The great Russian Jewish writer S. Ansky (the pen name of Shlomo Zanvil Rapoport), who is most famous for his drama The Dybbuk, traveled through the Eastern European region of Galicia in the last part of World War I. At this time, Galicia was a battleground between the warring armies of Germany and Russia. The area was in total chaos and, for the large Jewish population that lived there, it was a tragic time of arbitrary violence. Ansky tried to bring them assistance, as most of them were on the verge of starvation. As he crossed and re-crossed the area time and again, he recorded his observations in a diary that was published only after his death. This document is a fascinating and heartrending account of a Jewish center in the process of partial destruction.
Ansky relates that he kept coming across a particular story in the course of his travels. He heard it in many different regions and many vouched for its historicity, although no-one knew exactly where and when it had happened. He saw the story as a kind of holy folklore that represented some of the deepest feelings and fears of the tragically endangered community.
The story tells of a meeting on a battlefield between two soldiers from opposing sides who try to kill each other. One manages to stab the other with his bayonet. As the wounded soldier is dying on the muddy ground, the ‘victor’ - a Jew - is stunned to hear the words come out of the other’s mouth.
Regardless of whether the story is based on an historical event, it had the force of a legend and spread rapidly from person to person over large areas of Jewish Eastern Europe. Its poignancy and force are clear: it expresses the tragic irony of the Jew’s entry into the modern world. The two soldiers are still strongly Jewish but the modern world has created a new situation: on one level, they have become enemies. Through their identification with their respective homelands, they have been drawn in to the sordid power politics of the non-Jewish world - a dimension from which the Jews had almost always tried to distance themselves in the Diaspora. The story suggests that this is the inevitable, terrible price that the Jews have paid for their attempt to be accepted in the modern world.
There are few sadder and sharper stories of the confusions and contradictions of Jewish modernity than this one. We will now use it to deepen the process of identity examination that we have already started in the previous exercises.