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An-Ski Collections

AN-SKI COLLECTIONS, Jewish collections of the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg. For many years the existence of the legendary An-Ski collections was doubted outside the Soviet Union, even maybe outside the walls of the State Ethnographic Museum. All that was known about them was the description of the ethnographical expeditions of 1910–16, headed by the well-known dramatist S.Z. Rappoport (An-Ski), written by one of its members, Abraham Rechtman. He gave a list of their finds: 700 ceremonial objects, 2,000 photographs, music recorded on 500 wax cylinders, and many folktales, articles of everyday life, and documents. Due to the consequences of the Russian Revolution, two world wars, and official Soviet antisemitism, only a fraction of these items survived in the Russian collection. In 1992, 90% of these remnants, approximately 330 objects, were shown for the first time outside Russia, in Amsterdam, in the Jewish Historical Museum.

The State Ethnographic Museum and the Jewish Historical Museum joined forces to register, describe, photograph, and publish these traces of the once important center of Jewish culture and history: the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia.

The history of the Jewish collection in the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg began early in the century. The scale of collection and completion of material relating to the Jewish culture and way of life has varied greatly at different times – after all, it had to deal with no fewer than six million people who lived within the Pale of Settlement.

The first entries related to the subject date from 1904 to 1912, when the cultural heritage of the peoples inhabiting the vast territories of the Russian Empire attracted special interest. It was a time when there were thorough studies of the way of life among national minorities, when ethnographical expeditions were undertaken, and folklore collected. The enlightened section of the Russian intelligentsia appreciated that rapid urbanization was taking place throughout the country and feared the consequent destruction of traditional forms of folk life, including that of the Russian Jews. Among this group were F.K. Volkov, an expert in Ukrainian ethnography, A.K. Serzhputovsky, a researcher in Byelorussian ethnography, and A.A. Miller, a specialist in the people of the Caucasus, the one who made the first contribution to the Jewish collections.

The second fruitful period for the Jewish collections was during the 1930s when the Jewish section of the St. Petersburg (Leningrad) Museum was headed by I.M. Pulner. His aim was not only to expand the collection but also to form a comprehensive exhibition entitled "The Jews in Czarist Russia and the U.S.S.R." This exhibition opened in 1939 and turned out to have a rather propagandistic character, which only seemed natural in those years.

After World War II the purposeful collection of ethnographical data related to Russian Jews was virtually finished. The Pale of Settlement was now past history, while the years of brutal fascist occupation of the Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania destroyed vast quantities of cultural material.

There was also strongly anti-religious propaganda, which became the policy of the Soviet Union and destroyed the last vestiges of spiritual life – that is, the Jewish religious communities.

During the postwar years the collections were mostly augmented with gifts from other museums as well as rare purchases and private donations. A large collection from the former Moscow Museum of the Peoples of the U.S.S.R., which was passed on to the St. Petersburg Museum in 1948, should be mentioned in this respect.

The S.A. Rappoport (An-Ski) Collection is held to be the heart of the Ashkenazi collection. An-Ski headed a number of ethnographical expeditions during 1911–12, working in the provinces of Podolia, Volhynia, and Kiev. The items collected were intended for exhibition in the Jewish Museum formed as a section of the St. Petersburg Society of History and Ethnography. The Evreskaya Starina ("Jewish Antiquity") magazine, the published organ of the society, printed articles on the collecting activities of the museum. In 1914–16 An-Ski was known to be working in the front lines of Galicia, helping to evacuate historical valuables. This mission was formed by the State Duma (the Russian Parliament), and the data he collected while there were delivered to St. Petersburg. In 1917–18 Evreskaya Starina reported that "robbery and pogroms have been taking place since autumn 1917, which force us to close the museum and pack its exhibits into boxes to be kept in a safe place." From the published An-Ski will it is known that "five boxes and suitcases with exhibits were given to be kept in the Alexander III Museum," now the State Ethnographic Museum.

As we now have no precise documents or lists it is quite difficult to identify whether certain An-Ski exhibits date back to 1911–12 or to the times of his expeditions of 1914–16. Unfortunately, the documents relating to these expeditions are lost and it proves impossible to identify the geographical source of objects. Indirect indications helping to date the items can be found when deciphering the inscriptions and also in the writings of A. Rechtman. We can, however, only make guesses as to the routes An-Ski followed and the places where he found his exhibits.

The Jewish Ashkenazi collections of the State Ethnographic Museum present a historical and cultural heritage, covering the period from the late 18th to the early 20th century. In terms of geography it embraces most of the area where the Pale of Settlement was introduced after 1795 (the third partition of Poland).

The Judaica occupy a central place in the museum's collection, together with household objects and personal belongings.

The Czarist policy towards the Jews was ambivalent. It forced the Jews to live in the Pale of Settlement, where they formed 5% of the population. On the other hand, it tried to assimilate the Jews in their culture. Hundreds of measures were taken to achieve these goals, but without success. The Jews, speaking their own language, keeping their own religion and its traditions, resisted this policy.

But, as in all other communities, their material culture was heavily influenced by the Russian surroundings. The most exciting examples are the so-called Lubok paintings, Russian folk art used for decoration at home, but also as amulets to keep evil out of the house. In Judaica, often made by Jewish craftsmen, Russian folk elements like deer, birds, lions, and flowers decorated the Ḥannukah lamps, spice boxes, and rimmonim. The Czarist crown can be seen on covers for synagogue arks.

Another important part of the collection is clothing: the specific "brustichel" for women, and the headgear for men, both decorated with the so-called "spanjerwerk," gold embroidery. There are also the simple homemade wooden chess set, Ḥannukah cards, and the models of cookies, specific for the Jewish kitchen like the bridal cake in a Star of David form.

The remnants of the An-Ski Collection, modest as they are in number, should be treasured for the wealth of background they give of a poor man's deeply felt Jewish culture of bygone days. And we hope that through the exhibitions and through the publications of the material (see the catalogue Tracing An-Ski: Jewish Collections from the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg with excerpts from A. Rechtman and articles by Igor Krupnik and by Ludmilla Uritskaya, 1992) new generations can benefit from its resurgence.

[Judith Belinfante and Ludmilla Uritskaya]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.