New YIVO Project Digitizes Pre-War Archive
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New YIVO Project Digitizes Pre-War Archive

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Imagine 1,000 years of Jewish history at your fingertips.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research announced last week the launch of the Vilna Project, a seven-year international project to digitize YIVO’s pre-war archives online. Though ransacked by the Nazis in 1941, the YIVO archives still possess the largest collection of materials on the thousand-year history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Russia.

The collections tell us how Jews lived, where they came from, how they raised and educated their families, how they created art, literature, music and language itself.

“If you pick up any piece of paper from the archives, you will learn something you never even imagined about Jewish life,” said Roberta Newman, director of digital initiatives for the YIVO Institute. By way of example, she cited a torn poster from the end of World War I in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania, written by the town’s rabbis. The document gave permission to celebrate Passover with cups of tea instead of wine.

“Looking at something real just can’t be replaced by reading about history in a book,” said Newman.

The Vilna Project encompasses some 10,000 rare or unique publications and approximately 1.5 million documents, including literary works, letters, memoirs, theater posters, photographs, rare books, pamphlets, newspapers, political tracts, religious treatises, and communal records, according to YIVO’s press release.

Another similar project is Sefaria, which seeks to make all of Judaism’s sacred texts accessible and open-source. That effort, announced last year, would be modeled on Wikipedia, although scholars would replace laypeople as the editors.

“Accessibility is key,” said Newman. “Through the online portal, these resources will be accessible like never before.”

In New York alone, 500 linear feet (in archival terms) or 700,000 documents are maintained in the archive. The other half of the archives remains in Vilnius and contain 100 linear feet of documentation.

Though the archives include several different languages (including German, Polish, Russian and Hebrew), the larger percentage of the documents are written in Yiddish. Newman said that the new accessibility to these archives might further today’s Yiddish renaissance.

The Vilna Project also aims to digitally reunite the two halves of pre-war archive. A portion of YIVO’s archives was sent to Frankfurt to become the basis of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question; another part was hidden in Vilna; another part was destroyed, the press releases said. In 1946, the U.S. Army discovered the seized YIVO materials in the train depot in Offenbach, Germany and returned them to YIVO. The part that remained in Vilna was saved from the Soviets by a Lithuanian librarian, Antanas Ulpis, and remained hidden in the basement of a church until 1989.

Total project costs are estimated at $5.25 million. Funding is currently being sought by combination of public and private foundations, individuals and government sources. The work of scanning in all the documents, scheduled to begin in January 2015, is expected to take seven years.

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