(JTA) — When my friend and teacher Misha Avramoff died one year ago at age 83, few in the Jewish media took note of his passing.
It was a glaring omission of someone whose pioneering work with the Jewish poor — as the co-director of Project Ezra, a grassroots organization serving the Jewish elderly on the Lower East Side — and whose innovative teaching in Jewish supplemental high schools was chronicled and celebrated during his lifetime.
I was a student in one of those high schools whose life, like many, was influenced by his dedication to justice and the Jewish people. We usually perform the act of hesped, speaking words of eulogy, at the time of death when memory is immediate and feelings are raw, but we also typically stop kaddish at 11 months and arrive at the first yahrzeit with a new perspective. After a year that has seen renewed antisemitism, with many Jews feeling isolated and confused, the positive example of his life seems newly relevant.
Sharing his story at an unconventional time is appropriate for Misha, whose life defied many conventions. He worked with the poor and with the privileged. He was deeply ambivalent about the organized Jewish community while serving with love the full spectrum of the Jewish world: observant, secular, Zionist, Yekke, ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi, assimilated, Bundist. I once watched Misha talk to a Karaite watchmaker — in Ladino — at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and receive an embrace and an invitation to dinner. I attribute this to his open and welcoming nature, informed by a personal history I will summarize briefly.
Menashe Gabriel Avramoff was born in Sophia, Bulgaria, in 1939. The experience of Bulgarian Jews during World War II is unique. The community suffered persecution and relocations during the war but was spared mass deportation and extermination, with the tragic exception of Jews in the regions of Thrace, Piro and Macedonia. Misha’s reluctance to call himself a survivor would become significant when he worked with German and Polish refugees at Project Ezra. His experience is explored as part of the 2021 documentary “A Question of Survival” about the Bulgarian Jewish community in wartime.
When the Communist government came to power, Misha’s family joined an estimated 95% of Bulgaria’s Jews, the majority secular and Zionist, in moving to Israel. He liked Israel and felt at home there, adding Hebrew to the languages he had spoken in Sophia: Ladino with his family, French at his Catholic school and Bulgarian on the street. His father, who had attended university in Vienna, may also have passed on familiarity with German. In 1954, when Misha was turning 16 and his sister Adele was 10, his father moved them to the United States. Misha would later travel to Jewish communities all over the world, but from that time forward, New York was home base.
At first, Misha had trouble finding his way. There were high school years spent at the movies, working odd jobs to earn pocket money and help his family, and diligently not attending classes. He was expelled from one high school for truancy and helped a second earn a soccer championship — two facts that, when selectively disclosed, would impress his conscientious and college-focused students. Although he lived in New York longer than any other location, he never lost his accent when speaking English. It seemed almost a point of pride and provided a whiff of mystery and charm. It also anchored him as an outsider and acted like a passport to the two groups he focused on professionally, also outsiders of sorts: seniors and adolescents.
Misha began his work with adolescents as a youth group leader while earning a degree from Columbia University. He began his work with seniors following graduation, when civil rights leaders adopted a separatist ideology and many Jewish volunteers refocused on the Jewish community, where there was growing recognition of need.
These included the small group of Yeshiva University graduates who in 1973 started Project Ezra, where Misha would find his way. Writing in the Village Voice in 1972, Paul Cowan compared the poverty on the Lower East Side to notoriously poor regions he had seen elsewhere in the United States, including the deep South and inner cities. His essay “Jews Without Money, Revisited” is both tender rendition and social indictment. “Most people think of the Jewish immigration as the most spectacularly successful one in American history, but the 50-year journey from the shtetl to the Space Age left many casualties in its wake,” wrote Cowan.
This is around the time that Misha entered my life, when he added the Judah Nadich Hebrew High School at Park Avenue Synagogue to his teaching schedule. He would start his work days on the Lower East Side and end them on the Upper East Side, condensing the 50-year journey Cowan describes into something like 50 minutes. It is facile to say Misha worked with the Jewish past and the Jewish future; I am not sure he saw them as distinct. Fostering relationships is what mattered most to him. Personal encounters were the antidote to loneliness, ignorance and many forms of prejudice. They mitigated effects of poverty and countered what he saw as the sterility of Jewish institutions. He wanted his seniors to know they were not forgotten and his students to experience the authenticity of a Lower East Side where kosher food was then easier to find than vegan soft serve or seaweed-infused gin. This was both a matter of hesed — loving-kindness — and of Jewish survival.
