Records of the ORT Society, Vilna
Scope and Content Note
The Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia, known by its Russian acronym, "ORT," was founded in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire, in 1880. Its aim was the promotion and development of skilled trades and agriculture among Jews, especially through support of vocational and agricultural training. At first operating only as a provisional committee, it received legal recognition in Russia in 1906, and subsequently established local divisions in various cities within Russia and, after the First World War, in Poland, Lithuania, and other countries. An ORT committee was formed in Vilna in February 1919; the ORT Society in Vilna helped found an international umbrella organization, the World ORT Union, in 1921, with headquarters in Berlin (until 1933) and, later, Paris.
The collection comprises records of the ORT Society in Vilna that, despite their fragmentary nature, broadly reflect the society's activities from its beginnings until its dissolution by the authorities in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, in 1940, with inclusion of two items from an earlier period, a letter dated 1898, from the ORT Provisional Committee, St. Petersburg, to an addressee in Vilna, and a postcard, 1912, from Riga, addressed to engineer L. Frenkel, in Vilna. Series I contains general administrative records, such as bylaws, minutes, reports, membership records, and financial records. Series II comprises both outgoing and incoming correspondence, including considerable correspondence with the ORT Central Committee in Poland, Warsaw (founded 1923). Series III contains records pertaining to the administration of vocational programs of the ORT Society in Vilna, including its Crafts School, circa 1920-1931, which trained Jewish youth as artisans in the fields of carpentry and locksmithing; and various professional advancement courses for adults, circa 1928-1935, in fields such as electrical installation and tailoring (cutting). Records pertaining to the administration of the ORT Technical School, or Technicum, the most prominent of the Vilna ORT Society's vocational schools, which operated from 1921 to 1940, are, for the most part, found in another YIVO collection, RG 21.
Series IV contains records concerning ORT activities related to agriculture in the period 1920 to 1923, apparently reflecting the work of an ORT regional committee based in Vilna. Included are applications for agricultural loans (funded with subsidies from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), by applicants residing in the vicinity of Brześć nad Bugiem (Brest, Belarus); and questionnaires about Jewish families working on farms in various localities, mostly in the western part of what is present-day Belarus. Also found in Series IV are items, dated 1929-1930, related to a credit cooperative society established by the Vilna ORT Society.
Series V contains a small amount of ephemera, including invitations, fliers, posters, clippings, and fragments of newsletters of the ORT Union, along with two small groupings of ORT-related records that have no apparent relationship to the ORT Society in Vilna. Of the latter, one grouping consists of outgoing and incoming correspondence of the Arbeterheym (Workers' Home), Riga, Latvia, in 1923, including letters from the Jewish People's Relief Committee, New York, which around that time became affiliated with the American ORT; and the other consists of correspondence addressed to J. Capitanchik, London, in 1924, from the ORT Society in London, in part concerning his effort to organize an ORT committee in the city's East End.
- 1898, 1912, 1919-1940
- Majority of material found within 1919-1940
- ORT Society, Vilna (Organization)
Language of Materials
The collection is predominantly in Yiddish and Polish, with some Russian, Lithuanian, German, and English, and occasional French and Hebrew.
The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.
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The Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia, known by its Russian acronym, "ORT" (derived from its original Russian name, "Obshchestvo Remeslennogo i zemledelcheskogo Truda sredi evreev v Rossii), was founded in 1880, in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire, by a private group of Jewish community members, including Samuel Poliakov, Baron Horace de Günzburg, Abram Zak, Leon Rosenthal, and Meer Fridland. Its aim was the promotion and development of skilled trades and agriculture among Jews, especially through support of vocational and agricultural training. The society was granted permission from the czarist government to form a temporary, or provisional committee, and continued to operate under those terms for the first 25 years of its existence. Following the Russian Revolution of 1905, it was finally granted a permanent charter in the Russian Empire, in 1906, and thereafter began to extend its activities and establish local divisions in various cities within Russia. ORT membership grew from 285 in 1906 to over 2,000 in 1914. Beginning in 1909 the society modernized its approach to its mission, shifting from traditional philanthropy to an emphasis on self-help, through activities that supported small loans, cooperative organizations of artisans, and technical education.
