CHAMPION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWISH CULTURAL HERITAGE

Lucy Dawidowicz (1915-1990)

was 23 years old when she travelled from the United States to Vilnius. In 1938, Vilnius belonged to Poland, and Lucy Dawidowicz travelled there to learn Yiddish, the Eastern European Jewish language, which was a mix of German and Hebrew. She had studied literature to begin with, but became interested in Jewish history and language. One of her teachers recommended that she travel to Vilnius and study Yiddish there. Vilnius was Eastern Europe’s centre for Jewish culture and Lucy Dawidowicz studied and worked at YIVO, an institute for Jewish history and culture. She stayed in Vilnius from 1938 to 1939 and went home again to the United States just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

What kind of impact do you think her stay in Vilnius had on Lucy Dawidowicz?

Lucy Dawidowicz continued her studies, but carefully followed the developments in Europe during the Second World War.

Most young American Jews followed what had happened on the continent their parents and grandparents had fled from a few decades previously. Many still had family there and knew of families that had been murdered in the Holocaust. Lucy Dawidowicz followed the development of the war as did all her peers; and she followed particularly closely what happened to the Jews in Eastern Europe where she herself had been before the war broke out.

Lucy Dawidowicz travelled back to Europe after the war with an aid organization.

In 1946, Lucy Dawidowicz travelled back to Europe with an American Jewish aid organization that worked in the different camps that were set up after the war to help all the people who found themselves without a home or country after the war. But Lucy Dawidowicz was soon involved in the work of recording lost books and documents at the Offenbach Archival Depot in Frankfurt. The Depot was located in a factory that had closed and been filled with piles of books, papers and items looted by the Nazis during the war that the Allies had rescued. Lucy Dawidowicz was an expert on the books and documents she had worked with at the YIVO Institute in Vilnius before the war. Her task at the Offenbach Archival Depot was to find and record books and documents from the YIVO institute. The Offenbach Archival Depot was active for several years after the war and many people worked on the return of cultural assets to the appropriate countries after the war.

What happened to Lucy Dawidowicz?

Lucy Dawidowicz became an historian and wrote several books about modern Jewish history, especially about the Holocaust and the Second World War. She was marked for the rest of her life by her stay in Vilnius and what she had seen of the Eastern European Jewish culture that almost completely disappeared during the Second World War and was never the same again. During the war, several of the people she had connected with in Vilnius were killed.

When she stayed in Europe after the war, Lucy Dawidowicz helped not only to sort books and papers, but also to re-establish Jewish cultural centres and educational institutions in Europe.

In her memoir, From that Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947, Lucy Dawidowicz wrote of her time at the Offenbach Archival Depot where she went through reams and reams of paper:

“But after a day’s delving into the very bowels of the Vilnius YIVO’s past, I was exhausted, drained of feeling. I wiped away my tears and went back to my hotel room. I had come to see that Vilnius had been reduced to fragments of paper and fragments of memory. I knew that whatever I rescued from oblivion was all that could ever be rescued from the ruins of Vilnius. I knew that I had completed the mission I’d imposed on myself.”