The Prelude

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BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 2, 2003

The Prelude

The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I


By S. Ansky


Edited and translated byJoachim Neugroschel


(Metropolitan Books, 327 pp., $30)


I was a college student when I first read, in Hebrew, S.Y. Agnon's novel A Guest for the Night, which tells the story of a Jew from Palestine who returns after the war to his native town in Galicia, the area of southeastern Poland that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1917. There he finds the remains of a devastated Jewish community. Many of its members have been killed or maimed; the survivors are traumatized and broken. The markets are deserted, and the synagogues that have not been destroyed have been looted and are empty of worshippers. All lies in ruins in a bleak, post-Holocaust world.


Or so I took it to be. It was years later that I discovered that A Guest for the Night was published in September 1939, the month of the Nazi invasion of Poland. The devastation that it describes has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Its war is World War I, the effects of which on Jewish life in Galicia were still in evidence in 1930, when Agnon re-visited the town in which he grew up for the first time since he left it in 1908. The fate of Galician Jewry in World War I was something about which I had known nothing.


It is noteworthy that, when it comes to the history of anti-Semitic savagery in Europe, Jewish collective memory tends to jump from the pogroms of 1882-1905 in czarist Russia straight to the Holocaust. Yet as frightful as they were, those pogroms, in which probably less than a thousand Jews were killed, were a trifle in comparison with the murder by czarist troops of tens of thousands of Jews in Galicia during World War I and the deportation from their homes of an additional half-million people, 50 percent of the region's Jewish population. Why has this horror been all but forgotten, as has also been the massacre of another fifty thousand to one hundred thousand Jews by anti-Bolshevik forces in Ukraine during the civil war in Russia between 1917 and 1921?


Perhaps it is a matter of timing. The pre-World War I pogroms took place during a peaceful age, after two centuries in which European anti-Semitism had not erupted violently; and so the shock and the public attention they aroused were great. The killings in Galicia, on the other hand, transpired in wartime, when the world was preoccupied with even worse carnage. Journalistic access to the affected areas was all but impossible, and there was in any case a reluctance to publish anti-Russian reports in countries allied with Russia against Germany.


Afterward, too, it proved difficult to focus on these events. In the case of Galicia, the worst Russian atrocities were committed early in the war, by the end of which they had been pushed to the background by the fall of the czarist regime and the emergence of an independent Poland. In Ukraine, the victorious Bolsheviks, loath to be identified as saviors of the Jews or to advertise the depths of popular Ukrainian anti-Semitism, did not make much of the massacres either. Apart from what appeared in Yiddish, relatively little was written on either subject in the interwar period, and after World War II the blinding glare of the Holocaust obscured all else.


We are fortunate, therefore, to be given, in an excellent translation by Joachim Neugroschel (despite its oddly rendered title), large sections of S. Ansky's four-volume Khurbn Galitsye, or The Destruction of Galicia--an eyewitness report, published posthumously in Yiddish in 1922, of the Jewish experience in the region during the war. This would be an important document even if it were not such a well-written one, being the only book-length testimony of its kind. (The Hebrew writer Avigdor Hameiri, who fought on the Galician front in World War I as an officer in the Austrian army, published a volume of stories about what he saw and heard there, but those are brief, semi-fictionalized accounts.) The fact that its author was a prominent Yiddish writer makes this book still more of an event.


S. Ansky was the pen name of Shloyme Zanvel Rappaport (1863-1920), a Yiddish writer who is best known today as the playwright of The Dybbuk, a drama that has become emblematic of the Yiddish and Hebrew theater. Mainly, however, he wrote fiction and essays, including the novel Piyonern, or Pioneers, subtitled "A Chronicle of the '70s," an autobiographically based account of a Russian Jewish adolescent's drift into dissident circles after breaking with the traditional religious world he was raised in. But unlike most of the small number of young Jews who followed such a trajectory in those years while remaining within a Jewish orbit (their ranks were to swell in the 1880s and 1890s), Ansky turned his back on Jewish life entirely.


He joined the Russian revolutionary movement and for a while led the proletarian life of a narodnik, "going to the people" as a miner in Ukraine. Then he moved to St. Petersburg to work for the socialist publication Rosskoye Bogatsvo, and in 1894 fled the czarist police for western Europe, where he lived, much of the time in Paris, until 1905. It was only after his return to Russia, following the temporarily successful revolution of that year, that he gradually re-entered the Jewish community and turned to writing in Yiddish and to the investigation of Jewish folklore, an interest that culminated in a prolonged ethnographic expedition under his direction to Ukraine in 1912-1914.