His work at Ezra included a remarkable partnership with Rabbi Joseph Singer, a pillar of the religiously observant Lower East Side who was descended from the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In interviews, Misha described himself as an anti-poverty worker, a vocation he liked to contrast, somewhat unfairly, with social work. He was drawing from Great Society terminology and also from Rabbi Singer, who taught about “poverty of the pocketbook” and “poverty of the spirit.” Misha spoke at Singer’s funeral in 2006.
For decades, Misha’s life followed a comfortable rhythm. He worked at Ezra, taught at supplementary Jewish high schools in New York City and on Long Island, and spent summers traveling the globe with his beloved wife Jacky. There were career highlights. He pushed Ezra in 1983 to become the first American Jewish organization to host a German volunteer through Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. Since Ezra’s seniors included Holocaust survivors, this move was bold and eased by the trust they had in Misha. His recognition by the Covenant Foundation with their excellence in Jewish education award followed in 1995.
Even as funding models for social services changed, Misha persisted in raising money personally, declining offers of support from institutional donors like UJA-Federation that were, in his words, “monolithic” and “removed amcha, the people, our people” from the imperative of tzedakah. (UJA-Federation addresses poverty through its support of at least 11 agencies in the city.)
Following the economic downturn of 2008, the Ezra board proposed a merger with Selfhelp Community Services, a large agency with a different culture and strategic priorities. Although the merger stopped at the 11th hour, things were not the same after that and Misha painfully eased himself out of Ezra in the early 2010s.
Since Misha’s death last Jan. 18, many concerns of his life seem newly relevant. Jewish poverty has been revisited and highlighted on the communal agenda by organizations like TEN: Together Ending Need. Rabbi Rachel Isaacs writes about the Jewish class divide, much as Anne G. Wolfe and Paul Cowan did in the past, focusing on disparities between Jewish life in small towns and urban centers.
And since Oct. 7, other things about American Jewish life recall the early 1970s. There is again a kind of Jewish awakening in reaction to events in American life and Israel, and some Jews are feeling abandoned by fellow-travelers in social justice work. At such times, vigilance can take the form of militance and also creative experimentation. Misha’s life is an example of the second.
“When Stokely Carmichael advised whites to quit [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and to organize their own communities,” Jack Newfeld wrote in the Village Voice in 1979, when he listed Misha on his annual Honor Roll, “Misha took him at his word.”
Misha dedicated his life to the Jewish world, combining the work of social service with social action. His pursuit of justice sharpened the caring work of Ezra and his dedication to individuals softened the hard edge of activism. These and other qualities were highlighted at his funeral on Jan. 19, 2023, attended by family, friends, students and colleagues of decades. Some work for organizations whose funding Misha declined, and he had embraced them all with a large and welcoming smile.
He is survived by his wife Jacqueline Gutwirth, son Carmi Gutwirth Avramoff, niece Gabrielle Brechner (Daniel Fine) and grand-nephews Harry and Asher.
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Should schools suspend students for chanting ‘From the river to the sea’? A federal investigation in Minnesota will test the issue.
(JTA) – A suburban Minneapolis school district is facing a federal investigation for Islamophobic discrimination after suspending two Muslim students who chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The case at Edina Public Schools has divided local Jews and Muslims and is the latest in an expanding list of Title VI investigations relating to the Israel-Hamas war by the U.S. Department of Education. Investigations of two other educational institutions were also announced on Wednesday.
“From the river to the sea” is a common chant at pro-Palestinian rallies and has sparked debate. Some Jewish groups say the phrase is antisemitic for endorsing the elimination of the state of Israel, while pro-Palestinian groups say it is a peaceful call for coexistence.
One member of Congress, Democrat Rashida Tlaib, was censured for using it. Another, Republican Elise Stefanik, said it was a call for genocide at a congressional hearing that led to the resignations of two elite university presidents.
The investigation in Edina will pit those dueling perceptions against each other. Other Title VI complaints, filed on behalf of Jewish students, have argued that schools and universities must take disciplinary action against students who use phrases like it.
Taken together, the cases may compel the federal government to determine whether such phrases create a hostile environment for Jewish students — or whether disciplining students who use it constitutes anti-Muslim discrimination.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, filed the complaint in November after two high school students were suspended for chanting the phrase during an Oct. 25 pro-Palestinian walkout. CAIR-MN’s director, Jaylani Hussein, confirmed to JTA that the investigation was in response to the organization’s complaint.
