Galicia, a geographical-political region consisting of the Southeastern region of Poland, and the Northwestern portion of the Ukraine, was the area where the most impoverished East European Jews lived. Ansky spent from 1914-1916 traveling through the area, arranging relief efforts for these Jews, who suffered greatly during World War I. The invading Russian army had committed unspeakable and deliberate atrocities, driving them from their homes, and stealing what they left behind. The following entries from Ansky's report on his mission reveal both his shock and his empathy for his fellow Jews, as well as his awe and fascination with the history and culture of the Galician Jews; they also demonstrate how much he had changed from the Ansky who, earlier in life, had turned his back on Jewish religion and culture.

August-November 1914

The Jewish population was in a state of shock, incapable of defending itself against the brutality and the murders and powerless to repudiate even the most shameful libels. The people resorted to the old Jewish method of finding strength and comfort in weaving tales out of their sighs and tears. It was whispered that "the rebbe is writing a megillah on the war which will surpass everything that has been written until now, and when he finishes it, redemption will come to the Jews." Others said that the end of the Jewish exile would surely come soon; they had studied the ancient tomes and calculated that the days of the Messiah were at hand.

But mostly they spun tales about accusations of espionage which, in the popular mind, recalled the blood libels of old and were retold in exactly the same way. In both types of stories, it was assumed that these were not fictional crimes but actual crimes perpetrated by others in order to frame the Jews. Like all folktales, they were suffused with a deep-rooted optimism, with the belief that in the end the truth will win out. The most widespread libel had to do with secret telephones that the Jews purportedly used to pass information to the enemy. This inspired a whole string of tales in which the town of Zamosc was often the chosen setting.

Late June, 1915 — Torczyn

On the morning after I came from Luck I traveled to the shtetl of Torczyn, to which many refugees from Horochov and other places had come. It was an old, poor shtetl that had only one long street and a few small, wretched shops. Women and children were outside, as if the overcrowded houses couldn't contain them. And it was very nearly true. Every household had taken in at least one newly arrived family and some had taken several. All the granaries and the animal stalls had been turned into living quarters for the refugees, too.

There had been about two thousand Jews out of a total population of four thousand in the shtetl before the war. They made their living by selling produce abroad. Now with trade at a standstill, the loan company no longer functioned and even the agricultural school was closed. All the wealthier residents had left.

Poryck had suffered a pogrom the week before, and the local residents were frightened to death that it would reach them. The mood was a bit calmer now but the underlying fear persisted that the Cossacks might come. They were not much reassured by the military's rumored directive to the Cossacks: "Whatever happened in Galicia happened. But we must not behave the same way with the Jews of Russia. No robbing!"

We suggested that a committee be set up to register the homeless in Torczyn and to help the neediest among them. I gave the committee four hundred rubles to help the many refugees who could not find housing and who slept in storehouses and even under the open sky.

December 1916-March 1917 — Sadigure

Sadigure had long been the residence of a hasidic family stemming from Reb Ber of Miedzyczec, the Baal Shem Tov's most outstanding student. The founder of the Sadigure dynasty was Reb Ber's grandson, Reb Sholem Shakhne of Pogrebishtsh — a great kabbalist and a unique personality. He dressed in European clothes and enjoyed the aristocratic life of the Polish magnates of the time. His son, the well-known Reb Yisroel of Rizhin, was the first of the dynasty to settle in Sadigure and is said to have surpassed his father both in his personal qualities and in his lifestyle. Many legends about the Rizhiner Rebbe claim that he was given the Baal Shem's soul, and his rich and expansive lifestyle is a never-ending source of wonder in the legends. His court was like that of an emperor: a band of twenty-four musicians played at his table, and his carriage was driven by a team of six horses in tandem. His son and grandson adopted the same lifestyle, and the court of Sadigure achieved renown as the richest and most genteel of the rabbinical courts.

The war, which destroyed so many Jewish treasures, also annihilated the court of Sadigure — its unique way of life as well as its antiquities. It brought to an end the material and spiritual wealth of generations of believers.

Before the war there were about ten thousand people living in Sadigure, three-quarters of whom were Jewish. They suffered a horrible pogrom when the Russian army occupied Sadigure for the first time, in September 1914; all the Jewish houses and shops were robbed and many Jews were murdered or wounded. The chairman of the local Jewish community, a rich and respected man, and three other Jews were killed for shielding their wives and daughters from rapists. Except for one hundred Jewish women who were hidden by the pharmacist in his cellar, where they remained for three days without food and water, all the women in the town, young and old alike, were raped. . . .

The scene of a town laid waste appeared from a distance as soon as I left Czernowitz. An entire field of tall, smoking chimneys, skeletons of burned houses, caved-in walls and holes for windows and doors, mountains of bricks, pieces of clay and burned, twisted metal. Sadigure itself was unrecognizable — it was even impossible to tell where the streets had once been located. Everything seemed to have melted together into one large ruin.

I went through the entire town without seeing one Jew. The few Jewish houses which had not been entirely destroyed and the shops in the market place had been taken over by local and newly arrived Christians who didn't allow any Jews into the town. The shops, on which the Jewish names still appeared, were open and run by Christian women; a tailor shop had been turned into a bakery and a dress store was selling pork.

excerpted From: David G. Roskies, ed. The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Copyright © 1992 The Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature (New York: Schocken Books), pp. 173-4, 195-6, 202-204. Reprinted by permission of The Fund.

ANSKY Introduction



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