetry, grammar, cemetery histories, Spinoza’s books, satires, world history, translations of Hebrew texts into Spanish, Latin, Greek, German, Arabic, math, and the multiple editions of the New Testament. His oldest book, Ha-Kanon Ha-Godol, Naples (1491?), is a Hebrew translation of the complete Arabic text of the Persian writer and philosopher Avicenna’s medical compendium, Canon medicinae. Additionally, his library contained, according to some estimates, as many as 2,500 books entirely in foreign languages.

In the summer of 1885, Mattityahu Strashun suffered a fall and his health quickly deteriorated. On Nov. 27, he drew up his last will and testament. According to his niece Deborah Romm, he was most concerned with the fate of his library and works still in manuscript, and his will included explicit instructions regarding their disposition.

Mattityahu’s will is written in Russian in his own hand, (an indication of his fluency) and is preserved in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. According to its terms, the library’s contents were to be accessible to anyone and everyone “who desires them for reading or prayer,” and stipulates that the bequest is “without the right of alienation”—irrevocable. To fulfill those conditions, it stipulated that the entire Jewish community of Vilna would own, operate, and be allowed free access to the library. Another portion of his will made it clear that he saw the library as a living thing; he designated funds for the formation of an endowment that would assist in continuously augmenting the collection to address the ever-changing needs of its patrons.

On Saturday night, Dec. 13, Mattityahu called members of the Burial Society and the Tzedakah Gedolah (the community board) to his bedside and requested a cemetery plot next to his father. He died the next day. Mattityahu’s funeral occurred on the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 16. The stores were closed by the order of the community, and the streets around his house were overflowing with mourners. According to one report, an estimated 23,000 people attended his funeral.

Since Mattityahu Strashun died without an heir, a special board was established on behalf of the library which adopted resolutions regarding its future and the community’s ownership, ensuring its status as a public institution and asserting that the library would remain the property of the community in perpetuity. The library was to be open to all, seven days a week (although writing was forbidden on the Sabbath). Only three days a year, during the High Holidays, was it closed. This was especially important because, in keeping with the egalitarian nature of the institution, the Sabbath and holidays were the only days that many, especially the poor, might have the time to visit.

Initially, the Strashun Library shared space with another institution. In 1902, Strashun’s vision of a separate building to house his collection was brought to fruition. The two-story Strashun Library building was officially opened to great fanfare on April 27, 1902, on the fourth day of Chol HaMoed—the intermediate days of Passover. The library was prominently located in the Shulhoyf—the Great Synagogue courtyard, home to many of Vilna’s most important intellectual and spiritual organizations, which served as the effective town square of Jewish Vilna. The library was situated to the right of the main entrance, opposite the Vilna Gaon’s kloyz, and directly in front of the Great Synagogue—the library being of such importance that it was permitted to partially block the view of the synagogue’s impressive façade.

The Strashun Library’s main reading room could seat up to 100 patrons at a time. From its establishment, reports are nearly uniform in singling out the diversity of its users who included “rabbis and Talmudic scholars who were studying responsa and halakhic works” who sat side-by-side with the “younger generation who were reading maskilic works.” From the day that the Strashun Library opened, women were welcome “even young women, bare-armed sometimes on warm days, studying their texts.” Portraits of Mattityahu Strashun and Isaac Leib Peretz, the Yiddish author and playwright, were displayed on the wall; the two unique personalities from different generations, holding different ideological positions, were both figures of veneration within the pantheon of Jewish intellectuals associated with the Library.

