How I Became the Librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute
Fania Brantsovsky - former Jewish partisan during World War Two and librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute - describes how she began working at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and how the Institute received books from all over the world.
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Tags: Yiddish Book Center Yiddish language Yiddish culture Jewish culture National Yiddish Book Center Wexler Oral History Project nybc ybc Yiddish Fania Brantsovsky Vilnius Yiddish Institute Dovid Katz Librarian Lithuania Career and Professional Life Books Eastern Europe
Added: 6 months ago
in conversation with Christa Whitney
A production of the
Wexler Oral History Project
at the Yiddish Book Center
[scene opens with an elderly female librarian (short grey hair, white blouse) being interviewed in Yiddish]
CHRISTA: [translated] How did you become the librarian here?
FANIA: [translated] I think that Dovid Katz ... When the institute was created, Dovid already knew me from the community. Well, he needed someone who could read Yiddish, who could write Yiddish. We receive a lot of letters.
[she points off camera]
FANIA: [translated] Indre knows Yiddish as well, she took the courses here. And so it was all built up, and then we decided ... This entire library is made up of gifts.
FANIA: [translated] We don't have any money to buy books. Mendy Cahan brought a lot of books. We get books from America, from Australia. I remember receiving three large bags.
FANIA: [translated] And some of those books were very useful. For instance, when we visited Libele, I saw that he had a memorial book for teachers. So I decided to ask him for a copy. And we got the book from Australia.
FANIA: [translated] Well, perhaps there should be more new computerized books, but I'm old and with all this ... you know?
[she throws her hands up]
FANIA: [translated] And I'm happy that people come and use them, that students use them when the Yiddish course is running. That's an important thing.
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Wexler Oral History Project
Yiddish Book Center (c) 2012
Fania Brantsovsky, former Jewish partisan during World War Two and librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on July 27, 2012 at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, Lithuania. This interview is conducted entirely in Yiddish.
Interview Date: July 27, 2012
Narrator Full Name: Fania Brantsovsky
Narrator Birth Year: 1921
Narrator Birth Place: Kaunas, Lithuania
Interview Location: Vilnius Yiddish Institute
"I always felt proud to be Jewish, despite what we experienced in the Holocaust."
Fania was interned in the Vilnius ghetto with her family. On the day the ghetto was liquidated, she escaped to the partisan forts in Rudnicki Forest. After the war, she married fellow partisan Mischa Brantsovsky. She currently works as a librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and helps camp and ghetto survivors at the Jewish Community Centre. She actively perpetuates the memory of those who perished through tours of Jewish Vilna and the partisan forts. As she explains: "I guide people to the Ghetto and to Paneriai. I see that as my sacred duty to those who died, who cannot get up and tell others what took place there and in the Ghetto. For as long as my legs will carry me, I must go on doing that. There are other guides... maybe they know the figures and dates better than I do. That is not my main aim, but my story comes straight from the heart."
In search of the Yiddish voice that still whispers in Lithuania
By Rokhl Kafrissen
September 25th, 2008
Vilnius, Lithuania (JTA) - Months ago, I decided that, as a loud and insistent partisan on behalf of Yiddish language and culture, I should improve my spoken Yiddish.
It would be this summer or never.
I had just left my job as a corporate attorney and time, if not money, was on my side. I was newly employed as the part-time Internet/outreach/youth-wrangling editor for a Jewish culture and politics magazine with a traditionally Yiddish speaking (intensely, and devoutly secular) readership.
I managed to convince my employers at Jewish Currents that not only was it necessary to spend more than a month in a language immersion program, but also that my trip to Yiddishland would generate plentiful material for upcoming issues.
So off I went to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute's summer Yiddish program in Vilnius, Lithuania. Vilna - I never referred to it as Vilnius - was a place about which I had sung, read and attended lectures.
Last April, I sat in the office of a colleague, a woman much wiser than I, and told her I would be going to Vilna this summer to perfect my understanding of Yiddish case endings. There are only three, so I figured a month would be enough.
Vilna! Yiddish! Wasn't it cool?
My colleague looked at me dryly, as only she can. "Vilna is no more," she said. "There is only Vilnius, babe."
But for me, and for all my Yiddishist friends, Vilna is a very real place. Vilna was the home of great modernist Yiddish poetry, of important Jewish publishing houses, the birthplace of the YIVO Institute, the resting place of the Vilna Gaon.
For those of us left cold by the clapping and swaying of Upper West Side neo-chasids, the idea of Vilna is a comforting touchstone, home of the traditional opponents of the Chasidim: the Misnagdim.
