Anatomy of a Genocide

Bartov, Omer. Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. New York ; London ; Toronto ; Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

In Anatomy of a Genocide, Omer Bartov provides both the broader context  of developments in the Galician village of Buczacz and an in-depth investigation of the organization and daily life of terror during World War II. Buczacz existed in the Polish borderlands, with a Jewish majority but large minorities of both Poles and Ukrainians. As Bartov makes clear, this was not Anatevka. “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 the Jewish literary and folkloristic imagination.” Both the economic and social life of the village drew on the work and contributions of all groups, though they lived not in harmony but more in tolerant regard for one another. “That integration was what made the existence of such towns possible. It was also what made the genocide there, when it occurred, a communal event both cruel and intimate, filled with gratuitous violence and betrayal as well as flashes of altruism and kindness.” (5)

Survivors and the makeshift memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Buczac, 1945. Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, Source: Smithsonian Magazine

The First World War delivered Buczacz to Austrian German and Russian forces in turn, and more than once. The fall of all three of the eastern empires claiming parts of Poland at the conclusion of the war created the possibility of an independent Poland, one that included eastern Galicia. Poles eagerly seized the opportunity to foster patriotism through education and other institutions. But in Buczacz, the Polish population was smaller than either the Jewish or Ukrainian. Resentments mounted, and these broke into the open with the Russian invasion of 1939. Ukrainians took the leading role in Soviet Galicia, but Jews also gained important positions. This world, already turned upside down once, turned again with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Poles were no longer at the bottom of the ethnic pecking order. Jews became the targets of all the anti-Semitic ors.notions of the invaders and also, frequently, of their neighbors.

By giving us not only the broader context but also the details of inter-group tensions and aggression, Bartov provides the foundation for understanding the horror that followed the German occupation. In his chapter on “German Order” Bartov shows how the Holocaust was organized and implemented on a local level. German authorities, both Gestapo and Order Police, quickly murdered the leadership of the Jewish community that might have organized resistance. In its place they established a Judenrat of wealthy Jews and and Ordnungsdienst (OD) of Jews given uniforms and batons to enforce order and even to help round up other Jews for the periodic actions that took place. 

Like Wendy Lower’s work on women who followed the Wehrmacht into the “wild East,” Bartov  shows that respectable and despicable occupiers alike enjoyed a bourgeois lifestyle they likely could not have attained in peacetime Germany. The German bureaucrats and police stationed in the region could find fine dining, excellent Vodka and tobacco, and plenty of employment. And the ready availability of Jewish servants (house cleaners paid in groceries, tailors paid by being kept from the roundups) and stolen houses and material goods enhanced the the ease and attractiveness of occupation. Bartov noted that one of the German policemen refused to ask for a transfer even when an officer struck up an affair with his wife. The good life existed right alongside, and often with a full view, of the murderous work of genocide. The Polish wife of the manager of the tobacco factory recalled that “The Jews were hunted on the streets like rabbits.” One day driving to work her husband “‘had to dodge”’ the bodies lying in the street. (229)

In “The Daily Life of Genocide” Bartov shows how the occupation played out for the Jews of Buczacz. From 1941 until 1944, when the Germans finally lost control of the region, a series of roundups for mass executions and deportations left the village Judenrein. He estimates about 10,000 Jews were murdered and buried in mass graves there or sent to the Bełżec extermination camp. A few hundred managed to escape, through hiding with Polish or Ukrainian families, or in a few cases joining the resistance. The accounts include every shade of human kindness and heroism and venality and hatred. Some peasants hid and sheltered Jewish families, and shared their meager fare with them, and some turned over Jews to the Germans. And some did both of these things. “The often contradictory attitudes toward gentile locals and even Germans in survivor accounts are not indicative of witness inconsistency, forgetfulness, or irrationality, but rather of the fact that under extreme circumstances people behaved in unexpected and at times conflicting ways, motivated by factors that often contradicted each other.” (250) When we think of genocide we readily see the logical distinctions among perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, and victims. But Bartov shows that many people took on more than one role—like the peasants who helped and informed in turn, or the OD members who participated in actions only to be eliminated in the final action.

Reading an account like this does not foster hope about humanity, at least not for this reader. Rather, works like Bartov’s that squarely face the details, the daily-ness or horror, show us how genocide operates. And, these histories also take us closer to the motivations and decisions of perpetrators and bystanders, rescuers and victims.

Bartov, Omer. Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. New York ; London ; Toronto ; Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Related reading:

Gross, Jan. Neighbors : The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. New York  N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2002.

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Lower, Wendy. Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

———. Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine. Nachdr. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2007.

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