SH. AN-SKY (SHLOYME-ZAYNVIL RAPOPORT) (1863-November 8, 1920)
Born in Tshashnik, Byelorussia. When he was still a child, his parents moved to Vitebsk. His father was a middleman in buying and selling landlords’ goods and was rarely at home; his mother, Khane, had to care for the members of the household by herself. She made a living working at a tavern. An-sky studied in religious schools. Under the influence of literature from the Jewish enlightenment, he early on became a maskil, learned Russian, acquainted himself with radical Russian literature, and its impact led him to search out new paths in life and to learn various trades: tailoring, bookbinding, and work in a factory and in shifts. Early on his left home and became a teacher in the town of Lyozne. He publicized enlightenment ideas, and because of the persecutions on the part of the elite of Lyozne, he was forced to leave town. He moved on to Dvinsk (Daugavpils), where he continued to conduct enlightenment work in the spirit of Russian populist writings. He later departed from central Russia, and later still to southern Russia, wandering through villages and industrial settlements, “going to the people,” living among farmers, coal-miners, or déclassé groups of people. For a long period of time, he corresponded with the Russian populist writer Gleb Uspensky [1843-1902], who advised him to come to St. Petersburg. There he entered the circle of naroniki [Russian populists] and published articles and stories in their journal: Russkoie bogatstvo (Russian riches). At the end of 1892, An-sky left Russia, was delayed for a time in Germany and Switzerland, and settled in Paris. In 1894 he became secretary to the famed Russian thinker and leader of social revolutionaries, Pyotr Lavrov [1823-1900]. Following Lavrov’s death in 1900, An-sky served for a time as secretary at the international school in Paris, where he worked together with prominent, liberal Russian scholars. Throughout his entire time in Paris, he never ceased studying and learning. He had devoted himself to folklore in Russia, and in France he became interested in French folk creations. In the most important Russian publications at that time, An-sky published articles and stories concerned with Russian and Jewish folk life.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the second and most important era in An-sky’s life began. During the years that he was severed from Jewish surroundings, radical changes transpired in the Jewish cultural world. There emerged a modern Yiddish literature, for which Y. L. Peretz [1852-1915] was both spokesman and champion; there arose a Jewish labor movement and revolutionary parties were organized. Under the influence of his close friend from youth, Dr. Chaim Zhitlowsky [1865-1943], An-sky returned his attention to Jewish life and Yiddish which he had used in his own early writings. He composed revolutionary poetry in Yiddish which soon became popular in Jewish labor circles. His poem Di shvue (The oath) became the anthem of the Bund; his literary works began to appear in Fraynd (Friend) in St. Petersburg, in Peretz’s publications, and elsewhere as well. He returned to Russia in 1905. He was one of the more active leaders in the Russian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, although basically he was becoming ever closer to connecting with Jewish life and with modern Jewish culture. Just as he earlier had researched Russian and French folk creations, he now became engrossed in Jewish folklore, and his approach to the subject was to a certain extent romantic. He saw in Jewish folklore a struggle between matter and spirit with the latter triumphant. An-sky had all but completely ignored the purely artistic value of Jewish folk creations. “Folklore collecting was no academic, intellectual work for An-sky but a national mission. He thus became, like the messenger in ‘The Dybbuk,’ a folklore messenger.” (Yankev Shatsky) He elevated this mission of his to a higher level in the years 1911-1914. He took an active part in the work Jewish Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg, gathering together a group of young enthusiastic folklorists. He directed the first scientific expedition in the name of the Baron Horace Gintsburg [Günzberg, 1833-1909] to collect the works of Jewish folklore. The expedition traveled through nearly seventy larger and smaller communities in Volhynia and Podolia. The inventory of their collected materials includes: 2000 photographs, 1800 folktales, 1500 folk poems and folk games, 500 recordings of Yiddish music, 1000 jotted down folk tunes and songs without words, 100 diverse historical documents, among them fifty registers. In addition, the expedition purchased 700 Jewish items. An-sky’s immense archives and collections were for the most part left in Soviet Russia. In the period between the two world wars, the Vilna Jewish Historic-Ethnographic Society created in the local Jewish community the An-sky Museum (during the period of the Holocaust, the museum did not avoid the general fate of Jewish Vilna).
