Simon Dubnow (standing, center) at the first international YIVO conference, Vilna, 1935. Other historians and notables on the stage and dais include (seated, from left) Joseph Tshernikhov, Elias Tcherikower, Yankev Botoshansky; (behind Botoshansky’s left shoulder) Zelig Kalmanovitch; (to Dubnow’s right) Ignacy Schiper; (behind Dubnow’s right shoulder) Rafail Abramovich; (seated, first to fourth from right) Yudl Mark, Yankev Shatzky, Max Weinreich, Zalmen Reyzen; (standing behind Weinreich), Nakhman Meisel. The portrait of Tsemaḥ Szabad (right) is draped in black in commemoration of his death, which had occurred a few months earlier. (YIVO)

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An Overview

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The modern historiography of East European Jewry reflects profound cultural changes in a society whose sense of history had for centuries depended more on religious archetypes than on objective scholarship. During the nineteenth century, the decline of traditional communal authority and the challenges of emancipation encouraged new perspectives on Jewish identity and a renewed interest in Jewish history.

The modern historiography of East European Jewry (excluding Hungary, the Bohemian lands, and Romania) can be divided into three periods: 1808–1892, 1892–about 1945, and 1945–present. Until the late nineteenth century, most studies, which were written either in Russian or Polish, focused on the “Jewish Question”: the legal status of East European Jewry, bureaucratic attitudes toward Jews, and the pros and cons of emancipation. In addition to these studies, maskilim wrote histories that were more didactic polemics than objective scholarship. Written mainly in Hebrew, these somewhat popular works used history to justify the reform and modernization of Jewish society. During this first stage, communal monographs also appeared. Written by both maskilim and traditional scholars, the best included important historical materials, such as communal records, transcriptions of epitaphs, and other unpublished sources.

Jewish historians in the office of the Jewish Section at an international historical congress, Warsaw, 1933: (left to right) Ignacy Schiper, Abraham Duker, Emanuel Ringelblum, Raphael Mahler, Salo W. Baron, Me’ir Halevi, Majer Bałaban, M. Stein, and an unidentified participant. (YIVO)

The second period began with Simon Dubnow’s famous appeals in 1891–1892 to East European Jews to collect Jewish sources, study their own past, and make historical consciousness the pillar of a new, secular national identity. Dubnow’s call echoed, with much greater effect, earlier appeals by David Kaufmann in Budapest and Shim‘on Bernfeld in Galicia. The history of the Jewish people began to displace the earlier focus on the “Jewish Question.” Jewish historians soon found themselves playing an active role in political and cultural controversies.

Until 1917, Russian remained the major language—and Saint Petersburg the center—of Jewish historical scholarship. After the Russian Revolution, the center shifted to Warsaw, where historical research flourished in Polish and Yiddish. The new Polish center, however, carried on many of the traditions of Dubnow and Saint Petersburg. Jewish historians, now university trained but still barred from holding academic positions, continued to see their scholarship not only as professional research but also as a national mission.

After the Holocaust, Israel and the United States became the new centers of historical study of East European Jewry. Although Zionist historiography long retained its prominent place in Israel, in general the Dubnovian tradition of engaged history slowly gave way to new interests and frameworks as the subject of history moved into established universities and became more professionalized. Accepted verities and antinomies (assimilation versus national loyalty; Zionism versus Diaspora nationalism; Western Jewry versus East European Jewry) yielded to more nuanced approaches. Historians turned their attention to new subfields that had hitherto received little attention, including women’s history, social history, and urban history. Since 1991, the fall of the former Soviet Union has opened up vast archival resources and has made possible a marked revival of Jewish historical research in Russia and Ukraine as well as in other countries formerly in the Communist bloc. At the same time, new academic centers have appeared, especially in Germany and Britain.

The Foundations of East European Jewish Historiography

The Enlightenment and the controversies surrounding Jewish emancipation provided the first major stimulus to the serious study of modern East European Jewish history. One of the first important works was Tadeusz Czacki’s Rozprawa o Żydach i Karaitach (Treatise on Jews and Karaites; 1808). Czacki (1765–1813), an enlightened nobleman and a member of the Four-Year Sejm of 1788–1792, regarded knowledge of Jewish history as a vital prerequisite for effective reform legislation that would end Jewish isolation. Basing his work on a wide array of available historical sources as well as on Polish legal documents, Czacki summarized the legal position of Polish Jewry and added an important survey of the economic state of Polish Jewry at the end of the eighteenth century. Objective study of Jewish history, he implied, dispelled misguided myths about innate Jewish characteristics and showed that with the right laws and education Jews could become useful citizens. Following Czacki, Jewish assimilationist historians such as Aleksander Kraushar (1843–1931) and Hilary Nussbaum (1820–1895) marshaled historical arguments—based on official charters and legal records—to stress traditional Polish tolerance and to convince Jews to become “Poles of the Mosaic persuasion” (Kraushar eventually converted to Catholicism).