Interior, Strashun Library
Interior, Strashun LibraryFrom Jerusalem of Lithuania, Leyzer Ran, 1974

In anticipation of the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl’s visit in 1903, the library commissioned a special guest book, Sefer Ha-Zahav, the Golden Book, to inscribe the names and comments of visitors. Herzl would be the first to sign. But, either due to safety concerns or because the Russian government refused permission, Herzl never reached the Strashun Library. Yet the book eventually held hundreds of signatures and notes that attest to the wide usage of the library among Jews and non-Jews alike; the Vilna poetry group Yung Vilne created by the Yiddish scholar, Zalman Reyzen, and whose members include Chaim Grade and Avraham Sutzkever, used the library; Baron David Gunzburg; the philosopher Hermann Cohen; the scions of Yiddish literature Mendele Mokher-Seforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh) and Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz); the Hebrew poet, the father of academic Talmud, professor Jacob Nahum Epstein; the historian Simon Dubnow; Chaim Nachman Bialik; in addition to staunch traditionalists Rabbi Hayim Ozer Grodzenski and Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim), all visited and signed the book.

The Strashun Library ultimately became the largest Jewish public library in Eastern Europe, visited by an estimated 100,000 patrons yearly. By 1940, Mattityahu’s library had expanded to almost 10 times its original size to 50,172 books, covering subjects as diverse as Hebrew grammar, homiletics, history, letters, math, geography, anthropology, eulogies, German, Russian, English, and French language primers, ethics, bibliography, philosophy, Zionism, Kabbalah, medicine, poems, songs. Books from nearly every Western language were represented including German, Russian, Latin, French, Italian, English, Polish, Spanish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, and Arabic.

On Aug. 3, 1940, Lithuania officially became the 16th republic of the USSR, and on Nov. 1, 1940, all of Vilna’s major libraries, including the Strashun Library, were nationalized. The Strashun Library was renamed Public Library Number Four. Though its doors were closed, the library’s collection remained intact. The Nazi invasion in 1941 signaled the end of the Strashun Library in its original incarnation.

Without a doubt, the perverse Nazi campaign of looting and plundering Jewish treasures while torturing, shooting, and gassing Jewish bodies protected large parts of the Jewish patrimony in Europe from the destruction of war. Indeed, the Nazis proved to be especially good caretakers of Jewish cultural artifacts, including books. Toward the end of WWII, when the Jewish books that had been transported to Germany came within the zone of Allied bombing, the Nazis transported the manuscripts to salt mines and the deep basements of castles. While preparing to make their final stand, facing the likely prospect of their own demise, the Nazis allocated precious resources to ensure the longevity of Jewish cultural property while similarly diverting resources for another Jewish project—sending as many Jews as possible to death camps.

Arriving in Vilna in July 1941, the Nazis began to systematically loot its Jewish treasures and immediately turned their attention to the Strashun Library, conscripting Jews, including the poet Abraham Sutzkever, to select the best books for shipment to Germany. Jews, at risk of their lives, smuggled books out of the library and hid them in underground bunkers, or malinas. By September 1944, when the Red Army reentered Vilna, the Germans had shipped at least 26,000 books from the Strashun Library to Frankfurt, while at least 2,500 books remained hidden in bunkers.

The destroyed library, 1944
The destroyed library, 1944From Jerusalem of Lithuania, Leyzer Ran, 1974

By 1945, only two of the Strashun Library’s walls remained standing. The interior was entirely gutted with the exception of a small side-room containing a single metal book cabinet open and bereft of its precious treasures. When the Yiddish poet and author Chaim Grade returned to Vilna in 1945, he described the remnants of the Strashun Library building, which had previously shone forth as a beacon of light, as “an entire row of shattered windows” that “casts an enormous black shadow, like a black-covered cloth hung over the mirror in a house where there has been a death.” In the 1950s, the Soviets dynamited the remaining buildings in the Great Synagogue courtyard, the shulhoyf, erasing the last vestiges of the building. Today, at that site, all that remains of this formerly magnificent testament to the intellectual power of the Vilna Jewish community is a sign across the street, in English, Russian, and Lithuanian, offering a brief description, and a photo of the Great Synagogue. The sign does not mention the Strashun Library. A small plaque at the end of Zemaitijos street reads, in Lithuanian, “This street was previously named after the Jewish scholar, philanthropist, and bibliographer, M. Strashun (1817-1885) whose name was attached to the collection of one of the largest Judaica libraries in Europe.”

