Race to save historic record of Jewish life threatened by Ukraine-Russia war

Unique Kyiv collection gathered by author of The Dybbuk is at risk from Russian missiles


Urgent efforts are under way to ensure that a unique record of early-20th-century Jewish life, which was collected by one of the leading Yiddish writers, survives the Russia-Ukraine war.

S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk is probably the most famous work of Yiddish literature, along with Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman, although Ansky never lived to see it performed.

From 1912 to 1914 the author — whose real name was Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport — headed an ethnographic expedition to document the legacy of Ashkenazi Jewry across the Pale of Settlement, gathering manuscripts, objects, amulets and all kinds of Judaica.

“He was aware that revolution was coming, that modernity was taking over. He wanted a record of what that life was,” explained Jonathan Brent, executive director of the Yivo Institute of Jewish Research, which was set up in Vilna, Lithuania a century ago and is now based in New York.

Ansky’s mission was interrupted by the First World War and the Russian revolution and he died in 1920. His collection was split into three parts: one is housed in Yivo, another in the Jewish Institute in St Petersburg, and the third in the Judaica department of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine in Kyiv.

“To this day, 110 years after the end of the Ansky expedition, there has never been a complete presentation of the materials he found,” Brent said. “His dream of making the material known to the wider Jewish world never materialised. That is what we hope to do digitally.”

The idea of reuniting the collection came to him during a trip in 2013 on his first visit to Kyiv. “I saw materials collected by Ansky that I didn’t know existed. The archivist showed me the notes Ansky made at the Beilis trial in 1913: he was a witness to the last blood libel trial in Europe. They have never been published. A lot has never seen the light of day.”

But now the historic collection is in danger following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the bombardment of Kyiv and other cities.

When Brent and his chief of staff Shelly Freeman went to the Ukrainian capital in December, ‘they showed where a Russian missile had landed, 100 yards away from the library. It destroyed a skylight and shattered windows in the reading room. A hundred yards closer and the materials would have been destroyed.”

Travelling to a country at war was necessary to secure the future of the collection because they needed to speak face to face. “That is the only way you can do business in East Europe,” he said.

Yivo is close to finalising a deal whereby it will provide digitisation equipment to the library and also pay for those working on the Judaica project. The technology will not only enable the preservation of Ansky’s records but also allow the Ukrainians to compile digital versions of their own cultural material which is also threatened by the war.

“We will get copies of the material that we will make available free,” said Freeman. “We want to make it available to a global audience.”

For Brent, Ansky’s is “one of the most precious collections” of Jewish life pre-Holocaust and “of tremendous consequence to the Jewish world”.

His dream of bringing it all together digitally one day may have to wait since St Petersburg is currently “off limits”.

But the Ukrainian material will provide a wealth of material for scholars.

In one Haggadah, there is an illustration of the burial of Joseph in Egypt, borne by pallbearers who are dressed as Chasidim — a glorious anachronism which demonstrates how far the revivalist movement had taken root.

On a mizrach, a picture which indicates in which direction Jews should turn to face the east when they pray, a pair of eagles appear above a crown in a depiction of an Ark. The eagles suggest the Czar’s imperial symbols — evidence of attempts at Russification of the Jewish population.

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