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Papers of Isaac Nachman Steinberg (1888-1957)

Identifier: RG 366

Scope and Content Note

A large proportion of the collection consists of records of the Freeland League, including its London and New York offices and the Refugee Freeland League in Austria, and relates to the League’s colonization projects. There are also some materials relating to the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Russian Revolution of 1917, private and family correspondence and Steinberg’s personal, political and literary papers, including his travels to Australia and South Africa on behalf of colonization efforts. Materials include correspondence with individuals, organizations and publications, minutes of meetings, clippings, diaries, event and lecture notices, reports, photographs, manuscripts by Steinberg and by others, research materials for Steinberg’s writings, materials pertaining to efforts to establish Jewish settlements in Australia, including the Kimberley Project and the Queensland, Tasmania and Melville Island plans, materials on geographical locations which were considered for colonization, including Surinam and various areas in Africa and South America, and materials relating to the publications Oyfn Shvel and Freiland. Some important correspondents include Sir Norman Angell, Angelica Balabanoff, Ben-Adir, Ernest Bevin, Nathan Birnbaum, Winston Churchill, Josef Czernichow, Anthony de Rothschild, Edmond de Rothschild, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Jacob Gordin, Zelig Kalmanovitch, Karl Kautsky, Fiorello La Guardia, Harold Lasky, H. Leivick, Itzik Manger, Thomas Mann, Shmuel Niger, Joseph Proskauer, Eleanor Roosevelt, E. Savinkov, Baruch Charney Vladeck, Colonel Josiah Wedgewood, and Stefan Zweig.

There is also correspondence and other materials with Territorialist and colonization organizations and various publications from all over the world, among them the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Conference, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Der Tog, Freie Arbeiter Stimme, , International Jewish Colonization Society (Jew-Col), Jewish Territorial Organization, League for Jewish Colonization, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, Oyfn Shvel, President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, Relief Society for Socialist Prisoners and Exiles in Soviet Russia, United Nations, Workmen’s Circle, Yiddish P.E.N. Club, Yiddish Writers Union, Yugntruf, and Die Zukunft, among many others.

This collection would be particularly helpful for those interested in the history of Terrotorialism, Jewish colonization efforts, especially in Australia, South Africa and Surinam, early Soviet political history and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and Jewish social, political and cultural history.


  • 1893-1968
  • Majority of material found within 1919-1956


Language of Materials

The collection is in Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German, English, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, Romanian, Italian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection.

For more information, contact: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011


Biographical Note

Isaac Nachman Steinberg was born into an educated, religious, and wealthy merchant family on July 13, 1888 in Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia), then part of the Russian Empire, son of Zerakh Steinberg and his wife Chiana, née Eliashev, the older sister of Isidor Eliashev (Baal-Makhshoves). Steinberg and his younger brother, Aaron (1891-1975), a Russian and Yiddish writer and essayist, were raised in a traditionally religious family and were given a strong Jewish education. Steinberg remained religiously observant his entire life, even during his time as a revolutionary politician.

The family moved to Pernov (Pyarnu), Estonia in 1904, where Steinberg attended the gymnasium, graduating in 1906. He also continued his religious education with private tutors. The family once again moved, this time to Moscow in 1907, where Steinberg entered the Imperial Moscow University. There he studied law and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR). Steinberg was arrested in 1907 for his revolutionary activities, and was only released on the condition that he leave Russia. He moved to Germany, where he continued his legal studies at the University of Heidelberg, and also studied Talmud under a private tutor, Zalmen Borukh Rabinkov, in a small circle that included Erich Fromm, Nahum Goldmann, and Ernst Simon. After completing his period of exile and defending his doctoral thesis on Talmudic criminal law, Steinberg returned to Moscow in 1910. He began his practice of law, defending Jewish victims of the tsarist regime, and won endorsement for the Duma, the Russian parliament. In 1914 he married Nechama Esselson and became an active member of the Moscow Jewish community, being considered as a future rabbi of Moscow.

During World War I, Steinberg participated in activities of the Jewish Committee for Aiding Victims of War (EKOPO). He also resumed his activities within the SR Party starting in 1916 and quickly rose through its political ranks. After the split of the SR Party in August 1917, he became one of the leaders of its independent left wing, the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party (LSR). Vladimir Lenin invited the LSR to join his government and, from December 1917 to February 1918, Steinberg served as the People’s Commissar (Narkom) for Justice of Soviet Russia, although his position was largely decorative. Steinberg succeeded in saving the lives of a number of political prisoners but his most fateful political action was his legal approval, as Commissar of Justice, of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 by the Bolsheviks. After the breakdown of the Bolshevik-LSR coalition over the issue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in February 1918, Steinberg resigned his post in protest and traveled to Europe to mobilize support for the LSR, probably saving himself from arrest after the failed anti-Bolshevik coup of July 1918. Upon his return, he served as a mediator between the LSR opposition and the Bolshevik leadership.

