In 1905, a Russian Jew named Nokhem Shtif was seized with “a vision, a lyrical dream” of becoming a Yiddish scholar. At the time, most people considered the Yiddish vernacular unfit for scholarly discourse, but Shtif argued that if Jews were to form a nation like any other, they needed to study their history and culture in their own daily language.
In 1925, Shtif realized his dream with the founding of YIVO: the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut or Yiddish Scientific Institute. With headquarters in Vilna, the organization undertook research in four main areas: philology, economics and statistics, history, and psychology and pedagogy.
Drawing on the work of the historian Simon Dubnow, the young organization enlisted a network of zamlers (collectors) to gather books, documents, and other materials throughout Eastern Europe. Thousands of ordinary Jews rallied to the call, though many were so poor they couldn’t afford postage to mail their packages to Vilna.
YIVO’s director, Max Weinreich, was delivering a lecture in Denmark on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. He escaped to New York, where he transformed a small YIVO branch into the organization’s new headquarters. Back in Nazi-occupied Vilna, many of YIVO’s scholars risked their lives to hide books and documents, some of which were recovered and sent to New York after the war. This brave group of men and women became known as the Paper Brigade; they are the subject of a recent book by David Fishman, The Book Smugglers.
Today, Yiddish scholarship is flourishing. The language is taught at colleges and universities on six continents, and Yiddish books are available online and at more than 500 major libraries around the world.
More about Yiddish scholars and YIVO from our collections
A Pakn Treger article about a South African–born, Israeli-raised, and American-trained software engineer who has revolutionized Yiddish scholarship through his work in computational linguistics.
An excerpt from an oral history interview with Jack Kugelmass, anthropologist and director of Jewish Studies at the University of Florida, in which he recalls his early involvement with YIVO, focusing on the largely Polish nature of the institution.
An audio recording of a 50th anniversary celebration for YIVO at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal.
Yiddish scholar Cecile Kuznitz discusses her research of YIVO and talks about needing distance from history, explaining that enough time has now passed to write a history of prewar YIVO.
Yiddish Book Center fellow Abigail Weaver talks to The Shmooze about her play, Grains of Wheat, about the Paper Brigade, the group of Jewish intellectuals who worked to hide stores of cultural materials from Nazi forces in the Vilna ghetto.