The Russian Jewish writer S. Ansky (1863–1920) is renowned as the creator of The Dybbuk , a beloved Yiddish-language play that has been translated into many languages and performed all over the world.
Ansky wrote more than just that single play, however. His works, in Yiddish and Russian, included plays, fiction, folklore monographs, personal memoirs, and a harrowing account of his experiences traveling among Jewish communities in Eastern Europe during World War I. Ansky's life intersected with major intellectual currents of his time, including noncommunist leftist thought in Russia in the pre-Soviet period, and the awakening of Jewish consciousness. The publication in the 1990s and early 2000s of some of Ansky's writings beyond The Dybbuk pointed toward a fascinating figure who had witnessed long-obscured events and cultures.
Ansky was born Shloyme Zanvel ben-Aaron Hacohen Rappaport (Rapaport, Rapoport) on November 8, 1863. The Yiddish form of his name was Solomon Seinwill Rappaport. Ansky (a pen name he later derived from the first name of his mother, Anna) came from Vitebsk, then part of Russia's Belorussia region, and now Vitsyebsk, Belarus. The city was part of the Pale of Settlement, a zone of western Russia originally established by Catherine the Great, in which Jews were permitted to live. The city was a center of several major schools of Jewish thought, and Ansky, whose family adhered to Orthodox Judaism, likely grew up with firsthand knowledge of traditional rabbinical figures like the one he depicted in The Dybbuk . He was enrolled in a Hasidic Jewish school.
As a teenager, however, Ansky abandoned the religious life of his forefathers. He became interested in the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement, which advocated an accommodation to Western ideas, and he threw himself into a more general attraction to socialism. As a 17-year-old, Ansky even started a commune near Vitebsk for other boys who had rejected religious education, and he went undercover in a heavily religious shtetl or village, attempting to convert the people who lived there to his progressive ideas. For several years he scratched out a living as a tutor, traveling from village to village while deepening his engagement with political ideas. He joined a Russian political party called the Narodnicki that promoted the interests of peasants and laborers.
When Ansky was 24 he moved to Yekaterinoslav, outside the Pale in southern Russia, and began working as a miner. He was well liked by his fellow workers, who called him Semyon Akimovich Rappoport, a Russian version of his name. Three years in the mines left him mostly toothless as a result of a bout with scurvy, and plagued with a variety of other chronic health problems. The experience also convinced him of the validity of socialist ideals. Ansky moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. He began to speak and write in Russian exclusively, referring to his life under Jewish traditions, his earlier use of the Yiddish language, and even the great figures of Yiddish literature, such as Sholem Aleichem, as decadent. And he began to write, contributing articles to local political publications. In addition to political essays, Ansky penned accounts of rural Russian life, work, and folklore. Like many young people to come, Ansky idealized the life of the working classes.
Ansky's political activities raised the suspicions of the Russian czar's secret police, however, and in 1892 he was exiled. He went to Paris, working as a secretary for the left-wing Russian philosopher Piotr Lavrov and spending time with artists, writers, and members of what would later be termed a counterculture. He became involved romantically with several women. He lived for a time in Switzerland, where he and a group of like-minded friends founded the Russian Social Revolutionary Party in 1901. Ansky was allowed to return to Russia in the early 1900s. He continued to write, and he helped form a labor union, the Jewish Labor Bund.
In 1905 Ansky returned to St. Petersburg and came under the influence of the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Y.L. Peretz. Peretz convinced Ansky that Yiddish could be used as a modern written language like any other in Europe, and soon Ansky had turned his attention to the village Jewish life and folklore of the Pale in his own writing. He became involved in the intellectual life of Jewish St. Petersburg, writing plays, editing a literary magazine called Evrenski Mir , and joining a society devoted to Jewish music. He began to speak Yiddish and promote its use, and he was soon in demand as a lecturer. At first his Yiddish, which he had not used since childhood, was of a rather stilted type, sticking close German- and Russian-influenced syntax and making little use of the rich vocabulary of old Hebrew and Aramaic words that gave the language much of its zest. As he re-immersed himself in Jewish life, however, his knowledge of the language deepened.
In 1911 Ansky began to do what would now be called anthropological fieldwork in the areas in which he had grown up, investigating and recording the traditional culture of Jewish villages in the Pale of Settlement. He worked under the auspices of a Jewish Ethnographic Society financed by a nobleman, Baron Vladimir Ginsbourg. Even at that point, the culture Ansky remembered was under pressure from a variety of sources—pogroms or massacres carried out by Christian terrorists and rioters, forced and voluntary emigration (many Eastern European Jews fled the anti-Semitism of their home countries for America during these years), and the incursion of modern life. But things were soon to become dramatically worse for Eastern European Jewry.
