The Bru­tal­ity of Neigh­bors

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ju­lia M. Klein Ju­lia M. Klein, the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic, was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle’s Nona Balakian Ci­ta­tion for Ex­cel­lence in Re­view­ing. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @ Ju­li­aMKlein

ANATOMY OF A GENO­CIDE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A TOWN CALLED BUCZACZ By Omer Bar­tov Simon & Schus­ter, 416 pages, $30

In re­search­ing the Ukrainian town of Buczacz, Omer Bar­tov wanted to un­cover his own fam­ily his­tory. But only a few traces of that his­tory re­mained. What “Anatomy of a Geno­cide” pro­vides in­stead is per­haps more valu­able: A sear­ing por­trait of how the Holo­caust worked on the ground for or­di­nary men and women — one­time neigh­bors and friends whose dis­parate fates were de­ter­mined by eth­nic­ity and chance.

The book’s epi­graph is a pow­er­ful quo­ta­tion from No­bel lau­re­ate Shumel Yosef Agnon’s “The City Whole” (1973), based on Buczacz. At one point, its nar­ra­tor closes his eyes “so that I would not see the deaths of my broth­ers” — but also to imag­ine the city and its in­hab­i­tants as they once were.

Bar­tov, Brown Univer­sity’s John P. Birkelund Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean His­tory, keeps his eyes wide open. He draws on archival sources, as well as his own in­ter­views with sur­vivors and wit­nesses, to de­scribe not just mass mur­der, but res­cue, re­sis­tance, col­lab­o­ra­tion and es­cape — all the ways in which in­di­vid­u­als con­fronted calamity. The re­sult, while fac­tual, is also imag­i­na­tively com­pelling.

Buczacz lies within what Yale Univer­sity his­to­rian Ti­mothy Sny­der has called “the blood­lands” — the vast ter­ri­tory in East­ern Europe and the for­mer Soviet Union where the “Holo­caust by bul­lets” pre­ceded and par­al­leled the es­tab­lish­ment of death camps. Mass mur­der took place within view, and of­ten with the com­plic­ity, of the Jews’ Ukrainian and Pol­ish neigh­bors. Many Ukraini­ans, in par­tic­u­lar, were pro­foundly anti-Semitic and be­came in­dis­pens­able cogs in the Nazi killing ma­chine.

The Is­raeli-born Bar­tov — whose rel­a­tives in Buczacz all died in the Holo­caust — re­mem­bers ask­ing his mother to share her child­hood mem­o­ries. One of the lucky ones, she had im­mi­grated to Pales­tine from Buczacz, then part of Poland, in 1935. Af­ter her death, Bar­tov tra­versed three con­ti­nents and nine coun­tries to learn more of his fam­ily’s story. He found only a note about his ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther’s re­quest to en­ter Pales­tine and in­for­ma­tion on the ship that had trans­ported his mother and her fam­ily from Europe.

So Bar­tov turned his fo­cus to il­lu­mi­nat­ing cen­turies of life in Buczacz, with its “con­stant in­ter­ac­tion be­tween dif­fer­ent re­li­gious and eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties,” pri- mar­ily Ukraini­ans, Poles and Jews. That very in­ter­ac­tion, he writes, made the even­tual geno­cide “a com­mu­nal event both cruel and in­ti­mate, filled with gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence and be­trayal as well as flashes of al­tru­ism and kind­ness.”

Over the years, the town had ex­pe­ri­enced al­ter­nat­ing cy­cles of peace and in­ternecine vi­o­lence, as well as the hor­rors of war and oc­cu­pa­tion. Eye­wit- ness ac­counts of 17th cen­tury at­tacks by Cos­sacks on Jewish com­mu­ni­ties de­scribe par­tic­u­larly bru­tal acts. The un­der­ly­ing ques­tion posed, but never en­tirely an­swered here, is whether the Holo­caust rep­re­sented the cul­mi­na­tion of long-sim­mer­ing ten­sions, or some­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

In the late 18th-cen­tury, Buczacz be­came part of East­ern Gali­cia, ruled by the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire. Eman­ci­pa­tion, in the 19th cen­tury, lifted re­stric­tions on res­i­dence and oc­cu­pa­tion, al­low­ing Jews to be­come farm­ers and fos­ter­ing anti-Semitic ten­sions in the coun­try­side. In the early 20th cen­tury, along­side Zion­ism, Pol­ish na­tion­al­ism was a ris­ing, and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful, force.

