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Yiddish Collection - Brief History

In 1934, immediately after the first meeting of Posthumus and De Lieme - the founding fathers of the IISH - the former went to Paris to start negotiations for the acquisition of the library and archives of the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeyter Bund in Lite, Poylen un Rusland. The Bund, as the Jewish Social Democratic Party was called, was founded in Vilna in 1897, but established departments in many other European countries, where Eastern European Jews settled, as well as in the United States and Argentina. The founder and keeper of the Bund library and archives was Franz Kursky (1874-1950), whose real name was Samuel Kahan. He was born in Courland, then a part of the tsarist empire, and became a revolutionary at an early age. In 1890, he joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) in Warsaw, but became a member of the Bund in 1899. He soon was sent to Geneva, where a part of the political propaganda and the journals of the Bund were printed, and he directed the distribution of all clandestine literature in the Russian Empire.

After the first Russian Revolution 1905, the Bund could operate more or less legally in Russia, and Vilna became the centre of the party. Kursky represented the Bund in the bureau of the Second Socialist International. In 1920, during the Russian-Polish war, he moved with the library to Berlin. After the Nazis had come into power, Kursky fled with his treasures to Paris. But, as it seems, the Bund could not cope with the costs of housing and maintenance. This fact became known during the preparations for an international exhibition at the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Netherlands Social Democratic Party in August, 1934. While in Paris to gather material for the exhibition, the archivist of the party, Annie Adama van Scheltema, heard about the predicament of the Bund library and told this to De Lieme.[1] Contact with Kursky was soon being made and he was willing to sell the entire collection or a larger part of it. Posthumus had arrived in Paris with a cheque of ten thousand French francs as a deposit and on November 14th, 1934, a contract was signed by Kursky and Posthumus for the sale of a collection of approximately twenty thousand items from the Bund library to the IISH.[2]

The deal with Kursky caused more difficulties than could have been foreseen. In 1936, a part of the Bund collection arrived in Amsterdam, but far less than had been agreed upon.[3] Posthumus protested and a long correspondence ensued. Kursky was vague and evasive in his replies and Posthumus had to give up his attempts to gain possession of the rest of the collection in 1939.[4] It is now, more than sixty years later, impossible to ascertain why Kursky did not adhere to the signed agreement with Posthumus. It would be easy to assume that he acted as he did for personal gain. But when we consider his unblemished record as a dedicated member of the Bund from the very beginning onward, there must have been other reasons for his double-dealing. Had he acted on his own when he signed the agreement with Posthumus and did he fear that the leaders of the Bund would not give their consent?

Be that as it may, Kursky managed to conceal all traces of his deal with Posthumus. There is no mention whatsoever of the sale to be found in any history of the Bund or biography of Kursky. The official version of the fate of the library and archives of the Bund is that the collection remained in Paris after Kursky had left France for the United States in 1941. In Paris it was confiscated by the Germans, but it had not yet been moved to Germany when France was liberated in 1944. After the war the collection was sent to New York, where the greater part now reposes in the library of The Jewish Scientific Institute YIVO. Other parts of the Bund collection can be found in the Tamiment Institute in New York, in the Jewish department of the New York Public Library, in the British Library in London, in the Medem Library in Paris and in the National Library of Lithuania in Vilnius.[5]

Not only the part of the Bund collection which had come to Amsterdam in 1936 contained Yiddish books, pamphlets and journals. In the library of the well-known German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker - which had barely escaped confiscation in Germany in 1935 -many rare translations into Yiddish of Rocker's works and of the works of other anarchists can be found. Also in the library of Max Nettlau (1868-1944), the Austrian historian of the international anarchist movement, there are rare and even unique early Yiddish anarchist pamphlets and journals. Arthur Lehning had persuaded Nettlau to bring his library, containing more than forty thousand items, to Amsterdam. After the Anschluss of Austria, Nettlau himself also settled in Amsterdam, to be near to his beloved books. The Nazis, apparently, were not aware of this fact and he died in Amsterdam in 1944 without having been harassed. Annie Scheltema, the archivist of the IISH, had managed to salvage the last part of Nettlau's collection with the help of the Netherlands ambassador in Vienna, after the Nazis had come into power in Austria. The Yiddish works from Nettlau's collection are completed by those brought together by another Austrian anarchist, publisher and collector, Rudolf Grossmann (1882-1942), better known under his pseudonym Pierre Ramus. His collection was purchased by the IISH in 1936.