In the period before and during the First World War, ORT supported some activities in Vilna (then within the Pale of Settlement; today, Vilnius, Lithuania), although an ORT committee had not yet been formally established. In 1909, ORT assisted in organizing and subsidizing courses for electricians in Vilna, under the leadership of engineer L. Frenkel, who headed a vocational school there. (Later, during the interwar period, Frenkel oversaw technical education for the ORT Central Committee in Poland and was involved in the vocational schools of the ORT Society in Vilna.)
During the First World War, a group of volunteers within ORT established a "relief through work" department, which helped to find jobs for unemployed Jewish artisans and workers, especially those among displaced Jewish refugees, who had lost their means of livelihood when they were evacuated from their homes in war zones by the Russian military authorities. These efforts received support from the Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims (known by its Russian acronym, EKOPO) and the Jewish Colonization Association. In Vilna, ORT representatives assisted in setting up large industrial workshops for Jewish artisans, working in collaboration with the Help Through Work Society (an organization that had been founded in Vilna around 1900 and continued its activities in the interwar period).
After the First World War, ORT began to establish affiliate divisions in Poland, Lithuania, and other countries in Europe. An ORT Committee was formed in Vilna in February 1919. In 1920, the city of Vilna (Polish: Wilno) was incorporated into newly independent Poland. The Vilna ORT Society represented not only the city of Vilna but also 20 nearby towns. It had strong connections with its counterpart in Grodno; the two committees even established a joint Executive Office. That office existed until the first conference of local ORT committees in Poland, in February 1923, when the ORT Central Committee in Poland was established, with a permanent seat in Warsaw.
In the context of the Vilna ORT Society and the ORT Central Committee in Poland, the name of the organization was rendered as Society for the Promotion of Handicraft (Vocational/Professional) and Agricultural Work among Jews (Yiddish: gezelshaft tsu farshpreytn melokhe un erd-arbet tsvishn yidn; Polish: Towarzystwo Szerzenia Pracy Zawodowej i Rolnej wśród Żydów).
In 1921, the ORT Society in Vilna played an important role in the establishment of the World ORT Union (WOU), at a conference held in Berlin, 31 July to 3 August. Dr. Zemach Shabad, who represented Vilna at the conference, was elected as the first chairman of the Central Board of the WOU.
The membership of the Vilna ORT Society grew from 60 in 1926 to 260 by the end of 1928. A decade later, at the beginning of 1938, it stood at only 116; however, it had grown again to around 300 by early 1939.
The ORT Society in Vilna conducted widespread activities, especially in the field of vocational education, creating schools for youth, and various courses and workshops for adults already practicing a trade. From 1920 to 1931 it ran a handicrafts school that trained artisans in the fields of carpentry and locksmithing. From 1928 through the 1930s, the society offered various professional advancement courses in fields including electrical installation and tailoring (cutting). Of special importance was the ORT Technical School, or Technicum, which operated from 1921 to 1940. The only Jewish technical school of its kind in Poland, the Technicum trained Jewish youth to be mid-level specialists in the fields of mechanics and electrical engineering. In the 1930s, it also organized special courses for Jewish refugees from Germany, in cooperation with the ORT Union.
In the early post-World War I period, a regional ORT committee based in Vilna actively supported Jewish agriculture, seeking to ascertain and address farmers' needs in matters such as artificial fertilizer, feed for animals, machines, and credit. It also conducted a training program on the subject of productive agriculture. Agronomist Chaim Feigin, who led these efforts, was based in Vilna from September 1920 to November 1923. In his memoir about ORT agricultural activities in the former governorates of Vilna, Grodno, and Minsk, Feigin states that the ORT committee in Vilna was in contact with most of the Jewish farmers in the region, keeping a register that encompassed over 1,100 families in 1920 and a peak of 1,500 families at the end of 1922. He also refers to two agricultural cooperatives in the vicinity of Vilna that were founded with the help of ORT and existed for several years, the most successful one in Oshmene (Ashmyany, Belarus).
