Anato­my of a Geno­cide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz

By – February 7, 2018

Giv­en the thou­sands of books and arti­cles writ­ten about the Shoah, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that some­thing new can be said about the mur­der of Euro­pean Jew­ry. Yet, Omer Bartov’s new book — with a focus on the East Euro­pean bor­der town of Bucza­cz, today part of Ukraine — does exact­ly that.

Pri­or to World War II, Bucza­cz fell under Pol­ish rule; fol­low­ing the Nazi pact with the Sovi­et Union in August 1939, it fell under ruth­less Sovi­et occu­pa­tion. After Nazi Germany’s inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union in June 1939, the town was lib­er­at­ed” by the Ger­mans. The gist of Bartov’s remark­able book cov­ers the imple­men­ta­tion of the Nazis’ Final Solu­tion in east­ern Gali­cia in gen­er­al, and Bucza­cz in par­tic­u­lar, aid­ed and abet­ted by Ukrain­ian auxiliaries.

For cen­turies, Bucza­cz was home to Poles, Ukraini­ans, and Jews. The first few chap­ters of Bartov’s book describe the pre­war rela­tion­ship between these three groups. At times liv­ing in har­mo­ny with one anoth­er, the Poles, nev­er­the­less, attempt­ed to bru­tal­ly elim­i­nate any ves­tiges of Ukrain­ian cul­ture, which result­ed in con­stant rebel­lion by Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists. Both sides played the Jew­ish peo­ple against one anoth­er, espe­cial­ly after the Sovi­et occu­pa­tion, when Poles and Ukraini­ans accused Jews of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Sovi­ets. This led to geno­ci­dal attacks, most­ly by Ukraini­ans; these bru­tal­i­ties fore­shad­owed the dec­i­ma­tion of much of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the Holocaust.

Bar­tov describes more than the mur­der­ous atroc­i­ties of the Ukraini­ans and Nazis towards the Jews. He notes that fol­low­ing the war, the mem­o­ry of the Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists’ com­plic­i­ty in the geno­cide of the Jews…was erased from their post-com­mu­nist glo­ri­fi­ca­tion.” Bar­tov says that if the Poles described the Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists as sav­ages” and the Jews saw them as worse than the Ger­mans,” from their own point of view they were mar­tyrs of a just and holy cause: the lib­er­a­tion of their land from for­eign oppres­sion. That goal, writes Bar­tov, “ jus­ti­fied the means, includ­ing mas­sacres, eth­nic cleans­ing, and genocide.”

Anato­my of a Geno­cide explains why, in many parts of Europe, and espe­cial­ly in the East, there is a reluc­tant acknowl­edge­ment — if one at all — of Hitler’s war against the Jews. After all, many non-Jew­ish Ukraini­ans, Poles, and oth­er East­ern Euro­peans see them­selves as hav­ing been vic­tim­ized by the Nazis as much as Jews. The com­pe­ti­tion for vic­tim­hood that began with the war and con­tin­ues to this day, argues Bar­tov, accounts for a dis­tort­ed col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Jew­ish genocide.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions

Omer Bartov’s Anato­my of a Geno­cide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Bucza­cz, is a fas­ci­nat­ing, and well-writ­ten analy­sis of how geno­cide took place in the East Euro­pean bor­der town of Bucza­cz, Poland (now Ukraine).

Bucza­cz, the birth­place of S. Y. Agnon, was inhab­it­ed by Poles, Ukraini­ans, and Jews. Over the course of three years, the entire Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was mur­dered by Ger­man and Ukrain­ian police, while Ukrain­ian nation­al­ists erad­i­cat­ed the Pol­ish res­i­dents. Bartov’s nar­ra­tive shows how com­plex the process of eth­nic cleans­ing” was, blend­ing pre­dictable con­duct with unex­pect­ed indi­vid­ual behav­ior. An unusu­al fea­ture of this book is that the author names and describes both vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors. The read­er feels an imme­di­a­cy and inti­ma­cy with the events in this con­cise, read­able, and well-illus­trat­ed study.

Bartov’s mono­graph demon­strates the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of towns and nar­ra­tives that might oth­er­wise be for­got­ten. It also helps us under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of intereth­nic con­flict, which con­tin­ues to trou­ble our world today