Guide to the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Farayn (Yiddish Actors' Union), 1909-1940
Scope and Contents
This collection contains administrative materials detailing institutional functions and decision-making processes, correspondence, and membership files, each separated into its own series.
Series I, Administrative Records, contains very early notes on the initial formation of the YAF, as well as the bylaws of the union (both the original handwritten version and a sample of the subsequent print versions, in Yiddish and Polish). Series I also contains records of the annual conventions. There are particularly complete records of conventions 3-15 (1921-1932). Series I contains the minutes of the meetings of the Executive Committee, from 1922-1933, and records of the communal court. There are few financial records, although there are records of the YAF's drive to collect funds to build a new theater building.
Series II, Correspondence, is divided into subseries that reflect the YAF's own filing system. Correspondence is separated according to the location of the correspondent, which correlates with the primary subject matter of each group of correspondence. Executive Committee correspondence, dealing with administrative and charitable matters, forms Subseries 1. Subseries 2 consists of correspondence with international theatrical organizations, either groups that toured Poland, or groups that Polish actors worked for abroad. Subseries 3 contains correspondence with theatrical groups in Poland, organized by the name of each Polish city where the group was located. Correspondence with Polish government organizations as well as non-governmental organizations falls into Subseries 4. Subseries 5 contains correspondence with permanently established theaters in Poland, organized by the name of the theater. Subseries 6 consists of correspondence with touring acting troupes, organized by the name of their correspondent. This filing system represents the way that the YAF established intellectual control over their activities, which attempted to encompass all theatrical work in Poland.
Series III contains the YAF's membership files, arranged by member's name. Many of these files contain membership booklets that include a picture, and the person's basic biographical information. If the member took the exam held by the YAF in order to qualify for membership, records of the exam are included in their file. Some files also contain correspondence between the member and the YAF, often pertaining to questions or problems they encountered in their dealings with the organization.
- Majority of material found within 1920-1938
- Yidisher arṭisṭn-fareyn in Poyln (Organization)
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Biographical / Historical
The Yidisher Artistn Farayn (Yiddish Actors' Union), also known as the Zwiazek Artystow Scen Zydowskich (ZASZ), located in Warsaw, Poland, was founded in 1919, and existed until the beginning of WWII (September 1939). Its primary purpose was to represent the interests of actors in their financial negotiations with directors of theaters and theatrical troupes. However, its role went beyond that, as it involved itself in politics, supporting greater autonomy for Polish Jews, and in cultural life, as it attempted to support the development of a professional, artistically ambitious Polish Jewish theater. In fact these goals were connected: demonstrating the advancement of Jewish culture was thought to buttress Jewish claims for greater political freedom.
Several attempts were made to establish an actors' union in the 1910s in different cities in Poland, beginning in 1915 in Lodz. The German occupation of Poland during and after WWI provided Polish Jews, and the Yiddish theater in particular, with unprecedented freedom. Whereas under the Russia Czar, permits to perform Yiddish plays were rarely granted and frequently revoked, the German occupation authorities, eager to undermine Russification, allowed ethnic minorities including Jews to freely participate in cultural life. Following WWI, it took some years for refugees who had fled to return to Warsaw, but when a critical mass of actors and activists was reached, in 1919, the Yidisher Artistn Farayn (henceforth referred to as YAF) took shape.
In the early years of its existence, the YAF struggled to exert influence over the energetic but chaotic blossoming of the Yiddish theatrical scene in Poland. New theatrical companies would be established and then disappear, and rifts emerged particularly between actors affiliated with permanent theaters and those that toured the provinces, sometimes only for a single season. They also ironically struggled with the greater freedoms allowed Yiddish theaters and actors: if they called a strike, there was no reason directors could not simply hire actors unaffiliated with the union, and many did exactly that, limiting the YAF's ability to create meaningful change.
In 1925, the YAF affiliated itself with the Landrat, or the National Council of Class Trade Unions (Krajowa Rada Klasowych Związków Zawodowych). This connected them with unions in other professions, broadening their ability to enforce internal discipline and amplifying their voice on the Polish political stage.
The YAF conducted extensive activities aside from bargaining with directors and political activism. As part of its general financial support of retired, ill, and unemployed actors, it provided a stipend to actors who wished to send their children to school. In 1925, they decided to limit this stipend to those who sent their children to Yiddish-language schools, thus buttressing Yiddish education in Poland. They also published their own journals (Yidish teater and Yidishe bine, among others) and amassed one of the most impressive libraries among the Warsaw trade unions. They held lectures on the history of Yiddish theater, and became involved in education, training young actors and providing certification for experienced actors. Its membership grew to include over 300 (324 in 1938), and accounted for the vast majority of Yiddish actors in Poland at the outbreak of WWII.
Mordechai V. Bernstein, "Di organizatsye fun di yidishe artistn," in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, vol. 1, Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov (Jonas Turkow), and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 339–436 (New York, 1968)
Marek Web, "Organizacja i samopomoc: Z historii ruchu zawodowego aktorów żydowskich w Polsce," Pamiętnik Teatralny 41.1–4 [161–164] (1992): 135–174, special issue on Yiddish theater in Poland until 1939.
Web, Marek. "Yiddish Actors Union." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe 8 November 2010. 22 March 2013 http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Yiddish_Actors_Union.
16.25 Linear Feet (45 boxes)
- Series I: Administrative Records, 1919-1940
- Series II: Correspondence, 1913-1938
- Subseries 1: Executive Committee Correspondence, 1923-1938
- Subseries 2: International Theatrical Organizations, 1913-1935
- Subseries 3: Polish Theatrical Organizations, 1922-1935
- Subseries 4: General Correspondence, 1925-1935
- Subseries 5: Permanent Acting Troupes, 1920-1936
- Subseries 6: Touring Acting Troupes, 1924-1936
- Series III: Membership Records, 1909-1939
The Yidisher Artistn Farayn was very supportive of the establishment of the Esther Rachel Kaminski Theater Museum and made regular donations of materials, including questionnaires and membership cards. In November 1936, YAF announced an agreement with YIVO to permanently house within the Kaminski Theater Museum all records of YAF older than 5 years.
The Kaminska Theater Museum, along with YIVO's other collections and the other Jewish cultural institutions in Vilna, was pillaged by the Nazis in 1941. The records in this collection were among those looted by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg and brought to Germany in 1942. Placed after the war in the U.S. military Offenbach Archival Depot, these documents were returned to the YIVO in New York in 1947.
- Guide to the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Farayn (Yiddish Actors' Union), 1909-1940 RG 26
- Originally processed by Solomon Krystal in 1984. Edited by Rivka Schiller in 2006. Finding aid encoded by Yakov Il'ich Sklar in 2006. Materials further processed and described by Sarah Ponichtera in 2013. Materials prepared for digitization by Jessica Podhorcer in 2019.
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- Description is in English.
- Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022). Additional work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the M.K.S. Charitable Remainder Unitrust. Earlier work funded by the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation (2006) and the CJH Holocaust Resource Initiative from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (2013).