The use of history as a weapon in the fight for emancipation continued in tsarist Russia in the writings of Il’ia Orshanskii (1846–1875) and Iulii Gessen (1871–1939), both of whom studied the “Jewish Question” in Russia rather than the internal history of Russian Jewry. A gifted writer and a skilled polemicist, Orshanskii straddled the boundaries of history and journalism with hard-hitting studies, based on economic research and legal history, that exposed tsarist anti-Jewish legislation as irrational and counterproductive. These included Evrei v Rossii: Ocherki ekonomicheskogo i obshchestvennogo byta Russkikh evreev (The Jews in Russia: Studies of the Social and Economic Life of Russian Jewry; 1872) and Russkoe zakonodatel’stvo o evreiakh (Russian Legislation on the Jews; 1877). Convinced there was a basic community of interest between the Russian state and the Jews, especially in the formerly Polish western provinces, Orshanskii urged the government to end its discriminatory laws, just as he urged Jews to embrace Russian culture (without, however, giving up their religion).

Following in Orshanskii’s footsteps, Gessen—who was granted extensive access to Russian state archives—emerged as the best practitioner of a legal-political approach that relied on legal records and official documents. His studies of Russian Jewish history (Istoriia evreev v Rossii [A History of the Jews in Russia]; 1914; Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v Rossii [History of the Jewish People of Russia]; 1916) provided unprecedented insight into the workings of the Russian bureaucracy and of the often contradictory and complex forces that propelled state Jewish policy. Gessen’s critics, however, charged that his legal approach paid scant attention to the internal life of Russian Jewry and to the formative period of the Polish commonwealth. Other Russian Jewish historians who also published important monographs that used Jewish ties to Russia to defend their claims to equality included Solomon Vladimirovich Pozner (Posener,  1876–1946; Evrei v obshchei shkole [Jews in Russian Schools; 1914]), M. L. Usov (Evrei v armii [Jews in the Army; 1911]), and Saul Moiseevich Ginzburg (Ginsburg, 1866–1940; Otechestvennaia voina 1812 goda i Russkie evrei [The War of 1812 and Russian Jewry; 1912]).

However, it was Sergei Bershadskii (1850–1896), a non-Jew, who set the stage for the scholarly study of East European Jewish history in Russia. A priest’s son who had once held antisemitic feelings, Bershadskii’s major contribution was to describe and publicize the enormous treasure trove of documents on Jewish history contained in Russian state, provincial, and local archives. Bershadskii’s own scholarship—especially on the history of Lithuanian Jewry from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries—provided the best analysis to date of the political and economic situation of Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, although his unfamiliarity with internal Jewish sources and his inability to read Hebrew were serious handicaps.

Implicit in Bershadskii’s research was a principled condemnation of antisemitic views, which regarded Jews as innately dishonest and harmful. Russian Jews, like other peoples, were shaped by their historical experience. Conversely, Bershadskii regretted Jewish separatism, which he ascribed to the growing anarchy of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He felt that separatism forced Jews, who had been well integrated before the sixteenth century, to look to their own political bodies for protection and thus accentuated their national and cultural distinctiveness. Aside from his scholarship, which was open to criticism, Bershadskii provided important moral support to a new generation of Russian Jewish intellectuals.

Simon Dubnow and the Rise of a Russian Center

In 1891 and 1892, Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) published manifestos in both Hebrew and Russian—for example, Ob izuchenii istorii russkikh evreev i ob uchrezhdenii russko-evreiskogo istoricheskogo obshchestva (On the Study of the History of Russian Jews and the Organization of a Jewish Historical Society; 1891); Neḥapsah ve-naḥkorah: Kol kore el ha-nevonim le’esof ḥomer le-binyan toldot bene Yisra’el be-Polin ve-Rusyah (Let Us Search and Investigate: A Call to the Wise to Gather Materials to Develop a History of the Jews in Poland and Russia; 1892)—that marked a turning point in the historiography of East European Jewry. Until Dubnow, scholarship in Russia had focused on the “Jewish Question” rather than on the history of Jewish society. Of the few earlier studies that had dealt with internal Jewish life, the most significant had been Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn’s history of Vilna (Kiryah ne’emanah [The Loyal City]; 1860). Fuenn (1818–1890), a central figure in the Vilna Haskalah, assembled a compendium of stories, legends, and tombstone inscriptions about the Vilna Jewish elite.

While later generations of Jewish historians in Eastern Europe, such as Emanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944), criticized this and other local histories for their lack of serious historical conceptualization, their concentration on religious elites, and their failure to provide any economic analysis, recent scholarship has revised the long-held opinion that these maskilim had little interest in serious history. Whatever its flaws, Fuenn’s study showed a pride in the achievements of an East European Jewry that he believed had received short shrift from German Jewish scholars. However, Fuenn had written for a small circle and had little long-term impact. It was Dubnow who made history a major component of East European Jewish culture.

Dubnow had already gained a reputation as an essayist and critic in the Russian-language Jewish monthly Voskhod, in which he pointed out that although East European Jewry was the demographic and cultural center of world Jewry, its history was akin to a “Dark Continent,” largely unknown and unstudied. The German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891) had minimized the intellectual contributions of East European Jewry, while Bershadskii had based his research largely on non-Jewish sources. It was high time for historians to focus on internal Jewish history, including the dynamics of Jewish communal government and the Council of the Four Lands; the development of Hasidism; and popular culture. To do this, historians needed to tap hitherto neglected Jewish sources such as pinkeysim (community chronicles), responsa literature, and even folklore. Yet Jews had no state archives that could collect and protect these sources, which were in danger of disappearing along with traditional folk songs and customs.

