The An-Ski Expeditions; locations visited 1912–1914. Boundaries shown are ca. 1914. (Courtesy Gabriella Safran)

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An-ski Ethnographic Expedition and Museum

From 1912 to 1914, S. An-ski (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport) headed ethnographic expeditions to the Pale of Jewish Settlement. After a limited display of the expeditionary collection in 1914, it was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Saint Petersburg, which opened briefly in 1917, and then again in 1923, only to be closed in 1929. In 2000, most of the remaining artifacts were located at the Russian Museum of Ethnography in Saint Petersburg, while most of the manuscripts and audio recordings were held in Kiev, at the Vernadskii National Library of Ukraine.

Avrom Rekhtman (seated, right), a student in the so-called Higher Courses on Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg and member of the An-ski ethnographic expedition, interviewing his grandfather on the latter’s porch, Brailov, Ukraine, 1914. (YIVO)

In 1907, An-ski devoted himself to the field of Jewish ethnography, after he had concluded that only folklore would be the basis for creating a contemporary Jewish culture. In 1908–1910, using folkloric material gathered mainly from printed sources, he published a number of scientific articles and literary interpretations of legends. In the course of this work, he became convinced of the necessity of a full-scale ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Jewish Settlement.


A project of ethnographic expedition, named in memory of Baron Horace Gintsburg, was started in 1911 thanks to a donation by his son, the Kiev banker Vladimir Gintsburg . At a preliminary meeting of scholars in Saint Petersburg in March 1912, An-ski declared that the main aim was to record oral and musical relics. He stressed that “the collection of folklore for us is not only a scholarly, but also a national and timely mission. In order to educate our children in a national Jewish spirit it is necessary to give them folktales and songs.” Hoping that writers, musicians, and artists could be inspired by such materials, An-ski invited them to participate in the project. He was joined by Solomon Iudovin, a photographer and artist, and Yo’el Engel, a musicologist and composer, in the first venture, which took place between July and October 1912 [see the biographies of Iudovin and Engel]. The expedition, which began in the shtetl of Ruzhin, ultimately investigated approximately 15 communities in Kiev and Volhynia provinces, ending up in Luts’k. In the second season (June–November 1913), An-ski and Iudovin traveled to some 60 communities in Volhynia and Podolia, and were joined by folklore specialist Zusman (Zinovii) Kiselgof and students of the so-called Higher Courses on Oriental Studies (an institute of Jewish studies in Saint Petersburg funded by David Gintsburg)—Avrom Rekhtman, Yitskhok Pikangur, and Shmuel Shrayer. Iudovin and Rekhtman set out again in July 1914, but the mission was cut short by World War I.

Zusman Kiselgof, member of S. An-ski's ethnographic expedition, recording folklore in Kremenets, Russian Empire (now in Ukraine), 1912. (YIVO)

According to An-ski’s reports published in 1915–1917, the group investigated about 70 towns in the Pale, recording more than 2,000 folktales, legends, and traditions; more than 1,500 folk songs; as many as 1,000 instrumental and synagogue melodies and drinking songs, as well as customs, ceremonies, superstitions, incantations, proverbs, and parables. Besides oral and musical recordings, material objects occupied a prominent place among expeditionary finds: more than 700 items that could be shown in museum exhibits, several hundred documents and letters, and approximately 100 manuscripts, collections of popular graphic art, mizrokhim (ornamental plaques indicating the eastern direction for prayers), marriage contracts, and other items. They also photographed hundreds of synagogues and their interiors, tombstones, ritual objects, artisans, and stereotypical figures.

An-ski’s growing interest in material objects found expression in his lectures, which were accompanied by slides of synagogues and gravestones, and also in his Ortike historishe programe (Program for Local History, compiled with Abram Iuditskii). This questionnaire focuses on the effect on mass consciousness of material objects and historical events (a rare example of more than 60 questions with answers was included in the memorial volume for the Jewish community of Sochaczew). This appreciation of the value of material objects and artifacts for national identification and education later led An-ski to a project of developing Jewish museums. He intended to create Jewish museums of three types: an ethnographic museum in every city, an art museum in every region, and a museum of national relics in the historic homeland of the Jews.

In 1912–1913, An-ski and his coworkers from the Higher Courses on Oriental Studies devised the Yidishe Etnografishe Programe (Jewish Ethnographic Program), the purpose of which was to systematize the collection and handling of data, as well as to enable volunteers to conduct independent work in places not reached by the expedition. The first part, called Der Mentsh (Man), was edited by ethnographer Lev Shternberg and published in 1914; it asked 2,087 questions about the traditional life cycle. Though only the answers to the queries about death still exist, the work of An-ski and his colleagues contributed substantially to putting Yiddish folklore and ethnography on a scientific footing in line with the best practices of the field at that time.

Museum Exhibits

A brief display of the expeditionary collection (more than 800 items) opened on 19 April 1914 at the Jewish almshouse in Saint Petersburg in rooms allotted to the Museum of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society (EIEO). During World War I, the initial collection was supplemented by artifacts that An-ski and his colleagues had sent from the war front. The Petrograd (later, Leningrad) Museum of the EIEO was opened to the public in May 1917, with an exhibition organized by archivists Sal’vian Gol’dshtein and Yitsḥak Lurie. Viewers were able to observe 994 artifacts (686 of which belonged to the expeditionary collection) in glass showcases, arranged in groups according to their ritual functions in the synagogue or home and the material from which they were made. The items included Hanukkah menorahs, Torah scroll breastplates, embroidered Torah ark covers, candlesticks, spice boxes, mizrokhim,amulets, headgear, holiday clothing, purim-shpil costumes, and title pages of community registers. In the autumn of 1917, however—in view of increasingly frequent robberies in revolutionary Petrograd—the exhibition was closed, with the most valuable items removed for storage at the Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum in that city.

