A town torn apart

Omer Bartov’s latest book highlights the atrocities carried out against Buczacz’s Jews – by Ukrainians, Poles and Nazis.

WHAT REMAINS of the Jewish cemetery in Buczacz today (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WHAT REMAINS of the Jewish cemetery in Buczacz today
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1936, Mendel Reich, president of a Talmud Torah in Buczacz, a small border town in Eastern Galicia, declared that the Jews were “condemned to wait on death row for an execution without better days to come.”
Everyone and everything around us, “even the air we breathe,” Reich added, “is conspiring to find a way to destroy us.”
With doors of other countries shut in their faces, Buczacz Jews were trapped in their town. The streets were owned by hooligans; terror was about to reign in their homes.
Reich was aware, of course, of the gathering threat of Nazi Germany. But the hooligans he described in 1936 were Poles and Ukrainians. Engaged in conflict, which had raged for centuries, these two groups both blamed Jews for helping their enemies, betraying their neighbors, and feathering their own nests.
Buczacz became a killing field when the Wehrmacht captured the town in July 1941. And ethnic cleansing continued when the Red Army controlled Buczacz at the end of World War II.
In Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, Omer Bartov, a professor of history at Brown University, and the author of several books about the Holocaust, reconstructs life in Buczacz over four centuries.
Focused most intensively on the first half of the 20th century, Anatomy of a Genocide is at once a scholarly and a personal book. Born in Buczacz, Bartov’s mother moved with her family to Palestine in 1935. She talked about visiting her childhood home – which she did not discuss with her son until 1995 – but never did.
In the ensuing decades, Bartov scoured archives, unearthing diaries, letters and other materials untouched since they were donated. The result is a book that lets those who lived the history of their town tell their stories – and illuminates the constant, complex, at times peaceful and often brutal interactions among Buczacz’s religious and ethnic communities.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Bartov demonstrates, as they seized, lost and regained power in Buczacz, Poles and Ukrainians scapegoated Jews, who constituted a majority of the citizens of the town. Accused of collaboration with Bolsheviks, Jews lost customers, jobs and property. Jewish organizations were outlawed; services at the Jewish hospital deteriorated; and the enrollment of Jews in the local gymnasium declined precipitously.
When 13-year-old Yitzhak Bauer went to the public baths, he put rocks in his pocket, “because the gentile kids would lie in wait for me.” Seventy years later, Bauer still remembered the taunt – “Jewboy, you are of no use to me” – hurled at him by a neighbor. And insults were often followed by injuries.
BARTOV ALSO provides detailed accounts of the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews of Buczacz. The vast majority of Jews, he indicates, were murdered in the nine months between October 1942 and July 1943. SS Cpl. Paul Thomanek, he writes, “represented the unambiguously brutal face of German genocide.” Thomanek ordered the Buczacz Judenrat to supply him with girls, booze and food. Put in charge of small camps, he often knew the people he murdered. He killed Sofia Wolf for speaking across a camp fence; cut his barber to pieces with a machine gun; and mowed down a 17-year-old girl as she begged him to spare her life.
Most important, Bartov reminds us that “the normalization of murder, the removal of Jews as part of a day’s work, as entertainment, as background noise to drinking bouts... were part and parcel of the German experience of genocide.”
Bartov emphasizes as well “the inverted moral universe, the sense of impunity and omnipotence” of the Nazis, who expressed puzzlement mixed with anger at Jews for making it so easy to kill them, and viewed “herding little girls to their death rather than shooting them oneself as an act of mercy.”
The vast majority of Nazi perpetrators, Bartov reveals, “managed to wriggle out of a leaky judicial system and died peacefully in their beds.”
To their credit, he indicates, West German courts investigated thousands of crimes and amassed mountains of documentary evidence. However, to convict of first-degree murder, judges required evidence that defendants acted criminally out of base motives (greed, ideologically driven hatred, and especially antisemitism) – i.e., that they had acted on their own initiative, beyond the orders of their superiors. The trials, Bartov writes, were “surreal,” in that they were conducted “in an atmosphere of rigidly enforced detachment.” By 2005, 106,000 individuals had been investigated: 6,500 were convicted and 166 received life sentences. One observer calculated that “each murder cost 10 minutes in prison.”
For this reason, among others, Bartov concludes, “We must listen closely to the voices of the victims.” Fraught, traumatic and selective as they are, those voices “hold great elements of truth and pain.”
Especially, Bartov suggests, at a time in Eastern Europe (and elsewhere) in which history appears to be “up to its old tricks.” 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.