To collect these historical sources, Dubnow argued, was an urgent national obligation. A people that did not know its own history was like a child, hardly in a position to chart its own fate or demand respect of others. If Jews did not protect their own sources, future generations would derive their image of Jews from non-Jewish documents. Thanks to Dubnow, zamling (collecting sources) became a national mission and its ethos helped define such institutions as YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research), founded in Vilna in 1925.

Dubnow himself had come to Jewish history as the result of a long personal search for an “integrated personality.” History, he believed, could harmonize the personal and the national, the individual and the collective, universal culture, and Jewishness. For Jews estranged from Orthodoxy and unwilling to assimilate, history now offered an alternative. This new secular religion would serve as an indispensable precondition for the cultural transformation of East European Jewry. It would also correct ideological dogmatism. Thus, in his Pis’ma o starom i novom evreistve (Letters on Old and New Judaism; 1897–1907), Dubnow used the lessons of Jewish history to attack Orthodoxy for its rigidity, Zionism for its negation of the Diaspora, and Bundism for its obsession with class struggle at the expense of Jewish unity. History also refuted both radical Yiddishists and Hebraists, who had forgotten that in the past the Jewish people had spoken many languages.

Although Dubnow began his historical career by emphasizing, as did Graetz, the intellectual and spiritual factors in Jewish history, he later embraced what he called a “sociological approach,” where the central factor in Jewish history was the Jewish people and their instinct for national survival. While in the past the Jewish people had crafted religion and rabbinic Judaism as foundations of national identity, these factors would diminish in the future. Later historians, such as Jacob Katz (1904–1998) and Salo Baron (1895–1989), would note that there was little sociology and less economics in Dubnow’s “sociological history.” They charged that by minimizing the actual interplay of Jews and non-Jews, Dubnow created a closed system that neglected the impact on Jewish history of important developments in the non-Jewish world.

A cornerstone of Dubnow’s view of Jewish history was the centrality of the Diaspora, with its successive “national centers,” including Babylonia, Spain, and, finally, Eastern Europe. Jews survived loss of statehood by privileging spiritual over physical power and by anchoring their national identity in communal institutions of self-government. The history of such bodies as the Council of the Four Lands in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth provided valuable markers for Jewish politics in the future. In a liberal democratic world order—where not only individuals but also entire peoples would enjoy autonomy—a renewed Jewish nation would establish modernized, secularized kehilot and national councils. Thus, Jews could enjoy the fruits of liberal tolerance without succumbing to the major threat of assimilation.

Throughout Dubnow’s career, his historical scholarship and his politics were closely intertwined. In his Toldot ha-ḥasidut (History of Hasidism; 1930–1932), his interpretation of Hasidism saw its early stages as a movement of national vitality and resilience, a revolt against the abuses of the Jewish elite. His publication of the chronicle of the Lithuanian Va‘ad (council) in 1922 highlighted the importance of studying the past history of Jewish autonomy in order to legitimize its relevance for the present. Dubnow’s survey Uchebnik evreiskoii istorii (An Outline of Jewish History; 1901–1905) had enormous influence. His three-volume History of the Jews of Russia and Poland, which was translated into English by Israel Friedlaender, appeared in 1916 and marked the first such study in English. Dubnow’s monumental 10-volume World History of the Jewish People was first published in German between 1925 and 1929.

Dubnow did more than anyone else in tsarist Russia to stimulate and encourage others to research East European Jewish history. A small group of Russian Jewish intellectuals, led by Maksim Vinaver, had already founded a historical society in Saint Petersburg in 1892 and had begun to publish, with Bershadskii’s help, Russian archival documents pertaining to Jewish history. Three volumes of these important collections of documents, Regesty i nadpisi (Document Registers and Inscriptions), appeared between 1891 and 1913. This fruitful collaboration led to the organization in 1908 of the Saint Petersburg Historical Ethnographic Society and to the appearance of the first issue of its journal Evreiskaia starina (Jewish Heritage).

Evreiskaia starina appeared regularly from 1909 until 1916, ceasing publication entirely in 1930. It became one of the most important journals in modern Jewish historiography. Thanks to this journal, the study of East European Jewish history became a collective enterprise and vastly expanded its scope. Such heretofore neglected topics as Jewish folklore, Yiddish, popular reactions to persecution and oppression, and the history of Jewish autonomy were addressed. Contributors also included promising Jewish historians in Habsburg Galicia, such as Majer Bałaban (1877–1942), Ignacy Schiper (1884–1943), and Mojżesz Schorr (1874–1941).

Evreiskaia starina attracted other young historians who later made significant contributions. Peysekh Marek (1862–1920) published an important study of Jewish education in the nineteenth century (1910). Yisroel Tsinberg (1873–1939) began a series of brilliant studies of Jewish journalism and literature that culminated in his monumental Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (History of Jewish Literature), which appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. Mark Wischnitzer (1882–1955) contributed studies on Jewish economic history that eventually led to his History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965). In 1913, Eliyahu Tsherikover published the first in a projected two-volume work on the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE).