Posthumus' far-sightedness had led him to set up a subsidiary of the Institute in Britain before the outbreak of World War II. The most valuable archives were taken there to safety when, following the Munich Agreement (1938), it became clear that the threat of war would not stop at neutral Holland's borders. And Posthumus was proved right when only days after the country was occupied by German troops in May 1940 a group of German functionaries presented themselves at the Institute's door. On July 15, the Institute was closed by order of the Sicherheitsdienst. The staff were sent home and the Einsatzstab Rosenberg moved in. Although many materials had been taken into safety, the library alone still comprised around 300,000 titles. German bureaucracy was divided on the collection's fate. Over time, parts were shipped to Germany to be used for a variety of purposes. In September 1944, the remainder was removed and shipped east on board of twelve Rhine barges. The major part was only rediscovered in 1946 near Hannover in the English zone of Germany and returned to Amsterdam. Other material, which was located in the Soviet zone of Europe, was returned with less alacrity

During the time that the returned materials were reorganized, the Yiddish books and journals were either kept apart until someone would come who knew the language and could catalogue them, or they were listed as German works. As neither the Bund-collection nor the collections of Nettlau and Ramus had been completely catalogued before they were shipped off to Germany, it is impossible to determine how much has been lost. I started my search for the Yiddish publications in the collection of the IISH in July, 1996. After more than two years of looking through the catalogue for faulty German descriptions, additions like 'Hebrew text and title' in descriptions in several languages and other indications, approximately 500 books and brochures and one hundred journals have come to light, including the material which had not yet been listed. The collection is listed now under the name Yidishkayt and can be found under that name in the catalogue. It is particularly rich in early publications of the Bund and the Jewish anarchist movement, but its importance goes far beyond the history of modern Jewish social thought.

The rise of modern political and social movements among the Jews of Eastern Europe went hand in hand with a spectacular development of modern Yiddish literature. The bomb which had killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881, had torn open the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The shackles of traditional Jewish life with its passive acceptance of human misery were shattered in the ensuing pogroms, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fled towards a better life in England and in 'the land of Columbus'. The remaining Jews did not want to succumb any longer under the tsarist knout and sought and found new means of self-defence and a new sense of cultural and political identification.[6]

After a short period of agitation and propaganda in Russian, the Jewish socialists and anarchists in tsarist Russia understood that they could only reach the ears and hearts of the Jewish masses when they spoke their language. They realized as well that political education had to go together with cultural advancement. A new generation of Yiddish poets and writers were eager to use their talents in the service of the people. In 1888, Sholem Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem Aleykhem, invested a part of his considerable fortune to launch a Yiddish annual Di yidishe folksbiblyotek that established Yiddish belles-lettres as a major cultural force. Before the foundation of the Bund in 1897, a group of young progressive Yiddish writers with Yitskhok Leybush Perets as their leader, found a new outlet for their cultural and social ambitions in their dedication to Yiddish literature. Sholem Ash, Sh. Ansky (Rapoport), Joseph Opatoshu, Dovid Bergelson and many other authors who were to become prominent figures in Yiddish literature, published their early work in the Yidishe biblyotek, in Perets' Yomtev-bletlekh, (1894-1896) and in the yearbook Literatur un lebn.[7] Works of many of these writers and poets can later be found in socialist and anarchist publications. They started the debate on the value of Yiddish language and literature as a means of national Jewish identification, a debate which would fill the literary supplements of quite a few Yiddish socialist and anarchist journals for a long time.

