1920: The Man Who Shook the World With 'The Dybbuk' Dies

Self-named S. Ansky really did work in a salt mine, but is more famous for documenting the lives of Russian Jewry, which he feared was going to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Shloyme-Zanvel ben Aaron Hacohen Rappoport, better known as the author S. Ansky, 1910.
Shloyme-Zanvel ben Aaron Hacohen Rappoport, better known as the author S. Ansky, 1910.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 8, 1920, the writer, dramatist, ethnographer, and political and humanitarian activist S. Ansky died, at age 57. Although today, Ansky is best known for his play “The Dybbuk” – and justifiably so – he packed an extraordinary number of other accomplishments into his short life.

Shloyme-Zanvel ben Aaron Hacohen Rappoport was born in 1863 in Chashniki, Russia – in what is today Belarus – and grew up Vitebsk, some 80 kms northeast of there. His parents apparently separated when he was young, and his mother eked out a living running a tavern.

Shloyme-Zanvel left school after heder, the traditional Jewish primary school. Following that, he educated himself, together with his close friend Chaim Zhlitowski, later a political thinker of some note.

Although the environment he grew up in was Hasidic, he rejected Jewish observance at a young age, and was drawn to socialism and the values of the Jewish Enlightenment.

The communal life

By age 17, Rappoport was running a commune on the outskirts of town for other yeshiva escapees. Soon, he embarked on a peripatetic life, taking any job that would support him, with the main unifying factor being that he was always writing. In the 1880s, for example, he worked alternately as a tutor and as a miner of coal and salt in what is today Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. It was then and there that he wrote his first novel, all the while giving readings to miners and peasants.

The threat of arrest led Ansky – he adopted the pseudonym in 1890 – to flee Russia in 1892. He remained abroad, first in Paris and then in Switzerland, until 1905. While abroad, he organized a socialist revolutionary party, editing a party journal together with Yosef Haim Brenner, worked as a literary agent, and wrote – first exclusively in Russian, but toward the end of his sojourn in Western Europe, increasingly in Yiddish.

By the time he returned to Russia, in 1905, after that year's revolution, Ansky had become a champion of Yiddish, and of Jewish culture in general, organizing a Jewish literary society and journal, and working with the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

A performance in Hebrew of "the Dybbuk," by Gesher Theater, 2013, in Israel.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky

The destruction of Galicia

In 1911, cognizant of the threat that ongoing pogroms and emigration posed to the Jews of the Russian Pale and their culture, he departed on his first expedition on behalf of the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which was funded by Baron Vladimir Ginsbourg, a Kiev banker. Traveling around the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia, he and his team of researchers, intent on compiling a record of the traditions and culture of Russian Jewry, were armed with a list of some 2,500 questions for interviewees, and collected photos, folktales, music and manuscripts in the thousands.

After World War I began, the Jews were caught between the German-Austrian axis from the west, and the Russian army to the east, and took a beating from both. As Joachim Neugroschel noted in the preface to his 2002 translation of “The Destruction of Galicia,” Ansky’s report on this period, “One shtetl on Ansky’s route was conquered and reconquered no fewer than fourteen times.”    

Ansky felt compelled to become involved in organizing relief efforts for the Jews, and lobbying on their behalf vis-à-vis the authorities and the outside world.  

In 1914, Ansky wrote “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds,” about a star-crossed couple whose love outlives the suicide of the young man, when his spirit occupies the body of the bride who was denied him in life. Ansky wrote it originally in Russian, and translated it to Yiddish.

After the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, and Russia was led briefly by Alexander Kerensky, Ansky was elected to the new Constituent Assembly. When the Bolsheviks ousted Kerensky, Ansky fled, first to Vilna, then, in 1919, to Warsaw, where he died, on this day in 1920.

It took his death for the first public performance to be mounted, by the Vilner Troupe in Warsaw. 

Ansky spent the final months of his life translating his writings in Russian into Yiddish, for a planned collection of his entire oeuvre in that language. He suffered a heart attack after attending a meeting of an ethnographic society in Warsaw, and died the following day.

Hanna Rovina as Leah in the Hebrew-language premiere of The Dybbuk; Habima Theater, Moscow, 31 January 1922.Credit: Wikimedia Commons