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Yad Vashem The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna

The Interwar Period

Hebrew or Yiddish?

In 1924, Hersh David Nomberg, one of the leading Yiddishists in Warsaw, visited Eretz Israel. On his return, he gave a lecture in Vilna about his impressions of his visit. In 1925, the Yiddish newspaper "Vilnar Tag" reported: "The wider Jewish community is ridiculously overly impressed by the Hebrew University, by the idea connected to a "Messianic era," at that same moment in which the learned community must help establish a Jewish Scientific Institute, which is crucial for Yiddish cultural life and learning." In 1925, this institution – YIVO – was established. Its first director was the linguist Dr. Max Weinreich.

In 1927, the writer David Bergelson visited Vilna. In his lecture, "The Possibilities for New Yiddish Literature," he explained that Jewish Vilna had made a terrible impression upon him; empty shops, with signs that looked like tombstones. There was nowhere left in Vilna to distribute Yiddish literature and a memorial to it could already be established; "Yiddish literature was sinking whilst dancing." In 1928, the writer Peretz Hirschbein visited Vilna and took part in a festive gathering to mark three years since the founding of YIVO. He lectured about Yiddish as a language that connected Jews all over the world, and pointed out the contradiction between the movement to disseminate Hebrew (Hebraism) and the new Yiddish cultural movement, whose center he had witnessed in the city. He expressed his hope that YIVO would establish a university and a seminary for Yiddish teachers.

In 1929, the poet Daniel Charney came to Vilna and spoke on modern Yiddish poetry. He later settled in the city. In 1930, Dr. Yitzhak-Nachman Steinberg, a senior member of the Soviet government and a traditional Jew, came for a visit. Steinberg waved the flag for territorialism and socialism. He spoke passionately about the immigrant halutzim (pioneers) to Eretz Israel, and regarded both Hebrew and Yiddish as ways to avoid assimilation.

In 1932, David Pinski, a member of the "Bund" and later "Poalei Tzion," visited Vilna. Pinski was a fan of the Hebrew language, but supported the dissemination of Yiddish culture. He spoke about his experiences as a Yiddish writer in the United States. When M. Dworzecki stood up to thank him, in Hebrew, in the name of the Hebrew writers, the crowd called "Yiddish!" During the world conference of YIVO in 1935, a decision was made to protest "the war on Yiddish in Eretz Israel, a war that will throttle the use of Yiddish in the country's public arena."

Between 1928 and 1940, Hertz Grosbard held more than fifty reading evenings of Yiddish literature. In 1939, Itzhak Katzenelson visited Vilna. He expressed his sorrow that he didn't live in the city, where one could find inspiration for the creation of new works. He spoke of the memoirs of Shalom Aleichmen, Y.L. Peretz and other authors, and finished with folksongs that he had written – in Hebrew and in Yiddish.

In 1934, Hayim Nahman Bialik arrived in Vilna, on a journey to disseminate Hebrew literature. On the day he arrived, the first issue of the Hebrew magazine "Zramim" (Currents) appeared in the city, with the leading article written in his honour. At the press conference with Yiddish and Hebrew journalists, Zalman Reisin, a journalist and leading Yiddishist, became angry that the Zionists had called upon the public to proclaim Hebrew as their mother tongue during the public census, and claimed that this came from a desire to uproot the living Yiddish language. Zelig Kalmanovitz, a member of staff at YIVO, said that while Hebrew was both beloved and dear, and many Jews preferred it to Yiddish – it was difficult to learn, and therefore Yiddish should remain in use. Bialik concluded thus: Hebrew and Yiddish are not at war with each other; every attempt to harm the language that enables the existence of the nation [Yiddish] should fail – but so should every attempt to get rid of Hebrew. Indeed, Hebrew has become the spoken language in Eretz Israel, and its usage should be propagated throughout the Diaspora, but Yiddish should not be harmed.

The exhibition was made possible through the generous support of Mr. Nehemia Burgin in memory of his dear and beloved parents, Holocaust survivors Zlata (Zehava) Burgin and Yehiel Burgin of blessed memory.