Ethnographer of the Jewish Nation — Szymon An-sky and his lesser-known side

27 October marks the 155th anniversary of Szymon An-ski’s birth.

Wide an ski

Sir Minister, I take the liberty of directing your attention to the horrendous situation of Jewish residents of Galicia and Bukowina areas occupied by the Soviet Army. Dozens cities and towns have been burnt and partially or completely destroyed. Despite the fact that thousands of residents have died from gun or sword wounds, of hunger and poverty, and economic and cultural lives of these areas have come to a standstill, the residents have been enduring it all in silence treating it as an inevitable consequence of the war......On the basis of it all, I take the liberty of asking Sir Minister, in the name of human rights and international law, to restore the rights of the Jews living in the occupied territories, (at least)... allow the Jews to return to their villages, towns and cities from which they were expelled, and return to them at least part of the housing taken from them for military purposes and to create hospitals...return the synagogue to the Jews...

This letter-application was written on 13th March, 1917 in Saint Petersburg by writer Szlomo An-sky to Russian Minister of the Interior Paweł Milukow responsible for „foreign subjects” in the Russian Provisional Government. He wrote it from a position of a man deeply involved in social and charitable activities during the World War I, who made trips to Galicia, quite often to particularly dangerous front-line zone. On behalf of the Petersburg Committee to Aid Jews, he organized care points and kosher eating places, bringing funding for local Jewish committees, and also providing allowances to the victims of the requisition, destruction, deportation and pogroms, for which responsible were mainly Cossack troops of the Tsarist Army. 

Social — political activity of An-sky is decidedly eclipsed by his literary and journalistic activity. It is worth mentioning that Solomon Zenjwił Rappaport, which was the real name of Szymon An-sky, was born in Czaśniki near Witebsk into a poor Hasidic family. Brought up in religious environment, he familiarised himself with the Torah and Hebrew literature. At the age of 16, influenced by Haskalah and theories of Herzen’s doctrine of Russian Narodniks, he learned to speak Russian. Under the influence of these ideas, he left family home and empathising with local peasants, he wandered in the areas of Jewish settlement zone temping as a blacksmith, bookbinder, locksmith, tailor, or teaching country children. In subsequent years, always avid for new experiences, he found a job as a miner in the mines of the Donets basin, at the same time writing short articles for the local press. However, shortly afterwords, following advice of a Russian writer, Gleb Uspieński, he moved to Petersburg taking up a post in Russian Narodnik’s press. Under threat of being arrested for political activity, he was forced to emigrate. Between 1892 and 1905 he was staying in Germany and France. We was a worker in a Paris factory, simultaneously studying French folklore. Relatively quickly, he got involved in a local circle of Russian revolutionary emigration becoming a personal secretary of Piotr Ławrow, a philosopher and revolutionary. After his death, he settled down in Geneva, where in 1901, with Chaim Żytłowski and Wiktor Grenow, he founded the Agrarian-Socialist League. Having returned to Russia in 1905, he participated actively in the works of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society; he worked for a magazine Jewrejskij Mir, Jewrejskaja Strana and collaborated with the Jewish Literary Society.

He had been thinking about the ethnographic expedition to the areas of the Jewish settlement zone for quite a long time. His sense of prediction, or excellent intuition of someone living in troubled times were telling him that archaic motifs, the old traditions of Eastern European Jewish culture would be destroyed any time. He knew that „Jewish shtetls were more and more under threat of cultural influences ’from outside.’” It was not a criticism of „the modernity” itself or progressive secularisation, but rather a form of fondness for „the world that was passing away.” The expedition, which An-sky had been striving for already since 1909, was realized and began on 1st April, 1912. The money was assigned by Baron W. G. Ginzburg. In the expedition took part: S. An-sky, J. D Engel (music expert and composer), S. B. Judowin (photographer and artist). The second stage of the expedition was participated by Z. Kiselgof (music expert; instead of J. D Engel) and students: Avrom Rechtman, Icchok Pikangur and Szmuel Szrajer. The first stage of the expedition lasted from July to October, 1912. It began in the town of Rużyn and finished in Łuck. The researchers visited 15 places. The second stage lasted from 9th June to November, 1913. It began in the town of Dubno in Volyn region and finished in what is now Belarus. Within this period, about 60 placed had been visited. On 19th April, 1914, at the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society, An-sky gave a lecture in which he summed up the results of the expedition. The next, third stage of the expedition took place in July 1914 and was participated by Judowin and Rechtman. Unfortunately, it was suddenly interrupted by the outbreak of the World War I.

During the First World War, An-sky, as a representative of the Saint Petersburg Committee to Aid Jews, and officially as a translator of the Committee to Aid Victims of the War at the State Duma, while traversing Galicia region, was able to see for himself how vast the destruction in this area was; he as an eye witness to the first holocaust of the Eastern European Jewish world. With great sorrow he wrote, „The whole life here looks like a product of a sick imagination. Everything is damaged, torn, broken and scattered chaotically. I have met such families, whose members are either in America, Austrian army, Vienna, Budapest, or were sent into exile to Syberia. The others are here and none of them knows anything about the rest...”

Within these three stages of the expedition, taken up just before the outbreak of the First World War, including more than 70 towns of Volyn and Podolia, about 700 items of artistic-museum value of the Jewish heritage were saved; a great amount of folk tales, sayings, proverbs were recorded on wax cylinders. The team managed to collect 1,500 folk songs, about 1,000 other folk legends, spells, stories on medicines, demons and dybbuks, festive and synagogue motifs. Hundreds of documents including diaries, manuscripts, pinkeses, prayers, drawings, ketubahs were gathered. The team took about 1500 photos of local people, synagogues, tombstones and objects of worship. A piece of the world was saved and even though it is gone forever, it was immortalized in An-sky’s arch-drama „The Dybbuk”.

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