Collection ID: RG 87

Collection context


This collection consists of materials of Simon Dubnow, a historian, political thinker, educator, collector of historical and ethnographic documents in Russia and Poland, writer, and an activist. These materials include community registers (pinkasim) and other communal documents, historical documents relating to restrictions and privileges issued by governments to Jewish populations, blood libel trials and the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-1649, documents from the Russian Justice Ministry and Senate, materials on pogroms in the Russian empire, and Dubnow’s family and general correspondence. The collection demonstrates Dubnow’s importance in helping to establish the idea of Jewish ethnographic history.
The collection is in Yiddish and Hebrew , with some Polish , Russian and German , and a small amount of Aramaic , Latin and French .


Scope and Content:

The core of the materials in this collection are the hundreds of historical documents Dubnow received from communities in Russia and Poland in response to his 1891 article, “On the Study of the History of Russian Jews and the Establishment of a Russian Jewish Historical Society,” and the 1892 Hebrew version, “Let Us Search and Study.” Following these articles, Dubnow continued to build his archive for most of the rest of his life. This collection also contains important additions acquired in later years in connection with Dubnow’s subsequent research projects and a large group of documents added to the collection after the 1917 revolution. At that time, Dubnow was able to make use of the former imperial archives in St. Petersburg that previously had been closed to him, and he made copies of selected documents about Russian-Jewish relations and anti-Jewish pogroms. Finally, while living in Berlin, Dubnow added a large collection of his own personal correspondence of some forty-five years.

The correspondents include Shmuel Alexandrovich, Yitzhak Antonovski, Shloyme-Meyer Bernshteyn, Martin Buber, Shim’on Goldlast, Avraham Taub, Yehudah-Leib Vaysman, Maxim Vinaver, Max Weinreich, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Shmuel Zilbershteyn, and Khayim Ziskind.

Materials include records of Jewish communities, originals and copies of community registers (pinkasim), and other historical documents from Mstislavl, Pinczow, Piotrowice, Stary Bychow, Tykocin, Zabludow, Birzai, Dubno, Lublin, Mezrich, and Novy Ushitsa. There are parts of the pinkas of the Council of Four Lands (Va'ad Arbah Aratsot) and other historical documents relating to restrictions and privileges issued by governments to Jewish populations, to blood libel trials and to Gezerot Takh-ve-Tat (the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-1649). In addition, there are documents from the Russian Justice Ministry and Senate and materials on pogroms in the Russian empire, including pogroms in Kishinev (1903), Homel (1903) and Bialystok (1906). There are also materials on Hasidism, such as extracts of books, correspondence and documents by and about Hasidic rabbis and about Hasidism. Family papers and records include those of Rabbi Ben-Tsion Dubnow, grandfather of Simon Dubnow.

As Dubnow moved from Odessa to Vilna, St. Petersburg, Kovno, Danzig, and Berlin, he took along the entire archive. Faced with the necessity of yet another move in 1933, this time from Berlin to Riga, Latvia, he decided to donate the larger part of the archive to the YIVO Institute in Vilna. Dubnow resolved to take along with him to Riga the smaller part of his archive, which consisted of documents he needed for writing his memoirs and excerpts of the series which he named “Hasidiana,” which included documents related to the history of the Hasidic movement. It was his intention to continue writing the history of Hasidism while in Riga, a project which preoccupied him until his last years.

In the end, the records destined for the YIVO never reached Vilna. In Berlin, Dubnow left the YIVO collection in the care of his disciple and Berlin compatriot Elias Tcherikower. Tcherikower, who was a member of the YIVO Executive Committee and the chairman of YIVO’s Historical Section, had been entrusted with many other collections destined for the YIVO in Vilna, but he delayed their transfer. In 1933 Tcherikower was forced to move these collections (subsequently known as the Archive of the YIVO Historical Section, or the Elias Tcherkower Archive) to Paris in a hurry. During World War II, the archive was kept in hiding in southern France. Finally, in 1944, the Tcherikower Archive, including the Dubnow Papers, was recovered intact and shipped to the YIVO in New York. The part which Dubnow took to Riga was confiscated by the Germans at the time of Dubnow’s arrest. At least a fraction of the Riga consignment, about 3 linear feet of papers, was recovered from Germany after the war and placed in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem. However, the fate of the “Hasidiana” series remains unknown, as does the fate of Dubnow’s library, which he had bequeathed to YIVO as well.

