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anatomy of a genocide

21 november 2018

Earlier this year, I was reading The Plunder, Daniel Unowsky's recent history of anti-Semitic violence in Galicia in the year 1898. The Plunder is a very good book, but it's a specialized academic book that assumes more knowledge than I could bring to it. I was intrigued, though, by Unowsky's picture of the roots of the Holocaust which go far deeper than the Second World War and involve places and peoples far from Germany. I stayed alert for a more general narrative, and found it in Omer Bartov's Anatomy of a Genocide.

Though Bartov's book is focused on a single town – Buczacz in what is now Ukraine – the conflicts he reconstructs stand for murderous enmities across a wide span of Eastern Europe. Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Ukranians, Russians, and Germans vied over a century for control of Buczacz: and though none of them ultimately won, the clear losers in the conflict were the Jews.

Bartov's mother escaped from Buczacz before the Nazi genocide, growing up and raising a family in Israel. She never told her son much about the town where she was born. When he wanted to learn more, Bartov realized that almost nobody could tell him more – his mother because she left too young, and the relatives she left behind, because they had been killed. Hence his impetus to write Anatomy of a Genocide, a phenomenally well-researched and almost insanely depressing account of the context for, and course of, a small slice of the Holocaust in the Ukraine.

An Austrian dominion when the first world war began, Buczacz exemplified the ethnic tensions and jealousies that Unowsky describes in The Plunder. Poles, Ukranians, and Jews lived at odds with one another, and a constant low level of anti-Semitism could sometimes flare into brief persecutions. But for the most part, the imperial government, along with some local democracy, allowed the groups to coexist, and allowed Jewish culture to flourish. Buczacz was home, for instance, to S.Y. Agnon and Simon Wiesenthal, who grew up in its social and educational institutions.

During the war, the Buczacz region changed hands several times between Austrian and Russian forces. The war broke down social order and destroyed infrastructure, and when the Russians were in power, Cossacks looted Jewish properties and attacked Jewish residents. After the war, Buczacz was contested by Polish and Ukranian movements, each eager to add the territory to a prospective postwar nation. Jewish nationalism was in its heyday too, but it was an outward-looking, Zionist nationalism. Zionist leaders were rightly convinced that their rights would never be respected in a Polish or Ukranian republic. Eventually Buczacz became part of interwar Poland, and an uneasy truce among the parties prevailed. But it was no longer a truce among people planning longterm coexistence: it was a tension among peoples intent on either driving the others out or leaving for good.

The Hitler-Stalin pact brought Soviet rule to Buczacz. Bizarrely, the Red Army comes across in Bartov's book as the least objectionable of all the oppressive forces that plagued the city in those decades. When the architects of the gulag are the best thing a time and place had to offer, you know you have fallen among evil-doers. The Soviets deported huge numbers of Poles and Jews to Siberia, where many died; but many Jews thus deported survived the war – while almost none who stayed did. Bartov reports cases of hideous irony in which Jewish families managed to avoid Soviet deportations – unaware that within a few years they would all be killed by Germans (150-51).

The German occupation of Buczacz of course constitutes the years of the true genocide. This is not the Holocaust of the extermination camps, sealed off in their own surreal, high-tech system. Bartov's is a narrative of brute-force killing over a period of a years, killing that made an entire city, still ostensibly a civilized place, into an open-air murder camp without walls. Germans killed Jews by marching them into the woods and opening fire from automatic weapons – afterwards charging the Jewish community for the ammunition they used. The German project of genocide could not have been carried out without the help of local authorities, notably Ukrainian police who provided the muscle needed to carry out the genocide. The Germans also made use of a puppet Jewish administration that helped manage the parallel progress of slave labor and murder machine. The Judenrat (Jewish council) and local Jewish police mediated between the killers and the local community. Some of these people seem to deserve a special place in hell, abetting the exterminators of their own people; others seem to deserve credit for doing their best to ameliorate an impossible situation. Eventually, of course, the Germans would shoot all the Jews, saving their henchmen for the last; any dream of cheating fate through cooperation was just that, a dream.

And the Germans whom Bartov catalogues are even less understandable, in the long run. Functionaries posted to a remote rear area of the Eastern Front, these Germans lived in relative luxury and seem thoroughly to have enjoyed their brief spell as utter life-and-death dictators to a captive population. A significant part of the occupying German bureaucracy was devoted to killing Jews, both more and less methodically. Compunctions were rare, though arbitrary acts of leniency sometimes happened, if anything reinforcing the horror of the situation, because to spare a life at near-random accentuated the absurdity of the genocide. And many of the guilty, if they survived the war, lived on for decades in West Germany and rarely received more than token punishments – punishments that West German tribunals sometimes oddly qualified with remarks that though the perpetrators unlawfully followed criminal orders, they were not through-and-through ideologically in agreement with the Nazi regime.

The German presence in Buczacz was relatively brief but utterly destructive. Only a few Jews survived, often because they were hidden by brave (and/or, sometimes, compensated) Gentiles. Some Jews survived to be killed when the liberating Red Army was briefly driven out in a Wehrmacht counteroffensive. Others died in postwar violence.

The Red Army, on its third pass through Buczacz, came to stay, at least till the early 1990s. Genocide ceased, but killing did not; the Soviets settled scores with Ukrainian nationalists who had thrown in their lot with Hitler. And ethnic cleansing of another sort had just begun. Under Soviet control, Ukrainians and Poles from across Eastern Europe traded places, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians being deported eastward and hundreds of thousands Poles westward, as prewar boundaries were moved like yard markers in a football game. Complete ethnic homogeneity was the Soviet empire's answer to a problem that Russian imperialism had in large part caused. The third element of the population of Buczacz, the Jews, had ceased to exist as a community, its few survivors left in New York or Tel Aviv with rapidly-fading memories of the place.

A few years ago, I visited Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in the south of France where German occupiers had unleashed an unthinkable storm of fire and murder on hundreds of the French inhabitants, on a single day in 1944. The experience of visiting Oradour is intense, nearly unbearable. But there is also the sense of aberration, a sense that the SS who massacred the people of Oradour were outside humanity, certainly outside the normal operations of the German occupation of France. In Eastern Europe, though, every village was an Oradour – and worse, an Oradour where half the population helped the killers. The experience of Buczacz would be unthinkable if it had been limited to one time and place. Instead, it was the pattern for a genocide enacted in hundreds of places, continuously, for years at a time. The result was not just the destruction of a town, tragic as that would have been; it was the destruction of a whole society, and of the fundamentals for living in any society.

Omer Bartov is a distinguished academic historian with an impressive resumé of publications on the second world war in Germany and the Eastern Front, on the Holocaust, and on the historiography of the period. One imagines, though, that Anatomy of a Genocide will be his magnum opus. Both strongly personal and impeccably academic, the book is a starkly readable and a vital complement to narratives of the Holocaust in other countries and conditions.

Bartov, Omer. Anatomy of a Genocide: The life and death of a town called Buczacz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.