Jakob Lestschinsky (second from right), historian Simon Dubnow (center), Meyer Abraham Halevy from Bucharest (left), and other delegates to the YIVO Conference pose at the grave of Tsemaḥ Szabad, a physician, leader of the Folkist party, and founder of YIVO, Vilna, 1935. (YIVO)

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Lestschinsky, Jakob

(1876–1966), historian and sociologist; specialist in Jewish demography and economic history. Born in Horodishche, near Kiev, Jakob Lestschinsky (Yankev Leshtshinski) received a traditional Jewish education. In 1898, his interests in secular studies led him to Odessa, where he tutored Hebrew while studying for an external matriculation. In 1901, he attended universities in Bern and later in Zurich.

Initially a follower of Ahad Ha-Am, Lestschinsky drew close, for a time, to Russian socialism. After coming back from Switzerland, he propagated the ideas of socialist Zionism in Warsaw and other cities of the Russian Empire, and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. He was elected to be a delegate from Warsaw to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1903, where he supported the territorialists. He was among the founders of the Zionist Socialist party and participated in its congress in Vienna in 1910.

Shmuel Niger (second from right, hand-numbered “3”), his brother, the writer Daniel Tsharni (second from left, “2”), scholar Jakob Lestschinsky (left, “1”), and others, on a trip to the Alps, ca. 1920s. Photograph by M. Aschwarden. (YIVO)

Before the outbreak of World War I, Lestschinsky returned to Warsaw to work for ORT. After the February Revolution, he again became involved in party politics and helped to organize the Fareynikte Yidishe Sotsialistishe Arbeter Partey (United Jewish Socialist Party). Although he was elected to its central committee at that point in time, he ultimately withdrew from active participation after the party merged with the Kombund in 1919. 

In 1921, Lestschinsky worked in Berlin as a correspondent for the New York Yiddish daily Forverts, and continued to write for this newspaper for more than 40 years. Conducting extensive research on the economic and social history of East European Jews, he was one of the founding members of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and participated in the inaugural meeting of its Historical Section in Berlin on 31 October 1925. Lestschinsky edited Bleter far yidisher demografye, statistik, un ekonomik, which appeared in Berlin from 1923 until 1925. He laid the groundwork for the Economic-Statistical Section of YIVO, which he headed from its inception in 1926, and edited its publications Ekonomishe shriftn and Yidishe ekonomik. 

In the spring of 1933, Lestschinsky was imprisoned for Forverts articles in which he denounced the Nazi regime, and he was expelled from Germany. He moved first to Prague and then to Riga, settling in Warsaw in 1934. He stayed in Poland until 1938, at which time he moved to New York. There he wrote extensively on Jewish demography, sociology, and economics, and cooperated with the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress, for which he prepared surveys of post–World War II Jewish communities.

Throughout his career, Lestschinsky contributed extensively to Jewish newspapers and periodicals. Among his first sociological studies had been his 1903 article in Ha-Shiloaḥ, “Statistics of a Small Town,” analyzing the socioeconomic life of Jews in his hometown. He also published such studies as Dos ekonomishe lebn fun yidn in Rusland farn 19tn yorhundert (The Economic Life of the Jews in Russia until the Nineteenth Century), which appeared in Kiev in 1918, and Dos yidishe ekonomishe lebn in der yidisher literatur (Jewish Economic Life in Jewish Literature), published in Warsaw in 1921. His Dos yidishe folk in tsifern (Jewish People in Numbers) appeared in Berlin in 1922.

From Jakob Lestschinsky in Berlin, to Abraham Liessin, editor of the Yiddish-language journal Tsukunft, in New York, 6 November 1923, enclosing a manuscript by Professor Fishel Schneersohn, whose specialty is Russian and German literature, and urging him to publish at least a few chapters in Tsukunft. Schneersohn, who lectures at German pedagogical institutes, is proof "that not all our Jewish scholars have to forsake Yiddish." Yiddish. German and Yiddish letterhead: Jakob Lestschinsky, Correspondent of "Jewish Daily Forward" in New York. RG 201, Abraham Liessin Papers, F652 Lestschinsky. (YIVO)

Lestschinsky published several studies analyzing the impact of World War I on Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe. He also investigated and wrote about the state of Jewish trade in East European small towns in the 1930s and wrote several articles for YIVO-bleter on the mother tongues of the Jews of Poland as recorded in the 1931 census. He was among the pioneers of research on the Holocaust period: his Di yidishe katastrofe. Di metodes fun ir forshung (The Jewish Catastrophe: Methods of Research) was published in 1944, Balance Sheet of Extermination appeared in 1946, and Crisis, Catastrophe and Survival: A Jewish Balance Sheet, 1914–1948 was published by the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress in 1948. Lestschinsky also explored the phenomenon of antisemitism; in 1952 the second volume of Dapim le-ḥeker ha-sho’ah veha-mered (Pages in the Research of the Shoah and the Uprising, edited by Nachman Blumental) contained his article on anti-Jewish violence in Poland in 1935–1937. In this article he argued that the main cause of Polish antisemitism was economic competition in a context of economic crisis. In 1959, Lestschinsky moved to Israel; he died in Jerusalem.

Suggested Reading

Paul Glikson, “Jacob Lestchinsky: A Bibliographical Survey,” The Jewish Journal of Sociology 9.1 (June 1967): 48–57; Cecile Kuznitz, “The Origins of Yiddish Scholarship and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 2000); Raphael Mahler, “Yankev Leshtshinski: Der klasiker fun der yidisher statistik,” in Historiker un vegvayzer: Eseyen, pp. 184–195 (Tel Aviv, 1967), also appeared in Di goldene keyt 55 (1966): 209–217; Alexander Manor, “Jacob Lestschinsky: The Man and His Work; On His Eighty-fifth Birthday,” The Jewish Journal of Sociology 6.1 (June 1962): 101–116; Borekh Tshubinski, “Leshtshinski, Yankev,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 5, cols. 381–385 (New York, 1963).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 108, Manuscripts, Collection, ; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 1258, Philip Friedman, Papers, 1930s-1959; RG 201, Abraham Liessin, Papers, 1906-1944; RG 339, Jacob Lestschinsky, Papers, 1900-1958; RG 353, Jacob Glatstein, Papers, 1920s-1960s; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 394, Ben-Adir, Papers, ca. 1934-1942; RG 421, Daniel Charney, Papers, 1920s-1959; RG 455, Abraham Golomb, Papers, 1945-1958; RG 520, Mark Mrachny, Papers, 1930s-1950s; RG 576, Yitzhak Zemel, Papers, 1945-1950; RG 725, Mendel Osherowitch, Papers, 1920s-1967; RG 767, Mark Wischnitzer, Papers, 1927-1955; RG 82, YIVO—Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Vilna, Tcherikower Archive), Records, 1921-1943; RG 88, Grigori Gurevitch, Papers, 1880-1929.