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1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front

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S. An-sky was by the time of the First World War a well-known writer, a longtime revolutionary, and an ethnographer who pioneered the collection of Jewish folklore in Russia's Pale of Settlement. In 1915, An-sky took on the assignment of providing aid and relief to Jewish civilians trapped under Russian military occupation in Galicia. As he made his way through the shtetls there, close to the Austrian frontlines, he kept a diary of his encounters and impressions, written in Russian. His diary entries present a detailed reflection of his daily experiences. He describes conversations with wounded soldiers in hospitals, fellow Russian and Jewish aid workers, Russian military and civilian authorities, and Jewish civilians in Galicia and parts of the Pale. Although most of his diaries were lost, two fragments survived and are preserved in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Translated and annotated here by Polly Zavadivker, these fragments convey An-sky's vivid firsthand descriptions of civilian and military life in wartime. He recorded the brutality and violence against the civilian population, the complexities of interethnic relations, the practices and limitations of philanthropy and medical care, Russification policies, and antisemitism. In the late 1910s, An-sky used his diaries as raw material for a lengthy memoir in Yiddish published under the title The Destruction of Galicia.

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1 Winter 1915: Galicia

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The new year was born in profound melancholy. Neither desires nor hopes, as though you were standing before a corpse. I spent the day in a miserable state. At night I went to the “Yiddish Theater.” They were offering a senseless operetta, Khontse in America. The most untalented of the untalented performed. But the theater was packed and the audience was in ecstasy.

Met a friendly military doctor, Kon, whose wife is working as a nurse in the field hospital. They invited me to visit the hospital tomorrow and see how it was set up.

I didn’t feel well. At night I went to the hospital. A huge hospital with many beds, superbly equipped. Clean, spacious. There are paintings of battle scenes plastered across all of the walls. A number of wounded Austrians are lying on beds mixed in among the Russians.

“But how did you get along with the Austrians, don’t you quarrel?” I asked a wounded Russian.

“Why should we quarrel? All of us are cursed,” he replied with profound sorrow.

 

2 Fall 1915: Petrograd

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[SECOND DIARY FRAGMENT RESUMES HERE.]

. . . a Russian-language newspaper. Katz responded reasonably, that as long as the government bars the Jews from entering Russian schools, the government can say nothing to him about the harm of Yiddish language, or the Jews’ duty to attach themselves to Russian culture. Volzhin1 replied that Baron A. G. Gintsburg2 and M. A. Varshavskii3 also told him they consider all the various types of publications in Yiddish to be harmful. Could they really have said something of that sort to Volzhin?

I went to see Sliozberg. He finally drew up a complete petition on my behalf; I signed it and he promised to deliver it to Shcherbatov4 tomorrow.

Gorky had planned to visit and meet with me about the Anthology, but he came down with bronchitis and didn’t come.

I went to see K. V. Nikolaevskii5 (after having visited Pozner on the same floor). I didn’t catch him. I did catch Nina Nikolaevna and Olga. Nina Nikolaevna is a simple woman; with drawn lips, she speaks rapidly and in a monotone, like a chatterbox, and all the while maintains a frozen expression on her face. She speaks with the tone of someone who is extremely certain, but is always repeating others’ words, like a parrot. She began telling me that all of the troops she has met unanimously said that in the theater of war all spies are Jews. The Germans always know about everything, and this is because Jews inform them with all kinds of signals and underground telephones. The Cossacks deal harshly with Jews, but they can’t be restrained. They’ve gotten so infuriated with Jewish espionage that they simply can’t control themselves. I gave her my opinion about the claims of alleged Jewish espionage, German intelligence, and motives for Cossack reprisals. She agreed with me at once and began to prattle on about Germans. The real problem is that Germans who are on the inside have seized control of everything and are traitors to the army. But the Jews? How can they know what’s happening? But there are Germans throughout the Russian Army and they can’t be gotten rid of. Here is a “fact:” a regiment received an order to walk to one location. They marched quickly, without the usual breaks. And their colonel, a German, drove behind them in a car. It seemed suspicious to the soldiers that they were being transferred so rapidly, and they asked the officers to send scouts ahead of them. The officers said, “We don’t have an order from the colonel for that.” But the soldiers insisted on stopping and driving the scouts ahead. Well, the officers agreed. They stopped and sent the scouts. Half an hour later, the scouts came running to the battalion commander: “Your Honor, you must come with us and look with your own eyes at the location to which we were being driven.” He went with them. He walked ahead a few steps and saw German wire barriers and a battery straight ahead and to either side: they had been lying in wait for the regiment to walk into their trap and start firing at it from all directions. They came back running, waving their arms: “Turn around!” Just then the colonel drove up in a car, shouting, “Why have you stopped?” They told him they had sent scouts ahead. He got nasty: “Who allowed this? Step forward at once!” Two officers then approached him with their sabers drawn and demanded that he depart with them for headquarters. They led him to headquarters and reported all of it, then returned by themselves to their units. A month passed. The regiment was transferred and stationed in another location next to a different regiment. And suddenly the officers saw that their colonel, the one they arrested, was commanding that other regiment. And here’s why you can’t get rid of Germans.

 

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