The Vilna ORT Society apparently supported other Jewish agricultural cooperatives in subsequent years and supported Jewish artisans with loans and tools. According to its report of activities for the year 1938, it held a well-attended series of theoretical agricultural evening courses at that time, and as of early 1939 had plans to develop theoretical and practical agricultural courses for refugee youth on farms in the Wolokumpia (Valakampiai) district of Vilna.
The society cooperated avidly with other Jewish organizations and institutions such as the Jewish Community Council in Vilna, the TOZ (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia; Society for Health Care), CENTOS (Federation of Associations for the Care of Jewish Orphans in Poland), and EKOPO (Jewish Relief Committee). It organized cultural activities and collaborated with Jewish cultural and educational institutions. Besides its dues-paying members, it had a great many friends and sympathizers in Vilna.
At the beginning of the Second World War, in late September 1939, Vilna was occupied by the Soviet Union. Subsequently, as a result of a mutual assistance treaty between the Soviet Union and Lithuania, Vilna was transferred to Lithuania, in late October 1939. Around this time, the ORT Technicum added a program for handicrafts; it also offered courses for refugees.
Shortly following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, in June 1940, the Lithuanian Ministry of the Interior moved to ban all non-communist cultural and religious organizations. The ORT Society in Lithuania immediately petitioned the ministry to be allowed to continue its activities; however, the ministry ultimately issued a resolution, dated 6 August, to close the society. The ORT Society in Vilna closed its school facilities as of 1 September 1940.
Bracha, Rachel, Adi Drori-Avraham, and Geoffrey Yantian, eds. Educating for Life: New Chapters in the History of ORT. London: World ORT, 2010.
Feigin, Chaim. "Der onfang fun der 'ORT' arbet in tsofn mayrevdikn gegnt (Minsker, Vilner, Grodner Guv.) nokhn krig." Manuscript, undated (circa 1925). RG 47, Folder 1.
Frenkel, L. "Souvenirs" (excerpt from Frenkel's diary). Archival document (transcribed and translated). Bracha, Drori-Avraham, and Yantian, pp. 69-73.
Ivanov, Alexander. "Activities of the World ORT Union in the 1920s – 1940s." The Russian Jewish Diaspora and European Culture, 1917-1937, edited by Jörg Schulte, Olga Tabachnikova, and Peter Wagstaff, pp. 387-416. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Shapiro, Leon. The History of ORT: A Jewish Movement for Social Change. New York: Schocken Books, 1980.
2.7 Linear Feet (7 boxes, including one half-size box; and 2 oversize folders in map drawer)
The Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia, known by its Russian acronym, "ORT," was founded in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire, in 1880. Its aim was the promotion and development of skilled trades and agriculture among Jews, especially through support of vocational and agricultural training. At first operating only as a provisional committee, it received legal recognition in Russia in 1906, and subsequently established local divisions in various cities within Russia and, after the First World War, in Poland, Lithuania, and other countries. An ORT committee was formed in Vilna in February 1919; the ORT Society in Vilna helped found an international umbrella organization, the World ORT Union, in 1921, with headquarters in Berlin (until 1933) and, later, Paris. The collection comprises records of the ORT Society in Vilna that, despite their fragmentary nature, broadly reflect the society's activities from its beginnings until its dissolution by the authorities in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, in 1940. The collection contains administrative records, such as bylaws, minutes, reports, membership records, and financial records; outgoing and incoming correspondence, with correspondents including the ORT Central Committee in Poland, Warsaw (founded 1923); records pertaining to the administration of the society's vocational programs, including its Crafts School, which trained Jewish youth as artisans in the fields of carpentry and locksmithing, and various professional advancement courses for adults, in fields such as electrical installation and tailoring (cutting); records concerning activities related to agriculture in the period 1920 to 1923, apparently reflecting the work of an ORT regional committee based in Vilna (loan applications and questionnaires about Jewish families working on farms, in most cases pertaining to localities in the western part of present-day Belarus); and a few items documenting a credit cooperative society founded by the Vilna ORT Society. Also included is a small amount of ephemera, and two small groupings of ORT-related records with no apparent relationship to the society in Vilna: correspondence of the Arbeterheym (Workers' Home), Riga, Latvia, in 1923, including letters from the Jewish People's Relief Committee, New York, which became affiliated with the American ORT; and correspondence addressed to J. Capitanchik, London, in 1924, from the ORT Society in London, in part concerning his effort to organize an ORT committee in the city's East End.
