EAJS Programme in European Jewish Studies 2015/16
YIVO’s Histories, Contexts, Tensions: A special Litvak Days event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of YIVO
EAJS Roundtable held in London from 1st to 2nd December 2015
Organizers: Dr Helen Beer and Prof M Berkowitz (University College London)
This event was planned to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of YIVO and to contribute toward a richer understanding of its complex history. It sought to explore the institution’s origins and impact, its fate during the Holocaust, efforts at collection of cultural material, relations with the greater Litvak context(s), and comparable efforts to explore and activate the folk culture of East European Jewry.
Along with commemorating the anniversary of YIVO, we wished to shed light on the diverse historical contexts that gave rise to YIVO’s efforts and shaped its subsequent eight decades. We wanted in particular to offer vantage points that offer fresh perspectives on YIVO’s history. This roundtable also was seen as a means to introduce the broad audience which has been drawn to earlier ‘Litvak days’ events in London to recognise and appreciate YIVO in particular and related Jewish cultural preservation and educational efforts. Critically, it brought together both seasoned and younger scholars who have not previously appeared in the same forums to share ideas, and conceive new ways of approaching the history of YIVO and East European Jewry overall.
The Actual Event
The event was held at University College London (UCL) and the Wiener Library, Russell Square. It also featured an exhibition prepared jointed by YIVO and the Lithuanian cultural ministry, installed at UCL main building, in the south cloisters. The various partners for this event included YIVO; Department of Hebrew & Jewish Studies, UCL; and the European Institute, UCL, which mainly helped with publicity. We also recognised, in the programme and as an introduction to each of the sessions, the sponsorship of the EAJS for which we are greatly appreciative.
The public programme began with remarks by the main organiser, Professor Michael Berkowitz, and Asta Skaisgirytė Liauškienė, Lithuanian Ambassador to the UK. There were brief but especially prescient comments by Professor Mary Fulbrook, Dean of Historical and Social Sciences at UCL and Head of the European Institute. We then had remarks from Jonathan Brent, the Director of YIVO, who would also present later in the conference.
The first of the speakers who was supported by the EAJS, who provided the keynote, was Professor Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He had been specifically requested to speak about the general environment, in particular the educational landscape, out of which YIVO emerged in 1925. His address was wide-ranging, brilliant, and even controversial. He stressed the reality of the fact that YIVO represented a minority within the Jewish realm in Vilna, which was overwhelmingly interested in becoming Polonized. He also slaughtered some sacred cows: Stampfer expressed the opinion that much of what was published by YIVO and the leading yeshivas was not of great importance or quality–but that the tenor of the times dictated that all educational bodies had to publish profusely. This presentation was a tour-de-force and was especially enlightening for some of the students and younger scholars in the audience.
The afternoon session began with an address by UCL’s own Dr Francois Guesnet on what he called “The Berlin Roots of YIVO.” The title itself raised eyebrows. While acknowledging the importance of Cecil Kuznitz’s recent account of YIVO’s history, Dr Guesnet called attention to the precedents and initiatives stemming from Berlin that helped to shape and bring the efforts of YIVO to fruition. It became clear that scholars must look at a broader field, beyond Vilne, in order to situate YIVO.
Dr Guesnet was followed Dr Kamil Kijek, the second of the scholars supported by the EAJS funds, from the University of Wroclaw. Dr Kijek spoke about the post-1918 crisis as it affected the upcoming generation of Warsaw Jewry. In many ways this talk complemented the comments of Shaul Stampfer. Kijek’s sensitive reading and contextualisation of the voices of youth, however, gave the conflict and contradictions, rife at the time, a special poignancy.
The next speaker, Jurgita Verbickienė from Vilnius University, talked about the awareness and reputation of YIVO among the Lithuanian community. This in an important perspective that is not often enjoined.
Jonathan Brent showed some rarely seen film from YIVO’s archives. He also discussed the recent digitalisation efforts, a joint project between YIVO and Lithuanian authorities. Brent allowed the audience to see the literal opening up of hidden archives that have only recently been discovered.
The next day, beginning at 10 AM, Avinoam Patt, an Israeli/American scholar based at the University of Hartford, delivered a fascinating presentation on the relationship between YIVO and the ‘surviving remnant’ of European Jewry after the Holocaust, and the fate of YIVO in Soviet times. He also was an EAJS-supported participant. His talk was accompanied by little-known photographs. Perhaps the greatest strength of this contribution was the relationship between the institutional development of the Shereit ha’Pleita, their growing self-confidence, and the extent to which they exerted efforts to preserve the cultural legacy of European Jewry.
