Tuesday, April 7, 2009

War is a different matter - S. Ansky's The Destruction of Galicia

S. Ansky spent 1912 to 1914 travelling through the Jewish countryside in and near the Pale of Settlement, collecting Jewish stories, songs, traditions, and artifacts. The outbreak of war ended the expedition, but the next year he found himself back in the same area for a more basic reason: to bring relief aid to the Jews caught between the Russian and Austrian armies.

At the beginning of World War I, the Russians immediately overran Galicia, now part of Ukraine and Poland, at the time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some elements of the Russian army, especially the Cossacks, deliberately destroyed every Jewish community they encountered. And this was before the fighting began, before the artillery shells began to fall. The Jewish towns in the region were unusually poor to begin with. After one of these pogroms, the survivors were left with nothing.

Later in the war, the army clamped down on these abuses in response to international pressure, and the Russians were eventually driven out of the area, although, in retreat, they were not much kinder to Russian Jews. The estimates of Jewish civilian deaths in the region range from 100,000 to 200,000, with half a million or more displaced people and refugees.

S. Ansky inserted himself right into the middle of this. Much of The Destruction of Galicia (1925), his memoir of the relief effort, involves trying to get transportation, racing from place to place with food and medical supplies. He also spends a lot of time arguing with officials, and attending meetings. This is modern, bureaucratized humanitarianism.

Ansky travelled in uniform (the cover of the paperback of The Dybbuk and Other Writings features a photo of Ansky in a Red Cross hat) and was, how to say this, highly assimilated, so he often "passed" as a Russian officer. That was one of the ways he got things done in the war zone. Another result is that Russians would confide in him. Here's an excerpt of The Destruction of Galicia, which I hope shows the literary quality of the book, something I want to write more about tomorrow:

“Our boxcars of medical supplies were hooked to a train carrying high-explosive shells, and off we chugged. In my heated freight car I found a young officer with an intelligent face, and we got to talking. There was something a bit odd about his rigid, dreamy stare and his habit of slowly weighing each word before he spoke. I wondered whether he was quite all right.

‘You know,’ he said as we got better acquainted, ‘you know when I was young I led a shameful life. I drank, I debauched, I beat the young soldiers, and I did other wicked things. Then I came across Leo Tolstoy’s What Do I Believe In. I read it and I was reborn. I became a completely different person. I even stopped eating meat.’

‘And yet you go to war, and you kill people,’ I said.

He sat awhile with a downcast head. At last he murmured with deep conviction: ‘War is a different matter. This war will renew the world; it will cleanse mankind of its dirt. For such a goal one can make the supreme sacrifice.’

Our train stopped three or four miles short of Tarnow because the approach to the station was being shelled. The station itself and the surrounding buildings had long since burned down. I had to reach town on foot. My belongings and the medical supplies would be driven in by automobile.” (p. 85, The Enemy at His Pleasure)

Johann Neugroschel for some reason titles his translation The Enemy at His Pleasure, a line from an Anna Akhmatova poem. I don't know why. I can guess.

I should also note that Ansky personally witnesses a fair number of horrible events, and documents many others. I think The Destruction of Galicia is a great book, a classic of humanitarianism, but I know it's not for everyone.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting on this. I wasn't aware of these atrocities before reading your post.