Yet despite the destruction of Vilna’s buildings, and the extermination of its Jewish inhabitants, most of the Vilna-owned Strashun Library survived the war in Germany, within what became the American Zone. The United States government was faced with the quandary of what to do with hundreds of thousands of heirless Jewish books. Among the books recovered were those belonging to YIVO (the Yiddish Scientific Institute), a leading institution “for scholarship in Yiddish and about the history and culture of East European Jews and their emigrant communities.” YIVO successfully petitioned the United States government for those books and materials, and they were sent out to its New York location. But not only did YIVO claim its own books; it also claimed the Strashun Library.

Over the past seven decades, YIVO has provided a shifting narrative regarding its legal claim to the Strashun Library books. The current version offered by YIVO describes a full transfer of ownership that supposedly occurred in October 1939 between the committee responsible for the Strashun Library and YIVO’s executive board. Yet this transfer demonstrably never occurred, and YIVO has pointed only to a variety of ex post facto internally generated “letters and sworn testimonies” and an analysis by the U.S. government that was based on those documents, none of which are corroborated by any independent contemporaneous evidence. To the contrary, the contemporaneous evidence indicates that the institutions remained independent. Until the Soviet Union nationalized the Strashun Library in 1940, it remained under the community control and ownership, as was stipulated in the original will and testament and confirmed by the trustees at the library’s establishment. The sign on the side of the library continued to read, “The Library of the Vilna Community.”

Archival materials also confirm that YIVO and the Strashun Library always remained separate and were never formally or informally merged. For example, the 1941 Nazi inventory of Jewish cultural institutions separates the two institutions. In 1946, the director of YIVO, and a member of the executive board, Max Weinreich, for purposes of any potential restitution of looted property, describes both YIVO and the Strashun Library in detail. He fails to mention any connection between the two institutions, let alone a merger. When reached for comment, YIVO conceded that “the 1939 agreement referred to above was not able to be fully realized given the chaos of the war at that time. Since the postwar period YIVO has maintained the Strashun collection as a separate entity within the larger YIVO collection.”

Nonetheless, YIVO convinced the United States government of its narrative. On June 18, 1947, both the Strashun Library’s books and YIVO’s left Germany, heading for New York. There were 34,204 books, in 270 crates. According to the document, 205 of those crates containing 23,709 Strashun Library books were part of that shipment. These books had been rescued from an uncertain future at best and, in the worst case, their destruction.

Shelves at the Strashun Library
Shelves at the Strashun LibraryFrom The Ghetto Lane in Vilna, M. Vorobeichic, 1931

Nearly half of the pre-WWII Strashun Library had survived the greatest Jewish tragedy in human history by hiding out in Germany. The YIVO Library did not fare as well. Of the estimated 40,000 volumes in YIVO’s Library, only 8,842 YIVO books, in 61 crates, were accounted for. The Strashun Library books comprised nearly half of all the 420 crates of both books and archival materials, 75% of all books, and almost three times more books than YIVO’s. Eventually YIVO would receive, including its own books and those through other distributions (that were among those to many American Jewish institutions), a total of 40,000 books, over half of which came from the Strashun Library.

For the next 16 years, YIVO did not divulge that it held the Strashun Library books. In 1962, YIVO finally disclosed it held a significant number of books from the Strashun Library. Yet, in doing so, it diminished the impact of this disclosure. Rather than treating the Strashun Library as a unique vestige of Vilna history, the books were described as part of YIVO’s own Vilna Collection—that is YIVO’s prewar Vilna collection—now located at YIVO in New York. This, despite the fact that, by any accounting, the Strashun Library books comprised over half of YIVO’s Vilna collection, with YIVO’s own prewar collection containing less than 10,000 books.

