When a young man wanted to go study with a great rabbi in Poland-Lithuania, his father balked since there was no money for a train and thieves would surely accost the boy as he walked. Better to stay home and read the rabbi’s books, the father said.
“He says to his father, ‘I can’t stay home and read this rabbi’s books. I have to see how he puts his shoes on in the morning.’” That’s how Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, recalls his father telling the story.
In a broad interview with JNS, Brent, who was born in 1949, used the story as a metaphor for the mission of the nonprofit he has led for 15 years.
“It helps you see how Jews actually lived. How they treated their children. How they entertained themselves. How they prayed. How they fought. How they thought. How creative they were,” he told JNS.
For him and his generation, it is so important to understand how Jews “resisted the onslaught of German, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian antisemitism in the 1930s,” Brent said. “How did they do this? What were they doing in response to that?”
Brent dismissed the passive, leaderless image of Jews in Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Everything he has seen in journals and other materials in YIVO’s extensive archives suggests that Jews were not sheep led to the slaughter.
“You look at these documents and the first thing you say to yourself is ‘No. No. They had pride in themselves. They loved life. They wanted to live. They fought in every way that they could,” he said.
“We have the material,” he said. “And no one else does.”
Natural splendor, cruelty
Last month, Brent spoke in Dubrovnik, Croatia, at an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) event. He was part of a panel on museums and memorials titled “Distortion risk in the post survivor’s era.” (The IHRA co-chairs are Croatian, which is why the event was held in that country.)
Prior to a year ago, Brent hadn’t heard of IHRA and had never been to Croatia.
“The beauty of the place is overwhelming. It’s just too much,” he told JNS. “You sit out on the balcony and you look at these islands, and you look at the blue sky and the pomegranates, and the oleander blossoming and the roses and everything. You think to yourself, this is really as close to heaven as a human being can possibly get.”
Then one realizes that more than 70 years ago, on a day much like that, “horrendous, unimaginable and unspeakable crimes and cruelties were being committed,” Brent said. And in much more recent memory, the war with Serbia and the genocide in Kosovo.
“The contrast between the beauty and natural splendor of the place and the cruelty of history was just something I couldn’t get over,” he said. “I found it to be very moving. It would have been quite different if it was held in New York City or Berlin.”
At the event, some 40 or 50 IHRA delegates from European Union nations, as well as delegations from the United Nations and from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, sat around tables, arranged in a square. Each speaker had 25 minutes with no time for questions. After realizing he had gone over his time, Brent turned to an organizer, who told him to keep going. He spoke for an extra 15 minutes.
“Afterwards, she said she had wished I could have continued because the material that I was presenting, the story that I was telling, was new to virtually everybody in that room,” he said. “What I came away with was this understanding that the world—as it was represented by those assembled around that table—is starved for real resources, for real documentation, for real knowledge.”
‘It didn’t come out of the sky’
Many people who learn about the Holocaust from films and museum exhibits come away with an “archipelago of partial truth, experience and knowledge of certain facts,” Brent told JNS.
“Without knowing the context, the background and the world around an event, you can’t really understand that event as anything more than just an isolated fact,” he said. “I think we’re bombarded with these isolated facts. Numbers. Pictures. This many were murdered in Poland. This many were murdered in Lithuania. But what did that actually mean?”
The Holocaust wasn’t just one thing. “It was a myriad of things that happened to millions of people,” he said. And even the Nazis didn’t arise ex nihilo.
“It didn’t come out of the sky,” Brent said. “It had race laws, some of which came from knowledge of Jim Crow. Its emphasis on eugenics came out of the eugenics movement in the United States.”
Brent cited an online exhibition YIVO created based on the diary of a 13-year-old girl named Beba Epstein that was found in 2017 in Lithuania. The diary had been hidden from the Nazis, dug up after the war and then hidden again from the Soviets.
“People have said to us, ‘Up to now, we’ve had almost nothing except the diary of Anne Frank,’” Brent said. “Not to disparage the diary of Anne Frank. Her experience was her experience in Holland in an upper-middle-class family, and it wasn’t the same as a 13-year-old girl who was born in Vilna, Poland under the conditions of Polish and Lithuanian antisemitism.”