CAIR-MN said it filed the complaint because the students were disciplined “for participating in protests and speaking up for Palestine.” It alleged that other students who have “expressed similar sentiments” were not suspended.
“For those of us who are using that phrase, it is contextualized in the way we see it: 75 years of occupation,” Hussein told TC Jewfolk, a local Jewish publication. Hussein also organized a protest of an Edina school board meeting in December to push back against the suspensions; the protesters chanted the phrase at the meeting.
“Anyone who believes that this is a way to have a violent approach to the freedom of Palestinians, that’s not what we’re calling for, not chanting for,” he said. “But everyone has the right to interpret things on their own.”
In a statement to JTA, the Edina school district said it has “unwavering support” for students’ rights to free speech and assembly. The district added that it also has “strong policies prohibiting any type of discrimination” for categories of people protected by state law.
“Our core beliefs in Edina Public Schools are grounded in the inherent dignity of all people,” the statement said. “We value and appreciate the diversity of all of our students. Edina Public Schools deeply condemns islamophobia and antisemitism. We will not tolerate hateful or inappropriate comments or behaviors and will work diligently to provide a safe and inclusive environment for our students and staff.”
The district has said it considers the phrase “From the river to the sea” to be antisemitic, and that it disciplined the students on those grounds after repeatedly warning them not to use the phrase. The walkout was reportedly preceded by an Instagram post saying Israel’s war in Gaza constituted ethnic cleansing and genocide. The post reportedly read, “Not speaking up is giving the green light to the Zionists.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas says it did not push the district to suspend the students. But its director, Steve Hunegs, told JTA in a statement, “We appreciate that the school district upheld their code of conduct and protected their Jewish students from antisemitism.”
Another JCRC staffer told TC Jewfolk he also considers the phrase antisemitic and “a Hamas chant with genocidal consequences.”
The Department of Education does not comment on ongoing investigations but has said that it opens investigations for every qualifying complaint it receives and that opening an investigation does not mean the complaint has merit.
The other Title VI investigations announced this week both involve allegations of antisemitic speech during pro-Palestinian rallies, and in statements. Both complaints — regarding the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Binghamton University in New York — were filed by the same person: Jewish conservative activist Zachary Marschall, editor-in-chief of the right-wing college watchdog website Campus Reform. He has no personal connection to either school.
These investigations are the fifth and sixth to be prompted by Marschall, who has filed 21 complaints against universities alleging antisemitic discrimination since Oct. 7. Excerpts of the Wisconsin and Binghamton complaints published on his own website indicate that they both relate to activism by campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.
The Wisconsin complaint concerns student activists who chanted “Glory to the martyrs” and “Liberate the land by any means necessary” in the days after the attacks. It also refers to a statement from the school’s SJP chapter that cast doubt on reports of Hamas terrorists raping Israelis. The statement added, “It is the right of any colonized and oppressed people to pursue liberation from their oppressors, including through armed resistance.”
By failing to take more decisive action against the students who used this language, Marschall wrote in his complaint, the university had failed to protect Jewish students.
“‘Martyrs’ in this context are terrorists who were killed attempting to murder Jews and it is obvious that ‘by any means necessary’ includes brutality such as the murder, torture, and rape that occurred on October 7,” he wrote in the complaint, as related by Campus Reform. (Marschall has declined to make the full text of his complaints available to JTA.)
In response, a UW-Madison spokesperson told JTA that the university “condemns antisemitism in all its forms.”
The spokesperson added, “The complaint against UW–Madison was not filed by a member of our community but instead by an outside organization that has filed complaints against several other institutions of higher education.”
Marschall’s Binghamton complaint, similarly, cites what he calls “very clear threats to Jewish students” and names an Oct. 25, 2023, SJP-led “Walk out for Palestine” protest where one student was recorded saying, “Israel is worse than Nazi Germany.”
A Binghamton spokesperson told JTA the school is cooperating with the investigation and “does not tolerate antisemitism or discriminatory acts directed at any individual based on their race, religion, national origin or other protected categories.”
Last of Joey Borgen’s attackers sentenced to 3 years for 2021 antisemitic assault
(New York Jewish Week) — After a legal saga that has endured for more than two years and drawn public attention to antisemitic street violence in New York City, all five of the men who attacked Joseph Borgen while he was en route to a pro-Israel rally in 2021 have received court sentences.
The last assailant, Mohammed Said Othman, 29, was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in state prison for attempted gang assault, and up to four years for assault in the third degree as a hate crime, both felonies. The sentences will be served concurrently.
