Reprinted from Pakn Treger, a publication
of the National Yiddish Book Center

From the New Yiddish Library

The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky

Edited and with an introduction by David G. Roskies

Yale University Press
Copyright 2002 by the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature

  Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press

SHLOYME-ZANVL  RAPPOPORT (1863-1920) lived his life "between two worlds."  A self-styled Nihilist by the age of seventeen, he learned Russian from his friend Chaim Zhitlowsky, left his native Vitebsk (also the birthplace of Marc Chagall), went undercover as Semyon Akimovich, and threw his formidable energies into studying, educating, and radicalizing the Russian Narod (the folk).  As S. Ansky, he then became a leader of the party of Socialist-Revolutionaries, and followed others of his comrades-in-arms into Parisian exile. But by 1905, when he returned to Mother Russia as part of a general amnesty, he discovered, through poetry, drama, ethnography, and personal example, how to redirect what he had learned back to his own people.
    In 1912, Ansky organized the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, which set out to conduct a survey of Jewish life on a national scale. He assembled a group of stellar scholars and energetic fieldworkers to record nothing less than the folklore of the Jewish people, which he regarded as the wellspring of Jewish cultural renewal.  Before it was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, the expedition amassed thousands of Jewish folktales and legends, folk songs and music, photographs, artifacts, and documents.  The study, and Ansky’s interpretation of the Jewish folk spirit, was to prove highly influential in the political thinking of the Jewish Labor Bund and in shaping the liberal sensibility of modern Yiddish writers and artists.
    Ansky's achievement as the chief practitioner of Jewish ethnography in Eastern Europe was matched by his literary achievements. He produced two masterpieces of Yiddish literature, both of which dramatize the struggle between opposing worlds: The Dybbuk and The Destruction of Galicia. In The Dybbuk, lovers are torn apart in this world, only to be reunited in the world to come.  The play, highly controversial in its time and since widely translated, adapted, and performed, is the piece most commonly associated with Ansky today.
    The Destruction of Galicia, excerpted below, is another genre entirely, a historical record based on a personal diary Ansky compiled during the First World War, wherein he recorded the war's devastation on his fellow Jews. Traveling incognito, Ansky described a Jewish world torn apart, as one Jew was forced to fight another, as smuggling became a way of life, and as his fellow Russians were betrayed. Ansky's own mission was far from intellectual:  he mobilized massive relief work on the behalf of Galician Jews, took on the entire military Jewish establishment in the process, and, although seriously ill, personally delivered donated funds to communities in the occupied war zone.  The original four-volume work, which Ansky had planned to publish in Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew, revisited some of the same Jewish areas Ansky had combed as a gatherer of folklore.
    Galician Jews, once a population of nearly one million, were especially vulnerable to the ravages of war because for 150 years they had lived apart and aloof from the Jews of czarist Russia.  With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire they lost their protector, Franz Josef, and were at the mercy of both the Russian invaders from without and the native Christian populations.  Ansky, a Russian Jew, negotiated freely among opposing groups: Poles; Russian military officials, journalists, and recruits; and Jews of every stripe.  Out of his engagement, he produced a new kind of history that was at once analytical and full of pathos.  Selections from The Destruction of Galicia included in the New Yiddish Library's The Dybbuk and Other Writings preserve the relentless impact of Ansky's original version while bringing his symbolic readings of events to the fore.



