This web site provides access to over 70 archival collections at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the core of YIVO's archives on Polish Jewry. A full listing of the collections featured on this web site can be seen here.
The website also offers online exhibitions, browsable digital galleries, and two essays that provide background to the materials: Polish Jewry: A Chronology and The Story of YIVO’s Polish Jewish Archive.
It is worth noting that these collections represent only a fraction of the Polish materials in the YIVO Archives. Many of YIVO's over 1900 record groups, such as the personal papers of individuals prominent in Polish Jewish politics, communal life, and the arts, also constitute important resources on Polish Jewish history. For a complete listing of YIVO's collections, please see the online Guide to the YIVO Archives or search specific research topics at http://www.cjh.org.
The materials presented here embrace a broad geopolitical definition of Poland, whose borders varied by historical period. From its earliest days as a distinct political entity in the tenth century, the country's core territory (Crown Poland) between the Oder and Vistula rivers expanded, eventually extending as far as the Baltic, the Dnieper, the Black Sea, and the Carpathian Mountains. By the early seventeenth century, what was known as the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe, encompassing all of present day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Latvia, as well as most of Ukraine and Estonia. After 1795, Poland was divided between Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia and ceased to exist as a political entity. In 1918, it was reborn as the Second Polish Republic, one of the countries newly carved out of Europe in the wake of World War I, and included within its borders parts of its former territories, including western Ukraine and areas which are now part of Belarus. Throughout all these changes, the Jews who lived in these territories retained a distinctively Polish character, though one which evolved constantly with the times.
The focus of this web site is on pre-World War II Jewish life in Poland before the destruction of the Holocaust, with a particular emphasis on documentation of the period between the two world wars. This is a reflection of YIVO's institutional history. Founded in 1925 in Wilno, Poland (known in Yiddish and Russian, Vilna, and now Vilnius, Lithuania), YIVO actively collected materials for its library, archives, and research divisions in the 1920s and 30s.
What types of material did YIVO collect? YIVO had broad research interests, encompassing multiple scholarly disciplines. It aspired to being a "Yiddish academy," but collected and produced scholarship on a wide range of subjects related to Jewish history, literature, ethnography, music, sociology, linguistics, and other branches of knowledge. For instance, the research topics of students in YIVO's aspirantur (graduate program) in 1938, included studies on Jewish guilds in Vilna, the budgets of Jewish families, the Yiddish press in nineteenth-century England, a lexicon of Jewish clothing in the early nineteenth century, and the teaching of singing in elementary schools. (See YIVO - Vilna Aspirantur Records RG 1.3.)
There was also a more populist side to YIVO's work. It saw itself as intrinsically bound to the life of the Jewish community and was committed to the belief that the lives and experiences of ordinary people were as important to the understanding of Jewish history and culture as the intellectual achievements of the educated elite. As such, it collected the sorts of things that few other archives and libraries were interested in: the materials of everyday life, including family photographs, recipes, notes on children's games and rhymes, advertisements for bakeries and butchers, tickets to public baths, and handwritten wall posters, such as one calling for the return of a cow stolen from an old age home. YIVO had access to these items via its network of volunteer collectors, zamlers, who sent materials to YIVO from all over Poland, as well as from abroad. Poland (RG 28), and YIVO - Vilna Ethnographic Committee (RG 1.2) are particularly rich in these sorts of documents and artifacts. The Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew manuscripts by ordinary young men and women in Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland (RG 4) were collected in the course of three public contests sponsored by YIVO in the 1930s.
