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From Yiddishland to America

Bennett Muraskin
June 14, 2015

The Creation & Preservation of YIVO

by Bennett Muraskin

From the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Reviewed in this Essay: YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation, by Cecile Esther Kuznitz, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 307 pages, indexed.

image_0002IN 1940, TO ESCAPE THE RAVAGES of World War II, Max Weinreich, the guiding light of YIVO — the Yiddish Scientific Institute — moved it from Vilna, Poland to New York City. He did not know at the time that the move would be permanent. Although conceived as an institution dedicated to Yiddish, as early as 1946 it began publishing an annual collection of essays in English, and to reflect its changed reality, the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut was rebranded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

In 2008, it published in English the two-volume YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, available in print and online. For many years, nearly all of its programming has been in English, but its vast library of Yiddish books and documents remains a treasure trove for researchers. After seventy-five years in New York City, YIVO still serves as a center of scholarship about Ashkenazi Jews, wherever they live, and the Yiddish language, and holds frequent public programs on many aspects of Ashkenazi history, culture, and art.

The story of YIVO in Europe, which lasted for only fifteen years, is well told by Yiddish scholar Cecile Esther Kuznitz in her YIVO and the Making of Modern Yiddish Culture. In 198 pages of text, supplemented by 93 pages of notes and a bibliography derived in large part from YIVO’s own Yiddish collection, she reveals how the organization came into existence and what it meant to the beleaguered Jewish communities of Poland, home to over three million Jews before World War II.

Vilna seemed a logical place for YIVO to set up shop. The city had a long history of Jewish scholarship, including the founding of the Vilna Teachers Seminary in 1921, a Yiddish day school system, and a large Jewish population, 30 percent of the city, with a committed core of Yiddish writers, teachers, and advocates. Yet the original choice of YIVO’s founders was Berlin, which in the 1920s was a major European capital in a modern democratic state thought to have the scholarly apparatus and financial assets to support such a project. In fact, due to the turmoil in Eastern Europe in the years after World War I, Yiddish scholars converged on Berlin and, prodded by Yiddish scholar Nokhem Shtif, began planning a scholarly institute devoted to Jewish history, linguistics, social science, and pedagogy. Even after the attention of the founders shifted to Vilna, a Berlin branch was established to specialize in two out of the four areas of study (history and social science), and another office was set up in Warsaw devoted to a third area of study (pedagogy), in recognition of the city’s status as the largest center of Jewish population in Poland. YIVO in Vilna was supposed to concentrate only on Yiddish linguistics, but eventually nearly all activities were centralized there.

AMERICAN JEWS APPEARED to have other priorities than supporting YIVO in its early days. German Jews were even less interested. And while funding was expected from the Polish government, based on the Minority Rights Treaty it signed when it became an independent state in 1919, it reneged on its obligation.

For a time, municipal governments of large Polish cities made contributions because of the influence of Jewish political parties in their administrations, working in alliance with friendly non-Jewish parties. Most of YIVO’s financial support, however, came from Polish and Baltic Jews themselves, from the Yiddish school system affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, from community councils (kehilas), and from individuals. Although chronically underfunded, YIVO developed a mass base that felt a special bond with the institution.

YIVO opened its doors in 1925 in rented space, and moved to its own building in 1933. It became what Kuznitz describes as “the temple of Jewish scholarship,” open to the public for lectures, exhibits and guided tours, and organized to “serve the folk.” From the beginning, everyday Jews were encouraged to become zamlers — amateur collectors of folklore, songs, historic documents, and community record books (pinkeysim) to be donated to YIVO for scholars to use in their research into local history. Jewish youth were invited to contribute autobiographical essays, which were reviewed and published. YIVO scholars reciprocated their public support by developing curricula and training teachers for Poland’s network of Yiddish schools. YIVO also served diaspora Jews by establishing a special program to bring youth to Vilna for a year of Yiddish instruction on the university level. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz wrote of her year in Vilna as a YIVO graduate student and her warm impressions of YIVO’s director Max Weinreich in From That Place and Time (which I reviewed for Jewish Currents).