Besides Evreiskaia starina, other important historical journals and periodicals that appeared in tsarist Russia included Budushchnost’ (1899–1904), edited by Oskar Gruzenberg; Perezhitoe (1910–1913), edited by Saul Ginzburg (Sha’ul Ginsburg), which specialized in memoirs. Another major enterprise was the publication of the 16-volume Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (1908–1913). The year 1914 saw the publication of a landmark book on East European Jewish history titled Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v rossii (The History of the Jewish People in Russia), representing the eleventh in a projected multivolume history of the Jewish people (only the first and eleventh volumes eventually appeared). Well bound and published on quality paper and devoted entirely to the history of the Jews of the old Polish Commonwealth, the volume represented a triumph of collective scholarship. It brought together leading historians from Russia and Habsburg Galicia to explore not only the institutions of national autonomy and traditional rabbinic literature but also economics, demography, art, architecture, material culture, and everyday life.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 ended Saint Petersburg’s role as the center of the study of East European Jewish history, just as the latter was at the peak of its creativity and success. Evreiskaia starina and several other journals continued to publish for a while, but the Soviet government had shut them all down by 1930. At first the opening of tsarist archives encouraged some new research, such as Grigorii Iakovlevich Krasnyi-Almoni’s collection of documents relating to the pogroms of the 1880s. Several new Russian-language journals appeared in Saint Petersburg, including Evreiskaia letopis’ (1923–1926) and Evreiskii vestnik (1919, 1928). Dubnow, however, left Russia in 1922. Gessen published a second edition of his Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v rossii in 1925 but he wisely abandoned Jewish history for other topics by the 1930s. To be sure, some valuable Jewish history appeared in Russian in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Naum Abramovich Bukhbinder’s study of the Jewish revolutionary movement (Istoriia evreiskogo rabochego dvizheniia v Rossii-po neizdannym arkhivnym materialam [A History of the Jewish Labor Movement in Russia—Based on Unpublished Archival Sources]; 1925). But the centers of historical research in the USSR moved west to Minsk and Kiev—and most of it now appeared in Yiddish.

In the 1920s, hopes ran high that the USSR would become the center of scholarship in Yiddish. New state-supported Jewish research institutes appeared in Kiev and Minsk. Thanks to Yoysef Liberberg, its energetic and enterprising leader, the Kiev Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture acquired many of the key libraries and archives of the old Saint Petersburg Jewish societies and institutions. Soviet Jewish historians such as Tevye Heilikman (1873–1948) and Yisroel Sosis (1878–1967) published new histories with a Marxist slant. Heilikman set the tone by criticizing Dubnow for minimizing the role of class conflict in Jewish history and for idealizing Jewish communal organs that had really served as agents of social oppression.

By the late 1920s, under the leadership of Sosis, the Jewish department of the Institute for Belorussian Culture and its journal, Tsaytshrift, had become the leading center for the study of Jewish history in the USSR. Sosis, a former Bundist, also criticized Dubnow from the left, but still ran into political trouble for “Jewish nationalism.” When his study of Jewish social movements in nineteenth-century Russia was published in 1929, it appeared with an introduction that attacked him for alleged ideological mistakes. Sosis was fired from the institute in 1931 and was arrested in 1936. During the 1930s, the Kiev and Minsk institutes wound down their activities, and it was only in the 1990s that Russia would again witness a rebirth of Jewish historical scholarship.

Interwar Poland

After World War I, Warsaw became the center of Jewish historical scholarship, with Polish and Yiddish replacing Russian. While many of the leading Russian Jewish historians, including Dubnow, had been self-taught, virtually all the leading Jewish historians in interwar Poland (most of them Galicians) were university trained. Despite a serious lack of financial support, Jewish historians in interwar Poland left an impressive record of scholarship and communal involvement.

Before 1914, relatively little high-level Jewish historical scholarship had appeared in Polish. To be sure, in 1912 Szymon Askenazy (1866–1935), the great Polish historian of Jewish origin, helped found the journal Kwartalnik poświęconym badaniu przeszłości Żydów w Polsce (Quarterly for Research on the Past of the Jews in Poland), dedicated to research in Polish Jewish history. In Galicia, Mojżesz Schorr published works on the history of the Jews of Przemyśl and wrote an important study of Jewish political organization in the old commonwealth. Two promising young Galician scholars, Bałaban and Schiper, had already begun to publish important scholarship. Bałaban wrote on the history of the Jews of Lwów and Kraków, while Schiper investigated Jewish economic history in the Middle Ages, as well as demography and patterns of Jewish settlement in the old commonwealth. However, before World War I, the Polish-speaking Jewish intelligentsia took much less interest in history than did its Russian-speaking counterpart. Askenazy’s journal soon closed down, while Schorr shifted his scholarly interests to Assyriology. Bałaban and Schiper, conversely, ensured that historical research would become an integral part of Jewish life in interwar Poland.