In 1923, having been warned that he was in danger of assassination, he moved with his family to Berlin where he acted as foreign representative of the LSR in Russia and continued to edit the Socialist Revolutionary Party organ, as he had done in Moscow. He also began his career in literature and journalism, with his first Yiddish publication appearing in 1925. In addition, he contributed to several German Socialist publications. From 1926 to 1937 he edited the Vilna journal Fraye Shriftn—Farn Yidishn Sotsialistishn Gedank (Free Papers—For Jewish Socialist Thought), which covered a wide range of political and cultural issues, Tsukunft (Future), and many other periodicals in New York, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno, and many other places. He was also affiliated with YIVO from its founding in 1925 and was a member of its Board of Directors.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Steinberg, his wife and their three children settled in London where Steinberg became active in the newly resurrected Territorialist Movement. In 1935 Steinberg and Ben-Adir (Abraham Rosin) founded the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, which was the successor to Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO), which had disbanded in 1925. The Territorialist Movement aimed to find a location where Jews could govern themselves, although the goal of self-government was quickly subordinated to the urgent task of finding a territory in which to settle endangered Jews from Europe and in planning a future life in this territory. Ideas included Madagascar, New Caledonia, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), British Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Surinam), French Guiana, Alaska, Albania, Angola, Birobidjian, Brazil, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Rhodesia, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Ethiopia, Haiti, New Zealand, Swaziland, Tanganyika (Tanzania), and Uruguay, among others.

Steinberg was opposed to Zionism on moral and political grounds and did not support the idea of the Jewish nation-state. He was highly critical of Zionist movement politics, believing that the salvation of the Jewish people lay in autonomous Yiddish-speaking agricultural settlements under the political patronage of colonial empires. For this purpose, he visited South Africa (1935–1936) and Australia (1939–1943) and supported efforts for Jewish settlement in dozens of other possible locations.

The Freeland League selected the Kimberley region in the north of Western Australia and planned to buy an area of 7 million acres of agricultural land, where it hoped to settle 75,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to develop the pastoral and agricultural industries. On May 23, 1939 Steinberg arrived in Perth. He appealed to people both on humanitarian grounds and by citing the British government’s officially-declared need to populate northern Australia. By early 1940 Steinberg had gained the support of the Western Australian government, the Australasian Council of Trade Unions, a number of leading public figures, and major newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Argus and the West Australian. He had also encountered opposition from the Bulletin, Smith's Weekly, some daily newspapers, and several British and Australian politicians and public figures, whose arguments ranged from the practical to the xenophobic. For their part, many Australian Jews criticized the proposed settlement, some fearing that it would provoke a wave of anti-Semitism in Australia, others seeing it as a threat to the Zionist cause.

Steinberg left Australia in June 1943 to join his family in Canada. On July 15, 1944 he was informed by Australian Prime Minister John Curtin that the Australian government would not “depart from the long-established policy in regard to alien settlement in Australia” and could not “entertain the proposal for a group settlement of the exclusive type contemplated by the Freeland League.” Steinberg, however, continued to wage a paper battle for the scheme. He approached successive prime ministers in 1945 and 1946, and published Australia—The Unpromised Land in London in 1948, all to no avail.

In 1943, he settled in the United States, where he became involved in Yiddishist activities. From 1943 to 1956 was the editor of the Freeland League’s official organ Oyfn Shvel (On the Threshold), taking over after Ben-Adir’s death in 1942. He also continued to work for the Territorialist cause, despite setbacks. In 1946, the Freeland League started negotiations with the Surinamese and Netherlands governments about the possible resettlement in the Saramacca district of Surinam of 30,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. In August 1948, the Surinamese parliament decided “to suspend the discussions until the complete clarification of the international situation”, however the negotiations were never resumed. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Steinberg expressed concern at the idea of an exclusively Jewish nation, instead supporting the idea of creating a bi-national Jewish-Arab federation in Israel/Palestine. At the same time he continued his efforts to establish a compact self-ruled Jewish settlement somewhere outside the Middle East.

Steinberg wrote hundreds of articles on literary, legal and political subjects and more than a dozen books in Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. These include an award-winning play about the Russian Revolution, Du Hast Gesiegt Mochnatschow! (You have Triumphed Mochnatschow), contributions to legal and general periodicals, a series of books on the Russian Revolution such as Memoirs of a People’s Commissar, a comprehensive work on the Russian revolutionary Maria Spiridonowa (1935), articles and books on socialism, Der Moralisher Ponim fun der Revolutsiye (The Moral Aspect of the Revolution, Russian, 1923; Yiddish, 1925); Gewalt und Terror in der Revolution (Violence and Terror in the Revolution, German, 1931), In the Workshop of the Revolution (English, 1953), Als Ich Volkskommissar (Memoirs of a People’s Commissar; German, 1929; English and Yiddish, 1931), and a work on the Territorialist movement, Australia - The Unpromised Land (English, 1948).

Isaac Nachman Steinberg died suddenly on January 2, 1957 in New York. He was survived by his son, the art historian Leo Steinberg, and a daughter, Shulamit Charney, the wife of Shmuel Niger’s son, Dr. William Charney. His wife and a daughter, Ada Siegel, had predeceased him.


