Photo: Exterior of YIVO building in Vilnius, ca. 1933. Courtesy YIVO.
by David E. Fishman
In this essay David Fishman draws a comparison between yidishe visnshaft, or Jewish studies scholarship, and Judenforschung, the Nazi field of anti-Semitic Jewish studies used to justify the persecution and extermination of Jews in scientific terms. He examines the work of Zelig Kalmanovitch, who had been a well-known scholar and co-director of YIVO before World War II, during the time when he was forced to produce scholarship as a member of the Jewish slave labor brigade assigned to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Vilna. Fishman notes the remarkable scholarly accomplishments Kalmanovitch was able to achieve in a time of enormous adversity. He also demonstrates several junctures in which Kalmanovitch, a meticulous scholar, omitted facts or altered scholarship in order to save lives. These dual impulses of preserving historical truths about Jewish communities and a willingness to obscure facts over which people could be killed contribute to Fishman’s assessment that Kalmanovitch’s scholarship emerged from erudition, love and dedication to the Jewish people about whom he wrote, the very opposite of the purposes for which his scholarship was obtained by his Nazi slave masters.
On June 16, 1942, Herbert Gotthardt, a staff member of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in Vilna, instructed Zelig Kalmanovitch to prepare an essay and bibliography on the Karaïtes. Kalmanovitch, a well-known scholar and co-director of YIVO before the war, was a member of the Jewish slave labor brigade assigned to the ERR which segregated Jewish and other books, manuscripts and documents into two categories: valuable items to be sent to Germany, and valueless items to be destroyed. The former YIVO co-director was an expert bibliographer in this work brigade, nicknamed the paper brigade, based in the YIVO building at 18 Wiwulskiego Street. The brigade was headed by librarian Herman Kruk and consisted of twenty physical laborers and twenty intellectuals, including the Yung-Vilne poets Abraham Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski.
Gotthardt’s assignment to Kalmanovitch was a new departure for the ERR in Vilna. The Rosenberg-Detail was primarily a looting agency for cultural treasures, but it also had an analytic department who churned out studies and reports on various cultural and historical topics. Gotthardt wasn’t a military man but an academic who had taught Bible and Semitic linguistics at the University of Berlin before the war. Thanks to his knowledge of Hebrew, his superiors in the ERR considered him an expert in the field of Judenforschung, the Nazi field of anti-Semitic Jewish studies which justified the persecution and extermination of the Jews in scientific terms.