The turmoil of World War I, the rebirth of Polish independence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Bolshevik Revolution all encouraged a heightened interest in Jewish history. The 1919 Minorities Treaty seemed to confirm for many the prescience of Dubnow’s insistence on the centrality of autonomy, both past and present. Now that Jews once again found themselves under Polish sovereignty, the history of Polish Jewry assumed greater relevance. While Polish antisemites used historical arguments to label Jews exploiters and alien interlopers, Jewish historians deployed history as a weapon to defend Jewish honor and to demonstrate unapologetically that Jews had long-established ties to a country they had helped build and defend. Historians also entered the ideological and cultural battles of a diverse and fractious Jewish community. In arguments about Yiddish versus Hebrew, Diaspora versus Israel, religion versus secularity, many Polish Jewish historians spoke with authority and passion. The sixteenth-century Va‘ad, seventeenth-century purim-shpils (Purim plays), and eighteenth-century chronicles of tailors’ synagogues now became relevant as guideposts in contemporary ideological debates.

Other factors also contributed to a growing interest in Jewish history. New academic institutes, such as YIVO and the Institute of Jewish Studies in Warsaw (founded in 1928), provided opportunities for study and research. New journals appeared in Yiddish and Polish (Historishe shriftn, Bleter far geshikhte, Miesięcznik Żydowski) that published historical scholarship. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of Polish independence, a handsome two-volume history of Polish Jewry (Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej) brought together synthetic works by the major Polish Jewish historians. With Russian rule abolished, archival access became easier. For Jewish students, a history degree at least provided modest employment opportunities in secondary education.

Majer Bałaban (2nd row, seated, center) with other teachers and students at the Taḥkemoni Rabbinical School, where he was director of secular studies from 1920 to 1930, Warsaw, 1929. (YIVO)

After 1918, Bałaban and Schiper both settled in Warsaw. These two Galician-born historians had decisively broken with the traditions of assimilationist historiography fostered by Kraushar and Nussbaum. They regarded Polish Jewry as a distinct people, not as “Poles of the Mosaic persuasion.” Gifted popularizers as well as scholars, they published numerous articles and book reviews in the Polish Jewish press. Keen rivals, they nevertheless complemented each other. Bałaban’s scholarly range, his familiarity with a wide array of religious and secular sources, his linguistic facility, and his literary gifts were unmatched. He wrote on such varied topics as the Jewish communities of Lwów; Kraków, and Lublin; the Karaites and the Frankists; Jewish autonomy in the commonwealth; and Jewish antiquities and architecture. He compiled a massive, never-completed bibliography of Polish Jewish history and wrote a standard textbook used in many schools. Bałaban’s critics, especially younger historians, criticized his approach for containing too little analysis and synthesis and for neglecting social and economic history.

Schiper, conversely, was quick to frame sweeping syntheses and bold hypotheses on such topics as the alleged Khazar origin of East European Jews or the agrarian sources of Jewish capital in the early Middle Ages. Like Dubnow, Schiper saw history as a way of raising national consciousness, but he went far beyond Dubnow in his stress on economic history. A pioneer of the study of East European Jewish economic history, Schiper set out to refute Werner Sombart’s theory of an innate Jewish predisposition toward trade and capitalism. He also wrote extensively on the history of early modern Jewish culture. As disputes raged between proponents of Hebrew versus those who promoted Yiddish, Schiper tried to show that Yiddish culture was not a recent leftist invention but had deep roots in Jewish folk culture. Unlike Dubnow, who saw the Jewish political organs in the old commonwealth as institutions that unified the nation, Schiper stressed the negative factors of social conflict and exploitation. Less dogmatic than the Soviet scholars Sosis or Heilikman, Schiper nonetheless fashioned a “materialist” approach to history that attracted many younger historians.

Ignacy Schiper at the YIVO Institute during a scholarly conference, Vilna, 1939. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

Both Bałaban and Schiper exerted enormous influence. As a teacher of Jewish history at Warsaw University and at the Institute of Judaic Studies, Bałaban supervised dozens of master’s theses and instilled his knowledge of methodology and sources. Schiper’s commitment to social and economic history attracted younger scholars who sought to combine their academic and political interests. With the founding of YIVO in 1925, Schiper played an important role in its historical section and later headed its Historical Commission for Poland, which was established in 1929.

One of Schiper’s devoted disciples among the younger generation was Emanuel Ringelblum. A promising young historian in his own right, Ringelblum published a variety of studies, including the history of Warsaw Jewry until 1527; Jewish participation in the Kosciuszko uprising of 1794; the Jewish book trade in Poland in the eighteenth century; as well as articles on various aspects of Polish–Jewish relations and the history of Jewish physicians. Ringelblum introduced such forgotten types as beggars and tavern keepers into the purview of historical scholarship. However, his most important contribution was as an organizer and a facilitator. A staunch member of the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon, Ringelblum saw history as an essential pillar of a new Yiddish secular culture, a fulcrum to modernize Jewish society, and a weapon in the fight against antisemitism.

