Two weeks ago, The Jerusalem Post published a lengthy story about a recently discovered manuscript by Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the Polish Jewish brigade that rescued 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust, the largest such rescue in history.
To the public, it was a revelation. But it was not to Jonathan Brent, the director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which holds the manuscript.
Brent has known about the manuscript since he arrived at YIVO a year ago, but only recently decided to break the story. He is honest about his reason: “My plan for the manuscript is to get it published,” he said. “It’s one of the great documents of 20th-century history.”
Publicity would help. So he contacted a Jerusalem Post reporter, who got the story going.
To be sure, the fact that Bielski wrote a memoir about his time as a partisan fighter in the forest — recently the subject of the film “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia — was not unknown.
Peter Duffy, a former New York Times reporter who wrote a book about the brigade, “The Bielski Brothers,” used a shorter, though also unpublished, version of his memoir for his research.
But as Duffy said: “Apparently [YIVO] gave me what they knew they had at the time” — he began his research in the late-1990s — “so I know very little of what’s in this newly discovered piece.”
The newly discovered manuscript — about 60 hand-written pages longer than the one Duffy used, which was 333 pages — had been sitting in YIVO’s archives, untouched, for more than 50 years. It was one of 3,000 Holocaust testimonials held by YIVO, but since the center’s catalogue was not digitized until 2008, it was nearly impossible to find. You would have needed to sort through thousands of documents to stumble upon it. And apparently no one did, until 2008.
“It was discovered through a process,” Brent said. Not long before Brent arrived at YIVO last summer, an assistant archivist was sorting through the newly digitized testimonials and saw that they had not one, but two Bielski manuscripts. “When I got to YIVO, I was told of the [new] Bielski manuscript and that this other one might be connected to the first,” Brent said.
In order to verify that it was, Brent called Tuvia’s son, Robert Bielsky, who lives in New York. “We didn’t know exactly where [the newly discovered manuscript was], but we knew YIVO had it,” Bielsky said. Brent then had Bielsky look at the handwriting to verify both were his father’s, and he said both were. “It’s no different,” Bielsky said.
But now the hard part starts. Brent would like to publish the new Bielski manuscript in translation under YIVO’s imprint, in collaboration with Yale University Press. But first he needs approval from Bielsky, who holds the intellectual property rights.
In addition, Bielsky holds dozens of Tuvia’s private letters that, for scholars, could provide critical information about Tuvia’s story.
Since the Jerusalem Post story was published, Brent has been courting Bielsky carefully, and plans to meet with him sometime in the coming weeks to discuss publishing. “For me, it’s a priority,” Brent said. “But these things take time.”
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