The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I
By S. Ansky
Edited and Translated By Joachim Neugroschel
Metropolitan Books, 352 pages, $30.
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On January 1, 1915, an article was published in a Warsaw-based Yiddish newspaper that appealed to its readers to record their experiences:
Signed beneath were the names of the Yiddish writers and cultural visionaries, I.L. Peretz, Yankev Dinezon and S.Y. Ansky. They were convinced that untold horrors waited on the Jew’s horizon, untold horrors that would remain unwritten and, when all was said and done, unremembered by the world. To a great extent they were right.
Part memoir, part war chronicle, Ansky’s “The Enemy at His Pleasure,” penned from 1919 to 1920 and now translated in completion from Yiddish into English by virtuoso translator Joachim Neugroschel, is, in such a way, unparalleled. In 1915, Ansky, best known for his drama “The Dybbuk” and as the spearhead of ethnographic expeditions, attached himself to a medical unit of the Russian army in order to deliver material relief to the Jews living on the front lines of battle in the Pale of Settlement and Galicia — the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied by Russia. With armies advancing and withdrawing, the border jumped back and forth nervously, leaving the dead, injured and displaced in its wake. Ansky was not the only one to worry about the war’s Jewish victims, but he was one of the only ones to write about his experience.
Although formally carrying the rank of a Russian officer, Ansky was on a mission of his own making. With a briefcase packed with cash collected from St. Petersburg’s Jews, he moved from smaller shtetls and towns to larger cities, from Khorostkov to Husiatyn, from Gora to Rovno to Brody — often to places that were half-Jewish or more. It’s estimated that about 1 million Jews lived in a territory that became one of the war’s bloodiest battlefields. After conferring with representatives of Russian-organized relief, Ansky sought out surviving Jews who would disburse money on his behalf and report to him of the rumored atrocities.
This book is first and foremost a damning description of the treatment of the Jews by the conquering army of the Czar, by the Cossack brigades who worked in their service and by the antisemitic slander — Russian and Polish — that fueled the violence. There was no love lost between the socialist author and the Czarist establishment; in 1917, Ansky returned to St. Petersburg from the front to be elected to the all-Russian Constituent Assembly as a Social Revolutionary deputy until the Bolshevik Revolution left him exiled. But what he observed on the front left him chilled and stripped him of any illusion of a Russian-Jewish symbiosis.
With hardly a word of introduction, Ansky parachutes his reader into a menacing tidal wave of antisemitism quietly gathering its strength: “The years of horror began in Poland, with its dense and lethal anti-Semitic air and the Poles’ bitter economic struggle against Jews…. Through whispered libel, slander, and denunciations, the Poles set about tarring the Jews as Russian traitors, emphasizing in the process their own devotion and loyalty…. ” Evil fabrications mushroomed and mutated: Jews smuggled money to the Germans by hiding cash in an empty coffin, and gold in slaughtered geese or in hollowed corpses; they used telephones hidden in their cellars to contact the Austrians, and used fire and light signals to send information to the enemy. Just about everyone Ansky meets repeats these lies not only unthinkingly but also matter-of-factly, often with an air of intellectualism — from the Polish maid who services his room at the Hotel Europa to high-level officers. If the book has any argument, it’s that the violence perpetrated against the Jews, often by low-level soldiers, was the only consequence that such talk could have generated.
Fed by lies and misdirected anger, violence against Jews often wore the appearance of the rash and spontaneous, but it was repeated, albeit with variations of savagery, in every town, rarely curbed by authorities. Ansky writes: “In Radom, nine Jews were hanged for ‘welcoming Germans’; in Zamosc, seven for the same wrongdoing; in Krasnik, four Jews including the local rabbi and the government-appointed rabbi.” Jews strung up in trees was often the army’s signature.
Ansky balances his tale among statistics (of depleted populations, refugees and destroyed property, for instance), telegraphed stories told to him by survivors and his own experiences cast in an unflinching reportage. Without a catch in his voice, for instance, he records a picture of poverty in Tarnopol, of a young boy offering his 12-year-old sister to a soldier and writes of orphaned newborn twins in the town of Kobrin who slowly starve to death as their guardians search for a wet-nurse.
Still, his disposition softens — his prose almost luminous — when he describes his encounters with the Jewish victims of war; Ansky’s appetite for their company is equal to their endless numbers. When he asks an old Jewish man how his cottage alone survived the destruction of Brody, he knows the man’s answer: “Perhaps a miracle…. Heaven granted us a place to starve to death.”
In Javorov, with the community leader in hiding for fear of being taken hostage, Ansky wonders if he can entrust his wife with money. “If you’d meet my husband, you’d trust him to distribute those few rubles among our poor. But you don’t trust me because I’m a woman.” Embarrassed, Ansky hands her 300 rubles. In another episode Ansky is touched when a council of Jews — all of whom are deported — makes sure he gets a detailed account of how they disbursed the money he had given them earlier. Indeed, Ansky’s enthrallment with the Jews enthralls his reader.
The book also offers a more conventional tug of suspense. At the drop of a hat, Ansky must make life-or-death decisions on behalf of whole communities: Should they stay in their homes and shops, or abandon all they own and take flight? Take the train east, or pray another one will pull into the station that will deliver them to closer and more familiar ground? “We will listen to you like you were our father,” they tell him. At one point, Ansky is forced to suddenly evacuate a train without his briefcase of money. And then there is the foreboding that underlies the author’s observations of a city still dazzlingly whole, its residents thankful it hasn’t been hit by the war. You only need to have read a few pages to know that it won’t be that way for long.
Up until now, we have known Ansky best for his ethnographic expeditions, work that implies he saw his Eastern European subject matter as the living dead, his work akin to the museum curator of a dying civilization. But it is clear from “The Enemy at His Pleasure” that he perceived in the surviving Galician Jews of World War I lives and livelihoods to be saved — as many as he could with as much money as he could find. He saw a civilization, fragile, but one that would recover and grow.
This is the only way to explain why Ansky strains to meet the religious needs of the Jews. He travels by freight train to deliver matzo to Jewish soldiers in isolated towns in Bukovina, and organizes kosher soup kitchens in towns in which the Jews refuse to transgress dietary laws. In this mission he was continuously hampered. To one resisting Russian official Ansky suggests disbursing raw food instead. But the official warns him in typical fashion: “A Jew is content with eating very little. If you hand him a pound of barley, he’ll sell three-quarters of it just to pocket the money. You don’t know what sort of people they are!”
Peretz and Dinezon’s words would resonate with the events of the coming years more than they themselves would know. The war they thought had achieved high pitch by 1915 would, defying the mind’s eye, grow far more gruesome. By the war’s end, Peretz and Dinezon would be dead. Ansky would follow in 1920, soon after he finished writing his chronicle, as if he stayed alive only long enough to write it. If barely, the Jews would have their history. As the book points a finger at Russian society for its treatment of the Jews, it portrays the Jews with a tenderness that is defiant. It’s as if Ansky were saying to the Russian officer, “On the contrary, I do know what sort of people they are.”
Alyssa Quint is a regular contributor to the Forward.