In 1923, Ringelblum and his close friend and fellow party member Raphael Mahler (1899–1977) organized the Young Historians Circle. The organization published two journals (Yunger historiker [1926, 1929] and Bleter far geshikhte [1934, 1938]). Some members who survived World War II went on to become leading East European Jewish historians: Mahler and Josef Kermish in Israel; Isaiah Trunk (1905–1981) and Filip Friedman (1901–1960) in the United States; and Artur Eisenbach (1906–1992) in Warsaw at the new Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny; ŻIH). In postwar Poland, Eisenbach would revive Bleter far geshikhte and its Polish-language counterpart Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego. Both would later become important journals for the study of the Holocaust.

The Young Historians Circle soon joined YIVO’s historical section, which was headed by the Paris-based Tsherikover. The latter had organized an important archive of the Ukrainian pogroms of 1918–1921 that served as a potent reminder that collecting documents and writing history could help defend an exposed and beleaguered people. It was partly because of this archive that Shalom Schwarzbard, who had killed Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura in 1926, was acquitted of murder at his French trial. Tsherikover would edit YIVO’s three-volume Historishe shriftn (Historical Writings; 1929–1939), which became the primary journal for serious historical scholarship in Yiddish in the interwar period.

From Emanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw to Elye Tsherikover, 25 September 1932. Among other things, he reports on discussions recently held in Warsaw on "difficult matters" in connection with a historical publication being prepared. He reports on what Ignacy Schiper says about "Varshavski's work," that there are more important things to write about than Jewish spies. But Ringelblum takes issue with this attitude: Jewish historians shouldn't censor themselves for fear of stirring up antisemitism. But neither should there be a separate chapter about Jewish spies, which will give "a false picture of the role of the Jews" during the uprising. Ringelblum also reports that Schiper feels the topics of presentations at an upcoming historical congress must be broad and general, such as Yankev Shatzky's proposed talk on "The Jewish Question in History," and that Simon Dubnow must attend as the guest of honor. Ringelblum intends to deliver a talk on the social opposition of Jews in Polish history. He disagrees with Raphael Mahler that he is too young to deliver such a talk. Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

Although the YIVO historians of interwar Poland were not a homogeneous group, all were committed to scholarship in Yiddish and supported Dubnow’s conviction that history had a national mission. Through YIVO they promoted local and regional history as well as close cooperation between laymen and historians in a common enterprise of zamling (collecting sources) and landkentenish (engaged tourism). This commitment found its highest expression in the underground archive (Oyneg Shabes) that Ringelblum organized in 1940 in the Warsaw ghetto. Some YIVO historians were committed leftists who applauded Raphael Mahler’s historiographical essays calling for a sharper Borochovist–Marxist approach to history. Ringelblum and Friedman stood out for their interest in regional history. YIVO’s emphasis on local and regional history produced many important studies, including a collective history of the town of Prużhany, Friedman’s monographs on nineteenth-century Galician Jewry and the Jews of Łódź, and Trunk’s monograph on the Jews of Płock, which appeared in 1939.

One important historian who served as a link between Poland and American Jewry was Yankev Shatzky (1893–1956). Shatzky moved to New York from Poland in 1922 and helped found the American branch of YIVO. He published on a wide variety of topics, including the Yiddish theater, the Haskalah, and the Jewish labor movement. His introduction to YIVO’s 1938 edition of Yeven metsulah, Natan Hannover’s chronicle of the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres (gzeyres takh), questioned commonly held views on this tragic period and provoked sharp controversy. After the war, Shatzky (along with Friedman, Trunk, Max Weinreich [1894–1969], and Lucjan Dobroszycki [1925?–1995]) revived YIVO scholarly tradition in the United States. Between 1947 and 1956, Shatzky published his greatest work of scholarship, the three-volume Di geshikhte fun Yidn in Varshe (History of the Jews of Warsaw). His death in 1956 prevented him from completing the project.

While Shatzky linked Polish Jewish historians with the United States, Natan Mikha’el Gelber (1891–1966) brought his great knowledge of Polish Jewish history to mandatory Palestine, to which he had immigrated in 1932 from Vienna. Although not a resident of Poland, the Galician-born Gelber published widely on Polish–Jewish relations, Galician Jewry, and Zionism. Throughout the interwar period, his articles appeared in Miesięcznik Żydowski, Historishe shriftn, and other Polish Jewish journals.

New Beginnings

In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the new State of Israel—and especially the Hebrew University in Jerusalem—became the scholarly center of East European Jewish historiography. Prominent Israeli historians in the first decades after the war included Ben Tsiyon Dinur (Dinaburg; 1884–1973), Jacob Katz (1904–1998), Shmuel Ettinger (1919–1988), and Israel Halpern (1910–1971).

Dinur saw Jewish loyalty to the Land of Israel as the primary factor that held the nation together in exile. The salience of Zionism determined Dinur’s periodization of modern Jewish history. While Graetz dated the beginning of modern Jewish history to Moses Mendelssohn and Dubnow to the French Revolution, Dinur chose 1700, the year Yehudah Ḥasid ha-Levi emigrated to the Land of Israel with 1,000 followers. While Dinur strongly opposed Dubnow’s view of the Diaspora, he did share his nationalist conception of history, as well as his belief in the prominence of East European Jewry. Unlike other communities in Western and Central Europe that had allegedly allowed the lures of emancipation to dull their national consciousnesses, Russian Jewry became a beacon for the entire nation. The interplay of rapid population growth and spiritual vitality turned Russian Jewry into the critical catalyst that spearheaded the cultural modernization of the Jewish people and the rise of the modern Zionist movement. Like Dubnow, Dinur was particularly drawn to the history of Hasidism, which he saw as a popular movement that demonstrated national resiliency and confronted social and cultural crises with new models of leadership and religious values.