26.7 Linear Feet

61 Boxes (+ 4 2.5” boxes, 1 3” oversize box, and 1 1” oversize box)


This collection contains the personal and professional papers of Isaac Nachman Steinberg, a Russian-Jewish political writer, leader of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party during the 1917 revolution in Russia, People’s Commissar of Justice in the first Bolshevik government, leader of the Jewish Territorialist Movement and of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, and a founding member of the YIVO Institute in Vilna. These materials include Steinberg’s writings, personal correspondence, clippings, journals, meeting announcements, and some photographs. These materials relate mainly to Steinberg’s work with the Freeland League and plans for the large-scale settlement of Jews in various places around the world.


David Wolfson arranged the collection and created an index, which he divided into seven sections representing more of an intellectual arrangement rather than a physical arrangement. These sections were: I: correspondence with individuals; II: correspondence with organizations, institutions, libraries, and publishers; III: subject materials, manuscripts not by Steinberg and photographs and clippings; IV: Steinberg’s personal materials, including manuscripts and articles by Steinberg; V: materials filed by geographical locations which were considered for Jewish settlements; VI: correspondence of the Freeland League; and VII: miscellaneous materials of the Freeland League. Materials in the index are often cross-listed by organization, by individual, by subject, and by location. Many of the individual correspondents and organizations can be found in multiple series. The index lists the language of the materials as Y for Yiddish, E for English, R for Russian, G for German, F for French, S for Spanish, H for Hebrew, Rom for Romanian, and D for Dutch, although there are also other languages in the collection. Much of the collection is arranged alphabetically, although the newspaper clippings and family correspondence are arranged chronologically and some of the manuscripts by Steinberg are arranged by language.

David Wolfson also physically divided the collection by material type or subject and wrote a summary for the folder contents. This summary generally corresponds to the series organization. The collection is divided into 17 series, some of which have been further divided into subseries.

  1. Series I: Correspondence with Organizations, 1923-1966
  2. Series II: Freeland League, New York Office, 1941-1952
  3. Series III: Correspondence with Individuals, 1918-1965
  4. Series IV: Freeland League, London Office, 1937-1943
  5. Subseries 1: Individuals, 1937-1943
  6. Subseries 2: Organizations, 1937-1943
  7. Series V: Freeland League, Miscellaneous Materials, 1938-1968
  8. Series VI: Refugee Freeland League in Austria, 1945-1951
  9. Series VII: Steinberg’s Visit to London, 1946
  10. Series VIII: Geographical Files, 1930-1964
  11. Series IX: Freeland League, Australia Plans, 1901-1906, 1919-1956
  12. Subseries 1: Individuals, 1932-1956
  13. Subseries 2: Organizations, 1936-1955
  14. Subseries 3: Writings and Other Materials, 1901-1906, 1919-1952
  15. Series X: Steinberg’s Visit to South Africa, 1935-1937
  16. Series XI: Newspaper Clippings, 1924-1957
  17. Series XII: Steinberg’s Personal Papers, 1920-1965
  18. Series XIII: Family Correspondence, 1908-1956
  19. Series XIV: Writings by Others, 1914, 1930-1964, undated
  20. Series XV: Writings by Steinberg, 1924-1959, undated
  21. Series XVI: Russia and the Russian Revolution, 1906-1955
  22. Series XVII: Miscellaneous Materials, 1893-1956

Acquisition Information

Given by the family of I.N. Steinberg in March 1957. Additional materials donated by the offices of Oyfn Shvel in 1985.

Other Finding Aids

There is an index created by David Wolfson in the reading room, which reflects an intellectual arrangement in seven sections.

Related Material

The YIVO Library and Archives have materials about Territorialism, the Freeland League and Jewish colonization efforts. There are also many books by and about Steinberg, including the Dr. Isaac Nachman Steinberg Bibliography; 30 Yor Sotsyalistishe Ideen in Rusland; Australia, the Unpromised Land; Fun Februar biz Oktober 1917; Gelebt un Geholemt in Oystralye; Gewalt und Terror in der Revolution; In Kamf far Mentsh un Yid; In Shturem fun der Tsayt; In the Workshop of the Revolution; A Land far Yidn in Oystralie; Der Maksimalizm in der Yidisher Velt; Maria Spiridonowa; Mit Eyn Fus in Amerike; And I Burned with Shame: The Testimony of Ona Šimaitė, Righteous Among the Nations A Letter to Isaac Nachman Steinberg; and many others, as well as a film reel of a Freeland League trip to Surinam. Steinberg’s correspondence can be found in the Papers of Ben-Adir RG 394, the Papers of Shmuel Niger RG 360, Papers of David Ignatoff RG 1338, and the Papers of Chaim Zhitlowsky RG 208, among many others.

Separated Material

There is no information about materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.

Processing information

Originally processed by David M. Wolfson in 1975. Additional processing was completed in 2012.

Guide to the Papers of Isaac Nachman Steinberg (1888-1957) 1893-1968 (bulk 1919-1956) RG 366
Processed by David M. Wolfson. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States