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Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society (Vilna)

Identifier: RG 22

Scope and Content Note

The Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society (Vilna) files contain documentation related to creation of the Vilna Branch, including drafts of bylaws and correspondence with the head office in St. Petersburg; minutes of general meetings of Vilna OPE, the Executive Committee (Komitet) and of the Special Commissions (Komissii), membership lists, correspondence, reports, printed announcements and invitations, school curricula, and students’ report cards. The bulk of material is in Russian and Yiddish, with considerable number of documents in German from the time of the German occupation of Vilna during World War I (September 1915-November 1918). Some documents are in Polish and Belarusian. The collection materials date from 1868 to 1933, with the bulk dates from 1909 to 1919.

Previously a number of documents from the post-World War I period, related to the Boys’ School of OPE, were separated from the other Boys’ School materials of RG 22 and permanently moved to the TSYSHO-Vilna collection (RG 48). Some materials, in turn, were extracted from the TSYSHO-Vilna (RG 48) and Vilna collection (RG 29) and added to the Hevra Mefitsei Haskalah Society collection.

Among the materials of the collection are letters from such prominent figures of the Yiddish culture as Shlomo An-sky (An-ski, Rapoport), Israel Zinberg, and of the outstanding communal and cultural leader doctor Zemach Szabad. Minutes of the general meetings of Vilna OPE have wealth of information on the planning and functioning of the organization as a whole, on its strategic goals and setting the trends in the field of Jewish culture and education, and minutes of the Commissions present details on the everyday work in particular fields of the Vilna OPE activities.


  • 1868-1933
  • Majority of material found within 1909-1919


Language of Materials

The collection is in Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Access Restrictions

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

Use Restrictions

The images, documents, film footage, audio materials, and texts displayed in any portion of this web site may be copyrighted. Permission to use this web site is given on condition that the user agrees to follow U.S. copyright laws. The user agrees that she or he assumes liability for any copyright violations resulting from unauthorized use of items appearing on this web site and to hold YIVO harmless from any action involving copyright infringement. It is the responsibility of the user to carry out a due diligence search under U.S. copyright laws to determine the copyright status of items displayed on this web site.

Historical Note

The Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society (חברת מפיצי השכלה, Общество для распространенія просвѣщенія между евреями в Россіи-ОПЕ, Society for the Promotion of Culture Among the Jews of Russia, OPE), was an association founded in 1863 in St. Petersburg by several wealthy entrepreneurs as a means to modernize Russian Jews, educate them in secular subjects, including the Russian language, and enable them to attend Russian schools. First focusing on acculturation of Jews in the Russian society , the Society started to be interested in education somewhat later, and only at the end of the 19th century did the Society begin to see the development of the Jewish education and support of Jewish-related topics for Jewish students in regular educational institutions as one of its main goals. Among the honorary members of the Society were industrialists like Leo Brodsky, scholars like Daniel Khvolson, Ovsei Steinberg, and a number of progressive Russian cultural figures such as the feminist Anna Filosofova, writers Vladimir Korolenko and Konstantin Arseniev, art critic Vladimir Stasov, and historian Mikhail Stasiulevich.

The Vilna branch of the Society was created in May 1909, after amendments to the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society’s statute and changes in the Russian laws that eased creation of local structures. The branch was created by a group of Vilna Jewish intelligentsia, preoccupied with the development of the Jewish culture and education among the Jews of Lithuania and Belarus but legally limited to the confines of the Vilna area. Its stated purpose was to maintain schools and provide support for cultural activities such as lectures, conferences and concerts. From the beginning the Executive Committee made efforts to get approval of the Russian administration for all kinds of teachers courses, and the Pedagogical and School Commissions worked on programs for teachers in order to prepare an adequate cadre of teachers for the development of Jewish primary education. All efforts to actually open the courses were thwarted by the Russian imperial bureaucracy. The same fate was awaiting the projects of opening Jewish schools in Vilna. In fact the first OPE Jewish school, the Public School (Folks-shul) for Boys, was opened only after the German occupation of Vilna in September 1915. Later, as the Education Committee of the HMH was re-organized into the Tsentraler Bildungs Komitet (Central Education Committee, TsBK) in 1919-1921 as part of the all-Poland system of Yiddish secular schools, the Boys School was operating under the auspices of the TsBK.

