Newcomer Ansky takes us on a harrowing tour of blood-soaked ground: the Russian-Polish borderlands during the worst years of WWI.
Germans would behave infamously on the same soil a score of years later, but the great enemy of the Jews of the Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century was the Russian army. Fueled by rumors that the region’s Jews were providing food and information to the Kaiser’s armies, and whipped up by Polish nationalists who declared, “We don’t need our independence if the Jews stay in our country,” the tsar’s forces expelled more than half a million Jews from the territory under their control; in the absence of documentary evidence, scholars have conjectured that as many as 200,000 more may have been killed in a precursor to the Holocaust. This firsthand account by the Russian Jewish journalist and relief worker Ansky adds few figures to the statistical record, but offers vivid scenes from the long nightmare: a view of a village burned to the ground, with “blackened chimneys and burned walls as far as we could see, visible beneath a dusting of downy snow”; an account of a massacre caused by a wayward rumor, as when 18 innocents were slaughtered thanks to “a lie that would be adopted as the standard pretext for all the pogroms and violence against the Jews: a girl standing at her window had fired at the Russian army”; and protestations by supposedly liberal Poles that they were of course not anti-Semitic, though they hastened to add, “But it is true that the Jews are celebrating our defeat.” The revolution of 1917 did little to improve the situation, Ansky observes. When he declares to a Cossack officer that “there are no Jews anymore; all people are citizens with equal rights in a free Russia,” the officer replies: “Once we establish a new order, we can take care of the Jews.”
An invaluable contribution to the history of an unspeakably brutal century.