At the turn of the century, the 'jargon' had won the day. Instead of a means to make political propaganda understandable, the Yiddish language became a cultural and national issue. During the decisive years of the Bund, between 1897 and 1905, when the young party had to find its place in the spectrum of socialist movements in the Russian Empire, the adoption of Yiddish language and culture made it possible to find its stand between Zionism and Russian socialism. The discussion of the right to have a national Jewish identity within the international socialist and anarchist movements, fills the greater part of the early Yiddish journals like Di arbeyter shtime, printed in several places in the Pale of Settlement, Der yidisher arbeyter, the official journal of the Bund outside of Russia printed in Geneva, as well as Di fraye arbeyter shtime, of the anarchists, printed in London and New York. After a prolonged and embittered quarrel with Lenin, who denied the Bund its right to be considered an independent national organization within the federation of Russian social democratic parties, the Bund broke away from the Russian party and sought its way independently, fighting for the Russian Jews to be accepted as a separate national cultural entity within the multi-national Russian Empire.[8]

In the early Yiddish socialist and anarchist press there always was space for a literary supplement, where poems and tales of young literary talent were published and where cultural problems were discussed. The illegal Yiddish publications, among which many translations of important socialist and anarchist theoretical works, were mostly produced by former students of rabbinical academies and political refugees. Their endeavours stimulated the development of the Yiddish language as a vehicle for modern intellectual and political debate. When we consider the great dangers which the underground printing and distribution of socialist and anarchist literature engendered in the Pale of Settlement, the amount of journals, zamlbikher, pamphlets, short stories and translations is amazing. In spite of the fact that hundreds of comrades were caught by the Russian secret police between 1897 and 1905, and that they were either imprisoned or sent to Siberia, ordinary smugglers and all kinds of emissaries managed to fill the Yiddish popular libraries existing in many cities and shtetl with new literature which was avidly read and discussed. Although all Yiddish theatre-productions were forbidden by the tsarist authorities, many clandestine performances depicted the daily struggle of the Jews in the Pale and made the audience aware that there was a new way out of their misery: the solidarity of the Jewish workers.

The Yiddish collection of the IISH reflects the spectacular development of secular Yiddish literature and culture which accompanied the political and social awakening of the Jews in the Russian Empire. So we find the first underground publications of the Bund there, two stories of which the authors are not named: Gut yomtev and Der shtot-magid both published in 1897, most probably in Vilnius. The first issue of the series Di arbeyter-biblyotek, which was probably printed in London, an anthology of stories, poems and cultural essays Farn zunoyfgang, a zamlbukh followed by A mayse mit fir brider are also part of the collection.

The Riter der frayhayt, the Jewish anarchists in England, had publishing-houses in London and Leeds. They founded a Biblyotek in idish-daytshe shprakh, which specialized in anti-religious propaganda. The pamphlets were printed in a very small size and had Hebrew title-pages closely resembling those of Hebrew prayer-books, which facilitated smuggling into Russia and distribution in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Between 1899 and 1903, there appeared more than twenty pamphlets with vehement attacks on the Jewish religion and its practices, most of which repose in the collection of the IISH. A good example of this kind of literature which clearly reflects the anarchist methods of propaganda, is the Yiddish adaptation of a polemical essay of Peter Kropotkin's Got un der shtat of 1901, to which a new version of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith of Moses Maimonides is added. The first principle reads: 'I believe that all men are born free and equal'.

The Bund also attacked the Jewish orthodox establishment, though not as vehemently as the anarchists did. The Bundist propagandists tried to give Jewish tradition and the traditional Jewish festivals a new and socialist definition. A good example of this kind of propaganda is a popular pamphlet Hagode shel pesakh kefi nusakh khodosh (Prayer-book for Passover according to a new liturgy), which was reprinted several times. This pamphlet, too, was produced like a Hebrew prayer book to circumvent the Russian police.

