Book Review: Anatomy of A Genocide

Winston Du – The Fratricidal Genocide

Book: Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. Omer Bartov (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018) Pp. 398.

 “Anatomy of a Genocide.” Reading the title of Historian Omer Bartov’s latest work, most readers may instinctively fill in the blanks for two important questions. Whose genocide? The Jews. By whom? Nazi Germany. After all, there is no doubt in the Western mind the identities of both the main perpetrators and victims of one of the most inerasable horrors of the twentieth century. However, this simple pair of who’s who fails to capture the depths of the darkness. As Omer Bartov cryptically remarks in his introduction, “in a certain sense all history is family history.”[1] In his work, Anatomy of a Genocide, Bartov investigates the history that shaped his mother’s hometown of Buczacz, a “frontier” town situated in present-day Ukraine that changed hands incessantly over the centuries of its existence. Using this analysis as a cornerstone, Bartov dissects how unspeakable crimes could have been committed in the region during World War II. As he reveals, the Jewish genocide many know as the Holocaust was not an isolated event for Buczacz, but rather a development deeply intertwined with the ethnic history and conflicts of the perennial border-town.

Bartov begins his tale with the sweeping history of Buczacz through the medieval ages, chronicling how many Jews came to settle in a town that belonged to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish nobles, desiring what could be considered a proto-form of economic development for their lands, saw Jews as a skilled and useful citizenry when it came to commerce and manufacturing activities, and thus welcomed.[2] Yet, despite the tolerance of these peacetime rulers, Buczacz Jews faced considerable prosecution during wartime. Cossack peasant uprisings, in particular, regularly decimated the Jewish population east of the region with full cruelty. Refugees were afforded little respite from their fellow countrymen, who in some instances “handed them over to the rebels to save their own skin.” Citing The Book of the Deep Mire, Bartov translates all the gory details, including the horror that “infants were butchered in their mothers’ laps.”[3] Thus, as the history reveals, what would come with the Nazi war machine centuries later was not a singular horror, but merely a repeat occurrence of what the region had in fact inflicted by itself against its Jews even before the modern era.

Buczacz Castle Ruins
Buczacz Castle Ruins (2016)
Source: Tomasz Leśniowski (Wikimedia Commons)

Nazi Germany could not lay claim to be the only perpetrators of Jewish genocide even in the modern era. As Bartov details, the Russian occupation of the town during World War I paralleled wide-scale racial pillaging and abuse on par with Hitler’s SS decades later. Russian troops ransacked Jewish homes in the wealthier part of town and subjected the women to gang rape. “As soon as one group of soldiers left, another one arrived.”[4] Towards the end of the occupation, the Russians set the city ablaze. Before burning a house down, they gave its residents prior warning. Unfortunately, if the inhabitants were Jews, they burned down the house – and its occupants – immediately.[5] Finally, anti-Semitic policies adopted by occupying troops, Bartov argues, “may have contributed to the cholera and typhus epidemics that struck the city due to unsanitary ghettos.”[6]

As the fortunes of empires and kingdoms rose and ebbed over the centuries of Buczacz’s existence, Buczacz changed hands along with these tides. One characteristic, however, was quite constant: in the eyes of the ruling class (whoever it happened to be at any time), the Jewish folk were always seen as alien. They never seemed to be able to belong and required, at best, drastic assimilation efforts. During the nineteenth century, When Buczacz was within the Austria-Hungarian empire, policy dictated that Jews were to be burdened with taxes and restrictions. The empire saw them only as potential citizens who could be assimilated and granted “the privileges and rights of other subjects.”[7] Schools sprung up as tools of assimilation, and one theory argued that only by learning “the language of the land” would the Jews “feel reconciled with their nationality at home” and “gradually tear down the partition that separates them [and their neighbors].”[8] After World War I, when the town became part of the newly created nation of Poland, similar efforts were undertaken. Schools preached nationalism to its attendees. But, as Bartov writes, “[Jews] could either join the Polish nation by adopting its culture and religion or remain outsiders and aliens. And in the case of the Jews, even whole-hearted adoption of Polishness did not always suffice.”[9] The Polish regarded the Jewish minority with suspicion. They were seen as lacking in the moral courage to fight, and in case the evidence that they did “was either dismissed or presented as proof of Jewish support for the [Austrian] empire and opposition to Polish nationhood.”[10]

Existing suspicions of the Jews, a third-party, meant they were regularly caught in the cross-fire between Ukrainians and Poles

