Scholar of Yiddish Culture • Victim of Stalin
The journalist, scholar, and eventual victim of Stalin’s Great Terror, Joseph (Yoysef) Liberberg was born October 25, 1898 in the Volhynian town of Starokonstantinov.
He showed excellent promise as a student and attended a gymnasium in Kiev. His scholarship enabled to receive a full scholarship to Kiev’s St. Vladimir University, where, after completing his studies, he became professor of Western European history in 1925.
The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support.
Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science. Together with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.
The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.
As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.
In the 1930s, Liberberg promoted Jewish settlement in the Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan, which he hoped would become the all-Soviet Jewish cultural and academic center. Liberberg became the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies in December 1934.
Liberberg was arrested on charges of Trotskyism and bourgeois nationalism in 1936. He was executed March 9, 1937.