Prior to the Holocaust, there were 11–13 million speakers of Yiddish among 17 million Jews worldwide. 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, leading to a massive decline in the use of the language. Assimilation following World War II and aliyah, immigration to Israel, further decreased the use of Yiddish both among survivors and among Yiddish-speakers from other countries (such as in the Americas). Today the number of Yiddish-speakers is spoken widely in Hasidic communities.
YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Jewish Research, is dedicated to fostering knowledge of the history and culture of East European Jewry.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was founded by scholars and intellectuals in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), in 1925 to document and study Jewish life in all its aspects: language, history, religion, folkways, and material culture. YIVO had a special focus on the Jews of Eastern Europe, however, it also collected books, manuscripts and other artefacts from Jewish communities around the world. It grew to be a beloved communal institution with active members from Buenos Aires to Shanghai. Click to read more about YIVO’s establishment and early years.
World War II and the Holocaust forced YIVO’s relocation to New York in 1940. The Nazis looted its collections in Vilna, but with the help of the U.S. Army, YIVO was able to recover some of these materials and begin its work anew in America. Read more about the destruction of YIVO during World War II.
Today, YIVO’s collections are the primary source of the documentary history of East European Jewry and the surviving record of millions of lives of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. YIVO brings treasures from its library and archives to broad audiences via a rich array of programs, including lectures, concerts, and exhibitions; adult education and Yiddish-language programs and courses; books and scholarly publications; and fellowships for scholars. Read more about the history of YIVO in America.
At the time of writing this blog, much of the world is in lockdown as we weather the storm of the Coronavirus crisis. YIVO has closed its doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but their work continues. They are encouraging people to take this time to enjoy one of their online courses, which they have made available free of charge, and to explore their many online resources. You can also check-in for their live Facebook updates and view their past programs on their YouTube channel.
The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe offers us a rich and concise insight into the history of the Jews of Belarus, and it can be read here.