The collection is arranged in the following series:
- General Administrative Records, 1920-1940
- Correspondence of the Administration, 1898, 1912, 1919-1940
- Vocational Schools and Courses of the ORT Society, Vilna, 1920-1932, 1936
- Agricultural Activities and Credit Cooperative Society, undated, 1920-1923, 1929-1930, 1935
- Other ORT-Related Records, Ephemera, Miscellaneous, 1920-1940
Other Finding Aid
A copy of the typed English-language finding aid prepared by Felicia Figa in 1977 is on file at YIVO, as well as a typed version of an earlier Yiddish-language finding aid. Attached is a concordance of the old and new folder numbers.
These records were part of the YIVO Archives in Vilna before the Second World War. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Vilna, the records were looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (a special task force of the National Socialist regime devoted to the plunder of art and cultural artifacts) and sent to the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (Institute for Study of the Jewish Question), an institution of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), in Frankfurt am Main. In 1945 they were recovered by the U.S. Army and returned to the YIVO Institute in New York, via the U.S. Army archival depot in Offenbach. The records arrived in New York in 1947.
During processing for the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project, the collection was re-foldered into acid-free archival folders. The general structure of the inventory list found in the hard-copy finding aid compiled by Felicia Figa in 1977 was retained as much as possible; however, the order of the files was in some instances revised, based on further examination of the material, in order to create a more coherent arrangement. Also, a relatively small amount of material pertaining to the Vilna ORT handicrafts school (with divisions for carpentry and locksmithing; variously known as the Crafts School, the Professional School, or the School/Training Workshops) that was found intermingled with the records of the ORT Technicum (in YIVO collection RG 21) was integrated into the collection, notably materials under the following new headings: Crafts School–Teacher registration forms (Folder 90); Crafts School–Report about journeyman examinations (Folder 92); Professional School–Social insurance for employees (Folder 104); Professional School–Student grades (Folder 108); and Professional School (or Crafts School)–Student questionnaires for ORT Union Adoption Department (Folder 109).
- Administrative records
- Agriculture, Cooperative
- Bylaws (administrative records)
- Feigin, Chaim
- Financial records
- Fraternal organizations
- Frenkel, L.
- Gakner, Jakób, 1879-
- Jewish engineers
- Jewish farmers
- Jewish students
- Jewish teachers
- Jews -- Education -- History
- Jews -- Poland -- History
- Kowarski, Szymon
- Lithuania. Švietimo ministerija
- Membership lists
- Occupational training
- Poland. Ministerstwo Wyznań Religijnych i Oświecenia Publicznego
- Printed ephemera
- Receipts (financial records)
- Szrejber, M.
- Vilnius (Lithuania)
- Vocational education
- World ORT Union
- Yashunsḳi, Y. (Yosef), 1881-1943
- Guide to the Records of the ORT Society, Vilna, 1898, 1912, 1919-1940 (bulk 1919-1940) RG 47
- Under Revision
- Originally processed by Felicia Figa in 1977. Materials further processed, described, prepared for digitization and finding aid encoded by Violet Lutz in 2019.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.
- Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Earlier work funded by the American ORT Federation (1977), the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation (2006), and the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany.