Like a family split apart by the upheaval of war, what is now known as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, considered the world’s foremost collection of Yiddish books and cultural artifacts, was torn apart as a result of the German occupation of Vilna, Lithuania, in 1941 and the Nazis’ plan for studying a people they determined would be extinct.

Much of the prewar collection was soon turned to pulp. But a large part was shipped to Frankfurt for an anti-Semitic institute for “the study of the Jewish question.”

The American Army recovered that material and sent it to YIVO’s new home in New York. Still, much of the collection remained in Vilna, now Vilnius, where in a gripping saga it was rescued during the war by enslaved Jewish laborers who risked their lives to squirrel away precious books, diaries, paintings and sculptures in underground bunkers, attics and crannies.

Now, 70 years later, YIVO has announced a $5.25 million project to reunite the scholarly treasures, digitally.

A Nazi stamp in a book in YIVO’s collection. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times
The Lithuanian government did not want to surrender what it considers part of its national heritage, but it has agreed to assist in having all 250,000 pages of documents and 4,200 books digitally copied and integrated into a web portal, where they will be available to scholars around the world. The YIVO collection at 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan — an archive of 24 million items that includes the immigrant Jewish experience in America as well as the almost vanished Jewish culture of Eastern Europe — will also be digitized. The project is expected to take seven years.

“These materials are Holocaust survivors,” said David E. Fishman, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is working on a chronicle of the YIVO collection’s rescue. “Like a survivor, these materials were controlled by the Germans. Like a survivor, they were in hiding. The fact that they were saved is miraculous.”

Vilna was known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for both its intellectual and religious eminence, though members of a nationwide community that once numbered over 200,000 Jews — half in Vilna — sometimes speak of it as if it were the Jerusalem of all of Europe. Indeed, YIVO (an acronym in Yiddish for Yiddish Scientific Institute), which was started in 1925 to foster consciousness of the rich 800-year-old history of Eastern European Jews, housed materials from across the continent.

Among the materials that will be made available are many that offer a flavor of how Jews lived: Yiddish theater posters; student geometry notebooks from a Yiddish school, complete with rough sketches; records of synagogues, rabbinical schools, charities, fraternal and professional associations and Zionist movements; early editions of Hebrew books, some dating from the 1500s; the original script of Jacob Gordin’s “Mirele Efros,” a classic of Yiddish theater sometimes known as the “Jewish Queen Lear”; missing script pages from another dramatic classic, “The Dybbuk,” by S. Ansky, in the author’s own hand; and two etchings by Marc Chagall.

Some of the materials had been hidden, crumpled into balls and covered with earth. Those will now have to be flattened, cleaned and paired up with their missing pages.

“This is cultural paleontology,” said Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s executive director.
Items in 1947 after their rescue; some remained in Lithuania. Credit Courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Mr. Brent wanted Lithuania to send the materials to New York, since it felt YIVO was the owner. But when Lithuania balked, he said: “I proposed to Lithuania that we hold moot the question of ownership. Our job is to preserve materials for future generations and make them available to scholars worldwide who can make sense of these materials. We’re able to create an electronic bridge over a troubled stream.”

Ultimately the Lithuanian Central State Archives, with a fund of 200,000 euros (about $250,000), will assign four employees to describe, restore and digitize the documents. YIVO will pay an additional two employees (it already has pledges of $375,000 for the project). YIVO archivists will make periodic trips to Vilna to supervise the cataloging and digitization, which will take place at the Lithuanian Central State Archives and the Lithuanian National Library.

“The Litvaks’ culture and history constitute an integral part of Lithuania’s culture and history, so we are interested to preserve these documents because they are part of our heritage,” Mantvydas Bekesius, a vice minister in Lithuania’s foreign affairs ministry, said in an email, using a term for Lithuanian Jews.

The Lithuanians, perhaps eager to cement their image as an enlightened democracy in the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup, have been extraordinarily cooperative, Mr. Brent said.

The breakup of the collection started with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg and his subordinates rounded up Judaica collections for their so-called research institutes, but they needed people who could expertly analyze Yiddish works and so forcibly drafted intellectuals like the Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski to sift through the material and pack it. Just as the Jews were selected for deportation to concentration camps, books and documents were selected for shipment to paper mills.

But over several years Sutzkever, Kaczerginski and others stuffed thousands of books and documents — including works from another important Jewish collection, the Strashun Library — inside their clothing and smuggled them into the Nazi-demarcated Jewish ghetto. There, they were hidden behind apartment walls, beneath floors and in a ventilated bunker 60 feet underground that had been constructed by an engineer for his paralyzed mother. After Vilna was liberated by the Soviets in July 1944, those workers who had not been killed at the Ponar mass murder site unearthed the hidden papers.

But they had to rescue them all over again because the Soviets under Stalin, trying to wipe out any ethnic chauvinism, started to destroy the collection. Some items were smuggled to New York, and some were hidden in the basement of a Catholic church by a gentile librarian, Antanas Ulpis.

Starting in 1989, about two-thirds of the surviving collection in Vilna was shipped in crates to New York for copying and then returned. But that was the age of Xeroxes and microfilms, which are not permanent and cannot be easily disseminated worldwide, and the new project will include the material that was not sent over then.

Worldwide access, Mr. Brent said, is the beauty of digitization, something the scholars who assembled YIVO decades ago could never have imagined.

Correction: October 7, 2014
A picture caption in some editions on Friday with an article about plans by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to digitally copy and make its collection of Yiddish books and cultural artifacts available online carried an erroneous credit. The photograph, of the crated collection being inspected in 1947, was provided by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, not the Center for Jewish History.