Tales from the Bor­der­lands: Mak­ing and Unmak­ing the Gali­cian Past

  • Review
By – October 10, 2022

Although it could not have been intend­ed at the time of writ­ing, there is some­thing trag­i­cal­ly per­ti­nent about Omer Bartov’s his­to­ry of Bucza­cz, a small town on the Stry­pa Riv­er in West­ern Ukraine, about 135 kilo­me­ters south­west of Lviv. It may have start­ed as a his­to­ry pre-1939, but no read­er can now think of any­thing but the con­tin­u­ous present.

Bartov’s account of the polit­i­cal, social, cul­tur­al and reli­gious tur­moil of this stretch of land from the Black Sea to the Baltic — encom­pass­ing what has at var­i­ous times been claimed as Ruthe­nia, Poland, Lithua­nia, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire (Gali­cia is a term derived from Hun­gar­i­an), Rus­sia, and the USSR — is per­son­al, pro­found, and mov­ing. This land is, of course, the heart of the Pale of Set­tle­ment. It was where the great expand­ing empires [of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry] over­lapped, clashed and dis­in­te­grat­ed.” It is, as many will recall, part of what Tim­o­thy Sny­der dubbed the Blood­lands,” and Bar­tov, the cra­dle of moder­ni­ty.” He does this not just to go back in time, but to learn how life was led and under­stood … and why what we have cre­at­ed for our­selves may not be the best ver­sion of human civilization.”

Bar­tov sees the tumult of war and sub­ju­ga­tion through the lens of the first per­son nar­ra­tives of those who lived it in the raw: the small com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ples who were over­run and rav­aged again and again, but still con­struct­ed iden­ti­ties and cul­tures, and clung tena­cious­ly to the sto­ries they told about them­selves. Bar­tov uses what he calls micro-his­to­ries, diaries, and per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion to illus­trate the rel­a­tive­ly diverse socio­cul­tur­al envi­ron­ment in what he calls a thick descrip­tion. He attempts to give the region a voice, using per­son­al­ized sto­ries to reflect larg­er his­tor­i­cal events; and in this way he pays trib­ute to the resilience and tenac­i­ty of the people.

Much of the book rests on the fact that the his­to­ri­an has a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with the area — his moth­er was from Bucza­cz. Indeed, many of the pho­tographs are Bartov’s own (or from his pri­vate col­lec­tion). Bucza­cz is also the birth­place of Simon Wiesen­thal and the Nobel Lau­re­ate, Shmuel Agnon; through­out the book, there are echoes of Agnon’s con­cerns about the ways in which tra­di­tions and chang­ing cir­cum­stances scrape against each other.

Tales from the Bor­der­lands is impres­sive­ly researched and detailed, and in some respects it can be seen as a com­pan­ion piece to Bartov’s ear­li­er work, par­tic­u­lar­ly Anato­my of a Geno­cide, which details the events in the same area in and around Bucza­cz dur­ing WWII. Tak­en togeth­er, and with­in the con­text of Bartov’s entire body of work, they form not only an account of the past, but a cry for the present and a warn­ing for the future.

Discussion Questions