Yankev Shatzky (second from right), in army uniform, and his brothers, Warsaw. (YIVO)

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Shatzky, Yankev

(1893–1956), historian and librarian. A native of Warsaw, Yankev Shatzky spent most of his career in the United States, closely associated with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. His published works number more than a thousand, including hundreds of scholarly articles, scores of major book reviews, monographs, and book-length studies, in addition numerous anthologies and annuals that he edited. Writing primarily in Yiddish, but also in Polish and Hebrew, Shatzky ranged over the length and breadth of modern Jewish history and thought. He also wrote extensively on the history of Yiddish theater and popular Jewish culture. His best and most important works focused on the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine—the constituent parts of Old Poland.

Shatzky received a traditional heder education and attended two years of a Russian-language business school. His higher education was made possible by the generosity of an assimilated Jewish banker, Bernard Lauer, who awarded him a multiyear stipend to become a historian of Polish Jewry. Shatzky went on to earn his doctorate under Marceli Handelsman in Warsaw in 1922.

From Yankev Shatzky in Warsaw (?) to an unidentified recipient in Vilna, 27 September 1922, wondering if the Vilner Literaten Farayn would be interested in engaging him to deliver lectures on various topics, including "Impressionism and Expressionism—in General and among Jews in Particular," "Jews in Polish Literature," and "Historical Moments in Poylishe velder (Polish Woods; a novel by Yoysef Opatoshu)." Yiddish. RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language Collection, F2960. (YIVO)

During World War I, Shatzky served with distinction in Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s Polish Legions. Twice wounded, with three battlefield commendations, he rose to the rank of lieutenant. Working briefly for the new Polish government, Shatzky was a delegate at the Versailles Peace Conference and a specialist on Jewish issues for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He immigrated to the United States soon after earning his doctorate.

After years of part-time employment, in 1929 Shatzky accepted an appointment as librarian of the New York Psychiatric Institute. Though frustrated at working outside his field, he found himself in a position to arrange the semi-clandestine acquisition of Sigmund Freud’s confiscated library in 1939–1940. Nevertheless, Shatzky found his intellectual home in YIVO.

When YIVO was reconstituted in New York in 1940, Shatzky chaired its Historical Section and was coeditor of the journal YIVO-bleter. Under the institute’s auspices, Shatzky undertook his monumental, unfinished history of Warsaw’s Jews (Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, 3 vols.; 1947–1953). He employed a multiplicity of Jewish and non-Jewish sources to evoke the varied fabric of Warsaw’s Jewry. Some scholars, including Philip Friedman, criticized his interpretation of economic and statistical data.

Shatzky’s introduction to YIVO’s 1938 Yiddish edition of Natan Hannover’s classic chronicle Yeven metsulah, the classic chronicle of the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres of 1648–1649 (gzeyres takh vetat), provoked bitter attacks from critics accusing Shatzky of justifying the killing of tens of thousands of Jews by pointing to the exploitive role that Jewish estate managers (renders, arendators) played in Polish rule over Ukrainian peasants. The controversy returned in 1949, with the publication of J. S. Hertz’s Di yidn in Ukrayne, under the shadow of the Holocaust.

Shatzky did not engage in Holocaust research, although he edited and wrote for many yizker-bikher (memorial volumes) for destroyed Jewish communities. In the wake of the catastrophe, Shatzky expressed pessimism about the possibility of continuing to write meaningfully about the political, social, and economic history of East European Jewry. He foresaw only memorial works, encyclopedias, and a focus on intellectual history. An indication of his despair and hope was his decision to bequeath the bulk of his library, manuscripts, and notes to the Israel Historical Society and to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Suggested Reading

Artur Eisenbach, “Jewish Historiography in Interwar Poland,” in The Jews of Poland between the World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman et al., pp. 453–493 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Philip Friedman, “Review of J. Shatzky’s History of the Jews in Warsaw,” in Jewish Social Studies 13.4 (October 1951): 361–362; Robert Moses Shapiro, “Jacob Shatzky, Historian of Warsaw Jewry,” in The Jews in Warsaw, ed. Władysław T. Bartoszewski and Antony Polonsky, pp. 363–376 (Oxford, 1991); Jacob Shatzky, “Institutional Aspects of Jewish Life in Warsaw in the Second Half of the 19th Century,” YIVO Annual 10 (1955): 9–44; Jacob Shatzky, “Balance Sheet of a Jewish Historian,” in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, ed. Lucy Dawidowicz, pp. 263–269 (Boston, 1968).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 1226, Yidisher Kultur Farband (New York), Records, 1906-1976; RG 219, Abraham Goldfaden, Collection, 1879-1930s; RG 231, Morris Stern, Papers, 1910-1949; RG 258, Yiddish Culture Society, Records, 1928-1943; RG 279, Moshe Starkman, Papers, 1942-1973; RG 315, H. (Halper) Leivick, Papers, ca. 1914-1959; RG 356, Jacob Shatzky, Papers, 1912-ca. 1960 (finding aid); RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 507, Leibush Lehrer, Papers, ca. 1908-1968; RG 569, Shlomo Bickel, Papers, 1920s-1969; RG 596, Abraham Aaron Roback, Papers, ca. 1925-1960; RG 622, Malka Heifetz Tussman, Papers, 1928-1965; RG 701, I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers’ Union, Records, 1903-1970s; RG 725, Mendel Osherowitch, Papers, 1920s-1967; RG 82, YIVO—Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Vilna, Tcherikower Archive), Records, 1911-1941; RG 833, Peretz Hirschbein, Papers, 1900-1957.