The outbreak of WWI made a huge impact of the activities of the expedition. The problem of Jewish war victims was becoming urgent, and An-sky plunged with heart and soul into his work on behalf of the victims. As a representative of the Russian state, of the local Russian administration, and of the Jewish Assistance Committee for the Victims—Yekopo (Yevreyskiy komitet pomoshchi zhertvam voyny—“Jewish Relief Committee for War Victims”)—he traveled across the front lines, through towns and villages of the front areas of the fighting, and organized assistance committees everywhere. In 1917 he was credentialed by the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) as a deputy to the Russian Constituent Assembly. In 1918 he came to Vilna where he stayed for six months which were filled with intensive social and literary activity. He also collaborated in organizing the first Vilna democratic community. From that time forward, an evolution in his Jewish ideas was becoming apparent: he was becoming closer ideologically to Zionism, though maintaining nonetheless contact with the right wing of the party of the SRs. An-sky traveled from Vilna to Warsaw where he quickly became one of the spokesmen in the Jewish press on the burning issues of the day at that historical moment. For a short period of time, he became a central figure in the Jewish communal and cultural life of Warsaw. Shortly before his unexpected end, he became engrossed with extraordinary energy in the work to create in Warsaw a Jewish ethnographic society like the one in St. Petersburg and subsequently in Vilna. He was already at this point broken and sick, and on November 8, 1920 he passed away. He was buried close to the graves of Y. L. Peretz and Yankev Dinezon [1856?-1919], and in 1925 over all three graves was erected the “Tent of Peretz.”
An-sky’s works: shortly before WWI the publishing house of Prosvenshcheniie (enlightenment) in St. Petersburg was set to publish five volumes in Russian. In 1905 he edited, together with Yokhanen Hakanai, using the pen name Z. Sinoni, a pamphlet entitled Fragn fun program un taktik (Questions of program and tactics). A great many of An-sky’s articles and treatises were left dispersed over a series of important Russian and Russo-Jewish journals. An-sky Publishers in Warsaw published fifteen volumes in Yiddish over the period 1920-1929. In them one finds stories, memoirs, essays on current events, songs, poems, Hassidic tales, folkloric works, Khurbn-galitsye (The destruction of Galicia), and dramatic writings. Among the last of these was the dramatic tale in four acts “Der dibek (tsvishn tsvey velt)” (The Dybbuk, between two worlds). An-sky conceived “The Dybbuk” as early as 1911, and he wrote it down simultaneously in Russian and Yiddish. The Yiddish version of “The Dybbuk” was first published in 1919 in Vilna as an offprint. The Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow devoted a great deal of time preparing to stage the play, but on the thirtieth day following the passing An-sky (his shloshim), the Vilna Troupe (December 9, 1920) in Warsaw was the first to stage this folkloric drama by An-sky. In the years that followed, until around 1934, “The Dybbuk” became part of the repertoire of almost every Jewish theater in the entire world. The play was translated into the most important cultural languages and for a long time was performed in the finest cities in the world, including such places as Tokyo. Chaim Nachman Bialik [1873-1934] translated it into Hebrew, and for many years it was performed by Habima. “The Dybbuk” was produced as an opera in New York in 1951 (with music by David Tamkin [1906-1975]). An-sky’s second play, Tog un nakht (Day and night), was left in unfinished form. Alter Kacynzne [1885-1941] wrote an additional act, and the Vilna Troupe staged the play for the first time in Warsaw in November 1921. There was also included in the third volume of An-sky’s works: Foter un zun (Father and son), a comedy in one act; In a konspirativer dire (In an apartment of conspirators), a comedy in two acts; Der zeyde (The grandfather), one act play. An-sky also translated into Russian Peretz’s “In polish af der keyt” (Chained in the synagogue anteroom).
In 1964 his Oysgeklibene shriftn (Selected works) was published (Buenos Aires, 1964), 292 pp.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1 (with a rich bibliography); Z. Zilbertsvayg, Teater-leksikon, vol. 1; Algemayne entsiklopedye (General encyclopedia), vol. 4, pp. 22-25; Yankev Shatsky, in Yorbukh (Annual) (New York, 1939); Shmuel Niger, Dertseyler un romanistn (Story-tellers and novelists) (New York, 1946), pp. 83-86; Sholem Perlmuter, Yidishe dramaturgn un teater-kompozitorn (Yiddish playwrights and composers for the theater) (New York, 1952), pp. 249-56; B. Rozen, in Tog (New York) (December 3 and 10, 1950); Baruch Tshubinski, in Tsukunft (New York) (March 1951); Y. Yeshurin, “Sh. ansky-bibliografye” (Sh. An-sky bibliography), Ilustrirte yontef bleter (New York) (Winter 1951).