Pol­ly Zavadi­vk­er is the edi­tor and trans­la­tor of the recent­ly pub­lished 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russ­ian Jew­ish Writer at the East­ern Front. She is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

An-sky’s notes tak­en in Tarnow, Gali­cia, Feb­ru­ary 141915

What does it mean to write in a war zone? For Russ­ian Jew­ish writ­ers dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, this was not a hypo­thet­i­cal ques­tion. Some of the best known writ­ers of the Russ­ian Jew­ish lit­er­ary canon — among them S. An-sky, Isaac Babel, and Vasi­ly Gross­man—wit­nessed and sur­vived mas­sive­ly destruc­tive wars of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as they wrote about them. An-sky trav­eled across the west­ern Russ­ian Empire and Aus­tri­an Gali­cia as a relief work­er from 1914 to 1917; Babel crossed from Ukraine into Poland as a polit­i­cal offi­cer and jour­nal­ist with the Red Army in 1920; and Gross­man served as a war cor­re­spon­dent behind front lines from Stal­in­grad to Berlin for the Sovi­et news­pa­per Red Star between 1941 and 1945

These writ­ers entered the war zones with the inten­tion to write about them. They under­took jour­neys across the cities, towns, and vil­lages of war torn East­ern Europe at great per­son­al risk. Like dis­as­ter tourists at a time of almost glob­al dis­as­ter, they became wit­ness­es to colos­sal human cat­a­stro­phes that unfold­ed before them. As writ­ers, they turned aside from the hor­ror they saw in order to doc­u­ment it in ink and pen­cil, on the small pads of paper and note­books that they car­ried on them­selves. They wrote while sit­ting in mil­i­tary trucks, trains, and horse-drawn carts, and in hotels, mil­i­tary head­quar­ters, and civil­ians’ homes. From the notes they hasti­ly scrib­bled at the time of war, they cre­at­ed sto­ries about what they had seen and remem­bered. Their notes and lat­er sto­ries became first drafts of history. 

As Jews, writ­ers like An-sky, Babel, and Gross­man also felt com­pelled to rep­re­sent the expe­ri­ence of Jews in East­ern Europe dur­ing wartime. Their war writ­ings are there­fore also his­to­ries of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of water­shed events in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry his­to­ry. Jew­ish chron­i­clers of cat­a­stro­phe tra­versed the heart­lands of dev­as­ta­tion, along the fron­tier that lies between his­toric Poland and Rus­sia (the Pale of Set­tle­ment, as it was known before 1917). These bor­der­lands — in today’s Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states — were home to the largest seg­ments of Europe’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions until 1945. Con­se­quent­ly, they became the places where the largest seg­ments of Europe’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion fell vic­tim to vio­lence in each war. Dur­ing World War I, the Russ­ian mil­i­tary deport­ed near­ly half a mil­lion Jews from north­west­ern Rus­sia and Gali­cia to the Russ­ian inte­ri­or and car­ried out hun­dreds of pogroms; in 1919 and 1920, the Jews of Ukraine and Belarus fell vic­tim to dev­as­tat­ing mas­sacres at the hands of Russ­ian, Ukrain­ian, Cos­sack, and Pol­ish troops dur­ing the Russ­ian Civ­il War; dur­ing World War II, Ger­man Ein­satz­grup­pen units shot 1.5 mil­lion Jews just in occu­pied Ukraine alone. 

Russ­ian Jew­ish war writ­ers chron­i­cled each of these cat­a­stro­phes, and they were able to gauge the extent of destruc­tion to Jew­ish life and cul­ture in these regions not only because they had wit­nessed the effects of war first­hand, but also because they pos­sessed inti­mate knowl­edge of these places. They were native sons, born and raised in the shtetls and cities of the ter­ri­to­ries that became war zones between 1914 and 1945

These writ­ers knew what war meant, then, for the Jew­ish peo­ple. They under­stood that bat­tles between armies result in more than the death of human lives; war also destroys cul­ture and civ­i­liza­tion — it destroys his­to­ry. How will the Jew­ish peo­ple’s expe­ri­ences of war be remem­bered if the vic­tims’ sto­ries are lost? If their sto­ries do reach audi­ences in the future, will read­ers believe what they read? And will they have the capac­i­ty to com­pre­hend what has tak­en place? The writ­ers pur­sued these ques­tions with a sense of urgency dur­ing and after the dif­fer­ent wars. The diaries, let­ters, poet­ry, sto­ries, jour­nal­ism, and notes they left bring us as close as we can come to those dark moments in his­to­ry, the start­ing points for under­stand­ing the Jew­ish expe­ri­ences of the series of wars that end­ed with the total destruc­tion of Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion in East­ern Europe dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth century. 

Pol­ly Zavadi­vk­er is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware.

Relat­ed Content:

Pol­ly Zavadi­vk­er is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware. She is the edi­tor and trans­la­tor of the recent­ly pub­lished The 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russ­ian Jew­ish Writer at the East­ern Front (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press). Her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals includ­ing East Euro­pean Jew­ish Affairs, The Simon Dub­now Insti­tute Year­book, Russ­ian Review, and oth­ers. She is cur­rent­ly at work on a man­u­script enti­tled Blood and Ink: Jew­ish Chron­i­clers of Cat­a­stro­phe in Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry Russia.”

On Writ­ing Cat­a­stro­phe: Jew­ish Chron­i­clers of War in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Russia

Jews in the Rub­ble: A Read­ing List of Sovi­et Jew­ish Eye­wit­ness Accounts of World War I