Skip to main content

Records of the YIVO Ethnographic Committee

Identifier: RG 1.2

Scope and Content Note

This collection comprises the records of several organizations in Vilna that engaged in ethnographic study from the turn of the century through WWII. Of particular note are the administrative records of S. Ansky’s ethnographic expedition of 1912-1914, such as budgets and planning documents, as well as postcards and letters from the public in response to an article about the expedition in Der Moment, the Warsaw daily Yiddish newspaper, which are found in Series II. Series II also contains the records of the Society of Friends of Jewish Antiquity, covering the years 1885-1919, as well as its successor the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, which covers 1895-1941. Series I contains the YIVO Ethnographic Commission, which started later, but operated simultaneously with the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, from 1925-1940. The collection contains both administrative records from these societies and the written contents of their collections, such as folk songs, folk tales, descriptions of customs and ethnographic reports. There are inventories of the museums that several of these organizations operated, giving a sense of what physical objects these societies collected and displayed, as well. Series I also contains a number of folders (nos. 34-39) containing stories, some of which are racy. Series III contains ethnographic materials originating from Invayskult, in Minsk, such as folk songs, stories, and proverbs, but unfortunately lacks the institutional context of administrative records found in the other two series.

Addendum I contains additional materials created by the YIVO Ethnographic Commission. This addendum consists of four boxes and one oversize box of unsorted materials, including songs with musical notations, song lyrics, ethnographies, and riddles and rhymes, which are typical of the rest of the collection, particularly the materials found in Series I. It also contains correspondence from YIVO and the Ethnographic Commission with ethnographers and articles on ethnographic topics by YIVO scholars. Addendum II contains ethnographic materials likely collected by the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, including many types of songs as well as ethnographic descriptions of towns.

Please note that the dates for folklore materials are ambiguous; they may refer to the date the information was recorded, or the date of creation of the song or folktale, according to the zamler's research. Those dates are noted with the term "circa." Unmarked dates definitely represent the date of a document's creation.


  • Creation: undated, 1885-1941

Language of Materials

The collection is in Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German with some Hebrew, Lithuanian, Latvian, and English.

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

Ethnography played a central role in the development of Jewish studies in the early twentieth century, and the resources in this collection reflect the importance of the subject in the eyes of YIVO scholars and the many zamlers, or collectors, who assembled these materials on a voluntary basis. In 1891, Shimon Dubnow called for increased efforts in understanding and preserving the history of Eastern European Jewry, and S. Ansky demonstrated the practice of ethnography in his famous Expedition of 1912-1914 and incorporation of folkloric ideas in his immensely popular play, The Dybbuk. Ethnography had long been a preoccupation in Yiddish culture, playing a major role in maskilic literature, but during this period it became institutionalized and incorporated contemporary scientific practices.

YIVO Ethnographic Committee

YIVO – the Yiddish Scientific Institute – was founded in Vilna in 1925. It was organized in four permanent sections: Philology, History, Economics and Statistics, and Psychology and Education; the Ethnographic Committee was a sub-section of the Philological Section. At its inception in 1925, the Ethnographic Committee was established in cooperation with the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, with both organizations sharing in its financial support. The work of the Ethnographic Committee consisted of preparing and analyzing folklore questionnaires, correspondence with a network of hundreds of voluntary collectors throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, South America and other parts of the world, issuing instructions to collectors, acknowledging receipt of materials, organizing special circles of collectors in various towns and cities, arranging contests for the best folklore collections. It was a popular success, attracting hundreds of people to participate in its mission of documenting their communities. The Committee also maintained a museum and presented special exhibits. Members of the Ethnographic Committee included Shloyme Bastomski, folklorist and teacher, Dr. Max Weinreich, philologist, member of the Executive Committee of YIVO, N. Weinig, folklorist, Nekhama Epstein, folklorist, and Zalman Reisen, lexicographer, member of the Executive Committee of YIVO. N. Khayes, folklorist, served as secretary of the Committee. In 1930, the name of the Ethnographic Committee was changed to Folklore Committee. Throughout the history of its existence, the Ethnographic Committee was a flashpoint for tensions between YIVO and the S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, which competed for influence and increasingly scarce resources for ethnographic work. The two organizations eventually parted ways, with the Ethnographic Society focusing more on material culture and the maintenance of a museum, while YIVO focused on written documents and scholarly materials.

Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society

The S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society was the successor of the Society of Friends of Jewish Antiquity founded in 1913 by L.V. Frenkel and the Historic Commission, founded by the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah to document the effects of the first World War on Jewish communities. It is a separate entity from the Historic-Ethnographic Commission, which was founded by the Hevrah Mefitsei Haskalah in 1892. After 1908 it became known as the Jewish Historic-Ethnographic Society of St. Petersburg. This society published The Jewish Past ((Rus: Еврейская Старина)) from 1909-1918 and sponsored Ansky’s expeditions in 1912-1914. It was shut down by the Bolshevik government in 1917. In 1919, following World War I, S. Ansky renewed the work of the Society of Friends of Jewish Antiquity, now called the Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society of Lithuania and Belarus. After Ansky’s death, in 1920, the Society and its Museum were named after him, and drew partial support from Ansky’s bequest of one sixth of his estate. The society found itself at odds with YIVO from time to time, but also involved some of the same people, notably Max Weinreich, Zalmen Reyzin, and Zemach Shabad. After 1939 the ethnographic materials of the S. Ansky Society were merged with YIVO. The society comprised an Executive Committee and the following sections: Music, Folklore, History, Art and Museum, Ansky, Catalogue, Literary, and Pinkes (Town Chronicles). The Society also maintained a museum, library and archive.


Invayskult was the department of what would now be known as Jewish Studies at the Belorussian Academy of Sciences, located in Minsk. It was founded at the same time as the Academy of Sciences itself, in 1924. Invayskult was also known as the Jewish Division, or Yidopteil. They published the scholarly journal Tsaytshrift, which attracted contributions from notable Yiddish scholars such as Max Weinreich. In the early years, Invayskult frequently corresponded with YIVO, and oriented their research toward Eastern European, and especially Lithuanian Jews, who were considered "Lithuanian-Belorussian." Invayskult was dissolved in the 1930s.

Reference: Cecile E. Kuznitz, “An-sky’s Legacy: The Vilna Historic-Ethnographic Society and the Shaping of Modern Jewish Culture” in The Worlds of S. Ansky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 320-345.


7.75 Linear Feet (17 boxes, 1 1/2 manuscript box, 2 OS boxes)


The Records of the YIVO Ethnographic Committee is a sub-group of Record Group 1, Records of YIVO - Vilna. The activities of the Ethnographic Committee consisted of collecting folklore materials, preparing and analyzing folklore questionnaires, corresponding with folklore collectors throughout the world, and maintaining a museum. This collection also includes surviving fragments of the collections of the S. Ansky Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society which was active in Vilna from 1920 until 1940, and of Invayskult, also known as the Jewish Bureau of the Belorussian Academy of Science in Minsk (founded in 1925 and dissolved in the 1930s). Record Group 1.2 includes both administrative files of the aforementioned institutions and folklore and historical materials, which were gathered in these institutions' archives.


This collection is arranged into three series. The series are arranged by provenance, and the subseries by provenance or subject.

  1. Series I: Ethnographic Committee of YIVO, undated, 1909-1940
  2. Subseries 1: Administrative Records, 1923-1939
  3. Subseries 2: Folklore Materials, undated, 1909-1940
  4. Subseries 3: Linguistic Materials, undated, 1921-1930
  5. Series II: S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, undated, 1885-1941
  6. Subseries 1: Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, St. Petersburg, 1890-1925
  7. Subseries 2: Society of Friends of Jewish Antiquity, undated, 1885-1919
  8. Subseries 3: S. Ansky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society, Vilna, undated, 1895-1941
  9. Series III: Invayskult, undated, 1907-1941
  10. Subseries 1: Songs, undated, 1907-1940
  11. Subseries 2: Proverbs, undated, 1918-1941
  12. Subseries 3: Miscellaneous, undated, 1926-1938
  13. Addendum I, undated, 1918-1940
  14. Addendum II, undated, 1928-1930

Acquisition Information

These records were among the Jewish collection looted by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in Vilna under the Nazis 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 Material

This collection constitutes one part of RG 1, the Records of YIVO in Vilna. The other parts contain administrative materials and materials on other sections of YIVO. In addition, folklore materials collected by the Ansky Expedition can be found in other institutions, notably the Russian Museum of Ethnography and the Vernadskii National Library of Ukraine, but also archives, libraries, and museums in St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Minsk, and Moscow.

Guide to the Records of the YIVO Ethnographic Committee undated, 1885-1941 RG 1.2
Processed by Eleanor Mlotek in 1980. Edited by Marek Web with the assistance of a grant from the Gruss Lipper Family Foundation. Additional processing by Sarah Ponichtera in 2012.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.
English finding aid compiled by Eleanor Mlotek with the assistance of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additionally described and encoded by Sarah Ponichtera as part of the CJH Holocaust Resource Initiative, made possible by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. Processed, conserved and digitized as part of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections project (2015-2022)

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States