Pre-War Collection of Yiddish Culture in Europe Now Available Online Due to Efforts of YIVO Institute - The Jewish Voice
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Friday, December 9, 2022

Pre-War Collection of Yiddish Culture in Europe Now Available Online Due to Efforts of YIVO Institute

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Edited by: Fern Sidman

Many have pondered what Jewish life in pre-war Europe was really all about. According to a recent article in the New York Times, a scientific institute was established in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius almost a century ago by a group of Jewish linguists and historians. The mission of the institute was to “collect literary manuscripts, letters, theater posters, business records and ephemera so they could document the flourishing Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe and promote the language.”

The NYT reported that such European Jewish luminaries as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud were honorary board members. After 15 years, the institute had flourished into the world’s leading archive of Eastern European Jews and its trove of artifacts displayed how they lives were shaped through the words and possessions of everyday people as well as such prominent folks as the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, philosopher Martin Buber and iconic author Sholem Aleichem

The Nazi party attempted to destroy the collection when they ransacked the institute in 1941. Before they totally obliterated the institute, the Nazis, (under the belief that the Jews of Europe would become extinct after the final solution of extermination) decided to create a museum in Frankfurt to provide proof to the world that Jews once existed before they murdered en masse. As such, they sent off some of the items that they deemed highly significant to study them.

A program cover from a 1920s Yiddish Press Ball in Warsaw is shown before and after conservation treatment. It and thousands of other programs and posters can be seen as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project. Photo Credit: YIVO

The Times reported that over the last 70 years, substantial remnants of the prewar collection were recovered piecemeal. Some important documents were hidden in attics by scholars in order to avoid their inevitable destruction by the Nazi onslaught.

The surviving documentation and artifacts have been kept in independently operated archives in New York and Vilnius for decades now, as was reported by the Times.

History, however, is about to be made as the prewar collection will now be available to the public as well as research scholars around the world. On Monday, the Times reports, through the digitization process, 4.1 million pages that record the details of the lives of Eastern European Jews that are held in both locations will now be open to anyone who is interested.

After negotiations were conducted were conducted between the Manhattan based YIVO Institute of Jewish Research and the Lithuanian government, the prewar collection will now be available. The Times reported that Lithuania was originally reluctant to relinquish the documentation and artifacts as they wanted to hold on to them as part of their national heritage.

In a statement released by YIVO, Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history at Stanford University said, “Now, finally, this veritable gold mine is united, virtually, opening for the scholar and the general reader knowledge about a vanished world immeasurably more accessible because of this new extraordinary resource.”

The Times reported that with the use of YIVO’s resources, Professor Zipperstein authored a definitive study of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom which defined the brutality against Jews in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The pogrom claimed the lives of 48 Jews and the rape of countless women.

The cost of the digitization process for the prewar collection was $7 million, according to the Times report and the lion’s share of the necessary funds were contributed by donors. The person leading the fundraising effort was Edward Blank, a telemarketing pioneer for whom the digital collection is named.

The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project includes a scrapbook of Zygmunt Turkow’s earliest Yiddish theater experiences, beginning in 1913. Photo Credit: YIVO

According to the YIVO web site, “the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project is an international project to preserve, digitize, and virtually reunite YIVO’s prewar library and archival collections located in New York City and Vilnius, Lithuania, through a dedicated web portal. The project will also digitally reconstruct the historic, private Strashun Library of Vilna, one of the great prewar libraries of Europe.

This project is a partnership between the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Lithuanian Central State Archives, the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, and the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, and includes the cataloging, conservation, and digitization of documents and books in both New York and Vilnius.”

In May 2017, some 170,000 pages of previously unknown documents, lost to history for almost 70 years, were discovered in Vilnius, significantly expanding the scope of our project.

Among the artifacts and documents in the collection are a homespun astronomical dial that calculates when religious holidays would fall, pages from S. Ansky’s handwritten Yiddish manuscript of his classic play “The Dybbuk”, etchings by artist Marc Chagall, Theodore Herzl’s handwritten diary, letters penned by Albert Einstein to writer and theater folk; witness accounts of pogroms in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus; Yiddish songs about love, crime, drinking and Stalin and business and personal papers of the Rothschild family, as was reported by the Times.

The restoration of the prewar collection was done through the work of a group of 40 poets and intellectuals known as the “Paper Brigade.” The Times reported that the scholars in the Brigade “hid precious books and documents in their clothing and squirreled them away in attics and underground bunkers, when forced by the Nazis to choose the most notable documents and artifacts for the Frankfurt institute for “the study of the Jewish Question.”

At the conclusion of the war, those who survived the Holocaust recovered the materials from their hiding places.

Allied forces along with art experts recovered the collection that was sent to the Nazi institute in Frankfurt. The art experts were known as the Monuments Men. They were able to ship the collection to the YIVO headquarters in New York, as was reported by the Times.

In 1991, a large part of the collection was found in the basement of a Vilnius church and were hailed as important artifacts of Jewish history. They were hidden in the Catholic church by librarian, Antanas Ulpis, who was not Jewish.

In 2017, the Times reported that the curators at the YIVO Institute in New York were told that another trove, totaling 170,000 pages, had been found, somehow overlooked in the same church basement.

In addition to documents and books, the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project includes material objects like this series of Russian military decorations collected by Elias Tcherikower. (YIVO)

The NYT reported that among the finds in 2017 were:

  • Five dog-eared notebooks of poetry by Chaim Grade, considered along with Isaac Bashevis Singer as one of the leading Yiddish novelists of the mid-20th century.
  • Two letters by Sholem Aleichem, the storyteller whose tales of Tevye the Milkman formed the core of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
  • A postcard written by Marc Chagall, the Jewish modernist painter.

Though the artifacts remain in Vilnius, they will be accessible virtually through the website:


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