Ansky was exceptional among the Yiddish writers of his generation in his internalization of a Russian identity alongside his Jewish one. Contemporaries such as Sholem Aleichem, although they were thoroughly at home in Russian life and culture, never really thought of themselves as Russians. But Ansky did, and the split between his two sides was both painful and productive in a way that anticipated the experience of large numbers of twentieth-century Jews. The Dybbuk, which was subtitled "Between Two Worlds," was not only a play about the return of a dead man's soul to a former life and the woman he had loved. It was also, for Ansky, a personal allegory of coming back to Jewishness.


When, therefore, soon after the outbreak of World War I, stories began seeping back to Russia about atrocities committed by Russian troops, especially by Cossack units, against the Jews of Galicia, into which the czarist army had swept in its first offensive, Ansky was a natural choice to head a relief committee. He had the necessary sophistication, commitment, and courage; a thorough familiarity with small-town Jewish communities; proven organizational abilities in the field; and good contacts in Russian political circles. Above all, he had the ability to deal with Russian officers and bureaucrats as a compatriot, and also to be treated by them as one, arguing and making demands and refusing to take no for an answer in a manner that would have struck such men, some of them anti-Semites and all of them harried by pressing wartime responsibilities, as insupportable Jewish insolence in almost anyone else.


At first, in fact, as Ansky describes it in The Destruction of Galicia, the obstacles to his mission came more from Jews than from Russians. The wealthy--that is, Russianized--Jews whom he asked to contribute to a relief effort did not want to give to a specifically Jewish cause. "Hoping," as he puts it in Volume I, "to make up for their inaction by donating large sums to the overall war effort, they argued that the Jews 'mustn't set themselves apart' from the rest of society." And he relates:


A high-level Russian official, returning from Galicia, asked one millionaire, a renowned leader in the Kiev Jewish community: "Why don't you organize some kind of relief for your Galician brothers, who are starving to death?"


The millionaire replied: "Your Excellency, we do not regard the Galician Jews as our brothers; we see them as enemies, with whom we're at war."


Given that the average Galician Jew, though his Yiddish might sound funny to a Russian Jew, was about as different from the latter as Jews in Los Angeles are from Jews in New York, this was a craven response. Most likely, the anonymous "millionaire" was the Kiev sugar magnate Lev Brodsky, who was in a position to wield a lot more influence than Ansky. Yet nobody familiar with the behavior during World War II of American Jewish leaders, many of whom were similarly hesitant to request "special favors" for their co-religionists in Europe, can be terribly shocked by this.


Nor was Ansky. One of the most impressive things about this impressive man, at least as he emerges from the pages of The Destruction of Galicia, is his unflappability in the face of frustration, danger, and human obtuseness, and his willingness to keep on trying. During his two years of crisscrossing wartime Galicia, from early 1915 to early 1917, when the Russian army collapsed after a long back-and-forth campaign against the Germans and the Austrians, he was a one-man humanitarian aid organization. Although he often had assistance, both from Galician Jews and from the Russian military, it was generally of a local and temporary nature. Since Ansky did not travel with a team, each time he came to a new town or province he had to look for fresh people to work with.


The one thing that he generally had enough of, once the initial resistance of donors like Brodsky was overcome, was money. The problem was finding something useful to do with it in places where commerce had broken down and Jewish communal leadership had evaporated. Ansky's usual procedure upon arriving in a place was to begin by gathering information--how many Jews were in the vicinity; how many had been killed; how many were ill, starving, or homeless because their houses had been destroyed or they had been evicted from elsewhere. (The Russian army, fearing that the Jews, the most pro-Austrian of Galicia's ethnic minorities, would collaborate with the enemy, systematically cleared them from frontline areas.) Then he would search for trustworthy individuals to dispense some of the cash that he carried about with him--at one point, in a "forty-pound carton" containing thirty thousand rubles in small change--and move on.


It was all improvised and haphazard, from start to finish, and a drop in the bucket of the Galician Jews' woes. During the last, panicky Russian retreat, Ansky hitched a ride with a staff surgeon heading for Lvov. They drove all night, and in the morning


we arrived in the shtetl of Mosti-Velki. Since we were running low on gasoline, we stopped to get some. I went to look up $(some$) Jews... They told me that when the Russians had marched in some nine or ten months ago, they had launched a horrible pogrom. However, the town had remained whole, it hadn't burned down; and aside from some scattered looting, there had been no further pogroms. Two days ago the army had started pulling out and now the Jews were terrified that the Cossacks would come and destroy the shtetl...


