Gabriella Safran’s Wandering Soul is the first full-length biography of S. An-sky, the author of the best-known Yiddish play, The Dybbuk. An-sky, born Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport in 1836, lived an extraordinary yet emblematic life across multiple identities, countries, and careers, amidst the cultural and political upheaval of his era. In praising Wandering Soul as a “rich and lucid biography,” the critic Adam Kirsch observed that “Today, when ‘liminality’ is a buzzword in literary studies, a figure like An-sky seems to hold a profound truth about the modern condition.” Here, Gabriella Safran recounts her time among An-sky’s papers in Ukraine, and finds parallels between the lives of her subject and her Ukrainian hostess.
Doing the research for Wandering Soul, I followed S. An-sky, the peripatetic Russian-Jewish writer and revolutionary who was my subject, through the territory that he knew as the Russian Empire. In the summers of 2003 and 2004, I worked at Kiev's Vernadsky Library and stayed with friends of friends, a couple with two college-age children. I admired the grace with which these tall people inhabited their small rooms, the proportionality of plates to cabinet, chairs to table. It was my first time in Ukraine, and my hostess Natasha, a stylish woman with big glasses, told me about her life there. She had come to Kiev in the 1970s, a poor girl from the provinces, to work in a weapons factory: young women, with their sensitive fingers, are best at this delicate assembly work. Then she studied engineering and learned to design the warheads that the Soviets directed at the West. It was a prestigious, well-paid profession, and being forbidden contact with foreigners did not trouble her. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, the job vanished. To support her family, Natasha became a smuggler, buying cheap clothes across the border in Turkey and selling them in Kiev. At the time of my visits she had a capitalist-era job at a company selling organic, hypoallergenic cosmetics and detergents. Her co-workers were all post-communist kids two decades younger than she was. As I walked from the archive to the metro and the metro to the apartment, I looked forward to talking with Natasha and answering her practical questions about life in the United States. (I sensed that she remained mystified about why Stanford University would want to pay my expenses to sit in a Kiev archive and read hundred-year-old papers, but she was too polite to keep asking.)
In the intervals between chats with Natasha, I read letters people had sent to An-sky and the rough drafts of his own letters. I imagined his delight when he wrote to his patron, the rich Baron Gintsburg, to report that the legends he had gathered on his ethnographic expedition to Ukrainian shtetls had inspired him to draft a play, The Dybbuk. I felt the pain and frustration in the five drafts of the letter he would eventually send to Edia, his young, unfaithful, wife, to ask for a divorce. I read letters from his publishers about deadlines, from his relatives asking for money, from another writer about how his daughter was crippled during a wartime pogrom. Like Natasha, An-sky lived at a time when political changes in the Slavic territories made ordinary people's lives unpredictable and hard. In the 1890s, a budding radical, he had left Russia for France and Switzerland. At the end of 1905, in the wake of revolution, he came back to Russia. He reported on the Dreyfus Affair, the bloody 1906 pogrom in Bialystok, the 1913 Beilis blood libel trial in Kiev. He was in turn—and simultaneously—a revolutionary propagandist, a Jewish cultural impresario, an amateur social scientist, a negotiator with the Bolsheviks. When the occasion demanded, he became an expert on peasant literacy, European education, the redistribution of land in Romania.
The letters I was reading had survived their own precarious history. An-sky had fled Soviet Russia after the Bolsheviks took over. Much of his archive ended up in Leningrad, then was moved to Kiev when Soviet Jewish papers were consolidated. Before the Nazis reached Kiev, the archives were sent to Ufa in the Urals for safekeeping. After the war, his letters and manuscripts, and the wax cylinders with his ethnographic field recordings, were hidden in a church, then in a basement, to escape the decree that they had to be destroyed. Only in the 1990s did the Vernadsky librarians reveal that they had saved the An-sky archive. Now they were kept in neat files on the top floor of an elegant pre-revolutionary building. The lights in the archive’s reading room were always off to save electricity, but so long as I sat by the windows I could see well enough to read An-sky’s neat Russian handwriting, and even his messier Yiddish. At noon, the librarians invited me to join them in the workroom for potlucks, and they especially liked me to bring the “kimchi assorti” I could buy at the grocery store across the street.
Touching An-sky's letters, reading his words, speaking with Natasha, I wondered at the human ability to survive and adapt. The hero of The Dybbuk, forbidden to marry the girl he loves, dies and returns as a wandering soul who possesses her body. I eventually realized that that wandering soul was An-sky himself. His own frustrated passions—and the difficulties faced by all the Jews in the Russian Empire—led him to assume first one form, then another. Biographers usually either love or loathe their subjects, but I felt that I did neither. I saw all An-sky's weaknesses, but at the same time I admired the way he, like Natasha, could transform himself in response to difficulties that I had never had to face. I hope that I managed to convey that admiration in my book.