Borgen’s assault by a group of men in Midtown Manhattan drew international attention and left him needing surgery on his wrist. Since then — in a string of court hearings that have prompted discussion of how severely hate crimes suspects should be punished — four of his five assailants have been sentenced to prison. A fifth was put on probation, but violated the terms of his release and landed in jail.
The assault in May 2021 occurred at the conclusion of the last round of conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the court proceedings and debates around it have stretched into the current war. Today, antisemitism is again spiking in New York City and pro-Palestinian rallies have returned as a near-daily fixture on the city’s streets — many of them by the same groups that protested in 2021.
“It sends a strong message moving forward that Jewish blood isn’t cheap and all hate crimes, for that matter, shouldn’t be treated lightly,” Borgen told the New York Jewish Week outside the New York State Supreme Court in downtown Manhattan following the sentencing.
Borgen, who said he was “content with the sentencing,” is pursuing a civil case against the five attackers. But he also expressed relief that the criminal proceedings were finished.
“We’ve got a civil case to take care of,” he said. “But now this is all said and done.”
He added that he hopes to “kind of take a step back, take a deep breath and hopefully just push forward, keep fighting for the Jews.”
Said Othman, from Brooklyn, pleaded guilty to the charges in September. After his release from prison, he will be under supervision, similar to parole, for three years. He told Judge Felicia Mennin, “I realize what I did was wrong,” and apologized to Borgen, his family and the Jewish community.
“This is not the example I want to go by for my son,” Said Othman said, with his supporters seated in the courtroom behind him. Borgen’s supporters sat across the aisle, many wearing kippahs and hats with the slogan “Justice for Joey.”
Mitch Silber, director of the Community Security Initiative, which coordinates security for local Jewish communities, applauded Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for prosecuting the attackers.
Silber, who attended the sentencing, said the prosecutions had “possibly kept the lid on violence in New York” following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. While there have been a number of street attacks in New York since Oct. 7, the rallies have not seen attacks on Jews.
The 2021 conflict, which lasted less than two weeks, saw a number of violent incidents connected to street demonstrations. In addition to the attack on Borgen, pro-Palestinian activist Saadah Masoud was sentenced to federal prison for attacking a Jewish pro-Israel counter-protester, Matt Greenman, in May of 2021.
Police have also stepped up their presence at demonstrations this year due to the violence in 2021.
“The fact that there are consequences for attacking a Jew in New York City for no other reason than being a Jew has reverberated after 10/7,” Silber told the New York Jewish Week in the courtroom. “Yes we’ve seen protest activity, yes we’ve seen antisemitic incidents, but we haven’t seen any type of dramatic gang assaults like we saw in May of 2021.”
Borgen’s assault happened on the evening of May 20, 2021, after the attackers left a pro-Palestinian protest at Times Square around 7 p.m. As they walked up Broadway, they encountered Borgen, who was wearing a kippah. The assailants chased Borgen down the street, and Said Othman grabbed him, threw him to the ground and repeatedly punched him in the face. The group then kicked and pepper sprayed Borgen while he was on the ground, and made antisemitic remarks.
Ahead of the rally, the defendants coordinated their plans to attend and discussed how to conceal their identities. Assailant Mohammed Othman, 26 — who received a 5 1/2-year sentence in state prison — said he would not let the rally remain peaceful, while Said Othman said he wanted to burn an Israel flag, according to a statement from Bragg’s office on Wednesday.
Another attacker in the case, Mahmoud Musa, 25, was sentenced to seven years in state prison in November. The two other defendants received lighter sentences.
“These defendants violently targeted and assaulted another individual simply because he is Jewish,” Bragg said in the statement. “While this office will always support the right to peacefully protest and engage in open dialogue, these multi-year prison sentences make clear that physically attacking someone because of their religion is never acceptable.”
Said Othman, Masoud and other demonstrators who have been prosecuted for antisemitic hate crimes have demonstrated with the pro-Palestinian group Within Our Lifetime, which organizes frequent anti-Israel demonstrations in the city. The group has led rallies that have blocked traffic in recent weeks and targeted institutions including the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital. The group regularly calls for Israel’s destruction and endorsed the Oct. 7 attack.
At the conclusion of the sentencing, Borgen said he feels the city has not gotten safer since his assault. The protesters during the current conflict “are the same group that attacked me,” he told the New York Jewish Week.
“They’re still going around the city, doing whatever they want to do,” he said.
