Samet (Velvet), by Lipe Resnick. Illustration by Iosif Chaikov. (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922). (Gross Family Collection)

Kultur-lige

(Culture League), general name of a number of cultural and social organizations formed in the 1920s and 1930s in Eastern Europe as well as in certain countries of Western Europe and the Americas. The Kultur-lige was founded in Kiev during the period of the Central Rada (the Ukrainian Council that declared an independent state in January 1918), early in 1918. Its aim was to promote the development of all spheres of contemporary Yiddish culture, including education, literature, theater, art, and music.


Tsu der erefnung fun Teater-studye Kultur-lige (Opening of the Theater Studio of the Kultur-lige), Kiev, 1921. (Hillel Kazovsky)

Kultur-lige had the support of the Ukrainian Ministry of Jewish Affairs as well as of a coalition that included Jewish socialist parties, left-wing Zionists, and Folkists. Its founding conference (in April 1918) created its main administrative bodies, a central committee, and an executive bureau. Prominent cultural and political figures became members of these bodies, including Dovid Bergelson, Nakhmen Mayzel, and Yekhezkl Dobrushin. Moyshe Zilberfarb was elected head of the executive bureau.


At first, Kultur-lige’s activities were restricted to the sphere of Jewish culture, and in fact the organization served simply as an auxiliary organ of the Ministry of Jewish Affairs. After the ministry’s liquidation under Hetman Paul Skoropadski, who ruled Ukraine from April though November 1918, Kultur-lige inherited the ministry’s financial assets, the cultural institutions it had created, and many of its functions. In fact, Kultur-lige began to play the role of an organ of Jewish autonomy in Ukraine. The largest Jewish cultural and professional associations supported it, and some actually formed Kultur-lige’s central organizational subdivisions—its “sections.” Thus, the Ukrainian Democratic Union of Jewish [Yiddish] Teachers joined Kultur-lige as its School Section; the All-Russian Union of Jewish Artists and Chorus Members formed the “Theatrical Section”; and the Society for the Protection of Jewish Health (OZE) and the Union of Jewish Kindergarten Teachers (Frebelisty) formed the Preschool Education Section. There were other sections as well, devoted to art, music, literature, publishing, libraries, and informal adult education. In addition, Kultur-lige founded a central bookstore in Kiev with a distributing center for libraries and a Jewish People’s university, which opened its doors to students in autumn 1918.


Kultur-lige enlisted practically all the Yiddish cultural figures and Jewish scholars, political notables, and artists of any fame then living in Ukraine. Its active members and office workers were Dovid Hofshteyn, Perets Markish, Yehudah Leyb Boymvol, Nokhem Shtif, Zelig Kalmanovitch, A. Litvak, Khayim Shloyme Kazdan, Yisroel Rubin, Avrom Itskhok Golomb, Jakob Lestschinsky, El Lissitzky, Yisakhar Ber Rybak, Iosif Chaikov, Boris Aronson, and others.


By the summer of 1918, Kultur-lige had gained a leading position in Ukrainian Jewish social and cultural life. Branches existed in almost 100 Ukrainian towns and shtetls, where they founded and administered schools; kindergartens; evening courses for adults; libraries; drama studios; and music circles. A model Jewish gymnasium (high school) with instruction in Yiddish, a seminar for the preparation of Jewish teachers, and courses for the training of Jewish kindergarten teachers were established in Kiev.


Organizations modeled on the Ukrainian Kultur-lige, and using its name, appeared at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 outside Ukraine, in Petrograd, Crimea, Minsk (where Ester Frumkin supported its creation), Grodno, Vilna (where Zalmen Reyzen became one of its leaders), and Białystok. For a short time, these organizations were formally considered branches of the central Kiev organization, but they quickly became independent. In late 1919, Kultur-lige organizations were also founded in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Chita in the Soviet Far-Eastern Republic, and Harbin.


Until the beginning of 1920, the Ukrainian Kultur-lige remained the largest and most important of all these organizations, thanks to the scope and variety of its activities. After the Bolshevik takeover of Ukraine, Kultur-lige enjoyed the support of Soviet authorities. Virtually all Jewish cultural institutions established under the new regime were founded and administered by Kultur-lige’s representatives. At the same time, the organization remained autonomous, though it received generous subsidies from the state budget. Kultur-lige published a pedagogical journal, Shul un leben (School and Life), and a bibliographical periodical, Bikher-velt (Book World); organized an art studio and a music school in Kiev; and sponsored a wide variety of cultural and educational activities in the provinces. At the beginning of 1920, the Kultur-lige Press was founded; it published a wide variety of books in Yiddish.