The anarchist pamphlets often begin with poems of the popular revolutionary Yiddish poets Dovid Edelshtat (1866-1892), Yoysef Bovshover (1873-1915), Morris Vinchevski (1856-1933), Morris Rosenfeld (1862-1923) and Avrohom Lyesin (1872-1938). Edelshtat became the hero of the Yiddish workers because of his dedication to the cause and his early deadth. His father had been drafted by force in the tsarist army at the age of twelve, one of the more than thirty thousand Jewish boys who underwent the same fate during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. He was one of the few who survived the ordeal of six preparatory years and twenty-five years of military service and was, therefore, granted permission to reside outside the Pale of Settlement. Young Edelshtat went to a Russian primary school and he started to write Russian poems at the age of eleven. He had to start working for a living early and left his home at the age of fourteen. He witnessed a pogrom in Kiev, in 1881, and that determined his future. He became a member of the Am Olam movement which strove to create Jewish agricultural settlements based on mutual aid. He went, sixteen years old, to the United States with a group of the Am Olam in 1882. He did not come farther than Cincinnati, where he worked in a clothing factory. In 1886, after a demonstration and strike in Chicago, four anarchist leaders were caught and sentenced to death by hanging. The tragedy of the martyrs of Chicago changed his life. He started writing Yiddish poems of protest and wrath and became the poet of the Jewish toilers all over the world. His stirring poems were set to music and sung in Russian prison-cells as well as in factories and sweatshops in Europe and the United States. In 1892 he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six and was mourned by many of his comrades.

Yoysef Bovshover, who had just arrived in the United States from Riga, wrote an elegy on Edelshtat's death which established him as his successor as the poet of anarchist radicals. Vinshevski and Rosenfeld, who both came from Lithuania, were to publish their socialist lyrics in the Yiddish socialist daily newspaper the Forverts, the most influential Yiddish journal in the United States. Especially Rosenfeld's poetry soon became widely known and sung and recited.

Avrohom Lyesin was the last of the revolutionary Yiddish poets of the first period. He had started his career in Minsk, where he published revolutionary poetry. He emigrated to the United States in 1897, and started to publish his poems in the Forverts. But his ambitions and talents did not stop at writing socialist lyrics. He took part in the development of Yiddish literature in the United States, and, in 1907, became a member of the literary movement Di yunge. Later on he became editor of the influential Yiddish literary monthly Di tsukunft [9] In the Yiddish collection of the IISH a wealth of this early revolutionary poetry can be found in the pamphlets of the Bund and the anarchists and in several anthologies and collected works.

Between 1900 and 1905, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) tried to recruit Jewish members. Its printing office in London issued a series of Yudishe broshuren aroysgegeben fun der poylisher sotsyalistisher partay in which common themes for Polish and Jewish comrades were elucidated. In this series we can find Yiddish translations of the articles of Karl Kautsky on the national question, pamphlets of Clara Zetkin about the situation of working-class women, and biographies of Polish martyrs for national freedom and social justice. At the end of many of these pamphlets, the complete program of the PPS in Yiddish has been published. The PPS did not succeed in convincing the Jewish workers in Poland that the party would safeguard their interests. The reciprocal distrust between Jewish and Polish workers proved to be stronger than proletarian solidarity and the PPS ceased its propaganda in Yiddish.

The Russian revolution of 1905 brought a complete change in the political and cultural work of the Bund. For a short time it seemed that a liberal and more democratic political system would be tolerated by a reluctant tsar. The censureship of the printed word was practically abandoned and underground journals and publications could now be freely produced and distributed. Vilna soon became the centre of progressive Yiddish publications, among which Yiddish daily papers, weeklies and monthly or three-monthly magazines abounded. Especially in these magazines of which the IISH has quite a few first issues, the astounding development of Yiddish culture is apparent. Not only in the subjects of the articles and the way they are written, but also in the language is reflected the spectacular cultural improvement of the authors and the reading public. The bitter struggle for economic, political and cultural advancement of the Bund and the Jewish anarchists had brought about a Yiddish cultural renaissance. Jewish socialism and anarchism were not merely new means for social and economic advancement of the Jewish workers, but they represented a new Yiddish civilization, a new way of life.

The role of Yiddish in Jewish cultural life and its recognition as one of the most important Jewish languages, issues which were so hotly debated during the conference of Czernovitz, in 1908, had already been discussed in many of the new magazines before the conference had taken place. Even the Zionists who detested Yiddish as the language of the ghetto had to give in during that conference, but they made seldom use of the language. Poale-Zion, the Socialist Zionists though no lovers of Yiddish either, tried to win over the Jewish workers to their side and had, therefore, to make use of Yiddish. We can find a series of Yiddish pamphlets in the collection of the IISH, published by the Poale Zion Palestine Committee in New York in the time of the First World War.

