Shortly before the war broke out, the library of Matisyahu Strashun, the first Jewish public library ever established, consisted of some 50,000 volumes, many unique and rare and hundreds of years old. According to oral accounts from that confused time, it was put into the safekeeping of the YIVO Institute. This library and others, as well as the rest of YIVO’s holdings, were divided into three parts after the German invasion. The Germans looted one part, taking it to Frankfurt; another part they destroyed or did not have time to process; the third part was hidden by YIVO workers in 1941-1942 during the heroic period of the Paper Brigade, in which many thousands of books and documents were concealed by YIVO workers in the Vilna Ghetto or given to Gentile friends on the outside. The books and documents removed to Frankfurt were discovered after the war by the U.S. Army. This material was eventually shipped to the United States, where it became the core of the library and archive of the reconstituted YIVO Institute, which had relocated to New York in 1940.
Jonathan Brent, the director of New York’s YIVO, writes about his trip to Lithuania and YIVO’s history there.