Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Pushkin Street, Gogol Street, Lermontov Street - The Destruction of Galicia and literature

S. Ansky's tone in The Destruction of Galicia reminds me more than a bit of Chekhov. I suspect a direct connection to Chekhov's Sakhalin Island book, a report on a Siberian prison, but I haven't read it, so who knows. I am sure Ansky had I. L. Peretz's Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region in the Year 1890 (1891) on his mind. That one is nominally the report on a statistical survey of the countryside; it is extremely Chekhovian, even derivative, one could say. Peretz himself is actually a character in Ansky's book, in the earlier parts set in and near Warsaw.

What do I mean by tone? That Ansky's voice is professional, subdued, sometimes even a bit detached. His job is to stay calm, so that's what he does. He may express his frustration, anger, or sorrow, but he is writing with some distance. Of course, the most important part of the story is not his own. Ansky is bearing witness to a catastrophe. We're all too familiar with that genre, now.

Literature infiltrates the book:

"We walked around in the ruins for quite a while and I noticed something 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 the great writers. The street signs left me with the same feeling as did the icons which the Christians put in their windows during the pogroms." (The Dybbuk and Other Writings, p. 180)

Since Ansky had recently been collecting folktales, he was always on the lookout for new ones, what we for some reason have taken to calling "urban myths." In Galicia and Poland, there were two sets of stories. One set was anti-Semitic, used to justify Russian depredations. For example, the Cossacks were riding through town, and everything was peaceful, until a Jewish girl fired at them from a second-story window. So the pogrom was merely retaliation. Ansky heard this story again and again, always with the girl in a second-story window. A lot of the stories involved Jewish spies, and telephones. All the Jews are spies for the Germans, or all the Poles, or both, and they all have telephones hidden away somewhere, with direct lines to the enemy.

The second set of stories are the Jewish ones, responses to the anti-Semitic stories:

"One version simply told how a number of Jews were hanged as a result of the telephone libel; other Jews would have been hanged too, were it not for a priest, carrying a cross, who appeared before the judge and testified that it was the Poles who were guilty. The priest's evidence proved to be correct; all the Jews were immediately freed and the Poles were hanged instead - sixteen in all." (p. 174)

Or the Jews caught in the cellar, on the telephone with the Austrians, turn out to be Poles in disguise. These stories are always from one or two or three towns over, absolutely true, none of us saw it, but we all heard about it.

The Beatrice Weinrich edition of Yiddish Folktales includes a few stories about Czar Nicholas I (enemy of the Jews), Emperor Franz Josef (friend of the Jews), Napoleon (complicated), or one of the Rothschild bankers, all typical, old-timey folktales, but updated with new heroes and villains. In the old story, the beggar who rewards the generous and punishes the stingy turns out to be the prophet Elijah in disguise; in the up to date ones he's Franz Josef. Some of the stories Ansky collects are about Austrian or Russian generals, ones who were known to be particularly anti- or philo-Semitic, inserted into the old stories.

"The most popular folktale among Jews was about two soldiers who confronted each other on the battlefield. As one stabbed the other, he was shocked to hear the dying soldier cry out, 'Shma Yisroel, Hear, O Israel.'... I heard many different variants of this folktale in at least eight or ten different localities - St. Petersburg, Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, Warsaw, in short, every place where there were homeless Jews or soldiers. Most people thought that this was a factual account about real people, not a folktale. (pp. 175-6)

In the ellipses, Ansky mentions the story about the bride and groom who were murdered under the bridal canopy during the 1648 massacres, and buried together where they died - "in at least fifteen or sixteen shtetls I was taken to a grave near the synagogue where the bride and groom were supposed to have been buried." (175) This is Ansky's one hint in The Destruction of Galicia of what he was doing when he wasn't hauling money and medicine across a war zone.

He was writing a play, now the consensus choice for Greatest Yiddish Play. Tomorrow, I'll look at The Dybbuk.

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