“What we are able to do with our materials is show the breadth and depth, and also the historical sweep, of so much of that experience,” he said. “You need context. You need documentation. You need the thoughts of a 13-year-old girl, and you need the thoughts of a poet, of a scholar, of an industrialist and the experiences of those people to really understand how these pieces somehow fit together into something coherent.”
‘We are still somewhere in the middle’
Brent describes YIVO as the sole organization that preserves the heritage of Eastern European and Russian Jews, which existed for about 1,000 years. “It produced so many contributions to the world today,” he said. “Though small, it was a formative power in world history.”
When YIVO focuses on Eastern European and Russian Jews, that includes individuals who lived in Shanghai, New York City, Buenos Aires and elsewhere. “Our archives span the globe,” he said. “YIVO is truly a global institution.”
In addition to its global mandate, YIVO seeks individually “to awaken people to the possibilities of their own identity. Jewish identity in the world today,” Brent said.
Growing up in the postwar period, Brent described his childhood as a “complete wasteland” with an “absent Jewish identity.”
“All there was was the synagogue, Jewish jokes, my father’s cursing in Yiddish. Very little else. No knowledge. Nothing,” he said. “I don’t believe that my experience was that different from the majority of American Jews my age and younger.”
He and his peers wanted to reclaim something more of their Jewish heritage, but they didn’t know what that was. To become religious? To go to Israel?
“What did it mean to be Jewish? I know this sounds crazy, but that question occupied me consistently from after my bar mitzvah to today. What does it mean to be Jewish?” he said. “YIVO helps to fill that gap.”
The nonprofit doesn’t tell people what it means to be Jewish, but it shows the variety of ways that one can be Jewish, and that people have understood themselves as Jews, according to Brent.
“We aren’t at the end of this scholarship. We are still somewhere in the middle of it,” he said.
From archive to knowledge center
When Brent first started at YIVO 15 years ago, the average age was 78. “The staff was so old we couldn’t even get health insurance,” he told JNS. “Today, the average age is about 35” with some fresh out of college. “This is going to be the face of a new generation of Jewish life,” he said.
Another major change has been YIVO’s self-conception. When Brent started, it was an archival library, staffed by conservators. Now it self-identifies as a “knowledge center.”
“We have gone over these 15 years from being a closed kind of archive, where you could only have access if you knew Yiddish, Russian and Polish, and also if you knew the archivists and worked with them, to one where we are trying to make our materials as available as possible to the entire world,” he said.
Classes, with 10 to 70 students each—both Jewish and non-Jewish—now come to YIVO to pore over facsimiles of historical documents and to learn about primary sources.
“I cannot tell you how hopeful this makes all of us at YIVO feel,” he said.
YIVO has been digitizing its materials and making them freely available—recently completing a $7 million project to digitize its prewar collections, and currently digitizing some 7 million documents related to the Holocaust, and 3.5 million documents on the Bund, the Jewish Socialist party.
“This is potentially a golden age for Jewish self-awakening. I really believe that,” Brent said.
He sees the present time as a period following one dominated by typecasts—whether the poor-but-pious shtetl Jew, like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, Irving Howe’s stereotype of all Jews as basically left-wing or the stereotype that Jews were disconnected from nature and weak.
“If we manage this moment properly—and if we continue to interest people who have the wealth to make things happen—this can be a great time for Jewish history, for Yiddish, for a re-understanding of what the Diaspora means,” he said. “The Diaspora was always such a negative concept in Jewish tradition, and yet there are so many positive things that one can point to, so many creative things. You have to let that stereotype go.”
But for the present and the near future to be a great time for the Jewish people, Brent advised caution.
“We can’t have a chauvinistic understanding of what our history is, but it is a great history,” he said. “I will repeat that endlessly to anybody who asks. This is a powerful history of a small people. It has had a disproportionate influence on world history. It just has.”
He notes the dangers of rising antisemitism and white nationalism, stateside and overseas. But he is optimistic.
“I see very many, many hopeful, positive, encouraging signs that certainly keep me energized and interested in my work.”