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The Lublin Yeshiva Library was thought to be destroyed by the Nazis. Then its books started turning up.
(JTA) — For decades after World War II, a famed Jewish house of study in Poland was consigned to oblivion.
The Nazis set fire to thousands of books stored at the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in 1939, the popular story went, leaving no trace of its enormous library even as its students were sent to their deaths.
But while Lublin’s Jews were murdered, that great bonfire never occurred, according to Lublin local Piotr Nazaruk, who researches the city’s Jewish history at the Grodzka Gate-NN Theater Center. Nazaruk was fascinated by a set of mysteries cloaking the Lublin Yeshiva, once among the largest Jewish educational institutions in the world, whose yellow building still stands in the former Jewish quarter — now mostly empty of Jews.
“We’ve all seen images of books being burned by the Nazis during the war,” Nazaruk told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But if this yeshiva and its library were so famous, and it was such a prestigious thing for the Nazis to destroy it, why are there no traces — no photos or documents — actually proving that it happened?” And if there were no fire, might those books still be available today, in attics, private collections and on the shelves of people unaware of their tragic provenance?
There are about 40 Jews in Lublin today, but over 40,000 lived there before the Holocaust, roughly one third of the city’s population. Nazaruk, who is not Jewish, became fascinated with Poland’s Jewish history over 10 years ago. He happened upon a series of Yiddish newspapers at a library in his hometown of Biała Podlaska, north of Lublin. The discovery inspired him to study Yiddish.
“For me, this Jewish, Yiddish-speaking world of prewar Poland is almost like a parallel universe,” he said. “It happened in places that I know, on streets I walk. It was like discovering a hidden history of places I know very well.”
Nazaruk threw himself into investigating the disappearance of the Lublin Yeshiva Library. He had on his side other skeptics of the bonfire story, including Adam Kopciowski, a Lublin historian at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University who found five of the yeshiva’s books at the former Chevra Nosim synagogue — Lublin’s only surviving prewar synagogue — in the early 2000s.
Nazaruk found press reports, dated after Lublin’s liberation by the Russian army in 1944, that indicated the library had survived. Then, one slow afternoon at work, he was scrolling through the digital archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and came across a treasure trove: 130 books with Lublin Yeshiva stamps.
That discovery began a quest to reunite the books that once belonged to the Jewish library, estimated to hold between 15,000 and 40,000 volumes at the dawn of World War II. Nazaruk now feels sure that most of the historic collection was not burned, but instead scattered across the globe.
Over the past three years, he has amassed a digital catalog of 850 books with stamps identifying their roots at the Lublin Yeshiva Library. The vast majority of these cannot be physically returned to Lublin, since they are now the property of public and private collections worldwide — from Warsaw and Jerusalem to New York, Prague and elsewhere.
Only 10 of the lost volumes have made their way home. In addition to the five found by Kopciowski, two were returned by Berlin’s Freie Universität in 2022, and three more found by an Israeli who personally delivered them to Lublin in December.
Together with Lublin’s small remaining Jewish community, Nazaruk is planning a public display for these 10 books in the former yeshiva building.
His project belongs to a recent trend of “memory activism” in Poland, according to Geneviève Zubrzycki, a sociologist who researches nationalism and religion at the University of Michigan. Education about the mass murder of Polish Jews did not start until the 1980s, when the Soviet Union fell and Poland began a process of democratization. Even then, silence about the past prevailed for decades in many small towns of Galicia once filled with Jews.
“Ninety percent of Polish Jewry was exterminated, and those who survived very often decided not to return to Poland,” Zubrzycki told JTA. “So if you have few Jews left in Poland to talk about their experience, and you have a large Polish population who remembers their [own] suffering — and that suffering is also folded into a socialist narrative that’s imposed by the Soviets — it leaves very little for Jewish memory-making.”
Although some books on the Lublin Yeshiva Library’s shelves dated back to the 16th century, the yeshiva itself lived less than 10 years.
The school opened in 1930 under the leadership of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who planned a new kind of yeshiva to raise the prestige of the Torah student. His goal was not only to offer the highest caliber of religious education, but also to house students in a modern institution with respectable dormitories and lecture halls, showers, good meals and an infirmary.
“Before Lublin, boys in yeshivas usually lived in very poor conditions, they ate poorly,” said Nazaruk. “Being a yeshiva student was not like being in some prestigious university.”
