Research Unit Knowledge

The Yiddish PEN-Club

History and Self-Perception from the 1920s into the 1980s

This dissertation project examines the self-perception of the Yiddish PEN Club and aims to comprehensively research its history. Its inclusion into the writer’s association PEN International in 1927 constituted a significant step toward recognizing Yiddish, which for a long time has been dismissed as »jargon«, as a literary language. This event was preceded by a change in the organization’s statutes making it possible for more than one PEN Club to be founded in one and the same country. This step called into question the hitherto dominant equation of state borders and linguistic areas. With its head office in Vilnius and branches in Warsaw and New York, the Yiddish PEN Club reflected the transterritoriality of Yiddish literature on an institutional level. Its establishment ultimately served as a powerful expression of the concept of a transnational language-based »Yiddishland«.

Its members included the most renowned literati as well as cultural protagonists in a broader sense. Through PEN International, the Yiddish PEN Club was able for the first time to represent the interests of Yiddish writers before an international audience. It moreover positioned itself in political questions and formulated its perspectives on the role and responsibilities of literature. In this context, it saw itself as a representative of Jewish concerns generally while also engaging on an inner-Jewish level, especially with regards to Yiddish cultural life. The Holocaust fundamentally changed the circumstances in which it operated. This dissertation adopts a primarily cultural historical perspective to illuminate the self-perception of the Yiddish PEN Club and to reconstruct how, in the context of the events unfolding over the course of its roughly fifty-year existence, its aims were articulated, changed, and revived following the catastrophe.