While still in Berlin, Tcherikower drafted a preliminary listing of the papers destined for YIVO, but including also the Hasidiana that Dubnow wished to keep at the time. Later on in the 1930s, the historian Chaim Borodiansky compiled a fairly extensive inventory of the Dubnow papers that superseded the Tcherikower list. Around 1972, YIVO archivist Zosa Szajkowski added a listing of Dubnow’s correspondence. This combined inventory serves today as the original Yiddish finding aid to the collection (f. 913, 914). The English-language finding aid is an edited translation of the above.

The Dubnow collection is registered in the YIVO Archives as Record Group 87: Papers of Simon Dubnow. The collection is part of the Elias Tcherikower Archive, RG 80-89, and comprises folders 913 to 1043 of the Tcherikower Archive. The total number of folios in the collection exceeds 5,450. The collection dates from 1589-1961, with the bulk of materials dating from 1700-1900.

Biographical / Historical:

Shimon Meyerovich Dubnow was born on September 10, 1860 in Mstislavl, Russia (now Belarus) to a large, poor and religiously observant family. His father, Meyer Ya’akov, was a lumber merchant and his grandfather Ben-Tsion, in whose house the family lived, was an esteemed rabbinic scholar and teacher, who taught according to the methods of the Vilna Gaon. Dubnow received a traditional Jewish education in kheyder and yeshiva, however he also began to read secular literature at a young age, including novels by Avraham Mapu and poetry by Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, later moving on to the more daring Hebrew authors of his time such as Mosheh Leib Lilienblum. He soon began to rebel against formal religion and what he considered its superstitious beliefs and obsolete practices. He later wrote an article specifically criticizing the kheyder system and calling for its abolishment. He entered the state Jewish school in Mstislavl at age 14, where he learned Russian and French and was first exposed to the ideas of the Russian positivists, such as Dmitrii Pisarev and Nikolai Chernyshevskii, French and English intellectuals, including Charles Darwin, Thomas Buckle, John Draper, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, and the German materialists, among them Jacob Moleschott, Karl Vogt and Ludwig Buchner. He ultimately discarded his religious background and although he remained a devout secularist for the rest of his life, he came to appreciate the historical role of religion in maintaining Jewish identity.

Dubnow spent four years in Vilna, Dvinsk, and Mohilev before he used forged documents to move to St. Petersburg in 1880, where he lived illegally, since St. Petersburg was outside the Pale of Settlement. He failed to pass the entrance examinations to attend a gymnasium and was thus unable to acquire a university education. The May Laws of the 1880s eliminated the Jewish state schools, further disrupting Dubnow’s education, however he continued to educate himself independently, particularly focusing on history, philosophy and linguistics as well as the ideas of Heinrich Graetz and the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement.

Dubnow wrote articles and book reviews for Russian Jewish periodicals, primarilyVoskhod(Dawn) andRusskii evrei(Russian Jews), calling for extensive Jewish cultural reforms in Russia. These articles include “What Kind of Auto-Emancipation do the Jews Need?” and “What is Jewish History?” both published in 1893, as well as many other articles. Dubnow and his wife, Ida Friedlin, whom he had married in St. Petersburg, were forced to leave in 1884, at which time they returned to Mstislavl. While in Mstislavl, Dubnow came to realize that a Western model of Jewish emancipation was unlikely in Russia and an approach more rooted in the historical and social realities of Eastern Europe was necessary instead.

In 1890 the Dubnow family moved to Odessa, where Dubnow became part of an illustrious group of intellectuals committed to a nationalist conception of Jewish identity but distanced from religion. This group included Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Ya'akov Abramovitsh), Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg), Hayim Nahman Bialik, and other eminent Jewish literary figures and Zionist intellectuals. Dubnow continued to publish studies of Jewish life and history, coming to be regarded as an authority in these areas.

While in Odessa, he shifted his position from the spiritual nationalism of Graetz and instead developed the idea of a historic Jewish will to survive, a national will that repeatedly drove the Jews to adapt creatively to their changing environments. The surge of minority nationalism in the Russian Empire and the Russian populists’ orientation toward the masses rather than towards the elite sparked Dubnow’s appreciation of the psychological strengths of the still largely traditionalist and ethnically distinct Jewish masses.