The Vilna Branch of OPE functioned as an autonomous body within the national Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society, receiving yearly subventions and grants for particular projects from the HMH central office in St. Petersburg. As a membership society it also was supported by membership fees. The Vilna Branch was governed by the Committee, which was an executive organ of the organization. Among the members of the Committee were such outstanding community members as doctor Zemach (Tsemakh) Shabad (1864-1935; chairman of OPE, later one of co-founders of YIVO), school owner Peysakh Kagan (vice chairman and secretary of OPE), dentist Isaac Michelson (treasurer of OPE) , teacher Rafael Rein, merchant Solomon Eliashev, doctor Henryk Solonovich, engineer Boruckh Goldberg, and literary critic Shmuel Charny (Niger). The organization included Historical and Literature, Lecture, Museum, and Pedagogical Commissions which worked in corresponding particular areas of the HMH activities. Later active members of the Vilna OPE were such Yiddishist figures as linguist Nakhum Shtif, sociologist and economist Jacob Lestschinsky, and scholarand librarian Khaykel Lunski.

Though the leadership of the Society was interested in all kinds of cultural projects, the most effort and energy was invested in the sphere of Jewish education. From the year 1909 the Pedagogical Commission together with the Executive Committee and other Commissions had worked out and prepared for implementation the following projects: Evening courses for Jewish studies, summer general education courses for Jewish teachers, a two-year women’s pedagogical course, a men’s exemplary school, evening high school for adults, and a pedagogical museum for use by Jewish schools. All of the projects, however, were declined by the Russian administration using various pretexts and legal manipulations. A considerable problem was created by a paragraph in the Statute of the Vilna HMH which defined the area of the organization’s activity by the city of Vilna and Vilna gubernia, by which all the teachers from outside Vilna area, who comprised the bulk of participants of the planned projects, were prevented from participation. The projects were therefore not approved by the local Russian police and educational authorities, which by law were in charge of issuing all kinds of permits related to public meetings, gatherings and educational activities.

Besides the above projects the Society provided textbooks and regular payments for the education of needy Jewish students in Vilna schools, maintained a public library of more than 15,000 books in a number of languages, financed lectures on pedagogical and general Jewish interest topics, and provided development of programs for Jewish education. The Committee worked closely with the Vilna City Council on introducing comprehensive primary education and insisted on inclusion of the Jewish schools in the general school network. The Committee also created a Heder Commission, which worked on coordination and unification of the Heder education and its programs, for improvement of the learning conditions for students and the “amelioration of moral and material situation of the Heder teachers”.


1.8 Linear Feet (4 boxes, 60 folders)


The collection contains the records of the Vilna branch of the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah, an educational and publishing organization, established in 1863 to propagate secular knowledge and acculturation into the Russian society among the Jews of the Pale of Settlement. The Vilna Branch was organized in 1909 to assist Jewish education in Vilna and vicinity. During World War I and after Vilna became a part of independent Poland, the organization continued to propagate secular education and maintain schools, libraries and teachers’ courses. The materials include minutes, correspondence, memoranda, programs, leaflets, announcements, and clippings.


The records are subdivided into four Series. The order of the original files was changed, and some materials segregated into separate folders. The old finding aid no longer reflects the existing folder arrangement. Folders are arranged in alpabetical and chronological order in accordance with the structural composition of the organization.

  1. Series I: Branch Bylaws and Minutes, 1890-1918
  2. Series II: Budget and Membership Materials, 1902-1919
  3. Series III: Correspondence of the Executive Committee and Special Commissions, 1868-1933
  4. Series IV: Educational Commission and the Boys’ School, 1904-1921

Other Finding Aid

A paper folder list, in Yiddish and English, which was created in 1970s, can be found in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room at CJH.

Acquisition Information

The collection was a part of the original YIVO Archives in Vilna (Wilno), Poland, and was acquired along with other materials of the Vilna YIVO, ca. 1.8 feet.

Related Material

Materials from 1919 through 1940 of the HMH Educational Committee, which was transformed into the Tsentraler Bildungs Komitet (Central Education Committee, TsBK), a semi-autonomous branch of a secular Yiddish school sysytem in Poland, the TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization), were separated from the HMH documents and added to the Records of the TSYSHO collection (RG 48). Materials from the same period as OPE about Jewish education can be found at the YIVO Archives in the Vilna collection (RG 29) and Vilna Jewish Community Council (RG 10). Jewish education in Vilna after World War I is reflected in the above mentioned TSYSHO collection and VILBIG collection (RG 11).

Guide to the Records of Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah Society (Vilna) 1868-1933 (bulk 1909-1919) RG 22
Originally processed by Felicia Figa in the 1970s. Edited by YIVO staff in 2006. Materials further processed, described and finding aid encoded by Vital Zajka in 2013. Materials prepared for digitization by Jessica Podhorcer in 2016.
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 Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference) (2016). 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 (2012).

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

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