The Third Death (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine By Omer Bartov Princeton University Press 232 pages; $26.95 The Jews of Eastern Europe who perished in the Holocaust can be said to have died three deaths. Firstly, they were murdered systematically by Nazi units and by their countrymen and neighbors. Secondly, the very evidence of their deaths was systematically obliterated by the Nazis. And now, the last physical traces and memories of their former communities and their violent ends are being destroyed by a potent mixture of hostility and indifference in some of the new states that emerged from the ruins of the former Soviet Union. This 'third death' is thoughtfully and depressingly described by Omer Bartov, a highly respected historian specializing in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at Brown University, in his new book, "Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine." Bartov takes the reader through Eastern Galicia, now in Western Ukraine on a journey that is both personal - his mother grew up in Buchach (Buczacz) - and historical. The book opens with an astute analysis of this borderland area in which a significant Jewish minority had dwelt for many centuries alongside Ukrainians and Poles. Eastern Galicia was part of Poland for centuries, before it was absorbed by the Hapsburg Empire in 1772. After the empire's collapse, a three-way war between Poland, the USSR, and the Ukrainians in 1919-1921 resulted in the region becoming part of Poland again. With the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets annexed Eastern Galicia to the Ukrainian SSR, in accordance with the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and imposed communist rule. When the Germans conquered the area in the summer of 1941, they were welcomed as liberators from the Soviets and from the Jews, whom Ukrainian nationalists alleged had all collaborated with the hated Soviet regime. This was a lethal mix of factors whose results are well known - some 500,000 Jews were murdered in Eastern Galicia during the Holocaust, and many of the few survivors fled westward or to Israel after the war. Today only a few Jews remain, chiefly in the larger cities. The minimization of the Jews' role in local history and their murder began during the Soviet era. Among those responsible were the Jews' neighbors, many of whom helped the Nazis implement the 'Final Solution,' and this process has been continued by the children and grandchildren of these collaborators. In addition, the Soviet authorities, in line with their policies elsewhere, distorted the past to hide any mention of Jews. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, elements of the Soviet distortion of history have been blended with a new ultra-nationalist historical narrative, in which Stepan Bandera, head of the ultra-nationalist OUN militia, and other nationalist mass murderers emerge as heroic freedom fighters. As in other post-communist countries, the Jews are often vilified for their supposed role in supporting Ukraine's enemies, or else ignored. The picture that emerges from Bartov's travels is as depressing as it is clear. Ukraine has made great strides towards completing the obliteration of both the evidence of the murder of the Jews and of the extensive Jewish presence in Ukraine, especially in its towns and cities, while also glorifying the Ukrainian national heroes who were the bane of the Jews' existence from the 17th century onwards and especially during the Holocaust. Shockingly, monuments to these 'heroes' are often placed on the sites of Jewish destruction. Bartov takes us through 20 cities and towns and everywhere finds the same decaying remnants of synagogues, cemeteries, or other Jewish structures, usually unmarked, and often taken over for different purposes. And when there is a plaque of some kind, the Ukrainian text is almost always more bland, shorter, and mentions Jews less than the text in other languages (often Yiddish, sometimes English). In the town of Husiatyn, the beautiful late 17th-century Renaissance- style synagogue still stands, symbolizing the local Jewish community's golden age. After the war it became a Soviet museum and then a nationalist museum, standing below a Soviet-style monument marking the 60th anniversary of the communist revolution. The original function of the synagogue building was not stressed by either regime, as it fit neither the communist nor the ultra-nationalist historical narrative. Looking at this juxtaposition of the 300-year-old elegant beauty of the synagogue with the surrounding tastelessness and propaganda, Bartov observes that "civilization seems to have made little progress" since the synagogue was built. In his discussion of the city of Chortkiv (Czortków), Bartov remarks on the difference in the fates of the religious symbols of two communities who have all but disappeared - Polish Roman Catholics and Jews. The town's main Catholic church is in excellent condition, whereas Jewish sites have decayed. Bartov attributes this in part to the sense of respect that the mostly Uniate (Greek Catholic) and Orthodox Ukrainians have for Roman Catholic churches, in contrast to their suspicious attitudes towards Jews. Volunteers come on weekends and vacations to work on church restoration funded by the Polish Church and the Vatican. In contrast, local Ukrainians told Bartov that "the Jews won't pay" to carry out similar preservation work on their own properties. In fact, there are few survivors wealthy enough or interested enough to fund such an extensive undertaking, and Jews fear that a restored synagogue, unlike a church, will be viewed as alien by the local Ukrainians. Throughout the book, Bartov provides many graphic descriptions as well as photographs of the blatant erasure of any memory of the Jews' presence. In some cases this involves conscious desecration, such as the use of Jewish tombstones for the staircase and banister of the old Potocki palace in the town of his mother's birth, Zolotyi Potik. The Great Synagogue of Buchach was destroyed in 1950 and replaced by an open market, while the beit midrash was torn down in 2001 to be replaced by a shopping center. The town's Jewish cemetery on Bashty Hill is rapidly disappearing. The mass graves of thousands of the town's Jews on forested Fedir Hill are marked only by one small obscure plaque that cannot be found without a guide, while a large cross on the same hill commemorates the Ukrainian freedom fighters who helped murder those Jews. Dr. David Silberklang, a historian of the Holocaust, is editor-in-chief of Yad Vashem Publications and of the scholarly journal Yad Vashem Studies. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.