Electrifier. Iosif Chaikov, sketch of sculpture; watercolor, gouache, indian ink, ink, and pencil on paper, 1921. (The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

During the second half of 1920 the Evsektsiia, which was consolidating its position in the Ukraine, tried to take control of Kultur-lige. As a result of this campaign, in December 1920 Kultur-lige was forcibly taken over by the Communists, its central committee was dissolved, and in its place an organization bureau consisting almost entirely of Communists was created. Most of the educational institutions belonging to Kultur-lige were nationalized and handed over to the Jewish Sections of the People’s Commissariat of Education. In the provinces, this process proceeded more slowly than in Kiev. However, by 1922 Kultur-lige branches almost everywhere had been turned into appendages of Soviet bureaucratic organs directed by Jewish Communists. Many of the provincial branches were closed down and their properties confiscated. Kultur-lige activity in Ukraine at this time came to almost a complete standstill, becoming limited to irregular cultural activities in Kiev. Its press was reorganized into a joint stock company. The name Kultur-lige was retained, but only an insignificant share of the stocks was granted to the Kultur-lige organization.


Kultur-lige associations in other Soviet republics suffered a similar fate. The previously existing or recently opened branches in Minsk, Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk), and Gomel (Homel’) became inactive and were soon liquidated. Kultur-lige formally existed until 1924, and was a member of the Jewish Public Committee to Aid Victims of the War and Pogroms (JPC; Rus., Evobshchestkom; Yid., Yidgezkom or Idgezkom; existed from 1920 to 1924), established by the Soviet government in order to receive and control the distribution of funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). After the JPC was dissolved, Kultur-lige’s last institutions in Kiev (the art and music schools) were handed over to the People’s Commissariat of Education. There is no evidence of Kultur-lige activities in the USSR after 1924. The Kultur-lige Press was officially closed down in 1931.


In Poland, efforts to create a Kultur-lige organization that would serve the whole country were undertaken in 1921, after several members of the liquidated Kiev Kultur-lige’s central committee came to Warsaw. They tried to make use of existing branches of Kultur-lige in the eastern regions of Poland, in Vilna, Grodno, Białystok, and elsewhere, and they also enjoyed the support of the Fareynikte, Po‘ale Tsiyon, and Folkist parties. However, their efforts were opposed by the Bund, which sought to monopolize leadership in the cultural sphere. Nevertheless, at a conference in Warsaw in autumn 1921, it was decided to create a Kultur-lige covering all of Poland. New branches were founded in Warsaw, Łódź, and other towns.


Iz gekumen dos fayer un farbrent dem shtekn" (Then Came a Fire and Burnt the Stick). 'From Khad gadya (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1919). El Lissitzky. Color lithograph on paper. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / YIVO)

As in Ukraine, the activities of the Polish Kultur-lige encompassed all spheres of culture. Drama and music circles, lectures for adults, and libraries were created through the organization’s branches, and concerts of classical music and works by Jewish composers were organized. The Kultur-lige Press of Warsaw was founded in 1922, and soon occupied a leading place in the Yiddish-language book market. In addition, the publication of the critical bibliographical periodical Bikher-velt, formerly of Kiev, was renewed. The leaders of Kultur-lige assisted in producing a weekly magazine, Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages), in 1924; it eventually became one of the most important Yiddish literary and artistic periodicals. Kultur-lige also played a prominent role in developing the Yiddish-language school system. In eastern regions of Poland, cooperating with local Jewish educational organizations, it directed schools and high schools. It played an active role in the activities of TSYSHO (the Central Yiddish School Organization).


The Polish Kultur-lige’s intensive cultural work, together with its constant shortage of financial resources, brought it to the verge of bankruptcy. This grave situation deepened into a crisis and led to a split in leadership. Finally, in 1925 the Polish Kultur-lige was completely subordinated to the Bund and began to implement the cultural programs of that party, organizing lectures and a People’s University of Culture, and subsidizing theatrical performances and concerts for Jewish workers. Kultur-lige’s leaders were now appointed from among the party functionaries of the Bund, and in practice it became the Bund’s “cultural section.” In this form, Kultur-lige continued its existence in Poland until World War II.


In Romania, the first branches of Kultur-lige appeared in 1919–1920, mainly in Bessarabia and Bucovina. The largest and most active branch was in Kishinev, where leaders created the United Bessarabian Kultur-lige Federation in 1922. Its main sphere of activity was Jewish education, and it dealt with schools, adult education, and professional training of teachers. In Bucovina province, with its center in the town of Chernivtsi (Czernowitz), Kultur-lige supported Jewish theaters and artists, published Yiddish works, and organized cultural and educational projects. The All-Romanian Kultur-lige was founded in Bucharest in 1931, and artist Max Hermann Maxy became one of its leaders. However, the organization there never was very active, and, as before, the real cultural work was carried out mainly in the provinces. At the end of the 1930s, a series of antisemitic laws resulted in the banning of Kultur-lige.