YIVO also became an important repository of Jewish communal records, for example, Vilna Jewish Community Council (RG 10), records of the administrative bodies of the Jewish community in Vilna, and OSE-TOZ (RG 53), records of a Jewish health organization. Many of YIVO's scholars were also active in other arenas of Jewish and civic life and members of the boards of other Jewish organizations, and as such, were well-placed to help YIVO establish itself as an important repository of this sort of communal archives. The involvement and affiliation of prominent historians with YIVO resulted in the donation of collections of their papers to YIVO. For instance, Simon Dubnow Papers (RG 87) contains rare historical documents from the archives of a scholar who was among the first to promote the study of Jewish history in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Prominent writers, journalists, and actors who were close to YIVO helped it secure important documents related to the history of Jewish literature and theater. Yiddish Literature and Language (RG 3) consists of surviving fragments of many literary collections which were part of the YIVO Archives in Vilna before 1941 and of materials which originated in Jewish institutions of higher learning in the Soviet Union. A portion of these materials was collected by Zalman Reisen, the Yiddish linguist, literary historian and author of the Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologie (Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Press and Philology), Vilna, 1926-29. Contracts, questionnaires, union meeting minutes and other materials in Yidisher Artistn Fareyn - Jewish Actors Union (RG 26) document the day-to-day struggles of Jewish actors in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s.
Many of YIVO's scholars were also active in the realm of Yiddish education, and some doubled as teachers in Yiddish elementary and secondary schools. YIVO's interest in documenting the rise of a modern Jewish educational system in the Polish republic is most clearly reflected in collections such as TSYSHO - Tsentrale Yidishe Shul Organizatsye (RG 48), records of the Yiddish school network; VILBIG - Vilner Yidishe Bildungs Gezelshaft (RG 11), records of an organization that promoted secular education among the Yiddish-speaking population; and Chojrew (RG 49), records of the Central Committee for Religious Education. YIVO's collections also include the records of teachers' associations and seminaries, such as Yidisher Lerer Fareyn - Yiddish Teachers Union (RG 50) and Tarbut Hebrew Teachers Seminary (RG 23), the latter a testament to the fact that YIVO, known for its focus on Yiddish, also had a keen interest in other modern Jewish languages and movements, such as Zionism. Indeed, YIVO's collections are rich not only in Yiddish-language materials, but also in Polish, Russian, and Hebrew documents.
Likewise, despite its secular orientation, the YIVO Archives is the repository of important collections related to Jewish religious life, such as Vad Hayeshivot (RG 25), the records of an organization that provided financial and spiritual assistance to a network of 70 yeshivas in the five Eastern provinces of Poland,and Eliyahu Guttmacher (RG 27), the papers of a rabbi, scholar, mystic, and communal leader, known as the tsadik of Graetz, who was sought by thousands of Jews for blessings and advice.
Though most of YIVO's archival holdings on Poland focus on the period between the two world wars, it also has unique materials dating from the nineteenth century and earlier. Aside from the important documents in Simon Dubnow (RG 87) and Eliyahu Guttmacher (RG 27), this web site presents finding aids to several other important collections with nineteenth-century documents: Minsk Jewish Community Council (RG 12), Ostrowo Jewish Community Council (RG 13), Krotoszyn Jewish Community Council (RG 14), Briesen Jewish Community Council (RG 15), Rabbinical School and Teachers’ Seminary, Vilna (RG 24), Vilna Chief of Police (RG 56), and Sutzkever-Kaczerginski Collection, Part II: Historical and Literary Manuscripts (RG 223), which includes fragments of YIVO archival collections rescued from destruction by the Nazis by the poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski and other death-defying volunteers.
All of the aforementioned collections were part of YIVO's prewar archives in Vilna. Other important sources of documentation on the life of Polish Jewry were obtained by YIVO after World War II in its new headquarters in New York. Territorial Collection on Poland, Series 1 (RG 116), a collection of miscellaneous materials assembled from various provenances, is a companion to the similarly organized prewar collection, Poland (RG 28). Genealogy and Family History (RG 126) includes personal documents and photographs donated to YIVO by Jews from Poland or their families. YIVO is also the repository of records of Jewish organizations who were active in Poland or on behalf of Polish Jews, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (RGs 335.2, 335.7) and the American Jewish Committee (RG 347.1.29), and of the papers of advocates for Jewish rights in Poland, such as Lucien Wolf, an Anglo-Jewish diplomat who was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and who was involved in the drafting of the minorities treaties (RG 348).