The role of the Bund and the Jewish anarchist movement in the rise and development of modern Yiddish language, literature and culture has generally been acknowledged, but not extensively studied from the sources. The early pamphlets and journals in the collection of the IISH may help to give a deeper insight in the struggle for modernity of the authors and the new literary means they used to express themselves. They also reflect the rapid transformation of Yiddish from a clumsy pseudo-German idiom into a living literary language.

Though there still does not exist an adequate bibliography of the entire modern Yiddish literature and press, quite a few studies on the early Yiddish press and political literature have appeared recently.[10]

One of the best examples of the spectacular development of Yiddish literature and culture in Eastern Europe before the First World War is the literary Journal Di yudishe velt, literarish-gezelshaftlikhe monatshrift published by the well-known publishing-house Kletzkin in Vilna. The greater part of the first and second volumes of 1912 and 1913 repose in the collection of the IISH. They contain contributions by Sh. Ash, Dovid Bergelson, Sh. Niger, Y. L. Perets and O. Shvartsman, to name only a few. Among the many translations into Yiddish, several articles of Martin Buber are noteworthy. This literary journal and many other Yiddish publications produced in Eastern Europe in the time before 1914, form as it were the missing link in the development of Yiddish literature and culture from the early years since 1880 until its full development after the First World War. The sources repose in Amsterdam and are waiting to be studied and evaluated.

From: Renate Fuks-Mansfeld, 'A Hidden Treasure. The Yiddish Collection of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam', in: Walter Röll and Simon Neuberg (eds), Jiddische Philologie. Festschrift für Erika Timm (Tübingen 1999), 1-14.


  1. Maria Hunink, De papieren van de revolutie. Het Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1935-1947 (Amsterdam 1986), 5-7.
  2. In the archives of De Centrale which repose in the IISH, inv. nr 1602, the receipt for 88.000 French francs for the sale of the collection signed by Kursky is still extant
  3. In the archives of the NEHA, which also repose in the IISH, GIA 249, the following description of the purchased colection can be found: 'The collection consists of approximately 20.000 brochures and pamphlets, among which much illegal material which was prited abroad (from the end of the nineties up till the First World War), Zionist and anti-Zionist material and a collection of journals, among which Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Bulgarian and Judeo-Persian (...)'
  4. The correspondence between Posthumus and Kursky can be found in the archives of the IISH in a portfolio A-B Hauptvorstand des Bundes and portfolio D-K Kursky.
  5. Henri Minczeles, Histoire Générale du Bund. Un mouvement révolutionaire juif(Paris 1995), 68.
  6. Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics. Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917 (Cambridge 1981), 6-363.
  7. Ruth R. Wisse, I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Seatle etc. 1991)
  8. Nora Levin, While Messiah Tarried. Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917(London 1978), 280-300.
  9. For the lives and works of Yiddish revolutionary poets see Sol Liptzin, A History of Yiddish Literature (New York 1985), 93-98.
  10. Leonard Prager started his important bibliographical work on Yiddish literature in Great Britain with his article: 'A bibliography of Yiddish periodicals in Great Britain (1867-1967)', in: Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 9 (1969) 3-32, followed up by his Yiddish culture in Britain. A guide, (Frankfurt/M. etc. 1990). Mosheh Gontsharok enumerates quite a few anarchist Yiddish journals in his Tsu der geshikhte fun der anarkhistisher prese oyf yidish (Jerusalem 1997). Alfred Abraham Greenbaum's The Periodical Publications of the Jewish Labour and Revolutionary Movements in Eastern and Southeastern Europe 1877-1916. An annotated bibliography (Jerusalem 1989), lists 249 German, Polish, Russian, Yiddish and Ladino titles. When compiling his Yiddish Anarchist Bibliography (London 1998), John Patten was the first to make use of the Yiddish collection of the IISH, which yielded sixteen journals and pamphlets that cannot be found in other libraries.