August 7, 1925, was the first day of a six-day conference in Berlin that established the Yiddish Scientific Institute – called YIVO in its Yiddish acronym. The conference brought together scholars from both Western and Eastern Europe, and was the culmination of a process that had formally begun a year earlier. That process, however, reflected a consciousness, predating World War I, that the culture and language of Eastern European Jewry was rich and unique – but under threat. Hence, there was an impulse to document that culture, but also to standardize its language, so that it could continue to serve as the vehicle for the national culture.
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The movement leading to YIVO’s creation was influenced by several important players: historian Simon Dubnow, who pioneered the study of Jewish social and cultural history; S. An-Ski, who, prior to World War I, undertook a series of journeys in which he chronicled the folklore and culture of Eastern European Jewry; and Ber Borochov, the ideological founder of Labor Zionism, who was also an early and important student of Yiddish philology.
Although YIVO’s founding conference took place in Berlin, by 1927 it was decided that the organization should have its headquarters in Vilna, home to a large and vibrant Jewish population. The leading figure in its establishment was Nochum Shtif (1879-1933), a Berlin-based linguist who early in his life had been a socialist and Zionist, but who came to see a future for the Jewish nation within the Soviet Union, and envisioned its national life being conducted in Yiddish, not Hebrew. (He later became one of the directors of the Kiev Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture.)
Shtif’s belief in the need for an academic institute for the study of Yiddish was picked up by the Vilna philologist and theater director Max Weinreich (1894-1969). Two other key figures were Elias Tcherikower, a historian who headed the institute’s historical section in its early years, and Zalmen Reyzn, a literary scholar and journalist who also helped run YIVO. Dubnow was not only a member of YIVO’s honorary “curatorium” – along with Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and American anthropologist Edward Sapir, among others – but also served as a historian in Tcherikower’s section.
For both its philological and ethnographic research, the institute relied on the efforts of volunteer zamlers (collectors), who gathered written documents in Yiddish and also collected folk tales and music, as well as raised money for YIVO. Many of these were uneducated, unemployed people who took pride in having an opportunity to assist in the mission.
Although it established branches in 30 different cities around the world, and received donations from many grass-roots members, YIVO always struggled financially. In 1930, it began receiving funding from organized Jewish communities, as well as governments of cities with large Jewish populations. Nonetheless, by the time it moved into its new headquarters in Vilna, in 1933, the organization was deeply in debt, and hadn’t paid salaries to its paid employees in more than a year.
During the first two years of World War I, Vilna, Lithuania, was under Soviet control and also, for part of that time, occupied by Soviet troops. The Soviets took over management of YIVO and incorporated it into the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. Then, on June 24, 1941, German forces conquered Vilna. The following March, they set up a sorting center for looted Jewish property within the YIVO building. There, the most valuable objects were to be selected for transport to Frankfurt, and the rest destroyed. A group of Jews forced to undertake the selection also took it upon themselves to save some of the most culturally valuable materials and hide it for retrieval after the war. The YIVO building was also a point for the smuggling of weapons into the Vilna Ghetto. The headquarters, however, did not survive the war: It was destroyed, along with the vast majority of the materials collected there.
In January 1940, the formal headquarters of YIVO had been relocated to New York. That move became permanent, and after the war, some of the material that had been saved in Vilna was transferred there. Other materials that survived, however, were confiscated by the new communist regime in Lithuania.
From its new home in New York, YIVO became one of the earliest centers of Holocaust history, activating zamlers to collect testimonies and other materials from survivors in DP camps. Under the leadership of Max Weinreich, who had fled Europe early in the war, and thus survived, it also began turning its attention on the immigrant community that had begun arriving in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Max’s son, Uriel, published a textbook of Yiddish and also began work on a dictionary, though it was completed only after his death at the age of 40. In 2008, YIVO published, together with Yale University Press, its “YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,” which is also accessible online (and serves a frequent source of information for the writing of this column) – just one of many of its scholarly endeavors.
Since 1999, YIVO has been housed at the Center for Jewish History, on West 16th St., in Manhattan. Five years earlier, it had begun receiving materials from the Lithuania National Book Chamber that had long been thought lost, after an agreement was signed with the post-Soviet Lithuanian government. YIVO’s library and its archives are essential resources to the world’s growing community of Yiddish scholars.