In October 1891, Dubnow published his essay “On the Study of the History of Russian Jews and the Establishment of a Russian Jewish Historical Society,” inVoskhod, in which he issued a call for the collection of Russian Jewish historical sources, one of the first to do so. In 1892 Dubnow rewrote his essay in Hebrew, and published it in the Hebrew anthologyPardesunder the title “Let Us Search and Study”. The Hebrew article was reprinted as a separate brochure and distributed free of charge throughout the Pale. Between 1893 and 1895 Dubnow received hundreds of historical documents, including minute books of the local and regional communities (pinkasim), community registers, memorabilia, letters, manuscripts, legends and folklore materials, rare books, government documents, inscriptions, martyrological texts, and Hasidic literature. In addition, Dubnow’s correspondents sent him extensive bibliographic and historical notes on sources that they had uncovered.

In 1896, Dubnow published his first comprehensive history of the Jews,Vseobshchaia istoriia evreev(A General History of the Jews) based on the model of German Jewish works, particularly those of Heinrich Graetz, but structured according to Dubnow’s theory of a sequence of cultural “hegemonies” exerted by one or two key Diaspora communities in any given period. This work, rewritten and expanded several times, eventually became Dubnow’s 10-volumeWorld History of the Jewish People, which appeared in German, Russian, Hebrew, and other languages in the 1920s and 1930s, and had a huge impact on Russian Jewish youth and the reading public. Dubnow labeled his historiographical approach “sociological,” as it emphasized how Jewish social institutions served as substitutes for a state for the otherwise stateless Jewish people. These quasi-political forms were a manifestation of Judaism’s ability to transcend the usual physical requirements of nationhood and thus, in Dubnow’s theory, exemplified the subjective nature of national identity, an identity essentially based on feelings of unity and a common historical memory. Following Heinrich Graetz, Dubnow was the first to publish a comprehensive history of the Jews that covered recent historic developments.

In 1897, the year of the formation of the world Zionist movement and the Bund, Dubnow began to publish a series of essays inVoskhod, defining his own position of Diaspora Nationalism. Dubnow later also wrote a series forVoskhodon the origins of Hasidism, published in 1888-1893. He argued that because Jews were already a diaspora nation, they did not require a physical homeland outside Europe but rather needed to modernize their communal institutions and gain constitutional recognition for them in a multinational state. He rejected Zionism on the grounds that it was an illusory solution to the pressing problems of the Jewish masses, especially in Eastern Europe. He also rejected Socialism, especially the Marxist form that was both the foundation of Bundist ideology and a growing influence among young Zionists. He felt that Marxism wrongly held as all-important the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie, whereas it was the Jewish people as a whole that was under attack, not just the workers.

By 1905, Dubnow and his family had settled in Vilna and during the early months of the 1905 Russian Revolution he became active in organizing a Jewish political response to the opportunities arising from the new civil rights that were being promised. In this effort he worked with people holding a variety of opinions on the solution to the Jewish question, including those favoring diaspora autonomy, Zionism, Socialism, and assimilation. He welcomed the creation of a parliamentary Duma as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Jewish participation in the elections, as it seemed to indicate that Russia might be finally on the way to becoming a liberal, multinational state.

In 1906 Dubnow was allowed back into St. Petersburg, where he participated actively in the development of Russian Jewish historical research in the immediate period before World War I. In 1907 Dubnow collected and published his essays on contemporary issues asPis’ma o starom i novom evreistve(Letters on Old and New Judaism), which he had originally published serially under the same title inVoskhodbetween 1897 and 1903. That same year, Dubnow and Israel Efrojkin founded the Jewish People’s or Folkist party (Folkspartey) in order to espouse a combination of political liberalism and cultural autonomy for Jews as a fully legitimate national minority, including the right to vote. The Folkspartey successfully worked for the election of members of parliament and municipal councilors in interwar Lithuania and Poland and existed until the 1930s in the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and the Baltic countries. While the Folkspartey found limited support in interwar Poland, Dubnow’s ideas profoundly affected the Bund there (one of whose leaders, Henryk Erlich, was married to Dubnow’s daughter Sophia), including Dubnow’s ideology of cultural autonomy and the importance of Yiddish.