In order to cement its prewar ownership of the Strashun Library books, YIVO duplicated its prewar ex libris and affixed it to the books. Copying pre-World War II YIVO stamps and applying them to the Strashun Library books was something more than hiding crates of books that arguably didn’t belong to YIVO; it was a deliberate falsification of the provenance of thousands of books, some of which had singular historical importance. When asked for comment, YIVO responded that the books have both the Strashun stamp as well as the original numbering system designated by Strashun, which is still preserved. But this is not in dispute; the ex libris do not obliterate the ones before it as much as pervert the history. They are not overwriting history, just materially altering it.

The assertion that the books were held in the YIVO library prior to the Nazi expropriation and looting of the Strashun Library was a violation of the historical record and of the material history of each Strashun book. It was also an act of destruction, committed in secret, of the collection as a whole, as the Strashun Library books were swallowed up into YIVO’s larger collection of Vilna material and the books’ unique identity as part of a singular library was dissolved among thousands of other books. The Strashun Library books survived, ripped from the jaws of destruction, but the memory of the Strashun Library was lost.

On Thursday, Sept. 9, 2009, some of the Strashun Library books, including dozens from Mattityahu’s personal collection, were sold at a Kestenbaum & Company auction. These items represented but a small portion of YIVO’s Strashun Library holdings. Nonetheless why out of the nearly 400,000 books that YIVO had its disposal, these books were selected for sale, despite—or because of—their unique history, remains unclear. It certainly was not for their astronomical value, the proceeds amounted to less than $25,000.

For decades, YIVO’s catalog did maintain a record, if incomplete, of the books it took from the Strashun Library. For many of the books, the provenance section still mentioned that the book was originally from the Strashun Library, even if the nameplates had been altered. It was therefore possible to reassemble a large part of the library, if YIVO had so desired.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became widely known that thousands of books from the Strashun Library remained in Lithuania and were housed among thousands of other books, all piled high in a large room in a former church. Some of those Strashun books were among the most valuable parts of the library’s collection, including those that had been hidden in malinas and dug up after the war—only to be nationalized by the Soviets and left to languish in storage. Eventually, Lithuania would create, as part of the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, a Judaica Research Centre with a reading room dedicated to the Strashun Library’s extraordinary librarian Haykl Lunski.

Piles of unidentified books in the Offenbach Archival Depot warehouse, Offenbach, Germany, 1946
Piles of unidentified books in the Offenbach Archival Depot warehouse, Offenbach, Germany, 1946Yad Vashem

The center’s inaugural exhibit from May 22-June 23, 2017, “The People and the Book of the Strashun Library,” provided an accurate history of the Strashun Library books—with the library remaining independent from YIVO until its demise. The Strashun exhibit included a history of the library, rare books from Mattitayhu’s collection, some with his marginalia, rare documents regarding the library, including his last will and testament and documents that inventory the holdings in 1940 and concerning the transfer of the public Strashun Library to the Soviet state, and other ephemera related to the library—all of which confirmed that the Strashun Library had remained the Vilna Jewish community library until it was appropriated by the Soviets.

Because of this discovery and general efforts to digitize collections, Lithuania and YIVO agreed to digitize their respective holdings of Strashun materials. This digitization raised the possibility of finally reuniting the Strashun Library, and making it freely and widely available, in the spirit of Mattityahu Strashun’s bequest.

In 2014, I purchased a book from Mattityahu’s personal library. That began my quest to learn more about the history of the Strashun Library. After many years of my own research into the Strashun Library, I published an essay in 2015 at The Seforim Blog, entitled “Finders Keepers? The Itinerant History of Strashun Library of Vilna” and was then invited by Brandeis University Press to publish a book-length study of my research. My book, The Lost Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust, was published in 2019, tells this story in full. At that time, I remained hopeful that the digitization project would honor the memory of the Strashun Library and not just its books.

