Reviewed by Michael S. Roth in the Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2018
In hyperpolarized environments, many take comfort in the idea that our conflicts with other people arise mainly from misunderstandings, that if we just took the time to get to know those people as human beings, we might all get along. It will be harder to take such comfort after reading Omer Bartov’s “Anatomy of a Genocide.”
Mr. Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, has spent his professional life trying to understand the efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. He has written on Nazi ideology and the German military; on total war’s relation to genocide; and on questions of representation and memory in regard to traumatic historical events. For several years, he has been interested in the role of Eastern European interethnic relations in the Holocaust and its aftermath. “Anatomy of a Genocide”—a detailed examination of deadly events in the town of Buczacz, in present-day Ukraine, during World War II—is the product of his decades of research into the ways in which ideology, ethnic tension and war become a recipe for mass murder. It is also a powerfully personal project. Mr. Bartov’s mother immigrated from Buczacz to what is now Israel in the mid-1930s. Family members who didn’t emigrate were murdered in the “cruel and intimate” events of the following decade.
If you google Buczacz, you will probably be redirected to Buchach, the currently acceptable spelling for the Ukrainian version of the city’s name. There are also Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkish versions, because today’s western Ukraine, part of what is sometimes called Galicia, has been home to a variety of ethnic groups for centuries. In the late 1700s, the province contained about 200,000 Jews and an even greater number of Christians who identified as either Polish or Ukrainian (Ruthenians). Throughout the 19th century, the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in 1867 “emancipated” the Jews: As citizens, they could now engage in commerce and own land. As more and more Jews took advantage of these freedoms, tensions arose with other groups.
Mr. Bartov notes that the “rules of the game” changed completely after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Intensified religious and ethnic identification, along with violent swings in political control, led to increased violence. Russia occupied Buczacz for more than a year near the end of the war, and fighting among Poles and Ukrainians left legacies of resentment and a “competition of atrocities in which there could only be losers.” The Poles and Ukrainians seemed to agree on one thing: that the Jews were the friends of their enemies. This meant that whenever conflicts arose, the Jewish population was vulnerable.
And in Buczacz conflicts did arise, not least in the late 1930s and early 1940s—from the Soviet occupation of the city as World War II began, to the fierce fighting between Poles and Ukrainians, to the coordinated effort to murder or expel Jews from the region. Families that had managed to live together peacefully turned on one another with startling ferocity. “The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes,” Mr. Bartov writes, “was now transformed into an intimacy of violence.” Although there had been sporadic violence in the region for a long time, even the shrewdest observer “could not anticipate the scale of the horror that was about to envelope Galicia.”
There is by now an enormous body of literature on the depravity of those who organized, implemented, or just stood by and watched the mass killings of Eastern European Jews in 1942-43. But even readers familiar with this literature and the gruesome events it describes will be shaken by Mr. Bartov’s story of this single town. It is brutal. Killers knew their victims personally, and most of the time such familiarity only added to the sadistic glee with which they slaughtered children or buried entire families in mass graves. Many of the perpetrators were known as decent folk before the killings began, not displaying any particular tendencies toward violence or ideologically fueled hatred. And afterward they were able to return to their normal lives without a trace of their capacities for cruelty or any indication of remorse or shame. The bloodshed seemingly left no stain.
German overseers were brought in to Buczacz to ensure that the extermination of the Jews would be efficient. Mr. Bartov draws our attention to the gratuitous nastiness of many of the killers—this wasn’t just a military operation or a case of merely following orders. Murderers and their lovers, families and friends “appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region,” Mr. Bartov writes. After all, they were powerful for a while; they held life and death in their hands, and they had access to all the food, booze and sex they could possible want. “For many of them,” Mr. Bartov says, “this was clearly the best time of their lives.”
This is not a story of industrialized murder of the sort that occurred at centers like Auschwitz. This is a story of close-up killing—of shooting a young girl in the face, of smashing a toddler’s skull against a rock or a wall. There was little effort at secrecy. The mass graves on Fedor Hill, a popular recreation site, were easily visible, and in a small place like Buczacz, everyone knew the final destinations of Jews who were marched away. Recruiting townsmen to be shooters was never a problem, Mr. Bartov notes, and participation in the murders of neighbors “nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy
Mr. Bartov does devote some pages to accounts of people in the region who spared the lives of Jews on the run, often at risk to themselves. These rare acts of goodness, he concludes, demonstrate that “there always was a choice”—in many cases the decision to help was a mercenary calculation, in precious few was it motivated by “altruism and grace.”
The defeat of the Nazis did not bring respite to the region. As the Soviet armies approached, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists intensified their attacks on each other. Scores of thousands were killed before the Ukrainians succeeded in 1944 in driving Polish citizens from the region. By then the Jews were gone. When the Soviets seized control, they decided that there could be no return to normal after such massive trauma. They moved hundreds of thousands of people in order to separate the competing nationalist groups. By the end of the 1940s, the once multiethnic region had become homogeneously Ukrainian.
Today, Buczacz’s citizens memorialize the martyred Ukrainian nationalists who fought for their cause. The Polish population has all but disappeared, and there is just the occasional Jewish visitor to a Holocaust monument buried deep in a dense forest. Mr. Bartov’s anatomy of genocidal destruction is a monument of a different sort. It is an act of filial piety recollecting the blood-soaked homeland of his parents; it is a substantive contribution to the history of ethnic strife and extreme violence; it is a harrowing reminder that brutality and intimacy can combine to destroy individual lives and reshape the destiny of a region and its peoples: history as recollection and as warning.