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Guide to the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Yiddish Actors' Union), 1909-1940

Identifier: RG 26

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.


  • 1909-1940
  • Majority of material found within 1920-1938


Language of Materials

The collection is in Yiddish and Polish, with a few items in German, Russian, Hebrew, and English.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.

Conditions Governing Use

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Biographical / Historical

The Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (Yiddish Actors' Union or YAF), 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 Fareyn 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


16.25 Linear Feet (45 boxes)


The Yidisher Artistn Fareyn, or Yiddish Actors' Union, advocated for actors' economic interests while striving to create a professionally run, artistically ambitious, Yiddish theatrical scene in Warsaw. From 1919-1938, its influence gradually increased until it included the majority of actors working in Poland, and collaborated with the most significant Polish Yiddish cultural figures and institutions, including E. R. Kaminska, YIVO, Literarishe Bleter, and the Landrat, or National Council of Class Trade Unions (Krajowa Rada Klasowych Związków Zawodowych). This collection contains records of annual conventions, Executive Committee meetings, correspondence with actors and theaters from Poland and around the world, and membership files on almost 600 actors.


The collection is divided into the following series:

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

Custodial History

The Yidisher Artistn Fareyn 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.

Related Materials

Materials from the Yidisher Artistn Fareyn were part of the collection of YIVO's Esther Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum in Vilna (RG 8). While institutional records are arranged here in RG 26, RG 8 contains a large quantity of other materials, such as programs, playbills, photographs, publicity materials, clippings, and ephemera related to the Yiddish Theater.

There were significant contacts between the Yidisher Artistn Farayn and the Hebrew Actors' Union (RG 1843), which was based in New York. Many individuals are represented in both collections.

The Esther Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum, as with the rest of YIVO, was seized and ransacked by Nazis after their capture of Vilna in 1941. Some of the materials were smuggled into hiding in 1942 and 1943, recovered after the end of World War II, and then hidden again from the Soviet regime. These materials can now be found in the Lithuanian Central State Archives, and are arranged in the Records of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in the Lithuanian Central State Archives (RG 8000). Records of the Yidisher Artistn Fareyn can be found in Shipping Lists 12, 24, and 30 of that collection.

Processing Information

Click here to see a list of major changes to the previously processed postion of the collection.

Guide to the Records of the Yidisher Artistn Fareyn (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.
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). 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).

Repository Details

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