Members of the Vilner Trupe, Poland, ca. 1919, including Dovid Herman (top row, left), M. Kowalski (second from left), Alter Kacyzne (third) Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (fourth), Frieda Blumenthal (next to Rapoport), Chaim Sznejer (to Blumenthal’s left), Sonia Alomis (front row, left), and Leyb Kadison (front row, right). (YIVO)

The Jewish Museum in Petrograd reopened in June 1923, when EIEO re-newed its activity; as the only Jewish museum in Soviet Russia it was in the 1920s a major center for Jewish studies. The museum’s director was sculptor Il’ia Gintsburg, and from 1926, physician Abram Bramson; Iudovin served as chief curator. Exhibitions involved the departments of anthropology, demography, history, ethnography, and folk art. Topics included ethnography, art, music, sanitation, and medicine (various scientific expeditions were undertaken). However, in 1929, authorities accused EIEO and its museum of “propagandizing a chauvinist-religious ideology” and closed them down.

Many of the collections were transferred to the Mendele Moykher-Sforim All-Ukrainian Museum of Jewish Culture in Odessa, which was open between 1927 and 1941 and with which the Jewish Museum in Leningrad had maintained close ties. As early as 1926, the Ethnography Department of the Russian Museum had registered the artifacts that An-ski had given it for safekeeping in 1917. In 1930, additional An-ski collection items from the defunct museum were added. Altogether they became the basis of the Jewish-Ashkenazic collections of the Leningrad State Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR (GME), organized in 1934. GME acquired other items from the An-ski collection in 1938, together with part of the collection of the temporarily closed Odessa Jewish Museum, brought to Leningrad by the head of GME’s Jewish Section, Yehoshu‘a Pul’ner. In 1939, Iudovin handed over to GME material that he had preserved. The exhibits of the An-ski collection were displayed in a GME exposition organized in 1939 by Pul’ner, titled The Jews in Tsarist Russia and the USSR.

Children playing, Kremenets, Russia (now in Ukraine), ca. 1913. A photograph taken during the An-ski Ethnographic Expedition, 1912–1914. (YIVO)

GME’s Jewish collections suffered greatly from the bombing of Leningrad in 1941, and the Jewish section was not restored after World War II. In 1952, a collection of silver ritual objects from the former Jewish Museum in Odessa was transferred to the Museum of Historical Valuables in Kiev. The most valued selections of documents, manuscripts, recordings, and texts were acquired by the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev, and from the 1990s they have been at the Vernadskii National Library of Ukraine. Other materials remain in archives, libraries, and museums in Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, and Moscow.

With the collapse of the Soviet regime at the beginning of the 1990s, the most significant Jewish ritual objects were displayed in GME’s (now the Russian Museum of Ethnography) Special Storeroom Collections. In 1992–1995, an exhibition of some items from the An-ski collection (approximately 150 artifacts) traveled to museums in Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, Jerusalem, and New York. The same collection was displayed in the exhibition Images of One People: The Jewish Collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography in Saint Petersburg in April 2004. The creators of this exhibition declared that it is the first stage in organizing a State Jewish Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Suggested Reading

Aleksander S. Kantsedikas and Irina Sergeeva, The Jewish Artistic Heritage Album by Semyon Ansky (Moscow, 2001), parallel text in Russian and English; Igor I. Krupnik, “Jewish Holdings of the Leningrad Ethnographic Museum,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 19.1 (1989): 35–48; Benyamin Lukin, “Me-‘Amamiyut le-‘am: Darko shel Anski be-etnografyah ha-yehudit,” in Ba-Ḥazarah la-‘ayarah: Anski veha-mishlaḥat ha-etnografit ha-yehudit, 1912–1914; Me-Osfe ha-muze’on ha-mamlakhti le-etnografyah be-Sankt Peterburg, ed. Rivka Gonen, pp. 27–40 (Jerusalem, 1994); Benyamin Lukin, “‘An Academy Where Folklore Will Be Studied’: Ansky and the Jewish Museum,” in Words of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century, ed. Gabriella Safran and Steven J. Zipperstein, pp. 281–306 (Stanford, 2006); Abraham Rekhtman, Yidishe etnografye un folklor: Zikhroynes vegn der etnografisher ekspeditsye ongefirt fun Sh. An-ski mit ilustratsyes fun alte shuln un matseyves in Ukraine (Buenos Aires, 1958); Irina Sergeeva, “Etnograficheskie ekspeditsii Semena An-skogo v dokumentakh,” Paralleli 2–3 (2003): 97–124; Liudmyla Sholokhova, Fonoarkhiv ievreis’koi muzychnoi spadshchyny (Kiev, 2001), mostly in Russian and Yiddish, with introduction in English, Russian and Ukrainian; Liudmila Uritskaya, “Ashkenazi Jewish Collections of the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg,” in Tracing Ansky: Jewish Collections from the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg; Catalog of the Exhibition in Joods Historish Museum, pp. 24–57 (Amsterdam, 1992).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1.2, YIVO (Vilna): Ethnographic Committee, Records, 1911-1940; RG 29, Vilna, Collection, 1822-1940; RG 2, Lithuanian Jewish Communities, Records, 1844-1940.



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson