01 April 2014

Jewish Russian ethnography 1911-1920 by S. Ansky

In The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama, shown on tv by the BBC, there were evocative, informative photos in the Pale of Settlement. This tv programme is excellent but unfortunately Schama only gave the photographer's name (S Ansky) and his pro­fession (ethnographer) in passing.

Shlayme Rappoport (1863–1920), known by his pen-name S. Ansky or An-sky, was born in Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. Initially he wrote in Russian, but from 1904, his reputation grew as a Yiddish author and playwright.

S. Ansky, 1912
Jewish school in Dubno, now in Ukraine.
Photo credit: The Story of the Jews, with Simon Schama

Influenced by the middle class, anti-Tsarist Narodnik movement, Ansky became interested in ethnography, as well as cultural and political activism. Ethnography was research that was designed to explore cultural phen­omena. And since ethnography was a means to represent the culture of a group visually and in text, Ansky was in his element. He treated wide ranging topics eg the folklore of Russian miners, literacy among the peasants, the beliefs, behaviours and artistic heritage of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement and the impact of WW1 on populations.

Specifically he headed ethnographical expeditions to Jewish towns from 1911 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, comp­os­ing a detailed questionnaire of 2,000+ questions. Soon after, his ethnographic report of the deliberate destruction of Jew­ish communities in WW1 appeared. The Enemy at his Pleasure: A journey through the Jewish Pale of Settlement during WWI was to become a maj­or study in the history of the war's impact on civilian populations.

S Ansky, c1912
A cigarette factory in Starokonstantinov, now in Ukraine
Photo credit: Petersburg Judaica, European University at St. Petersburg

When the Revolution started, an excited Ansky rushed to Petrograd to join in, but soon he chose to move to Moscow, then Vilna and finally Warsaw. There he transformed his wartime diaries into a three-volume memoir in Yiddish, titled The Destruction of Galicia from a 1914-1917 Diary, published in 1920, the very year Ansky died.

So why was Ansky’s material largely unavailable for analysis & public­ation after 1920? Apparently his ethnological collections were locked away in Soviet vaults for safekeeping, and did not come to light until the 1990s. The State Ethnographic Museum at St Petersburg now holds a good deal of it.

We can finally read Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. Ansky's Ethnographic Expeditions, edited by Eugene Avrutin and published by Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis, 2009. Ansky and photographer Solomon Iudovin gathered materials and took photographs of Jewish daily life in pre-Revolutionary Russia’s Pale of Settlement. This volume includes a critical introduction and five insightful essays that document all aspects of Jewish life inside the Pale of Settlement.

S. Ansky, 1912
Rope makers in Mezhirech, now in Belarus.
Photo credit: The Story of the Jews, with Simon Schama

The book offers English readers an opportunity to see 170 extraordinary photographs from the Ansky expeditions. These photographs include portraits, craftsmen working at their jobs, teachers and children in traditional schools, and views of shtetl homes and synagogues. This was the living shtetl, those market towns large and small that were once home to the majority of Jews in the world, a landscape amidst the poverty and mud.


Many decades later, in the 1980s, a group of university graduates called the Kulturniks conducted summer field trips to former shtetls in Ukraine. Once so redolent of Jewish and mystical lore, these were the very towns that Ansky and his team had originally mined for their folk history and material culture. By interviewing local Ukrainians Christians and Ukrainian Jews, by studying the surviving tombstones and synagogue ruins and by mapping the topography, these young university graduates from St Petersburg began piecing together the history, architecture and ethnography of many towns. When not in the field, these latter-day Anskys learned as much Hebrew and Yiddish as they could.

And another Ansky survival! A mixed-language song from the pre-Revolutionary era was recently released in Kiev and transposed from fieldwork recordings made on wax cylinders c1914 by Joel Engel, another member of Ansky’s brilliant team. The Kulturniks want to complete the ethno­graphic guide to Jewish Ukraine, hoping to unite all the ethnographic holdings in St Peter­sburg in a Jewish museum, the very museum that Ansky had once envisaged so long ago.

Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. Ansky's Ethnographic Expeditionsedited by Eugene Avrutin, 2009.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:

Another totally fascinating post. You have a sure and certain way of unearthing the most interesting of topics and bringing them to light for your readers and this, we find, to be no exception.

We have a fascinating Ethnographic Museum here in Budapest but, sadly, it highlights little of the large Jewish community who were once here.

Joe said...

I thought Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews was very well done. Emotional too.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I would still love to visit Budapest's Ethnograhic Museum. Partially because I haven't seen one before (anywhere) and also because I am fascinated with the three main Habsburg cities. My students love Habsburg history as well.

Hels said...


agreed. A great history series.

I had a look back into this blog to see if I had cited Schama before and found only one reference. The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, written by Simon Schama and published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1987.