Dur­ing World War I, Buczacz was “re­peat­edly con­quered and oc­cu­pied by one side or an­other, dev­as­tated by fight­ing, loot­ing, wan­ton de­struc­tion and fe­ro­cious vi­o­lence.” The his­tory, in Bar­tov’s telling, is com­plex, bloody and hard to fol­low.

The city was ‘dev­as­tated by fight­ing, loot­ing, wan­ton de­struc­tion and fe­ro­cious vi­o­lence.’

One theme, how­ever, emerges clearly: When Poles and Ukraini­ans bat­tled, Jews — who, as of 1921, made up a slight ma­jor­ity of the town’s pop­u­la­tion — tended to be scape­goated by both sides. In­tereth­nic hos­til­i­ties ran high in the years pre­ced­ing World War II, when Buczacz was part of Poland, and were ex­ac­er­bated by Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion early in World War II. “The in­ti­macy of friend­ships…was now trans­formed into an in­ti­macy of vi­o­lence,” Bar­tov writes.

“Anatomy of a Geno­cide” hits its stride in Bar­tov’s re­count­ing of the fate of the Jews af­ter the 1941 Ger­man takeover. The killings be­gan shortly there­after, aided by Ukrainian po­lice­men who of­ten knew their vic­tims. One Nazi leader shot Jewish teenagers beg­ging for their lives, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously hold­ing the hand of his five-year-old son. Mur­der was rou­tinized, and served as “back­ground noise to drink­ing bouts or amorous re­la­tion­ships.” Mean­while, Ger­man civil­ian fam­i­lies em­ployed Jewish slave labor, mak­ing their “tidy Ger­man homes…an is­land of nor­mal­ity float­ing on an ocean of blood….”

Bar­tov writes with some sym­pa­thy of the dilem­mas faced by Jewish lead­ers try­ing to meet es­ca­lat­ing Ger­man de­mands in the name of com­mu­nity (and self) preser­va­tion. While em­pha­siz­ing first-per­son ac­counts, Bar­tov notes how self-serv­ing and dis­torted they can be; ac­cused killers rou­tinely lied at post­war tri­als, while some res­cuers ex­ag­ger­ated their roles.

As both Buczacz’s oc­cu­piers and na­tives turned on the Jews, there were “ex­cep­tions to the may­hem and mur­der.” Re­ly­ing on the kind­ness of both friends and strangers, some Jews hid; oth­ers fought back; a few chil­dren were suc­cess­fully placed with Chris­tian fam­i­lies. “I am writing you the last let­ter of my life,” a fa­ther, about to sur­ren­der, writes to his sur­viv­ing chil­dren. “I have only suf­fered in the hope that I would per­haps still see you, but sadly I have no more strength.”

Some neigh­bors “made sur­vival pos- sible at enor­mous risk to them­selves,” while oth­ers looked away, prof­ited fi­nan­cially, or even joined in the killing. At times the line be­tween res­cue and abuse could blur, as Jews traded money, pos­ses­sions, even sex for life. Yet as one sur­vivor, Zev An­der­man, saved by two Ukrainian broth­ers, later said: “Among the Chris­tians, Poles and Ukraini­ans, there were also hu­man be­ings. We and his­tory must not for­get that.” Amidst the un­spar­ing cat­a­logue of atroc­i­ties, Bar­tov al­lows a glim­mer of hope.


A HIS­TORY OF ATROC­I­TIES: Omer Bar­tov’s book en­cap­su­lates a story of geno­cide in the fate of the Ukrainian town of Buczacz.

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