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Nokhem Shtif

Title: Nokhem Shtif
Inclusive Dates: 1922-1933
ID: RG 57
expand icon Arrangement
The collection was formerly part of Record Group 3, from which it was extracted to form a separate record group, RG 57. The folder arrangement was maintained. RG 3 is a segment of a larger block of the Vilna YIVO records within which all folders are numbered consecutively. Record Group 3 begins at folder 1701 and continues through folder 3402, within which the folders of RG 57 are numbered from 3022-3080. The folders have also been renumbered, starting at #1, so that each folder has two numbers. The Shtif materials are arranged in one series, primarily by topic.
expand icon Abstract

This collection contains the personal and professional papers of Nokhem Shtif, a Jewish linguist, publisher, translator, literary historian, Yiddish philologist, and one of the founders of the YIVO Institute.

Materials include correspondence, teaching materials, reports, meeting minutes, course lectures, manuscripts, transcripts, memoirs of writers, newspaper clippings, and research works by other scholars.

The bulk of the materials pertain to Yiddish language, philology, and literature.

expand icon Administrative/Biographical History

Nokhem Shtif was born in Rovno, Volhynia (today Rivne, Ukraine) on September 29, 1879 to a prosperous family. Until the age of his bar mitzvah he learned with various melamdim (Jewish Studies teachers). He later attended a real-gymnasium (university preparatory secondary school) and the Kiev Polytechnic University, where he was enrolled between 1899 and 1903, while still continuing to study religious and modern Hebrew literature. Following the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, he became an ardent Zionist and helped establish the radical student Zionist organization, Molodoy Izrail (Young Israel), and also participated in the 1902 Minsk Zionist Conference.

In his first, unpublished, article Shtif pioneered an ideological concept later employed by the Zionist Socialist Party: emigration and colonization as a means of creating a Jewish proletariat, which, according to Shtif, could not exist in the repressive environment of Russia. In autumn 1903, he cofounded the Vozrozhdenie (Renaissance) Jewish socialist group in Kiev with A. Ben-Adir and W. Fabrikant. Shortly thereafter, Shtif was arrested for his political activities and was expelled from the Kiev Polytechnic University. From late 1904 until early 1906, he lived in Bern, Switzerland, where he organized a local Vozrozhdenie group and agitated against the Bund. In April 1906, with other activists from Vozrozhdenie, he founded the Jewish Socialist Labor Party in Kiev. Its members, also known as Sejmists, sought Jewish national autonomy in Russia and became committed Yiddishists.

Between 1906 and 1910, Shtif spent time in Kiev, Vilna, Vitebsk, and Saint Petersburg. He was a party agitator, an editor for modern Yiddish literature at the Kletskin publishing house in Vilna, and an employee of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). He also published several articles on literary criticism and politics in Russian and Yiddish periodicals. In 1910, he moved back to Rovno, where he worked at a Jewish bank and contributed to various periodicals, usually under the pseudonym Bal-Dimyen (Dreamer). He completed his dissertation and graduated from the Jaroslavl (Galicia) Law School in 1913.

In 1914 Shtif moved to Vilna, where he became the editor of the publication, Di Vokh (The Week). While living in St. Petersburg during the years 1915-1918, he worked for the Jewish aid organization, YEKOPO (Evreiskii Komitet Pomoshchi Zhertvam Voiny, Jewish Committee to Aid Victims of the War), editing its journal, and was active in Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah (Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia) and with instituting Yiddish as the language of instruction in Jewish schools. In 1917, after the February Revolution, Shtif became one of the founders of the revived Folkspartey (People’s Party), whose newspaper, Folksblat, he co-published with Israel Efroikin. In 1918, Shtif moved to Kiev, where he was active in YEKOPO and also devoted himself to journalism. His writings, including the pamphlet Yidn un yidish, oder ver zaynen “yidishistn” un vos viln zey? (Jews and Yiddish, or Who Are the “Yiddishists” and What Do They Want?), 1919, concerned the Jewish future in the post-war world, which Shtif envisioned as a brotherhood of nations that included Jews as an autonomous national collective with a highly developed Yiddish culture.

After the Bolsheviks overtook Kiev in October 1920, Shtif left Russia, spending a short time in Minsk, where he and Zelig Kalmanovitch gave lectures for Yiddish teachers, and then moved to Kovno (Kaunas), a stronghold of the Folkspartey, where he again taught Yiddish at Yiddish teachers’ courses. In March 1922 he moved to Berlin, where he immersed himself in researching Yiddish language and literature. His book on pogroms in Ukraine was published in Berlin in Russian (Pogromy na Ukraine) in 1922 and in Yiddish (Pogromen in Ukraine) in 1923.

Starting in 1908, Shtif published a number of articles and reviews on Yiddish philology. While living in Kiev and Berlin, he returned to his studies of philology and old Yiddish literature. A propagandist, pro-Yiddishist and anti-Hebraist quality characterized all of his publications, such as his pamphlet Humanizm in der elterer yidisher literatur (Humanism in Old Yiddish Literature), published in Kiev in 1920 and reprinted in Berlin in 1922.

By October 1924, Shtif, who was influenced by the New York-based activist and writer, A. S. Sachs, drafted a memorandum entitled, Vegn a yidishn akademishn institut (About a Yiddish Academic Institute). The article outlined Shtif’s proposed plan for the academic Yiddish institute that would later be founded as the Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO, in Vilna in 1925. Shtif proposed an institute containing four scholarly sections: one for Yiddish philology; one for Jewish history; one to deal with social and economic issues; and a pedagogical section, a library, and a bibliographic center, for collecting and recording publications in Yiddish. Shtif’s memorandum argued that the creation of an academic institute would help win respect for the language and was the next logical step in the growth of Yiddish culture. On March 24, 1925, the Central Education Committee (Tsentrale Bildungs Komitet or TSBK), the Vilna branch of the Central Yiddish School Organization (Tsentrale Yidishe Shul Organizatsye or TSYSHO) and the Vilna Education Society (Vilner Bildungs Gezelshaft or VILBIG) met to discuss Shtif’s memorandum, which they approved in a brochure entitled, Di organizatsye fun der yidisher visnshaft (The Organization of Yiddish Scholarship, Vilna, April 1925). Shtif, while involved in organizing the YIVO, was lured by the unprecedented scale of state-sponsored Jewish cultural development in the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. Even while still in Berlin, he, along with Bal-Makhshoves and Dovid Bergelson, had argued that Ukraine was the real cradle of Yiddish literary talent and apparently believed that Kiev could become the cultural and academic capital of the Yiddishist movement, rather than Vilna.

In 1926, Shtif was invited to oversee the Kiev Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture (previously known as the Chair or Division for Jewish Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences). At the same time, he launched a professional philological journal, Di yidishe shprakh (The Yiddish Language; 1926-1930), later called Afn shprakhfront (On the Language Front; 1931-1933), which he also edited. He also continued to publish articles on the history of Yiddish literature and language, on language planning, on the development of Yiddish spelling, and on issues of stylistics. For a short time, he directed the Kiev Institute, but later headed only its philological section. Yoysef Liberberg, a Communist Party member, replaced Shtif as director of the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture. In 1928, both men were severely criticized for attempting to bring Simon Dubnow to Kiev as a guest of honor for a ceremonial opening.

Shtif died at his desk in Kiev on April 7, 1933, while attempting to vindicate himself of the charge made against him in Soviet Russia for his bourgeois and “provincial Yiddishist approach.”

expand icon Administrative Information
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Collection Material Type: Personal Papers
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