Throughout the region’s history, economic problems manifested in racial hatred by the ruled against the rulers. Existing suspicions of the Jews, a third-party, meant they were regularly caught in the cross-fire between Ukrainians and Poles. During Austrian rule, Ruthenian (Ukrainian) newspapers had always painted the native Polish landlords as untrustworthy. Over time, Jews also became the face of a new target of hate and ire. Jews were disproportionately represented in certain lucrative industries such as commerce (an industry where, in the year 1900, about 280,000 Jews were employed in contrast to only 20,000 Ukrainians). This dominance, condoned by Polish bureaucrats, only incited increased hatred by Ukrainians of Jewish merchants. Similarly, Jewish purchase of agricultural land from poor Ukrainians led the latter to see it as “a Jewish takeover of the province” masterminded by haughty Polish landlords.[11] Finally, both Polish and Ukrainian nationalist movements impressed upon the peasants “to blame their own drunkenness on the Jews,” who ran most village taverns.[12] From the perspective of the gentiles, most did not believe that “the vast majority of the Jews in Buczacz, as in the rest of Galicia, were poor.”[13] The idea of Jewish wealth became so popularly imprinted in the memory of the local gentile populace (Ukrainian and Polish alike) that, even after the clear devastation of World War I, some Poles “refused to acknowledge the reality of the Galician Jewry’s utter destitution.”[14]

Agnon Street, Buczacz before World War I (1910)
Source: Victor Grebenovsky, WФотографії Арт-двору в Бучачі (Wikimedia Commons)

As Bartov illustrates, the sheer materialism and jealousy of wealth would become a powerful motivator for townsfolk to initiate or tolerate Jewish persecution. During the short-lived reign of the Ukrainian state, hooligans and militia terrorized non-Ukrainians, often targeting Jews when it came to regular “confiscations,” or shake-downs. The stolen goods would then be distributed to Ukrainians, often ending up in the hands of local peasants, creating the impression of former paupers strolling “down the avenues like respectable gentlemen.”[15] Similarly, after the arrival of Nazi Germans and their systematic killing of the local Jewish population, town members moved into “the better houses” previously owned by Jews. Local “merchants and artisans earn well… now they have no Jewish competition.” This held true for various other professionals as well. As Bartov grimly summarizes, “for some sectors of the population, the extermination of the Jews could only be described as a blessing.”[16]

Though Bartov skillfully demonstrates that the perpetration of the genocide was more than a singular Nazi crime, the more powerful element that he imparts is the diverse victims of genocide. It is not just the genocide of Jews that occurs, but the genocide of Poles and Ukrainians. Despite the fact that the town “spoke Ukrainian, mixed marriages were abundant, and no attention was paid to whether one went to the Catholic or Greek Catholic church,” there was an underlying animosity between the Poles and Ruthenian Ukrainians. While both groups viewed Jews as abetting the other side (As Bartov writes, Jews were “cast in the role of a minority whose status could never be truly acceptable to either of the two major warring parties”[17]), this agreement on the untrustworthiness of Jews did not mean harmony on other issues. The Polish exercised strict hegemony over the levers of power, and pursued a strategy of harassment of Ukrainians (including mass arrests of the Ukrainian intelligentsia). As the Poles feared during the 1920s, if the town of Buczacz were conquered by the Ukrainians, “they would massacre the Polish population.”[18]

In response, with the arrival of the Soviet Union and defeat of the Polish government, Ukrainians took control of local affairs, deporting a number of Poles to Russian wastelands to labor and perish. A number of remaining Poles were outright murdered — “killed with knives and scythes” by their Ukrainian neighbors.[19] Despite German occupation, the Polish-Ukrainian ethnic conflict only escalated as the war dragged on in Europe. The Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya (UPA) undertook a policy of massacring thousands of Poles in Eastern Galicia. The Polish underground retaliated by killing a number of unarmed Ukrainians.[20]

Of course, Bartov’s work does not fail to recount in great detail the heart of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe – a massacre of the Jewish population by the Nazi Germany occupiers. However, Bartov’s greatest contribution is his analysis of the full picture of genocide as it truly occurred in Buczacz and the surrounding regions. It is an anatomy of all the wounds inflicted, rather than just the most significant. Anatomy of a Genocide places the reader into a chaotic world with forces both large and small, distant and near. Unraveling the layers of crime, history, and local conflict, it endows its audience with an understanding that what was allowed to occur was not just a cold genocide of one people, but more broadly of the human race. By the end of the book, the reader’s initial picture of yet another small town swept along by the tides of fascism and global conflict will have faded into the backdrop, revealing instead a virulent struggle that was intimately local, but equally deadly. 

[1] Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz.  (New York, NY: 2018). 5

[2] Ibid, 8-9.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Ibid, 47.

[5] Ibid, 46.

[6] Ibid, 51.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Ibid, 18.

[9] Ibid, 93.

[10] Ibid, 65.

[11] Ibid, 22.

[12] Ibid, 21.

[13] Ibid, 28.

[14] Ibid, 65.

[15] Ibid, 69.

[16] Ibid, 266.

[17] Ibid, 75.

[18] Ibid, 73.

[19] Ibid, 149.

[20] Ibid, 268.

Book Review: Anatomy of A Genocide
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