Linguist • Historian • Activist

Nokhem Shtif

Linguist, historian, and political activist Nokhem Shtif was born in Rovno on 29 November 1879.

He studied in Kiev and in 1906 became a political activist while at university, co-founding the Jewish Socialist movement Возрождение (Renaissance) in Kiev in 1903 and became a committed Yiddishist in the early years of the century. He founded the Jewish Socialist Labor Party and began writing under the pseudonym בעל-דמיון (Bal-Dimyen, the Imaginer).

Shtif’s socialist worldview promoted a brotherhood of nations that protected and fostered the rights of national minorities (like the Jews) — including their cultural rights to live and produce their own culture in their own language.

One of Shtif’s important works, ייִדן און ייִדיש (Jews and Jewish/Yiddish), was written in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and published in 1919. It dealt with the major questions of the day with regard to Jewish cultural politics. You can read a translation of a part of this at In geveb.

During the bloody civil war that raged in Ukraine in the early 1920s, Shtif settled briefly in Berlin, where he was part of the thriving Yiddish literary scene and proposed the creation of the YIVO, which was realized in Wilno in 1925. He would later write the authoritative history of the pogroms that swept independent Ukraine during the civil war. The reports of these bloody massacres gathered by Shtif and his colleague Elye (Elias) Tcherikower, were used by the defense at the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard, the assassin of Symon Petliura, who led Ukraine at the time of the pogroms.

While in Berlin, he was particularly close with the essayist and literary critic Bal-Makhshoves and the writer Dovid Bergelson — the three held fast to the idea that Soviet Kiev would become the cultural center of Yiddish. Excited by state-supported Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union, Shtif returned to Kiev in 1926 and became a principle figure at the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture.

Shtif died in Kiev on April 7, 1933.