From The Destruction of Galicia

By S. Ansky

    For almost a hundred years the two shtetls, Radziwillow and Brody, were like enemy camps that faced each other.  Each of them was armed with a strong defense system and they were separated by ropes, custom houses, barriers, and wooden border gates.  And yet they had close relations and were heavily dependent on one another — their physical separation united them and was the source of their economic well being, for the main trade route between Russia and Austria ran through the borders of both shtetls.  As soon as the first shot was heard in the warring camps, the fence separating them was demolished, the border posts were torn down, and there were no longer any barriers to crossing from one side to the other.  This ruined the two shtetls; they lost not only their source of income but also their raison d'etre.
    The two shtetls are only seven viorsts apart, and my train ride from Radziwillow to Brody lasted less than a quarter of an hour.  But during that brief period I felt very uncomfortable.  In Kiev, and before that in Moscow, I saw for myself what strict military arrangements had been made to prevent Jews from crossing into Galicia.  In Kiev they told me that David Feinberg, the well-known St. Petersburg businessman and personal friend of the governor of Galicia, Count Bobrinkski, was refused a travel permit to Lemberg (though afterward I heard that he did finally get to Galicia).
    Will they let me through?  The document which I carried, an authorization from the Committee of the Members of the Imperial Duma to bring two wagons of medicine to Tarnow, was not confirmed by any military agency and didn't even have my photograph attached.  It did, however, clearly display my Jewish name and that of my father.  I was sure that when they checked the passes at the former border they would make me get off; it certainly would not be an easy crossing.
    But I was mistaken.  The officer, who was accompanied by two policemen as he walked through the train to check the passes, didn't even look at my authorization; he just made a mark on it with his pencil and handed it back to me.
    Later I had several occasions to cross the Galician border, and although it was strictly forbidden for Jews to do so, I never encountered any problems with my authorizations and always managed to cross freely. More than that - during the year and a half in which I traveled through Galicia and visited scores of towns, I often had to talk to members of the military staff and never once was asked to show my documents.
    Private citizens generally have great difficulty in gaining access to military camps in countries at war because of the many guard posts set up to examine documents.  In Russia they took care of this problem in a very original way. The military rulers arranged for all authorized personnel of the Red Cross and other social agencies, generally private citizens, to wear uniforms with special insignia and to carry swords.  This meant that authorized personnel could go wherever officers went without attracting the attention of those whose duty it was to prevent espionage.  It was not easy to become a member of one of the social agencies which were given the privilege of wearing military uniforms, but there must have been many German spies among the tens of thousands of social workers who walked about undisturbed in the military camps, seeing and hearing everything.  When it later emerged that the enemy knew all the Russian military secrets, they accused the Jews of being spies; this was their catchall solution and it suited everyone very well.
    Brody's large railway station had been burned down at the very beginning of the war. A buffet had been set up in one of the rooms of the ruined building, and when I arrived it was full of officers standing around the buffet and sitting at the small tables, enjoying Russian borsht.  I noticed that all the plates had "mazel tov" written across them; they had been stolen from a Jewish hotel where weddings used to take place.
    My traveling companion Dr. Ratner and I went to the center of town, which was a few viorsts from the station.  It was dawn and we could see burned houses on both sides of the road and, in the distance, a field burned to the ground.  We could make out the town in the gray early morning mist; it was completely destroyed.  From both sides, as far as the eye could see, there were broken chimneys and burned walls.  Everything was covered with downy snow.  The ruins were overgrown with moss and looked very old, like another ancient pompeii.  A phrase inscribed over the door of a burned synagogue caught my eye: "How awesome is this place" — appropriate words for both the synagogue and the area as a whole.
    I noticed a small, undamaged brick house half sunk into the ground amidst the ruins, as if it had attempted to save itself during the fire by hiding underground.  An old Jew was standing nearby, as poor and bent as the small house itself.  As soon as he saw us in our uniforms he took off his hat and bowed low.  I walked toward him and asked in Yiddish: "How is it that your house didn't burn down during the fire?"
    The old man looked at me for a while, thinking.  Then he gave a shudder and said, sighing: "It's probably a miracle; it was fated that we would have a house in which to die of hunger."  I gave him a ruble and he was so overwhelmed that he forgot to thank me and just stood there staring.
    We walked around in the ruins for quite awhile and I noticed something very odd: In every corner of the burnt street, on the walls and on the destroyed houses, there were newly affixed signs on which street names were written in Russian letters.  The Russians had given all the streets new, highly literary names: Pushkin Street, Gogol Street, Lermontov Street, I think there was a Turgenev Street, too.  Apparently the victors didn't understand how cynical it was to call the horribly disfigured, fire-gutted streets after the greatest representatives of Russian culture, nor did they think it insulting to the memory of great writers.  The street signs left me with the same feeling as the icons which the Christians put in their windows during the pogroms.

Translated by Golda Werman