Omer Bartov Lecture Summary

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 3:05pm

Omer Bartov (Brown University)
"Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz"

May 8, 2017

Omer Bartov May 2017 Lecture

Omer Bartov gave a lecture on May 8, 2017, on how the East Galician town of Buczacz was transformed from a site of coexistence, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews had lived side-by-side for centuries, into a site of genocide. What were the reasons for this instance of communal violence, what were its dynamics, and why has it been erased from the local memory?

Professor Bartov is the 2017 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar at USC Center for Advanced Genocide Research.

Omer Bartov, the 2017 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence and John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and Professor of History and Professor of German Studies at Brown University, gave the Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar Annual Lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on his upcoming book about the East Galician town of Buczacz, which transformed from a site of coexistence, where Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews had lived side-by-side for centuries, into a site of genocide.

Professor Bartov explained that as the result of studying the Holocaust for a long time, he had internalized the notion that the Holocaust was an event of industrial killing where there was distance between the killers and their victims. The predominant image of Jews being forcibly removed from their neighborhoods, boarding cattle cars, and being deported east to extermination camps reinforces this notion of a system in which killers did not personally know their victims, victims did not know their killers, and in which killing occurred away from spaces of daily life. 

However, Professor Bartov pointed out, much of the killing during the Holocaust did not follow this model. There were many circumstances where the murderers and victims knew each other. While half of the victims of the Holocaust died in extermination camps, Professor Bartov explained, many were killed right where they lived, particularly in Eastern Europe. In small towns during the Holocaust, there was not industrial killing. There was communal genocide. In communal genocide, killers and collaborators did not dehumanize their eventual victims. There was an intimacy to the violence since it was happening between neighbors. 

In order to understand the dynamics of communal violence, Professor Bartov focused in on one case, one place – the town of Buczacz in Eastern Galicia (now in western Ukraine), where his mother comes from. His forthcoming book is an attempt to understand the voices of the people who lived in that area who have been forgotten. To recover the experiences and reality of genocide in one place, Professor Bartov conducted research in 50 different archives in nine countries, consulting sources in nine languages. From the material he gathered, he set out to write a thick description of the town over time and the genocide that took place there.

If you want to comprehend the dynamics of local genocide, Professor Bartov argued, you must investigate the relations that existed beforehand. No towns in this area were only Jewish. So what were the relations between the people who coexisted there, and how did those relations play into or contribute to the genocide that occurred there? In order to understand the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders (Professor Bartov challenged the notion of the term “bystander” later in his lecture), one must explore the agendas at work. Everyone had an agenda, and sometimes people’s interests coincided with deadly results. Focusing on particular case studies, like the one in Buczacz, Professor Bartov argued, allows us to see the Holocaust as more than just industrialized killing, but also as an intimate affair of external forces and communal violence.

Professor Bartov elaborated on the history of Buczacz and the three groups who coexisted there -- Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians -- before the genocide. He described the different perspectives each group held about their role in the history of the region and detailed crucial milestones from the 17th century onwards in which the cooperation and tensions between the three groups fluctuated as they struggled for power in the region, as nationalism and nationalist rhetoric began shaping these struggles, and as external forces antagonized the groups against each other. These milestones included the slaughter of Jews in the 17th century, the rise of nationalism in 1848, the 1907 democratic election, the experience and effects of World War I in the region, and growing anti-Semitism in the 1930s.

In 1939, the Soviets annexed Buczacz and established repressive rule. They deported people in large numbers, including Polish elites, Polish nationalists, and Jewish Zionists and industrialists. They also incarcerated and killed large numbers of Ukrainian nationalists shortly before the German invasion. In late June and early July of 1941, the Germans occupied the region. They transformed Ukrainian militias into auxiliary police and established small Ukrainian police forces, Jewish councils, and Jewish police forces in all the towns in the region, including Buczacz. Soon the killing of Jews started. A small German force of about 30 people plus around 350 auxiliary police murdered 60,000 Jews in the region around Buczacz. In Buczacz, the Ukrainian police, assisted by the Jewish police, rounded up Jews and blocked the roads. They took the Jews to a hill where they had already dug graves, and the Germans shot and killed their Jewish victims there.

Around 8,000 Jews lived in Buczacz, and about 2,000 Jews lived outside and around Buczacz. Between October 1942 and June 1943, these 10,000 Jews were murdered. The German authorities deported about half of the 10,000 Jews to Belzec concentration camp. The other half were killed on site – on the hill or in the Jewish cemetery in Buczacz, both a 10 to 15 minute walk from the center of town. Thousands of bodies still lie there in unmarked mass graves. For Jews in Buczacz, survival depended on the relations between Jews and non-Jews. All of the very few Jewish survivors received help from non-Jews.

Professor Bartov emphasized the significance of testimonies to his research and genocide research more broadly. Scholars used to neglect individual voices, considering testimonies to be too subjective, operating from different agendas, and therefore unreliable. Historians trained in an empirical tradition approached testimonies with a great deal of skepticism, Professor Bartov explained. However, testimonies are critical to recovering what people experienced, the events that archives have not recorded, and exploring what people thought of their experiences. Professor Bartov’s research relies heavily on testimonies, as well as other documents. His chapter on the Jewish experience in Buczacz is based on 250 survivor testimonies, many from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, and his chapter on the Polish and Ukrainian experience in Buczacz also utilizes testimony. 

In the Q&A that followed Professor Bartov’s lecture, questions and comments covered a range of topics including Buczacz today, historical memory, and the role of economic motivations for the genocide. Professor Bartov expanded on his challenges to the term “bystander,” which he argued implies passivity or indifference, which simply did not exist in this context. In response to another question, Professor Bartov explained more about the timing of the genocide. While the German and local authorities exterminated the Jewish population in a relatively short span of just eight months, within that time, there were periods of genocide with periods of normalcy in between. It was not just constant killing. Professor Bartov again emphasized how essential it is to contextualize genocide within the social dynamics that exist in a region over time. Understanding that social history and the relations between different groups is essential to understanding the genocide and how people can be motivated to support, collaborate, and participate in the murders of their neighbors.



Summary by Martha Stroud