Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
Fate of Vilna Archives Debated

NFJC Coordinates Community-wide Response to Languishing Jewish Books in Vilnius

The fate of thousands of precious documents relating to Jewish life in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania are the object of intense negotiations between a coalition of Jewish organizations and the government of Lithuania. In November of 1996, The New York Times reported that thousands of Jewish books and periodicals were languishing in a church in Vilnius, Lithuania. The front-page story outraged Jews and others throughout the country, and created a minor diplomatic crisis between Lithuania, the U.S. government and the worldwide Jewish community. Prior to that, only the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was actively engaged in seeking access to and return of extensive Jewish archival holdings that were beginning to surface in post-Soviet Lithuania.

Reacting to the Times article, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture spearheaded an ad-hoc consultation group representing the international Jewish community. Representatives of over 20 organizations attended the organizing meeting in December of 1996. The group, called the Council of Archives and Research Libraries in Jewish Studies (CARLJS), includes the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which has been actively involved in book preservation and archiving in Eastern Europe, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, which owns many of the religious books in the Vilnius repository and a number of Jewish Federations. Dr. Michael Grunberger, who is president of the group, is head of the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress. He has already been actively involved at the Library of Congress in microfilming Jewish materials from the former Soviet Union. A Library of Congress delegation had already traveled to Vilnius in 1994, and in 1995 began to microfilm early 20th-century Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals, including 22 reels of an important Vilnius Yiddish daily, Di Cajt. The process of microfilming has been slow, with scarce resources and conditions at the Lithuanian archives below average.

In addition to its importance for the future of the Vilnius material, the results of this effort will be important in establishing precedents in dealing with repositories of Jewish books throughout the former Soviet Union where materials need to be catalogued and in some cases preserved at a much higher level, according to Jerome Chanes, one of three members of the coalition’s steering committee. The steering committee met with Lithuanian Ambassador, Alfonsas Eidintas, in Washington, DC in January when the Ambassador assured the Jewish community that scholars and archivists would have "unrestricted access" to study the archive materials.

Since that first meeting, Chanes and the leadership of CARLJS, which the NFJC oversees, have focused on the next step for the Jewish community. In March, three members of a CARLJS delegation traveled to Vilnius to examine first-hand the materials housed in the Lithuanian National Library church annex and reported on their status at a meeting of the coalition. The collection of Hebrew and Yiddish publications includes 19th and 20th-century children’s books, classroom texts, Hebrew Bibles, prayer books, and pre-War Hebrew and Yiddish periodicals. Following the visit, plans were initiated for the convening of an international committee, including members of the Lithuanian government, the Lithuanian Jewish community, and Israeli and American representatives, to work on issues of transfer and disposition of the collection. So far, the Lithuanian government has expressed its desire to keep the material in Vilnius, possibly at a new research center. The small Jewish community is divided, but has not expressed an official position.

On April 18th, a small breakthrough was made in the standoff. The Lithuanian government agreed to release four Torah scrolls from the National Library to the Lithuanian Jewish communities of Kaunas and Vilnius. This may establish a precedent for the recognition of the Torah scrolls as vital ritual objects and their return for religious use. It may, however, indicate only a willingness to release some scrolls within Lithuania rather than a release of all the scrolls to communities overseas as many wish. It is not clear whether the return of the four Torahs will effect in any way the claims by international Jewish organizations for the over 50,000 documents of Jewish life – including Jewish books, pamphlets, and municipal records -- still being held.

The National Foundation for Jewish Culture can be reached at (212) 629-0500; fax: (212) 629-0508. E-mail:

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Updated: 24-Jul-98