If you read most general histories of World War II, you’re likely to get the impression that the Holocaust was a simple, straightforward affair. Hitler resolved to “solve the Jewish problem” by simply killing all the Jews in Europe. And once the policy was set, German soldiers in the SS proceeded to murder every Jew in sight. They shot thousands and thousands of people but soon found that was inefficient, expensive, and insufficient to get the job done. So they set up the death camps, where Jews were either worked to death or sent into gas chambers and murdered en masse. And all that is accurate, but only up to a point.
In Anatomy of a Genocide, historian Omer Bartov demonstrates just how much more complicated the Holocaust was. By tracing the history of antisemitism in a single Polish-Ukrainian town from the sixteenth century to the present, and detailing day by day how the Holocaust unfolded there, he brings to light the many nuances lost in historical portraits painted with a broader brush. The book is a masterful effort that should stand for decades if not centuries as one of the most insightful accounts of that shameful episode in what is so casually called civilization.
Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov (2018) 417 pages ★★★★★
Anatomy of a Genocide is set largely in the town of Buczacz in what is now western Ukraine. (Buczacz is pronounced Bu-chach, in which “ch” is like the guttural sound of the Scottish word “loch.”) Since World War I, the province of Eastern Galicia, where the town was located, had been under Polish control. There, where many thousands of Jews perished during the war, the Holocaust was a complicated affair:
- Developments in Galicia in the decades leading up to World War II set the stage for the Holocaust. “[R]eligion and nationalism were being fused together to produce an ideological and psychological climate ripe for widespread violence once the constraints on social order were removed or altered.”
- Germans were far from alone in murdering Jews in Buczacz (although they certainly were the most efficient). Ukrainians, especially the peasants, raped and murdered hundreds of Jews, often with sadistic glee. Some Poles took part in the killing, too.
- “The Germans accomplished the rapid destruction of the Jewish population by creating a local apparatus of Ukrainians and Jews who helped them organize and perpetrate mass murder and by swiftly decapitating the community so as the minimize organized resistance,” Bartov writes. Some Jews acquiesced in hopes, usually in vain, that their lives would be spared. They volunteered to serve as German agents (the Judenrat and the Ordnungsdienst, or Jewish police). Others, who were not part of the apparatus, informed German soldiers or administrators of the whereabouts of Jews in hiding.
- Some 200 wealthy Jews in Buczacz escaped immediate death by bribing German officers to send them to work camps, where some survived. However, these wealthy Jews were a small minority: “the vast majority of the Jews in Buczacz, as in the rest of Galicia, were poor.”
- Yet among every ethnic group—Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, even Germans—there were individuals who bravely and quietly resisted the killing. Many risked their lives to hide Jews, sometimes for money, sometimes simply out of altruism. “Almost all of the more than two hundred testimonies by Jewish survivors of the German occupation of Buczacz and its environs reflect . . . ambivalence about relations with gentile neighbors, ranging from gratitude and admiration to rage and desire for vengeance.”
Anatomy of a Genocide: the Holocaust under the microscope of history
The attitudes of most Germans involved in the occupation are difficult to fathom. “Beyond the extraordinary bloodletting this undertaking entailed,” Bartov writes, “perhaps its most scandalous aspect was the astonishing ease with which it was accomplished and the extent to which the killers, along with their spouses and children, lovers and colleagues, friends and parents, appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region. For many of them, this was clearly the best time of their lives: they had almost unlimited access to food, liquor, tobacco, and sex, and, most important, they became supreme masters over life and death.” Bartov documents this claim with abundant examples from eyewitness testimony and written records.
To put this story in perspective, keep in mind that half of all the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were Polish. Since the mid-seventeenth century, the “Jews of Poland [had] constituted the single largest Jewish population in the world.” And during the nearly 400 years before World War II, Jews had frequently been victims of violence by Poles, Cossacks, and Ukrainians. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands perished at their hands.
Bartov lays to rest the romanticized image of the shtetl popularized in the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. “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.”
Anatomy of a Genocide is a significant contribution to our understanding of one of the most significant events of the 2oth century.
About the author
Israeli-born Omer Bartov is a professor of European history and German studies at Brown University. He has won a great many academic awards, not just in the United States and Israel but in other countries as well. Anatomy of a Genocide, his ninth book, was the product of the author’s long-term quest to learn about his ancestors. Researching and writing the book took two decades and involved travel “across three continents and nine countries.” Bartov’s parents and their families had lived in Buczacz. “Of the family that stayed behind,” Bartov writes, “both hers and my father’s, not a single member survived—all of them murdered.”
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