- David Fishman
The Jewish Archival Survey – Jewish Documents and Cultural Treasures in Ukraine
The aggressive Russian war in Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022 continues not only to kill people and annihilate infrastructure, it also destroys the cultural heritage of the country, among whose most precious possessions is the history of Ukrainian Jewry. Ukraine was one of the most important centers of Eastern European Judaism: On the eve of the Holocaust 2.5 million Jews lived within what is today Ukrainian territory.
Even though much was lost through the Shoah and Second World War, libraries and archives in Ukraine have preserved unique and extensive collections of books and documents. Many of these collections have, in the present war, already been damaged or destroyed by aerial bombardment. Intense efforts are being made to secure or evacuate the holdings, and these are being supported with money, as well as material and personal assistance, from libraries and librarians in other countries – above all Poland. In Germany, support for the threatened libraries comes mainly from the Network for the Protection of Cultural Property in Ukraine.
The Jewish Archival Survey has been working for 20 years for the retrieval and publication of the Ukrainian Jewish documentary heritage, an undertaking that has gained even greater urgency since the war started. The survey director, David Fishman, presents the project here:
One of the most important centers of Jewish life
Ukraine was one of the foremost centers of Jewish life in the world for close to 400 years. The regions known as Volyn and Podolia were the birthplace of Hasidism; Odessa was the foremost center of Russian Zionism and modern Hebrew literature; after the revolution of 1917, Yiddish culture flourished in Kharkiv and Kyiv.
At that time, Ukraine wasn’t an independent country. Most of today’s Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, and smaller parts belonged to Poland, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia. There were several major Jewish libraries, archives, and museums within those boundaries: The Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kyiv, affiliated with the Ukrainian SSR’s Academy of Sciences, had an extremely rich library and archive. The Mendele Mokher Seforim Museum in Odessa, named after the grandfather of Yiddish literature, and the Jewish Museum in L’viv (Lemberg in German; before the war the city was Lwow, Poland) had rich collections of Jewish art and artifacts. There were major Jewish library collections in Kharkiv and Chernivitsi (before the war: Cernauti, Rumania).
Preserving the Jewish Heritage of Ukraine
It is the objective of the Jewish Archival Survey, a project sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, to locate and describe the remnants of these collections, and more generally the documentation on Jewish history and culture held in contemporary Ukraine. The project is driven by twin moral imperatives: That the historical legacy of Jewish communities decimated by the Holocaust be located and preserved; and that Jewish manuscripts, documents and artifacts that were locked away by the Soviets in closed “special collections”, be fully accessible to researchers.
The Jewish Archival Survey has been active for twenty years, and has published three volumes in book-form: a guide to Jewish documents in Kyiv (2006), to Jewish documents in Volyn (mainly in the cities of Zhytomyr and Rovno, 2009), and to Southern Ukraine (Odessa, Kherson, and Nikolayev, 2014). A fourth guide, to Jewish documents in L’viv, the oldest Jewish community in Ukraine, going back to the 14th century, was completed just before the Russian aggression began, in February 2022. It is now being edited, and will be published in Poland in early 2023.
Wernadskyj National Library in Kiev (© By Artemka - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44662981)
The most valuable Jewish cultural treasures are held by the Vernadskii National Library in Kyiv. These include a collection of manuscript Pinkasim, minute books of Jewish communities and associations, going back to the 18th century. Also held there are some of the records of the Jewish ethnographic expedition led by author S. An-Ski in 1913, which collected folk-songs, stories, traditions, as well as photographs and images. Finally, the Vernadskii library has parts of the archive of the Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture. These treasures and other are, according to colleagues in Kyiv, now being held in special safe locations, so they will not be hit by Russian bombardments.
For those interested in Jewish life on the eve of the Holocaust, the L’viv archives are particularly rich. They hold the records of more than 30 local Jewish organizations – Zionist, social welfare, Jewish youth and sports movements, religious associations, educational organizations etc. L’viv (Lwow) was the third largest Jewish community in pre-War Poland, after Warsaw and Lodz. The L’viv archives have received special fire-proof storage materials from Poland, to protect its holdings in the current war.
The Jewish Archival Survey describes a broad universe of materials: including documents about Jewish life that were produced by non-Jewish individuals, organizations, and state bodies. These include charters issued by royal authorities to Jewish communities in the 14th-16th centuries; court records on Jewish-Christian relations; the records of Russian, Austrian, and Polish ministries of education on Jewish schools; Soviet records on the persecution of Zionists and Jews who wished to emigrate to Israel. The project’s end-date is 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved. It therefore includes considerable information on Jews, antisemitism, and Jewish life in post-World War II Soviet Ukraine, when close to a million Jews still lived in its boundaries.
For those interested in perusing the descriptions of the Jewish Archival Survey, they will soon be available online in English, at the Yerusha portal, the central data-base for Jewish archives in Europe: www.yerusha.eu.
David E. Fishman is Professor of History and Director, Jewish Archival Survey, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.
Further information on the situation of libraries in Ukraine: https://ukraine2022.ios-regensburg.de/bibliotheken02/