The outbreak of World War I had devastating effects on the Pale of Settlement, as Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German armies contending for control of territory displaced whole populations and felt free to unleash long held anti-Semitic prejudices under the cover of wartime chaos. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Jewish civilians lost their lives, and many more became refugees. Ansky, who had both Jewish and non-Jewish friends in influential Russian circles (the latter group included the ill-fated future prime minister Alexander Kerensky), made several trips to the Pale to try to mitigate conditions there. Working under the auspices of the Russian army and of established Russian relief organizations, he tried to bring food and medical help to displaced Jews and to work on their behalf with military authorities. He became a combination of a fundraiser and a Schindler-like figure who helped individuals when he could, and scrupulously wrote down the names of ordinary people whom he might never meet again.
Ansky wrote of his World War I experiences in a book called (in Yiddish) The Destruction of Galicia , later translated into English as The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I . The book's translator, Joachim Neugroschel, called it "an extraordinary catalogue of barbarism: commonplace rape and looting; expulsions of whole villages and towns; scorched-earth withdrawals; humiliations, lynchings, kidnappings, torture, massacres." Ansky matter-of-factly depicted the indifference to Jewish suffering, especially among Russian soldiers. "Military circles, from the highest to the lowest," he wrote, "were cruel and cold-blooded when talking about the most horrible violence perpetrated on Jews…. And a large part was also played by the savaging and systematic deadening of the most elementary human feelings—a process I witnessed day after day."
At one point, Ansky helped to arrange for the burial of an old Jewish man who had died on a refugee train. "The Jewish burial society hurried over and carried away the body," he wrote. "The weeping and shouting Jews, the terrified members of the burial society, who were dashing along with the corpse—the soldiers and the Gentiles lingering on the platform found it all strange and funny. A few wanted to roar with laughter. But they restrained themselves; the mystique of death won out." When the Czar was overthrown in 1917 and Ansky's friend Kerensky was installed as prime minister, Ansky was elected to the Russian Duma or parliament as a member of his Social Revolutionary party. He was forced to leave St. Petersburg once again, however, after Communists deposed Kerensky and seized control of the government in November of 1917.
He moved to Vilna, now in Lithuania, and continued to do humanitarian work there as the new Soviet Union erupted into civil war, but soon he began to devote himself to writing. It was during this period that he completed The Destruction of Galicia , which was not published until 1925. He also founded a new historical and ethnographic society in Vilna and wrote fictional and dramatic works. One play from the end of his life, The Dybbuk (Der Dybbuk in Yiddish), became his most famous single piece of writing and, in the words of Denver Post critic Jeff Bradley, "by far, the most popular drama in Yiddish theater."
The play was drenched in the small-town Jewish folklore that Ansky had studied for so long. Its story deals with a young man and woman who love each other and are engaged to be married. The girl's father, however, hopes for a richer suitor and calls off the marriage, whereupon the young man commits suicide. The young woman becomes possessed by his soul—a dybbuk, and a well-known rabbi, who sees into the deeper currents of the situation, is called in to set things right.
Ansky's other works ran to 15 volumes in a collected edition published in Vilna after his death, but most of them remain unexamined by Western scholars (among whom knowledge of Yiddish is increasingly rare). His investigations of Eastern European Jewish and Russian folklife would seem to merit further investigation. Ansky also wrote works that drew on the tensions between Judaism and assimilation in his own life; a satirical story called Ashmedai depicted a Jewish-born demon queen who tries to return to Judaism but is rejected by both Jews and demons. His story "Behind a Mask" drew on his experiences as a troublemaking teacher during his youth. A collection of Ansky's writings was issued in English in 1992 by editor David Roskies, including The Dybbuk and several other Yiddish plays, Father and Son, The Grandfather , and the posthumously completed Day and Night .
In the last months of his life, Ansky fled violence in Vilna and moved to Warsaw, in the part of Poland that had been annexed to Germany at the end of the war. He contracted pneumonia and died there of the disease on his birthday, November 8, 1920. The Dybbuk was never staged during his lifetime, but a theatrical troupe in Vilna mounted it in his memory shortly after he died. The work's reputation continued to rise as it spread through Jewish communities around the world. American composer George Gershwin was commissioned to turn it into an opera in 1930, seven years before he wrote his operatic masterpiece Porgy and Bess , but he never completed the commission. In 1938 a sumptuous Yiddish-language film version of the play was made in Poland, shortly before Adolf Hitler launched a campaign to wipe out every trace of the culture Ansky had captured in his writings.
Ansky, S., The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I , ed. and trans. Joachim Neugroschel, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2002.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights , St. James, 1993.
Commentary , December 1992.
Denver Post , January 19, 1996.
Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2006, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 3, 2006).
"S. Ansky," Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, http://www.jhom.com/personalities/ansky/index.htm (December 3, 2006).