- Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov
Bartov’s treatment of his mother’s hometown deftly balances the general and the particular while elucidating the collapse of empires and birth of nation-states, the erosion of the semi-feudal economy, the rise of aggressive nationalisms, the trauma of war and ethnic cleansing. He analyzes genocide on the ground: not the culmination of impersonal processes, but the personal riot of hatred, greed, and opportunism. While Bartov does not draw false moral equivalences between victim and perpetrator, he shows too how German occupation morally compromised many Jews.
This book anchors a keen sense of Eastern Europe in gripping personal narratives, merging interviews with archival and secondary sources. Chapter 1, “The Gathering Storm,” summarizes the town’s history before 1914; chapter 2, “Enemies At Their Pleasure,” records the experience of World War I. Bartov stresses that the end of the Habsburg Empire—which afforded Buczacz many decades of peace and stability—was not foreordained. Nor was genocide. Still, when mass killing began, it was “cruel and intimate”; violence was compounded by betrayal as victim often knew perpetrator. Thousands of Buczacz Jews may have perished in Belzec, but many were murdered on the spot, driven to the pits by long-time neighbors.
Jewish Buczacz had originally grown and prospered in a Polish Commonwealth that hosted the largest Jewish community in the world before disappearing in the eighteenth-century partitions. The Polish nobility needed Jews to manage its forests, estates, taverns, and other businesses, and to perform other economic roles. The nobles wielded the power to establish private towns, enticing Jewish settlement with economic and other privileges. Over time these “shtetls” became home to a distinctive folk culture. In the Jewish imagination the shtetl is an entirely Jewish world, steeped in religious observance, defined in part by the tension between security and vulnerability, the Slavic forests and hoped-for Jerusalem. Nowhere is this memory evoked with more beauty than in the stories of Buczacz’s famous son, Nobel laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.
One way Agnon coped with memory of the murder of his town was to imagine the majestic house of prayer in its center: “I put every man in the place where he used to sit and where he studied and where his sons and sons-in-law and grandsons sat.”1 Of course Agnon romanticized. Like other shtetls, Buczacz felt the modernizing effects of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), Zionism, the arrival of socialism. Bartov pays homage to Agnon and such other famous Buczacz Jews as the historian Emanuel Ringelblum. But unlike Agnon, Bartov’s job was to write about the real city. And the real Buczacz was also inhabited by Poles and Ukrainians.
For Poles, Buczacz evokes nostalgia for the kresy: the great forests, lakes, and hills that marked the eastern marches of the old Rzeczpospolita (Polish Commonwealth). It was in the kresy—today’s Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine—where the Polish gentry built the castles, manor houses, and churches so beautifully described by Adam Mickiewicz or Czeslaw Milosz. The kresy evoked a proud Poland guarding Western—Catholic—civilization from the East. [End Page 429]
The towns of East Galicia, where Buczacz was located, were usually Jewish and Polish, but almost everywhere Ukrainian villages surrounded the urban enclaves, a fraught tripartite relationship. The Orthodox or Uniate peasantry—long before they became “Ukrainians”—detested the Polish landlords and their Jewish middlemen. The bloody seventeenth-century revolt led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky may not have been the national uprising Ukrainian patriots anachronistically depict, but it heralded a grim future of clashing nationalisms. For Ukrainians, figures like Khmelnitsky are national heroes. Poles—and especially Jews—remember them as bringers of catastrophe.
Ukrainian nationalism began to emerge in the nineteenth-century Habsburg Galicia, which afforded a degree of cultural freedom. It clashed with Polish claims, and Jews found themselves in the middle. World War I devastated Buczacz, destroyed the Habsburg Empire, and...