Dinur helped establish a solid commitment to the study of East European Jewish history in Israeli universities. Ettinger wrote widely on antisemitism, Jewish settlement in Ukraine, and on the history of Hasidism, while Halpern and, later, Jacob Goldberg (1924– ) became established authorities on Jewish history in the Polish commonwealth.

One of the most important Israeli historians was Jacob Katz, a Hungarian Jew who arrived in Israel from Germany in 1936. His research interests included Eastern Europe but focused mainly on Central and East Central Europe. Whereas Dubnow had called for a “sociological approach,” it was actually Katz who pioneered methodologies that drew on Western political sociology and theory (e.g., Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, Werner Sombart) to ask new questions about Jewish history. While historians such as Schiper had underscored the importance of seeing Jewish history in a wider context, it was Katz who established a methodology for understanding the critical role played by non-Jewish organizational structures and cultural shifts in creating opportunities and spaces for Jewish acculturation, adaptation, and assimilation. In Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (1961), a work that was both seminal and controversial, Katz traced the transformation of Ashkenazic Jewry during the early modern period (1600–1800). Highlighting the importance of this period in its own right, Katz made imaginative use of religious and secular sources to introduce little-studied topics, such as family history and education. Katz examined the interrelationship of religion and economics within the framework of communal institutions. His sweeping treatment of Ashkenazic Jewry as a cultural unity was criticized, as was his argument that Hasidism, like the Haskalah, was a revolutionary movement that undercut traditional Jewish society. Nonetheless Katz greatly influenced a younger generation of Jewish historians in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.

In the United States, Salo Wittmayer Baron, like Katz, stressed the importance of seeing Jewish history within a larger context. The first Jewish historian to hold a chair in a major American university, Baron taught at Columbia from 1930 to 1963. He criticized what he called the “lachrymose view of Jewish history,” which stressed persecutions and Jewish suffering (especially in the Middle Ages) in place of a more nuanced understanding of Jewish–gentile interaction. As did Katz, Baron embraced multicausal explanations that incorporated economics and demography as well as culture and religion. Baron also underscored the importance of Jewish communal organizations and wrote an important study of the subject that served as a subtle rejoinder to Zionist negation of the Diaspora (The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution; 1942). In his unfinished Social and Religious History of the Jews (1937), one volume was devoted to the history of the Jews in the Polish commonwealth until 1648. Baron’s multicausal approach was also evident in his 1976 study, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets (1964).

As a new generation of historians has entered the field, several general trends characterize the study of East European Jewish history. Unlike Baron, Dubnow, and Dinur, scholars no longer attempt grand syntheses of Jewish history, instead opting for more specialized approaches. A new development is the growing prominence of scholars based in North American universities. Now securely anchored in the academic world, historians in Israel, North America, and elsewhere may rely on funding for conferences and journals to create a new international community of scholars. Journals devoted to the subject have appeared in Israel (He-‘Avar; Shevut; Gal-Ed) and elsewhere (Soviet Jewish Affairs; East European Jewish Affairs).

This process of professionalization has had a particular impact on the study of Polish Jewish history and Polish–Jewish relations, where measured scholarly discourse began to replace angry polemics. Beginning in the mid-1980s, a series of conferences on the history of Polish Jewry, at Oxford, Brandeis, Jerusalem, and Warsaw, produced important journals, monographic studies, and conference volumes that reflected the impact of new scholarship on the entire field, from the early modern period to the 1960s. Important milestones were the appearance of the journal POLIN (1986– ), the publication of The Jews in Old Poland, 1000–1795 (1993), and The Jews in Poland between the Two World Wars (1989). In Poland the Jewish Historical Institute, Jagiellonian University, and the universities of Kraków and Warsaw produced much important historical scholarship on the Holocaust as well as earlier periods. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening up of previously closed archives, study of East European Jewish history in the former Soviet Union have enjoyed a marked resurgence. The journal Vestnik evreiskogo universiteta v Moskve (1992– ) has been particularly significant.

Instead of seeing a stark dichotomy between national consciousness and assimilation, recent scholarship has tended to explore various aspects of congruence between forms of acculturation and Jewish loyalties. While the rethinking of these older paradigms has been more significant for the historiography of Western and Central European Jewry, where processes of acculturation had been further advanced, it has also encouraged historians of East European Jewry to take a closer look at such topics as the impact of urbanization (e.g., Steven Zipperstein on Odessa; Benjamin Nathans on Saint Petersburg), and the Haskalah (e.g., Shmuel Feiner, Israel Bartal, Mordechai Zalkin). By the same token, historians have reevaluated older views that stressed the salient role of antisemitism in the formulation of tsarist Jewish policy. Scholars such as John Klier and Michael Stanislawski offer new insights that, while not denying the importance of antisemitism, view the development of state policy within a more multidimensional context. Related recent research on the pogroms of 1881–1882 and 1905 no longer supports the thesis of state instigation. Rather, such studies explore complex local circumstances that led to anti-Jewish violence.