With the help of donations from Jewish communities across Poland and abroad, Shapiro rapidly built one of the largest Jewish libraries in Poland. A New York rabbi, Benjamin Gut of the Chasam Sopher synagogue, sent an estimated 4,000 books and $1,000 to Lublin. After Shapiro died in 1933, the library also absorbed his own private book collection.
Lublin was a vital center of Jewish culture in Poland and home to a significant share of Jews since the early 1600s. Under the Nazis, the city became a center of mass extermination and its Jewish population was obliterated. About 5,000 Jews settled there after the Holocaust, but most left in the late 1940s, after local Poles killed Holocaust survivors in the Kielce Pogrom of 1946 and antisemitism in the Soviet Union convinced many there was no future for Jews in Poland.
In the war’s aftermath, a widespread story about a Nazi bonfire emerged to explain the disappearance of the Lublin Yeshiva Library . This account, cited by researchers and historians over the years, has been traced to a note reportedly published in a Nazi youth magazine titled “Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung.”
The newspaper allegedly boasted that the library’s books were devoured by a fire lasting 24 hours, while a Nazi band played military music to “cover the cries of the Jews.” But no one has ever seen that magazine in person, according to Nazaruk. The first reference to it appears in Hatsofe, a newspaper in British-mandate Palestine, in 1941.
The spectacle of book burnings was typically photographed, filmed and used to supply propaganda for Nazi newsreels. But if a Lublin Yeshiva Library fire was indeed reported in a “Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung,” it was never corroborated by any other Nazi newspapers or German authorities.
Nazaruk said it’s unclear how the rumor started. But it is known that the Germans tasked Rabbi Aron Lebwohl, a yeshiva graduate, with cataloging the library — an indication that they did not plan to destroy it. Lebwohl worked on this inventory until he was murdered at Majdanek in 1942.
Several Nazi organizations were interested in cataloging and looting Jewish collections for their own purposes, according to Daniel Lipson, a librarian at the National Library of Israel.
“Many were interested in antisemitic scholarship — starting to study the Jewish people that no longer existed, as they hoped would happen,” Lipson told JTA.
Nazaruk reasons that the yeshiva’s collection was carefully stored and prepared for transport to Germany. When the Russians marched into Lublin and the Germans fled, he believes, the books were abandoned.
How the books were dispersed through the world is a question that Nazaruk is still piecing together. Kopciowski has theorized that many were destined for Prague, where the Germans were amassing a collection of artifacts looted from Jewish communities across Europe. Lublin books may also have been pillaged by the Russian army, which took as many as 2 million books — including Jewish books and manuscripts — to the Soviet Union, according to journalist Anders Rydell.
Nazaruk has ascertained that over 100 Lublin Yeshiva books were shipped to Warsaw, where the Jewish Historical Institute was established in 1947 and where he first uncovered a collection of volumes with yeshiva stamps.
Another 100 have been identified at the National Library of Israel. At the end of the war, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem sent scholars to trace famous archives of Jewish books in Europe and bring them to Israel. The Central Committee of Polish Jews handed about 85,000 books to the Hebrew University, including an uncertain number from the Lublin Yeshiva Library, Lipson said.
Many of the Lublin Yeshiva books that arrived in Israel are likely still undocumented. The Hebrew University kept some books from Poland at the National Library of Israel but distributed the rest to smaller libraries, schools and synagogues across the country.
Nazaruk expects that much of the library’s collection has ended up in private hands. He frequently sees Lublin Yeshiva books crop up in online auctions, fetching prices from $200 to $11,000 — far out of budget for his research project.
He believes that his digitally reconstituted library of 850 books is just the tip of the iceberg.
“A few years ago, most people thought that the entire collection was destroyed,” he said. “Eight hundred books is maybe 5% of the original holdings — so on the one hand it’s not a lot, but on the other hand, it proves that probably thousands more are still around.”
Nazaruk’s scavenging resembles other efforts to revive Jewish history across Poland. Since the early 2000s, about 40 festivals of Jewish culture have been instituted in cities and towns across the country, many of them organized by non-Jews. According to Zubrzycki, this revival points to a nostalgia among some Polish groups for a past of which by Jews are a symbol — in a country where living Jews are sparse.
“Many [of those leading the revival] are practicing Catholics, but they want to recover this kind of pluralism that no longer exists in Poland,” said Zubrzycki. She noted that Poland is about 95% ethnically Polish today, one of the most homogeneous states in the world. “They feel that recovering the Jewish history of Poland is a way to build multiculturalism.”