95th Anniversary of the YIVO Institute
The idea that Jews are a separate people and Yiddish is their national language met with a mixed reaction from the Jews of East and Central Europe. Ninety-five years ago, the YIVO Institute began to spread this idea by carrying out research on Jewish history, culture and society, as well as on the Yiddish language and literature. The activities of YIVO aimed at promoting secular Jewish identity with Yiddish as the national language of Jews.
A memorandum by linguist Nakhum Shtif from October 1924 provided an impulse to found the YIVO Institute. Shtif, a Russian Jewish émigré in Berlin, wished to prove that it was an utmost priority to establish a Jewish academic institution. He claimed that “a time comes when each nation which has reached a certain level of cultural growth feels obliged to participate in scholarly endeavours of the entire intellectual world.” Little time had passed between Shtif’s memorandum and the establishment of an institution known today under its Yiddish acronym: ייִוואָ – YIVO standing for: Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut, i.e. Jewish Scientific Institute.
Even though YIVO had its branches in all the important cities on the map of the East European diaspora—from Berlin, through New York, to Buenos Aires—its main seat and most of its scholarly activities carried out in the interwar period were linked to the city of Vilna, at the time within the borders of the Second Republic of Poland. It was there that Max Weinreich and Zalmen Reyzen, both scholars of the Yiddish language and literature, accompanied by experts from the local Jewish educational organizations, decided to bring Nakhum Shtif’s project to life. During a meeting held on 24 March 1925 they presented the so-called “Vilna Theses on a Yiddish Scientific Institute” [Vilner tezisn vegn a yidishn visnshaftlekhn institut], in which they proposed placing more weight on the envisioned institute’s teaching component, favouring work linked to the larger Jewish public and in particular to the secular Yiddish school system.
Initially, many Jewish scholars from larger academic centres looked with scepticism at relatively small Vilna as a centre of YIVO activities. From among four sections of the newly-established Institute, only the Philological Section was to operate from “Jerusalem of the North” under the leadership of Max Weinreich. The Economic-Statistical Section (led by Yankev Leszczyński) and the Historical Section (led by Elias Tcherikower) were stationed in Berlin. The Historical Section, which was not particularly productive, was soon joined by a historical commission from Poland headed by young historians from Warsaw: Emanuel Ringelblum and Raphael Mahler. A Pedagogical Section was to be opened in Warsaw; however, in 1927, Leybush Lehrer of New York was appointed as its head. Ultimately, the Section meetings were held in Vilna.
In 1929, Vilna was named as the official location of the YIVO headquarters. During the Institute’s first conference, held on 24-27 October, a foundation stone for the Institute’s new premises was laid at 18 Wiwulskiego Street. The newly renovated building, open in 1933, was a symbol of modern Yiddish culture or, to use a phrase coined by Polish historian Jerzy Tomaszewski: “the ultimate achievement of the system of secular Jewish education in Poland.”
YIVO managed to accumulate a huge collection documenting Jewish history and culture, as well as the Yiddish language by way of collecting primary sources, newspapers, magazines and books. By publishing press and books in Yiddish, it contributed to establishing Yiddish as a language of the academia. Even though the majority of the Institute activities were held within the borders of the Second Polish Republic, YIVO was an international venture from the very start, uniting the East European Jewry from all corners of the world through joint cultural and scholarly enterprises. The international character allowed the Institute to continue its operation after Vilna had been invaded by the Red Army in 1940. Ultimately, the Institute was made part of the Soviet-run Academy of Sciences and, after June 1941, it was looted by the Germans. Already in January 1940, the New York branch of YIVO was designated as the Institute’s temporary headquarters.
Following the genocide of European Jews and the Soviet Union dominance over Eastern Europe, YIVO didn’t return to Vilna, nor to Poland whose border shifted to the West. In some way, numerous projects related to documenting Nazi crimes during the Holocaust—such as the underground Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw ghetto or establishing various historical commissions shortly after the end of the war—were a continuation of sorts of the Institute’s work. It is also worth noting that establishing the Jewish Historical Institute in 1947 would be impossible without the pre-war YIVO tradition.
The New York based YIVO Institute, a partner of POLIN Museum, continued to research Jewish history and culture during the Cold War and after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the year 2000, it has been affiliated with other Jewish institutes as the Center for Jewish History. YIVO branch in Buenos Aires, founded in 1928, also continued its operation after WW2. It has survived until today as Fundación IWO.