Important studies have shed new light on the formative period of East European Jewry, namely, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jacob Goldberg’s scholarship has broken new ground in our understanding of Polish–Jewish relations and by exploring various aspects of Jewish social history. Gershon Hundert and Moshe Rosman have refined older stereotypes about relations between Jews and the Polish nobility, while Adam Teller has uncovered important material concerning the genesis and economic role of the shtetl.

In part reflecting the norms and standards of the broader historical profession, historians have also turned their attention to women’s history. Paula Hyman has written on the significance of gender for understanding Jewish history. Chava Weissler has studied women’s religiosity. Shaul Stampfer has investigated the issue of women’s literacy, while Moshe Rosman has reexamined accepted notions about women in early modern East European Jewish culture. ChaeRan Freeze’s pathbreaking studies of marriage and divorce in tsarist Russia should also be mentioned.

Although the ideological engagement that characterized much of the field before 1939 is no longer present, the impact of this ideological ferment and its role in the shaping of modern Jewish politics has attracted much attention, especially in the work of such historians as Jonathan Frankel (on Jewish political ideologies in tsarist Russia), Moshe Mishkinsky, Yehuda Slutsky, and Ezra Mendelsohn (on the Jewish labor movement in Russia and Zionism in interwar Poland). By the 1970s, the growing role of the Likud and the Ḥaredim in Israeli politics saw a parallel rise in interest in their East European antecedents. Yosef Salmon, Emanuel Etkes, Gershon Bacon, and Shaul Stampfer have contributed major studies on religious Zionism, the Vilna Gaon, Agudas Yisroel in Poland, and the development and significance of the Lithuanian yeshivas, respectively.

One of the most dynamic fields has been the history of Hasidism. While Dubnow, Mahler, and Dinur emphasized the issues of social protest and social conflict, a major trend of recent research has been a return to exploring the religious context of the movement, with particular focus on the relationship between Hasidism and Jewish mysticism (Ada Rapoport, Gershon Hundert). Rosman and Etkes have published important yet quite different studies of the Ba‘al Shem Tov. David Assaf has helped to expand the study of nineteenth-century Hasidism thanks to his monograph on Yisra’el of Ruzhin. The opening up of previously sealed archives in Eastern Europe promises to provide abundant material for new studies, especially in the local and regional history of East European Jewry.

Suggested Reading

Israel M. Biderman, Mayer Balaban, Historian of Polish Jewry: His Influence on the Younger Generation of Jewish Historians (New York, 1976); Lucjan Dobroszycki, “YIVO in Interwar Poland: Work in the Historical Sciences,” in The Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al., pp. 495–518 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Artur Eisenbach, “Jewish Historiography in Interwar Poland,” in The Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al., pp. 453–493 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, trans. Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverton (Oxford, 2002); Jonathan Frankel, “S. M. Dubnow, Historian and Ideologist,” in The Life and Work of S. M. Dubnow, by Sofiia Dubnova-Erlikh, pp. 1–29 (Bloomington, Ind., 1991); Jonathan Frankel, “Assimilation and the Jews in Nineteenth Century Europe: Towards a New Historiography?” in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Steven Zipperstein, pp. 1–37 (Cambridge, 1992); Philip Friedman, “Polish Jewish Historiography between the Two Wars,” Jewish Social Studies 11 (1949): 373–408; Avraham Greenbaum, Jewish Scholarship and Scholarly Institutions in Soviet Russia, 1918–1953 (Jerusalem, 1978); Jay Harris, ed., The Pride of Jacob: Essays on Jacob Katz and His Work (Cambridge, 2002); Gershon Hundert and Gershon Bacon, The Jews in Poland and Russia: Bibliographical Essays (Bloomington, Ind., 1984); Paula Hyman, “The Ideological Transformation of Modern Jewish Historiography,” in The State of Jewish Studies, ed. Shaye Cohen and Edward Greenstein, 143–157 (Detroit, 1990); Paula Hyman, “The Dynamics of Social History,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 10 (1994): 93–111; Raphael Mahler, Historiker un vegvayzer (Tel Aviv, 1967); David N. Myers, Re-inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History (New York and Oxford, 1995); Benjamin Nathans, “On Russian Jewish Historiography,” in Historiography of Imperial Russia: The Profession and Writing of History in a Multi-National State, ed. Thomas Sanders, pp. 397–432 (Armonk, N.Y., 1999); Ada Rapoport-Albert, Hasidism Reappraised (Portland, Ore., and London, 1996); Robert Seltzer, “Coming Home: The Personal Basis of Simon Dubnow’s Ideology,” AJS Review 1 (1976): 283–301; Isaiah Trunk, “Le-Toldot ha-historiografyah ha-yehudit-polanit,” Gal-Ed 3 (1976): 245–268; Isaiah Trunk, Geshtaltn un gesheenishn, 2nd ed. (Tel Aviv, 1983); Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle, 1996).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 81, Elias Tcherikower, Papers, 1903-1963.