Kultur Lige

Kultur Lige (Culture League). A Jewish cultural and social organization founded in Kyiv in 1918, during the period of the Central Rada, with its charter officially recorded on 15 January 1918. The Kultur Lige enjoyed the support of the Ukrainian Ministry of Jewish Affairs under the General Secretariat of the Central Rada as well as of a political coalition that included several Jewish left-wing parties. This organization aimed to cultivate a unique Jewish culture in Ukraine through the creative work in the Yiddish language. Its areas of interest were wide-ranging and covered every aspect of contemporaneous Yiddish culture, including education, literature, theater, art, and music. As such, it played a pivotal role in fostering Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Ukraine during this period.

In 1918, the well-known Yiddish writer David Bergelson, literary critic Nakhman Maisel, playwright and former correspondent of Kievskaia mysl’ Moisei Litvakov, and writer Yekhezkl Dobrushin became the leading members of the new organization. Moishe Zilberfarb was elected to head its executive bureau. The Kultur Lige had several sections: literature, theatre, painting and sculpture, pre-school, and higher education. Later, at the beginning of 1919, sections for Jewish statistics and archives began operating. Its central committee consisted of 21 members and was officially non-partisan. However, among the participants of the Lige were nine members of the United Jewish Socialist Workers’ party (Fareynikte), seven members of the Bund, two members of Poale Zion, and three members of the Jewish People’s party (Folkspartei). Initially, the main task of the Lige was to aid Jewish victims of pogroms, and especially children. The organization’s interest in Jewish education was a result of its work with children. The activity of the Kultur Lige peaked in 1919–20, when it organized and supported sixty-three Yiddish schools, fifty-four libraries, and numerous choirs, drama clubs, the Jewish People’s University, a Jewish gymnasium, a teachers' seminary, courses for Jewish teachers, the Kultur Lige publishing house, and more. In late 1918, the educational sections of the Lige began publishing a journal entitled Shul un lebn (School and Life). This publication played a significant role in the advancement of contemporary Jewish pedagogy.

Children’s books held a unique position among the publications of the Kultur Lige publishing house. Renowned artists such as Marc Chagall, Mark Epstein, Iosif Tchaikov, Nisson Shifrin, and Sarra Shor contributed their talents to illustrate these children’s books. During the period from 1926 to 1928, this press published a total of 17 children’s books. Two of these titles were translations from the Ukrainian. They were David Hofstein’s interpretations of children’s tales originally penned by Ivan Franko, who was respected by Lige members as a ‘friend of Yiddish literature.’

The opening of the Jewish People’s University in 1918 was the most significant achievement of the Lige. It was the first Jewish educational institution in the former Russian Empire. In the beginning, the university had 62 students, and by the summer of 1919, 250. In the fall of 1918, the Department of Jewish Culture was opened at Kamianets-Podilskyi Ukrainian State University.

Those contributing to the schools established by the Lige included Yakov Reznik, a well-known teacher and textbook author who later became professor at Kyiv Pedagogical Institute. His brother, Lipa Reznik, a writer and poet, also made significant contributions. Yiddish poet David Hofstein was another key figure in these schools. The art studio thrived under the leadership of sculptor Boris Aronson and famous artists El Lissitzky, Iosif Tchaikov, Alexander Tishler, and Issacher Ber Ryback, while the theater studio was invigorated by the creative minds of writer and poet David Bergelson, art critic Illia Kunin, and film directors Efraim Leuter and Semen Semdor (Shymon Goldstein), among others. Semdor’s collaboration with Les Kurbas in Molodyi Teatr stands out as a distinctive instance of Jewish-Ukrainian cultural cooperation.

In 1918, the influential Yiddish literary anthology Eygns (One’s Own) was published, featuring the poetry of David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, Perets Markish, and the prose of David Bergelson and Der Nister (the pseudonym of Pinkhus Kahanovych). The second number of Eygns was published in 1920. The journal served as a platform for the Kyiv Group of Yiddish Writers, also known as the Eygns Group. The principles of the new Yiddish culture were developed and discussed in the journal Bikher-velt (Book World), published by the Kiever Farlag. Thanks to a large part to the activities of Kultur Lige, within a short time, Kyiv was transformed into the most dynamic center of Yiddish culture in the former Russian Empire.

The organization managed to establish over a hundred branches in various cities and towns throughout Ukraine, founding Jewish libraries, elementary schools, and Yiddish kindergartens. Often, these institutions expanded their roles to engage in social work and also functioned as orphanages and support centers for victims of pogroms. However, the political landscape shifted with the advent of the Soviet rule. On 17 December 1920, the Kyiv district revolutionary committee issued a decree to communize the governing bodies of these institutions; the Central Committee was disbanded, and in its place, an Organizational Committee was established, primarily composed of communists. By 1924, all public education institutions under the Lige’s control were relegated to the People's Commissariat of Education, and most of the organization’s ventures were ultimately liquidated.

All of the schools and gymnasiums run by the Kultur Lige were transformed into standardized ‘unified labor schools,’ and higher pedagogical courses were also transferred to the jurisdiction of the People's Commissariat of Education. The liquidation of the Lige was further propelled by the cessation of support from both Soviet and foreign organizations. The Lige soon found itself in a severe financial crisis. Tasked with sustaining numerous cultural and educational institutions, it also had to provide funding for 260 individuals, including teachers, writers, and scholarship recipients. The Lige’s revenue, derived solely from membership fees and income from cultural events such as concerts, performances, exhibitions, and the like, was insufficient. In early 1925, the Kultur Lige was ultimately forced to discontinue its operations and its leaders moved from Kyiv to Warsaw, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. The longest-lived aspect of the organization was its publishing section, closed in 1930.

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Larysa Bilous

[This article was written in 2023.]

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