In Latvia, Kultur-lige was first established in Riga in 1922. Later it became heir to the Arbeter-Heym (Workers’ Home) cultural organization, an association that was similar in ideology and structure and that existed from 1920 to 1923. When Arbeter-Heym eased to exist, Kultur-lige inherited its People’s University, sports club, publishing house, choir, and symphony orchestra, as well as its theater studio (drama school). Kultur-lige branches operated in all Latvian towns that had significant Jewish numbers, sponsoring clubs, libraries, and drama and music circles. However, the radical left-wing rhetoric and certain actions of the Jewish parties and public organizations that supported Kultur-lige irritated Latvian authorities, and the organization was abolished in 1926.


Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922). Designed by Marc Chagall. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris. Print courtesy of YIVO)

Kultur-lige in Lithuania, founded in 1920, had a pronounced social and political character. As was the case elsewhere, the Lithuanian organization filled a leading position in the spheres of Jewish education and culture in Yiddish. At the same time, the Jewish socialist parties and Po‘ale Tsiyon that created Kultur-lige formed a united bloc for elections to the Lithuanian Seim (Parliament) and gave Kultur-lige the task of managing this bloc’s election campaign. The political parties used Kultur-lige as an instrument in the struggle for control of Jewish national autonomous institutions in the Lithuanian republic to a much greater degree than in other places. As a result, when the process of dismantling Jewish autonomous institutions proceeded in 1922–1926, Kultur-lige gradually lost its significance.


In the 1920s, efforts were made to create Kultur-lige organizations outside of Eastern Europe. In 1922, Dovid Bergelson organized a Kultur-lige in Berlin. It continued to exist for about two years as an intellectual club of Yiddish-speaking Jewish cultural figures. The Kultur-lige of Paris, founded at the end of the 1920s by a group of Jewish Trotskyites, played a similar role. In the United States, Kultur-lige was founded in 1922 by Ezra Korman, at first in New York, and then in Chicago. In 1926, it became part of the Arbeter-ring (Workmen’s Circle). In 1935, Kultur-lige organizations were established in Mexico and Argentina, where they took part in developing Yiddish schools and promoting publishing projects.


The popularity of Kultur-lige and the numerous efforts to create branches in so many different places indicated the popularity of Yiddishism in the interwar period. Supporters of Yiddish viewed Kultur-lige as both an instrument that could be used for their purposes and as an organizational principle that would support a unified anti-Zionist cultural and political front. Kultur-lige also attracted Yiddish cultural figures, as it offered the prospect of realizing the idea of a contemporary Jewish culture in Yiddish, with its own literature, theater, and art, a culture having worldwide, universal significance while preserving its Jewish national character.


Thanks to the efforts of Yiddish cultural figures, Kultur-lige made fruitful contributions to various realms of Jewish culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The organization’s publishing activities contributed greatly to the blossoming of Yiddish literature. Its schools employed the most up-to-date teaching methods and hired leading pedagogues and teachers who made significant contributions to the principles and methods of teaching both general and Jewish subjects. With the support of Kultur-lige, bold theatrical projects were realized; in particular, Michał Weichert’s Yung-teater and other Yiddish dramatic experiments raised the artistic level of Yiddish theater significantly. The art sections and shows sponsored by Kultur-lige (Białystok, 1918; Kiev, 1920 and 1922; Moscow, 1922; Riga, 1923) brought together prominent Jewish artists and stimulated their interest in the Jewish artistic tradition and the manifestation of national nuances in their own creative work. In sum, Kultur-lige played a significant role developing Jewish culture in the interwar period.

Suggested Reading

Hillel Kazovsky, “The Art Section of the ‘Kultur-Lige,’” Jews in Eastern Europe 3.22 (1993): 5–22; Hillel Kazovsky, Khudozhniki Kul’tur-Ligi / The Artists of the Kultur-Lige (Moscow and Jerusalem, 2003), in Russian and English; Nachman Mayzel, Geven a mol a lebn: Dos yidishe kultur-lebn in Poyln tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Buenos Aires, 1951); Mykhailo Oleksandrovych Rybakov, comp., Pravda istorii: Diial’nist’ ievreiskoi kul’turno-prosvitnyts’koi orhanizatsii ‘Kul’turna Liha’ u Kyievi, 1918–1925; Zbirnyk dokumentiv i materialiv (Kiev, 2001).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 116, Territorial Collection: Czechoslovakia, , ca. 1900-1930s; RG 37, Jewish Music Societies, Records, 1908-1931; RG 454, David and Leah Tomback, Papers, 1930s-1960s.

Author

Translation

Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson