Hidden gem of Jewish world comes to London
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Hidden gem of Jewish world comes to London

Jenni Frazer meets the man in charge of a unique archive of ‘just about everything to do with the Jews of  Eastern Europe’

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

From the YIVO archive: Jewish socialists at a picnic around 1902
From the YIVO archive: Jewish socialists at a picnic around 1902

Jonathan Brent, executive director of YIVO, reckons he has the best job in the world. And, after a short time with this genial academic, it’s hard not to agree.

YIVO – Yiddisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute, now more formally known as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research – was founded in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1925. It has been based in New York since 1940 and is a repository of just about everything to do with the Jews of Eastern Europe.

That means more than 23 million items, from letters to unsmoked cigarettes meant for Cossacks to boxes of tailors’ buttons. Here are the papers of Chagall, of Sholem Aleichem, even Theodor Herzl’s diary, and the painstaking barmitzvah project of the future father of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Mayer Amschel Rothschild.  It is the hidden gem of the Jewish world, the largest single resource of its kind – and it is about to open a London office in Cheapside.

“University College London and the Lithuanian Embassy invited us to London in 2015 for a celebration of YIVO’s 90th anniversary,” Brent  said. “In the 1930s, for a time, we had a presence in London and today in New York we have about 40ft of British Jewish material [from the time] that most people don’t know about.”

This includes a letter written in Yiddish by Chaim Weizmann from his Manchester address in 1905, and an 1889 balance sheet of the East London Tailors Strike – which Lord Rothschild supported financially.

During the 2015 visit, Brent met Alan Howard, one of Britain’s most successful investors but, also, crucially, said to be one of the most “connected” networkers in the Jewish community. After giving a lunch in YIVO’s honour, Howard suggested the organisation should consider opening a London office.

From the YIVO archive: an advert for a Jewish folk-song evening in 1930

“Our ambition is to be a global institution, so the idea appealed”, says Brent, and YIVO has spent the past three years building the infrastructure, including getting Charity Commission approval and setting up a London board. The plans include partnerships with JW3, the Pears Foundation, the Wiener Library and University College London.

At the same time, YIVO has been involved in possibly its most ambitious project: digitising and translating into English its extraordinary archive to put the material online.

“Each year, 6,000 people use the YIVO New York archives but 250,000 more search online,” says Brent. YIVO has now raised $3 million (£2.3m) for the first stage of the digitising process.

Brent, an academic by training, has been in post for nine years and says YIVO’s overall aim “is to change the Jewish narrative. The online resources will be for the Jewish people, not just academics”. He believes access to the archives will give people a new view of the now lost world of Eastern European Jewry, a living, breathing, colourful tapestry of communities that led vibrant lives before the Holocaust.

From the YIVO archive: Advert for a Yiddish theatre playbill for a performance of Di Yesoyme

There are other, chilling, things to be found, including a portrait of a Nazi leader in the Hitler Youth in Holland responsible for  rounding up Jews. Brent expains: “He sits there, very sedately, not in his uniform but looking like an ordinary businessman, sitting for his portrait. It looks absolutely unremarkable, then you turn it over and see the back is from a Torah scroll.”

Brent says the YIVO archives show a picture of Jewish society that was “vibrant and powerful and existed on so many different levels”.  It is opening a unique window on yesterday’s Jews for those of today.

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