David Mazower, of the BBC World Service, gave a talk entitled Tales and Treasures from the YIVO Archives, which centred on the life of a controversial Yiddish actress Fanny Epstein. The panel was introduced by UCL’s Dr Helen Beer, who also offered some general comments on the anniversary and reflections on Yiddish in London. Mazower provided a compelling view of Epstein’s life and career. As of two years ago Mazower had not recovered a single photo of Epstein, but a research trip to the YIVO archives in Buenos Aires yielded some fascinating finds.
Mazower was followed by Akvilė Grigoravičiūtė, University of Paris-Sorbonne, originally from Lithuania, who is pursuing her PhD under the supervision of Professor Delphine Bechtel. Ms Grigoravičiūtė was the last of the EAJS-sponsored participants. She spoke on the Baltic context of YIVO’s efforts, including efforts to consider differences and similarities, comparisons and contrasts, with the communities in Latvia and Estonia.
The final panel was entitled “Exploring Litvaks, the Holocaust, postwar Europe.” It featured Kat Hübschmann, Christine Schmidt and Toby Simpson of the Wiener Library. The focus of their comments was on highlighting material from the Wiener Library’s collection and work focusing on Lithuania, including the International Tracing Service. Of particular interest were the reflections on the brief points of contact between the Wiener Library and YIVO, along with the recognition that this was the first ever joint meeting of these two formidable institutions.
Websites promoting the roundtable:
UCL European Institute website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/european-institute/events/2014-15/yivo-histories-context-tensions
The Wiener Library website: http://www.wienerlibrary.co.uk/Whats-On?item=228
Website of the Lithuanian Embassy in the United Kingdom: https://uk.mfa.lt/uk/lt/naujienos/ambasada-ir-ucl-kviecia-i-5-asias-litvaku-dienas-londone-gruodzio-1-2-d
Website of the Lithuanian World Arts Council: http://www.ltcreates.org/events/litvakconferencelondon
Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Venue: University College London (UCL), Gower Street, UCL event space, front quad
Michael Berkowitz, Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, UCL
Asta Skaisgirytė, Ambassador of Lithuania
Mary Fulbrook, University College London
Jonathan Brent, YIVO Executive Director: ‘YIVO’s history and introduction to the Exhibition ‘YIVO Yidish Academy in Vilna 1925-2015’
Shaul Stampfer, Hebrew University of Jerusalem: ‘Relationships to Education in Lithuania outside of YIVO’
Lunch break (lunch not provided)
François Guesnet, UCL: ‘The Berlin Roots of YIVO’
Kamil Kijek, University of Wroclaw: ‘Post – 1918 crisis, YIVO and the New Generation of Interwar East European Jewry’
Coffee break, UCL Institute for Advanced Studies, South Cloisters, UCL Main Building
Jurgita Verbickienė, Vilnius University Faculty of History: ‘Famous YIVO: What did Interwar Lithuanians know about it?’
Jonathan Brent, YIVO Executive Director: ‘Capturing YIVO as it was. Film from its Archives’
Haldane Room, UCL
Mantvydas Bekešius, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania
Jonathan Arkush, President, Board of Deputies of British Jews
Faina Kukliansky, President of the Lithuanian Jewish Community
Michael Berkowitz, UCL (brief presentation): ‘Leopold Godowsky between the folk and Classic: Connecting to peoples and publics’
Recital: Gabija Butkutė, pianist, featuring music of Leopold Godowsky
Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Venue: WIENER LIBRARY, Russel square
Avinoam Patt, University of Hartford: ‘Contexts of Rescue and Collection Efforts’
David Mazower, BBC: ‘Tales and Treasures from the YIVO Archives’
Akvilė Grigoravičiūtė, University of Paris-Sorbone: ‘Support for YIVO in the Interwar Baltic States’
Lunch break (lunch not provided)
Special session: ‘Exploring Litvaks, the Holocaust, postwar Europe’
Kat Hubschmann, Christine Schmidt and Toby Simpson, Wiener Library/International
Tracing Service: ‘New Sources for a Spectrum of Historical Interests: Highlights from the Library‘s Collection and Work Focusing on Lithuania, Including the International Tracing Service and its Availability for Research’
Closing comments: Jonathan Brent, YIVO and Francois Guesnet, UCL