Although my own family is solidly Romanian, I am regularly in touch with what I call my inner Litvak: the cerebral, slightly aloof Jew who shies away from Friday night swaying at shul.
I was personally offended by the suggestion that Vilna no longer existed.
History and myths
My colleague turned out to be right: Vilna is no longer. Today, Vilnius speaks loudly. Jewish Vilna is only a whisper heard by those who care to listen closely. Indeed, the dissonances between Vilna and Vilnius ripple across the country, and the globe.
But first, some clarification. The city we know by its Lithuanian name, Vilnius, once was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Until the close of World War II, Vilna/Wilno (Yiddish/Polish) was a majority Polish and Yiddish-speaking city. Lithuanian speakers were always a small fraction of its population.
After the war, under Soviet occupation, Vilna became Vilnius. Compared to Lavia and Estonia, Lithuania mostly resisted "Russification" and had a relatively small Russian population.
Lithuania has been independent for less than 20 years and is still in the process of writing its national history - and myths.
The competing histories of Vilna and Vilnius - Lithuanian, Polish and Yiddish - erupted this spring and summer with an international scandal surrounding the Lithuanian 'investigation' of Jewish former partisans for their wartime activities.
The official conflation of anti-Nazi activity with pro-Soviet collaboration is still alive in Vilnius and lies at the heart of the investigation.
And so, in addition to pondering the difference between the accusative and the dative case, I unexpectedly found myself right in the middle of an international story my first as a real journalist.
The Vilnius Yiddish Institute sits across the street from the Presidential Palace; you can practically see the changing of the guard from the classroom windows.
The institute's librarian, Fania Brantsovsky, was a partisan during the war and for the past few months has been targeted by the Lithuanian justice system.
Perhaps the fiercest librarian ever to catalog a Yiddish book, I quickly learned that Fania, 86, was not a woman to be intimidated by anything, even a prosecutor's investigation.
Even among Vilnius' small remaining Jewish community, Fania is unusual. She was born and raised in Vilnius - many of the approximately 4,500 to 5,000 current Jewish residents were born outside Vilnius.
When Fania guides us through the city she takes us to the place where her former school, the Sofia Gurevitch Gymnazia, was located. Sofia Gurevitch was one of the first places to have a telephone.
Being chosen to speak on the phone was an honor for the student with the clearest, most pleasant voice. Fania still beams with pride at the memory of being that student.
A few streets over, Fania points to where she and the other partisans emerged from underground. They escaped from the ghetto through the sewers, a daring plan made possible only by the specialized knowledge of another partisan, an engineer.
A few streets later and we see a plaque dedicated to Theodor Herzl, who, we learn, spent a short time in Vilna. But there's no plaque marking the spot where Fania and her comrades emerged from the sewers to go on to complete many acts of daring sabotage against the Nazis.
The Lithuanian government's ability to adequately document and preserve the stories of the ghetto and Jewish resistance - and Jewish suffering - is seriously compromised by the continuing official association of anti-Nazi activity with Soviet oppression.
The Museum of Victims of Genocide in downtown Vilnius is housed in an enormous building, the former home of the Lithuanian KGB. Just as chilling as the recreated KGB surveillance mechanism are the museum's official silences. Ponar, where a large portion of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered, is nowhere to be found among the museum's genocide victims.
Over the course of three years, some 70,000 Jews were murdered at Ponar, a forest the Nazis used as a death factory, about six miles from Vilnius. Fania also led us through Ponar, she herself a walking monument to resistance and survival.
Fania's voice remains as strong and clear as it was the day she was chosen to speak on the phone at the Sofia Gurevitch school. But hers is only one voice, too easily drowned out in a still-unsettled political discourse. The anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed across the Vilnius Jewish Community Center on Tisha B'Av didn't take place in a vacuum.
The official Lithuanian narrative is one that shouts over voices of resistance, such as Fania's. But my colleagues at the Institute, Jews and non-Jews, from all over the world, including Lithuania, will continue to join our voices with Fania's, and so ensure that Jewish Vilna continues to have a voice.
German President awards Fania Brantsovsky the Federal Cross of Merit
28 October 2009
...Antisemitic Tirade Follows in Vilnius
Antisemitic reaction on Lithuania's main news portal came within minutes of the German embassy's press release announcing its award to anti-Nazi Jewish partisan veteran Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. The award is the president's Federal Cross of Merit. It was presented to her by Germany's ambassador to Lithuania Hans-Peter Annen in a ceremony at his embassy in Vilnius.
[May 2010: Disturbingly, neither Fania's award nor the antisemitic barrage against her has been mentioned to this day on the VYI website.]