The economic situation of the Jews had been wretched all this time. They were starving to death... I gave them six hundred rubles and tried to calm their fears a little. This unexpected help out of the blue as well as my warm behavior moved these poor, terrified, defenseless people so deeply that they burst out crying. It was terrible to see five elderly Jews, two of them quite old, loudly sobbing and weeping like children, hastily wiping away the tears that rolled down their mustaches and beards.


Back in Kiev, Lvov having meanwhile fallen to the Austrians too, Ansky reflects:


During my prewar ethnographic research, I had noticed that so many folk songs and folk tales are full of grief and lament. "So they began to weep and wail," "Woe and sorrow," and so on. And Russian folk songs likewise say that "he shed a torrent of tears," "bathed in tears." I had always seen this as mere grandiloquence. But in Galicia I realized that it is true to life. I saw people "shedding torrents of tears." There are moments when tears come streaming on their own, almost unnoticed, as surrogates for words. They flow as easily as words; they keep pouring when words have lost all strength and there is no one to talk to.


Although by the time he undertook his mission Ansky's Jewish identity meant more to him than his Russian identity, he never lost the latter and even served as a delegate to the Duma under the Kerensky government after the fall of the czar. Still, Ansky's chronicle, in which he regards the fighting with a dispassionately impartial eye, contains no patriotism in the sense of identification with the Russian war effort. In one exchange that he describes with the Russian general Igor Platonovitsh Demidov, who had spoken to him of the moral "renewal" brought about by the war, he reports himself as replying: "Igor Platonovitsh, I've been in the thick of the war for three months now, and I've seen a lot of soldiers. I've seen men who have looked death in the face, soldiers who have been killed and been wounded. But I haven't seen anyone who has been renewed."


If there is Russian patriotism of any kind in The Destruction of Galicia, it is in the way that Ansky, the ex-narodnik, sympathetically understands the curious fact that many Galician Jews whom he encountered, although "tormented and ruined by the Russian army, nevertheless enthuse about the Russian character. They always have a story about a $(Russian$) soldier or an officer who displayed a poignant idealism and humanity." "The Russian troops are better than the Austrians," a Jewish tavern owner tells him. "$(They$) understand that a Jew has to live on something, and they give him a chance to earn a kopeck." And a young Galician Jew describes to him a scene he witnessed:


It was raining. The street was covered with deep, swampy mud. A $(Russian$) military transport rolled by. The soldiers were sitting in their wagons, soaked and exhausted. An old Jewish woman was trudging along, muddy and ragged. One of the soldiers noticed her, stopped his wagon, and offered her a ride. Our Austrian soldiers would never do a thing like that.


The Russians, as Ansky saw them, were wildly inconsistent in their behavior. At one point, he tells of matching atrocities. On the Russian side, "in a shtetl near Wolkowisk, the soldiers drove the Jews into the marketplace and ordered them to strip naked. The men and the women were ordered to dance with one another and then ride on pigs. Finally, one-tenth of the naked Jews were shot and killed." On the German side, "in Blonye, a shtetl near Warsaw, when the Germans marched in, they came upon a farm several miles from town, a barrack with 192 $(Jewish$) cholera patients... $(They$) were scared the disease might spread, so they put straw around the barrack and ignited it. All 192 patients burned to death." And he remarks:


I don't know what's worse: torching a barrack filled with sick people or making people strip naked, ride on pigs, and gunning them down. The barrack fire, no matter how inhumane, at least had a specific goal. With the Germans, you knew who you were dealing with. You knew that when it came to a necessary objective, they wouldn't stop at the worst cruelty. By the same token, you could be certain if you didn't get in their way, they wouldn't lay a finger on you. But with Russians, you were never sure of your life, of your dignity. The Russians were never guided by sound logic or practical considerations.


The contradictory and sometimes childish extremes of the Russian soul are a theme of many Russian writers. But it is in regard to the Germans that Ansky's judgment sends a chill down your spine. "You could be certain if you didn't get in their way, they wouldn't lay a finger on you." Indeed so; which is why, as Joachim Neugroschel points out in his introduction, many Polish Jews were sanguine, despite Hitler's anti-Semitic ravings and policies, about the German invasion in 1939 and did not take the opportunity to flee to the Russian zone of Poland while they could. They had lived through a German military occupation before and knew the Germans were reasonable. True, "when it came to a necessary objective, they wouldn't stop at the worst cruelty"; but who, having lived through a war in which there was no "sound logic" to killing even a few tens of thousands of Jews, could have imagined a war in which the murder of six million would be deemed necessary?

By Hillel Halkin

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