Monday, April 6, 2009

The accomplishments of S. Ansky

The writer who called himself S. Ansky did three lasting things in his life. He “conceived and directed” the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1912 to 1914, which was cut short by World War I; he organized a pioneering humanitarian relief effort for Galician and Russian Jews caught in the path of the Russian, German, and Austrian armies, and wrote a book about it; and he wrote a play, first produced as a posthumous memorial. Ansky was born in 1863, so when the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition began, he was 49 years old; he died eight years later.

His life before that is fascinating, actually, not because of Ansky’s accomplishments, but because he is a sort of perfect type of the Jewish radical of his time. His early activities include: running a commune for boys who had fled religious schools (Ansky did this at the age of 17!); infiltrating a Hasidic shtetl; doing “educational work” with Russian miners. He drifts (or flees) from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, to Geneva and Paris, along with every other Russian radical and bohemian revolutionary. He writes some short fiction in Yiddish and Russian. He wasn’t S. Ansky yet. He was Solomon Rappaport, and Semyon Akimovich, and Z. Sinanni, and Pseudonym.

Ansky said that it was an encounter in 1901 with a volume of I. L. Peretz’s collected writings that caused him to finally pin down his identity, to suddenly – he was that kind of personality, everything happened suddenly - become passionately interested in Yiddish again. This led to an interest in Jewish folklore, as an authentic expression of the proletariat, which led to the Ethnographic Expedition, which led to the Galician relief effort, and his single play, which turned out to be the greatest play in Yiddish literature.

He died in Warsaw in 1920, having fled the Bolsheviks (Ansky, good for him, supported Kerensky). The play, The Dybbuk, was first performed posthumously, in Ansky’s honor. His magnificent account of his humanitarian work, The Destruction of Galicia, was also published just after his death.

All of this is basically from the introduction of The Dybbuk and Other Writings (1992), edited by David Roskies. The introduction, the account of Ansky’s life, is almost as interesting as Ansky’s works. The rest of the book contains The Dybbuk, seven stories from throughout his life, the early ones translated from Yiddish that was itself translated from Russian, and then a well-chosen forty-page excerpt from The Destruction of Galicia. All in around 250 pages. The idea of “summing up” a writer in a book is, mostly, ridiculous, but this book kind of does it.

More S. Ansky all week – maybe two days on The Destruction of Galicia and two days on The Dybbuk.


  1. Wonderful!

    I followed the trail over here from a comment you left on my Rose City Reader blog (thank you) and found three great things:

    1) the word "wuthering";
    2) a celebration of 19th Century literature, which has been tickling my fancy lately; and
    3) a very well-written essay about a writer I've not heard of.

    You made my day!

    And thank you for the compliment on my French Connection list -- I realize that it could include thousands of books. It is a work in progress and will never be definitive.

  2. Thanks, and I'm glad you stopped by.

    Here and there, I have written about French writers. Mostly Balzac - a lot of Balzac. But also Dumas, Stendhal, Hugo. And Senegalese literature in French.

    I'm afraid I will be neglecting French this year, though - I'll make up for it next year.

  3. I just read his wonderful short story, "Go Talk to A Goy", centering on Jews in Russia circa 1912 who converted to Russian Orthodox to avoid prosecutions. There is a hilarious story in it about a man who made a living by standing in for others at conversion ceremonies.

  4. I had forgotten that one. I had to read your description of it. S. Ansky developed such a strong eye for the oddities of Yiddish life.