Jonathan Steinberg

Massacre of the innocents

The bloodbath involving former friends and neighbours in the East European border town in 1941 makes this atrocity especially shocking, says Omer Bartov

I thought I knew the history of the years 1914 to 1945: the first world war and the terrible casualties in the trenches; the second world war and the German conquest of Europe; day and night bombing; Stalingrad and the Holocaust. But I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about the tragedy in Galicia in Eastern Europe. Unlike the Nazi genocide, much of the killing took place between neighbour and neighbour: Jews, Poles and Ukrainians destroyed each other with increasing ferocity and brutality between 1914 and the 1940s. The beautiful city of Buczacz in Eastern Galicia, with its Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish shrines, ended as a gigantic ruin.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the Israeli novelist, dedicated his last book, The City Whole, published posthumously in 1973, to his home town Buczacz:

I closed my eyes, so that I would not see my brothers, my fellow townsmen, because of my bad habit to see my city and its slain. And so I closed my eyes and called my city to stand before me with all its inhabitants, with all its houses of prayer.

Omer Bartov, the distinguished military historian, came from a family that had lived in Buczacz but emigrated to Israel. One day, he asked his mother about her life there. This conversation caught Bartov’s imagination. Anatomy of a Genocide emerged from the gradual collection of evidence over two decades, in three continents and nine countries. Much still existed in archives, and survivors of the genocide emerged to talk. The result is breathtaking, painful and astonishing, written partly by the participants in their various languages.

Bartov begins by explaining that

the Jews did not live segregated from the Christian population; the entire notion of a shtetl existing in some sort of splendid (or sordid) isolation is merely a figment of Jewish literary and folkloristic imagination.

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