Dubnow was active in the Society for Equal Rights of the Jewish People in Russia and in 1909 helped to found the Jewish Literature and Historical-Ethnographic Society that issued the quarterly scholarly journalEvreiskaia starina(Jewish Past), of which he was the editor. He taught at the Institute of Jewish Studies, supported by Baron David Guenzburg. Dubnow also continued publishing ever more comprehensive editions of his history of the Jews, as well as specialized works on the Russian Jewish past. He rejoiced in the overthrow of the tsarist regime in 1917 but was adamantly hostile to the Bolshevik takeover and its destruction of independent cultural institutions and personal freedom. After 1917 Dubnow became a Professor of Jewish history at Petrograd University.

Dubnow was given permission to leave Russia in 1922. He emigrated first to Kovno, Lithuania and then settled in Berlin. Although he lived among a prominent group of East European Jewish intellectuals while in Berlin, he lived in relative seclusion while working on a new edition of hisWorld History of the Jewish People, first published in German translation in 1925-1929. During this period, he also prepared an edition of the minute book (pinkas) of the Lithuanian Jewish va‘ad (council) from 1623 to 1762, published a Hebrew version of hisHistory of Hasidism in the Period of its Rise and Growth(Toldot ha-hasidut), 1930–1932, which he dedicated to his friend Ahad Ha-Am, and continued to write essays on Yiddish and the East European Jewish past. He was a co-founder of the YIVO Institute in Vilna in 1925 and became the chairman of its Historical Section and a loyal supporter of the institute, which was in large part the creation of his ex-students and disciples. During 1927 Dubnow initiated a search in Poland on behalf of YIVO for record books kept by kehillot and other local Jewish groups (pinkasim), ultimately collecting several hundred writings. He delivered the plenary address at YIVO’s tenth anniversary conference in Vilna in 1935, the same year that branches of YIVO’s historical division organized lectures in different cities devoted to Dubnow’s work.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Dubnow and his wife moved to Riga, Latvia, where he continued many of his literary activities and began to publish his autobiographyKniga zhizni: Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia; Materiali dlia istorii moevo vremeni(Book of Life: Reminiscences and Reflections; Material for the History of My Times) published in 3 volsumes in 1934–1940. In his autobiography Dubnow presented reports and commentaries by his contemporaries from the centers of intellectual society and documented key events in Jewish and general history from the late 19th into the first half of the 20th century, in the process revealing the ruptures and contradictions in his own scholarly thinking and political action. In July 1941 Nazi troops occupied Riga. Dubnow was transferred to the Riga ghetto, losing his entire library. He was among thousands of Jews to be rounded up there for the Rumbula massacre. Too sick to travel to the forest, he was executed by a Gestapo officer on December 8, 1941. Several friends then buried him in the old cemetery of the Riga ghetto.

Based upon: Seltzer, Robert M. "Dubnow, Simon."YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2010, pp. 432-434.

Acquisition information:
The Simon Dubnow Papers, RG 87, were received by the YIVO Archives in New York in 1944 as part of the Elias Tcherikower Archive.

The collection is arranged in series, according to Dubnow’s own classification: Pinkasim, Civilia, Communalia, Pogrom Materials, Miscellaneous, Literaria, and Letters to Dubnow. The first three series have been formed entirely from documents collected in the 1890s, while the other series contain later materials as well.

The documents have been paginated. The Simon Dubnow Papers, RG 87, while being a separate record group, has been cataloged as part of the Tcherikower Archive, RG 80-89, along with several other collections belonging to that section in the YIVO Archives. Therefore, the folder and page numbering of this record group begins at the point where the preceding collection’s numbering ends. Thus the first folder in the RG 87 bears number 913 and the first page is number 72795.

The first two folders, number 913 and 914, contain the Yiddish finding aids compiled by Elias Tcherikower, Chaim Borodiansky and Zosa Szajkowski. The current English-language inventory is an edited translation of these lists. Every attempt has been made to standardize the translations and transliterations of individual and place names. Alternate geographical names are in parentheses.

Each document is identified by its folder number, e.g. 915, and page numbers, e.g. 73067-73100. In addition, when available, the old document numbers used by Dubnow are inserted alongside the present numbers in brackets, e.g. I.1.

  • Series I: Pinkasim (communal registers), 1589-1900
  • Series II: Civilia, 1638-1909
  • Series III: Communalia, 1660-1912
  • Series IV: Pogroms, 1881-1923
  • Series V: Miscellaneous, 1760-1921
  • Series VI: Literaria, 1662-1938
  • Series VII: Letters to Dubnow, 1885-1931, 1961


Leo Baeck Institute
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011, United States