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YIVO in Vilna

This essay has been adapted from the introduction to Guide to the YIVO Archives, Fruma Mohrer and Marek Web, eds., M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, New York, London), 1998.

YIVO was founded in 1925 in the city of Vilna (Pol. Wilno; Lith. Vilnius). The idea of creating an academic institution dedicated to the study of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture was first expressed by the linguist Nahum Shtif in a memorandum, Organizatsye fun der yidisher visnshaft (Organization of Jewish Scholarship, Berlin, 1924). His first suggestion drew the attention of Jewish scholars in Berlin and also in Vilna, which was then an important center of Yiddish cultural activity in Poland.

On March 24, 1925, in Vilna, at a conference of Jewish cultural organizations, Dr. Max Weinreich, a Yiddish linguist, was asked to prepare a statement of principles and an organizational outline for the future institute. At a second conference, which took place in Berlin on August 7-12, 1925, Weinreich's outline was accepted. A resolution was approved to begin preparations for the establishment of the new organization, to be called the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (known in English as the Yiddish Scientific Institute, and also by its Yiddish acronym, YIVO). The city of Vilna was spontaneously chosen by the organizers as the seat of the new institute, although no formal resolution was passed on this matter. In addition to Shtif and Weinreich, the organizing committee included Elias Tcherikower, Zalman Reisen, and Jacob Lestschinsky.

The new institute was organized in the following manner: A general membership convention approved the institutional by-laws, appointed a Central Board, and planned long-range programs, Two such conventions took place in Vilna, in 1929 and 1935. The Central Board, whose first chairman was Zemach Shabad, carried out the executive functions and appointed the members of the Executive Office that managed the Institute's daily affairs. The Executive Office consisted of Max Weinreich, Zelig Kalmanovitch, and Zalmen Reisen. The Honorary Board of Trustees (Curatorium) was chaired by Simon Dubnow, and its members were Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Moses Gaster, Edward Sapir, and Chaim Zhitlowsky.

The work of the YIVO Institute was carried out in four sections: Philology, History, Economics and Statistics, and Psychology and Education. The sections were chaired, respectively, by Max Weinreich, Elias Tcherikower, Jacob Lestschinsky, and Leibush Lehrer. In addition, several research commissions were organized, including the Ethnographic Commission, the Terminology Commission, and the Historical Commission on Poland. To support its research work, YIVO established a library and archives, and also a Bibliographical Center for the purpose of creating a comprehensive bibliography of new Yiddish publications.

The aims of the YIVO Institute were formulated as follows: to serve as a center for organized research into all aspects of Jewish history and culture; to train Jewish scholars; to gather library and archival source materials relevant to YIVO's scholarly objectives; and to develop a broad base of support for the Institute in Jewish communities around the world.

The founders of YIVO espoused a Yiddishist philosophy which viewed Yiddish as national Jewish language and considered the development of secular Jewish scholarship in this language as the future instrument of cultural and spiritual betterment of the Jewish people. The YIVO philosophy stood in contradistinction to the Wissenschaft des Judentums school of thought, which believed that Jewish culture had reached the end of its development due to the forces of emancipation and was henceforth to be studied intellectually and historically as a phenomenon of the past. YIVO, on the other hand, believed in the continuity and future of a national, creative Jewish culture and saw Jewish scholarship as a dynamic intellectual activity. Both the past and the present were to be studied from the perspective of a live and changing culture.

In the fifteen years between its establishment and destruction by the Nazis, YIVO experienced rapid growth and earned great respect as a leading center for the Jewish humanities. In Poland, YIVO became an authority in all matters concerning Yiddish culture. Association with YIVO was sought not only by scholars, but also by large numbers of people from all walks of life, who saw their work for YIVO as a fulfillment of their highest aspirations. In the 1920s and 1930s Societies of Friends of YIVO existed in Poland, the Baltics, Germany, France, England, North and South America, South Africa, and Palestine. The American branch of YIVO was organized as early as 1926.

YIVO involved its large numbers of societies and friends in collecting publications and documentation for its library and archives, participating in research surveys and field work, and organizing fundraising events. Especially effective were the YIVO volunteer zamlers, or collectors, who searched out valuable documentation and sent it to YIVO. Some YIVO departments depended a great deal on these collectors, notably the Ethnographic Commission, the Terminology Commission, and most of all, the Archives.

A system was developed not only to keep in touch with collectors, but also to supervise their work effectively and channel their enthusiasm in the right direction. Collectors were instructed to carry out historical and economic surveys, to gather oral folklore and linguistic samples, and to conduct field work needed for various research projects. The main objective in these collecting activities was to create a solid documentary base for the study of contemporary Jewish life. Reflecting the spirit of Zeitgeschichte, YIVO focused its interest on the Jewish present, on the political and economic conditions of the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe during the critical interwar period.

In 1935, a graduate training division, the Aspirantur, was added to existing YIVO departments. Named in honor of Zemach Shabad, the first YIVO Chairman, the Aspirantur's goal was to educate scholars who wished to work in Jewish Studies.

YIVO strongly emphasized the need to publish works of its affiliate scholars. Each of YIVO's four sections published its own proceedings. YIVO's list of publications included the periodicals Filologishe shriftn, Psikhologishe shriftn, Yidishe ekonomik, Yidish far ale, YIVO bleter, and numerous monographs, yearbooks, essays, and articles. By 1941, the bibliography of YIVO publications included over 2,500 items.

After the outbreak of World War II, YIVO continued its work in Vilna, at first under Lithuanian, and later under Soviet rule. Gradually, the Institute was merged into the Soviet cultural system and was forced to conduct its work in accordance with the new ideology. In August 1940, the Society of Friends of YIVO was liquidated. In October 1940, YIVO became part of the Institute of Lithuanian Studies and its name was changed to the Third Museum and Library of the Institute of Lithuanian Studies. In January 1941, YIVO was made part of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania and its name was changed to "Institute for Jewish Culture." During this time period, until January 1941, YIVO was headed by Moishe Lerer, a former YIVO archivist who was named the curator of the Institute by the Soviet authorities. Of the old leadership, Zalmen Reisen was arrested and deported to Russia, where he perished, and Zelig Kalmanovitch was removed from his post. In January 1941, Noah Prylucki, a prominent linguist and member of the prewar YIVO Executive Committee, was named the director of the reorganized institute. Prylucki, also the leader of the Jewish Folkist Party and deputy to the Polish Diet, had fled to Vilna from Warsaw before the latter was occupied by the Nazis

Despite all these changes, the YIVO Library and Archives were left intact by the Soviet authorities. The library was even substantially enlarged by the addition of 20,000 new volumes

With the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in June 1941, and the subsequent occupation of Vilna by the Nazis, the existence of the YIVO Institute in Vilna came to an end. Its collections were either dispersed or sent to Germany. The YIVO staff who were incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto met their deaths prior to or during the final liquidation of the ghetto. Among the victims were Zelig Kalmanovitch, who perished in the concentration camp in Klooga, Estonia; Uma Olkienicka, director of the YIVO Theater Museum; Noah Prylucki, and Moishe Lerer. Simon Dubnow was killed in Riga, Latvia, in December 1941. The historians Yitzhak Schipper and Emanuel Ringelblum, the economist Menahem Linder, and the folklorist Shmuel Lehrman all perished in Warsaw. Many other YIVO associates, collectors and friends shared their fate.

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