The Great Depression threatened the financial viability of YIVO. The drying up of funds from Polish local governments as anti-Semitic parties grew in strength made matters worse. YIVO’s base was desperately poor to begin with, and as much as its supporters sacrificed to keep YIVO afloat, it was money that belatedly flowed from North American and Western European Jews that made the difference, if only because their fewer donations were so much larger.

YIVO’S SECOND GREAT PROBLEM was politics. Poland was the Yiddish heartland, with partisans of Bundism, Communism, and Socialist Zionism who not only were fierce rivals but were all intensely anti-religious. Weinreich and others close to YIVO were most sympathetic to the Bund, but wisely decided not to identify with any movement other than “Diaspora Nationalism,” an ideology developed by historian Simon Dubnow that asserted the right and duty of Jewish communities to develop vibrant secular cultural institutions in whatever country they lived. Nevertheless, YIVO managed to offend the Zionist mainstream and the Orthodox. Kuznitz perceives this as a weakness, but surely YIVO could not be all things to all Jews.

Kuznitz observes that the creation of YIVO “had far reaching psychological and political as well as cultural implications. Its very creation would demonstrate the maturity of Yiddish enhancing the status of the language and the self-respect of its speakers.” I was struck by the terms “psychological” and “self-respect” because I thought that the 1908 Yiddish language conference in Czernowitz, Romania (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the success of Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and other Yiddish literati, the anthropological research conducted by S. Ansky in the years before World War I, and the publication of Dubnow’s World History of the Jewish People in 1925 had already elevated the status of Yiddish and its culture. But Kuznitz argues persuasively that until the formation of YIVO, Yiddish was barely recognized as a European language, in part due to widespread anti-Semitism. One of YIVO’s stated objectives in producing scholarship, therefore, was to build ethnic pride and refute anti-Semitic propaganda denigrating the Jewish people.

The outbreak of World War II in Poland in September 1939 was preceded by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which partitioned the nation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with Vilna in the Soviet sector. At first, under a nominally independent Lithuanian government, YIVO was allowed to operate in peace, although the Soviet secret police did execute Zalman Reisen, one of the architects of YIVO (he was the older brother of the famous Yiddish writer and poet, Avrom Reisen), because of his political activities within the Soviet-banned Left Polish Socialist Party. However, when the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania in June 1940, YIVO was taken over by Soviet appointees and ceased to exist as an independent entity. After the German invasion in June 1941, former YIVO staffers were forced to sort through its collection as the Nazis decided what material should be sent to Germany for its planned Jewish museum “of an extinct race.” Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever and others formed the “paper brigade” to smuggle out precious documents. What the Germans did not destroy was recovered by the Allies after the war and sent to YIVO in New York, where scholars working in Yiddish wrote the first Holocaust studies decades before the term “Holocaust” was used.

A BOOK OF THIS NATURE should include a bisl mameloshn (a little Yiddish) and Kuznitz does not disappoint. Facing her table of contents is a page with verses from three Yiddish poems and their English translations, praising YIVO and the project of cultural recovery. The poets are Abraham Reisen, Daniel Charney, and Abraham Sutzkever, all well known to lovers of Yiddish.

Among YIVO’s most enduring publications are the textbook College Yiddish and the Yiddish-English/English-Yiddish Dictionary, both written by Max Weinreich’s son Uriel, who tragically died in 1967, two years before his father. Although primarily a scholarly institution, YIVO today also offers lectures, concerts, films, exhibitions, and symposia, adult education, and Yiddish language programs to the public. It is an invaluable institution that links the Jewish past, most especially the destroyed treasures of Eastern European Jewry, to the strivings of the present.

YIVO is located in downtown Manhattan in the Center of Jewish History, the common home of the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Institute, the Leo Baeck Institute (devoted to the study of Germany Jewry), and the Yeshiva University Museum.

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to our magazine and author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.