The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry, presented to McGill
University in 1981 by the family of the late Joe Fishstein of
the Bronx, New York, consists of about 2300 volumes in Yiddish,
mostly poetry. McGill University was chosen as the recipient of
this extraordinary gift in recognition of the intensive Yiddish
language and literature courses offered by its Jewish Studies
Department. Dr. Ruth R Wisse, presently Professor of Yiddish Literature
in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
at Harvard University, and Adjunct Professor in the Department
of Jewish Studies at McGill University, was instrumental in acquiring
the Collection for McGill.
In the words of Zachary M. Baker, "The Fishstein Collection represents
one of the finest single private libraries of Yiddish literature
to be found anywhere ... What sets it apart is both its sheer
size and the large number of rare or ephemeral items found in
only a few libraries anywhere in the world" (1).
The Collection contains both rare and standard works of well-known
authors, generally in superb condition. Fishstein had established
standing orders for Yiddish poetry from publishers all over the
world, which included many limited, ephemeral editions. Most of
the books were published in Poland and the United States, especially
New York City, but there are also imprints from Argentina, Australia,
Austria, Belgium, Belorussia, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia,
England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Mexico,
Romania, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine and Uruguay. There are
a number of unusual imprints produced outside the Pale of Settlement
(the area in czarist Russia in which Jews were allowed to settle),
like St. Petersburg [#1061], Smolensk [#966], and Libau, Latvia
Although the publications stem from far-flung locations, and may
manifest local variations, they are united linguistically and
culturally as the expression of a single people with a common
history and sense of identity. There was frequent contact among
authors, publishers and readers between different settlements.
This was effected through mail, telegraph and sometimes by travel,
and through the medium of the press and periodical literature.
Of particular importance is the presence in the Collection of
a large number of pre-World War II imprints from the former Soviet
Union and other parts of Eastern Europe. Yiddish books printed
in pre-war Poland, Russia, Romania and the Baltic States were
often destroyed during the Holocaust and are scarce or rare today.
The Collection also contains complete runs of important Yiddish
literary periodicals. Of interest to Canadian readers in particular
will be the Yiddish books and journals printed in Montreal and
elsewhere in Canada.
Graphic art was a prominent element in the production of many
of the books, and the work of more than 400 illustrators may be
found throughout the collection, including many of international
renown, like Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky. Several binders of
ephemeral and archival materials of the period, both Jewish and
non-Jewish, are included in the legacy and offer opportunities
for historical and sociological research.
The Joe Fishstein Collection of Yiddish Poetry, although remarkable
in several ways, is not comprehensive. Indeed, the Yiddish collection
in McGill's Humanities and Social Sciences Library houses works
not included in the Fishstein Collection, as does the larger Yiddish
collection at the Montreal Jewish Public Library. The Fishstein
gift is eclipsed in size by the more comprehensive holdings of
the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York, and other great
academic and special research libraries of the world, as it is
by the sheer quantity of assembled titles at the National Yiddish
Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, the Fishstein
Collection is unique. Its importance lies chiefly in the fact
that it contains a surprising number of works seldom found elsewhere
and that most of its volumes have been preserved in vintage condition.
Jewish Studies Librarian
McGill University Libraries