Tragically, the digital record had the opposite effect of further scrubbing the Strashun books of their collective history. Now, in many entries, YIVO no longer mentions the Strashun Library even in provenance descriptions. Instead, it merely notes: “Mathias Strashun 1817-1885, Former owner,” with the existence of the library and its collections entirely erased. The longer provenance narrative section now reads: “This book was digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections Project, a 7-year international project to preserve, digitize, and virtually reunite YIVO’s prewar library and archival collections located in New York City and Vilnius, Lithuania, through a dedicated web portal.” Only YIVO’s prewar library is mentioned; the Strashun Library has disappeared entirely.

Attestation of Max Uveeler, executive secretary of YIVO, to the U.S. government regarding YIVO's associated libraries, 1947
Attestation of Max Uveeler, executive secretary of YIVO, to the U.S. government regarding YIVO’s associated libraries, 1947 National Archives in College Park, Maryland

YIVO has had other opportunities to acknowledge its attempts to efface the history of the Strashun Library, but has not done so. In 2001, for example YIVO mounted an exhibition, “Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817–1885): Scholar, Leader, and Book Collector,” and published a small monograph with a few essays from leading academic scholars showcasing books “drawn from the holdings of YIVO Library, Strashun Collection, and YIVO Archives.” Yet neither the exhibition nor the essays directly addressed YIVO’s claim to the Strashun Library. Likewise, on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, YIVO held a one-day conference, “The History and Future of the Strashun Library”, which elided how the Strashun Library ended up in New York, and squandered another opportunity to potentially correct the record and broadcast the larger significance of the Strashun Library’s residence at YIVO. (A recording of the proceedings of the 2017 conference is online here.)

Nor is the Strashun Library the only collection from Vilna to lose its significance in YIVO’s embrace. The S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographical Society of Vilna was founded in 1919 by its namesake, S. Anksy, the well-known ethnographer and author of The Dybbuk, in Vilna. From nearly its creation, YIVO had repeatedly suggested that the society be incorporated into YIVO—an offer that was rejected time and time again by the society’s trustees. While some materials were transferred to YIVO, that was done on the explicit condition that the society retain ownership. Eventually, the museum did transfer ownership—to the Vilna kehillah, the community board—and became a public institution.

Nonetheless, in the same documents that YIVO asserted ownership of the Strashun Library, YIVO told the United States government that in 1939, the trustees had formally and legally incorporated the Ansky Society’s materials into the YIVO’s treasures. Today, YIVO includes this narrative regarding the provenance of the Ansky materials: “After 1939 the ethnographic materials of the S. Ansky Society were merged with YIVO.”

Like the Strashun Library, the society’s materials were never legally transferred to YIVO. All the contemporaneous evidence points to that conclusion. There is no doubt that YIVO preserved these items, just not their full history.

In the past few years, there have been multiple archeological digs at the site of the former shulhoyf in VIlna. In the process the archeologists have uncovered a mikvah, part of the great synagogue, and a tiny hand of a Torah pointer, the yad, all preserved under the rubble of decades of neglect and deliberate destruction. Nothing remains of the Strashun Library.

Whether any relics of the fabled library will eventually be discovered beneath modern day Vilna is almost a moot point. The Strashun Library is no longer constrained to serve 100 people at a time; the digital medium at The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections is nearly endless. Nonetheless, without acknowledging its material history, the library’s virtual patrons lose out on appreciating the fullness of the history they are engaging with, and instead are enveloped by a series of distortions about the provenance of the books they are reading. The simplest way that YIVO could atone for its wrongdoing is to finally tell the truth about its appropriations of books that are not theirs and decades of systematic falsification of the historical record. By doing so, it might allow part of the Strashun Library to live again, albeit in virtual form. These corrections would make YIVO’s efforts all the more impressive, preserving not only an archive, but the memory of one of Eastern Europe’s greatest intellectual institutions for everyone.

Dan Rabinowitz is a book collector and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Seforim Blog, and the author of The Lost Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Brandeis University Press, 2019).