YIVO Institute makes Yiddish Life Archives available online

Almost 100 years ago, a group of Jewish linguists and historians decided to create a “scientific institute” which would collect literary manuscripts, letters, theater posters, commercial documents and ephemeral documents so that they can document the flourishing Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe and promote the language. .

Among its honorary members: Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

Within 15 years, the institute, established in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish), had become the world’s main archive of Eastern European Jews and their satellites of dispersed emigrants. His inventory of artifacts bore witness to how they lived, loved, worked and played through the words and possessions of ordinary people as well as luminaries such as Einstein, Theodore Herzl, Sholem Aleichem, and Martin Buber.

But in 1941, Nazi-led German invaders ransacked the institute and began destroying much of the collection, sending some of what they considered to be the most important items to a center near Frankfurt to study. what they predicted to be an extinct race.

Substantial remains of the pre-war collection have been recovered over the years, often in remarkable ways. Some scholars, for example, slipped documents into their clothes and then hid them in attics to avoid destruction at the hands of the Nazis. For decades, the surviving artifacts have been stored in separate and independent archives in New York and Vilnius. But, as of Monday, through the alchemy of digitization, 4.1 million pages that record the entire surviving pre-war collection now held in both locations will be made available to academics and of the interested public all over the world.

The meeting of the documents online follows generally friendly negotiations between what is now known as the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in Manhattan and the Lithuanian government, which was determined to retain the original documents as part of its national heritage.

“Now, finally, this veritable gold mine is united, virtually, opening up for the scholar and the general reader knowledge about a vanished world infinitely more accessible because of this extraordinary new resource”, Steven J. Zipperstein, professor of Jewish history at Stanford University said in a statement released by YIVO. Using YIVO’s resources, he wrote a definitive study of the 1903 pogrom in the Russian-era city of Kishinev in which 48 Jews were killed and many women raped.

The digitization process took seven years and cost $ 7 million, most of it from donors led by Edward Blank, a telemarketing pioneer for whom the digital collection is named.

Notable pieces include a handwritten diary by Herzl, one of the founders of modern Zionism; pages from S. Ansky’s Yiddish manuscript of his classic play “The Dybbuk”; letters from Einstein to writers and theater people; testimonies of pogroms in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus; Rothschild family business and personal papers; Songs in Yiddish about love, crime, alcohol and Stalin; etchings by Marc Chagall; and a homemade astronomical sundial that calculates when religious holidays fall.

The pre-war collection has been restored in several ways, including through the work of the “Paper Brigade” – a group of 40 poets and intellectuals. Forced by the Nazis to sort through the gems from the archives of a German institute project for “the study of the Jewish question”, the brigade’s scholars hid precious books and documents in their clothes and threw them in granaries and underground bunkers. After the war, those who survived the Holocaust recovered materials from their hiding places.

The treasure that traveled to Frankfurt was recovered by Allied soldiers and art experts known as the Monuments Men, who shipped it to YIVO’s new headquarters in New York City. And when the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania and sought to destroy anything that smacked of ethnic chauvinism, a non-Jewish librarian, Antanas Ulpis, hid YIVO documents in a church basement. Catholic. They were discovered there in 1991 and 2017.

Although the artifacts remain in Vilnius, they will be accessible virtually through the website: vilnacollections.yivo.org.

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