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Laurence Weinbaum on Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)  

About ten years ago, a soft-spoken and heimish octogenarian from British Columbia, a native of Sambor (Sambir) in East Galicia, contacted the offices of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Jerusalem. His name was Jack Gardner and his mission was to memorialize his landsmen who had perished in the Shoah. Mr. Gardner’s plan was to put the devastated Jewish cemetery in order, to build a fence around it, and ultimately to create a memorial park on its grounds.

“I couldn’t forget all my townsmen who met such a tragic end,” he explained to this author. “The baker, the beggar, the butcher and all the others…I see them now before my very eyes. All of them were murdered.” Mr. Gardner told me that he had traveled to Sambir several times, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process. He took out photographs of a monument in the shape of a Star of David that he had erected at his own expense. At the same time, he sought to engage the local Ukrainian authorities and to forge good relations with them. “They are in charge of the place and we have to convince them to take care of it.” To advance his agenda he sought to enlist the political support of the “diplomatic arm of the Jewish people.”

It was not to be. Deeply troubled, Mr. Gardner explained that on his most recent visit he had discovered several large crosses erected in the Jewish cemetery. He had pleaded with the local authorities to remove them, but to no avail. The Ukrainians claimed that the Soviets had used the cemetery as the killing grounds of Ukrainian nationalists. Unfortunately, repeated démarches by the WJC produced no result. The Ukrainians refused to accept the idea that it was inappropriate for crosses to adorn a Jewish burial ground-let alone (and to avoid offending Ukrainian sensibilities this was tactfully left unsaid) that the murderers be commemorated together with the murdered. Sometime later, Mr. Gardner passed away, his mission unfulfilled, and the crosses, triumphantly, unmoved.

 A Poignant Travelogue

This author was reminded of the benevolent Mr. Gardner z”l[1] when reading Omar Bartov’s Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine. Bartov is one of the outstanding scholars of the Holocaust, the author of the seminal work Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich and a number of other important books on the Shoah. Today, the Israeli-born historian occupies the John P. Birkelund Chair of European History at Brown University. His latest effort is a poignant travelogue, marked by extraordinary erudition and insight-the hallmark of Bartov’s prodigious scholarship. The author set out to explore territory largely uncharted. It is a journey through a “land of memory and oblivion, coexistence and erasure, high hopes and dashed illusions” (13).

Bartov was motivated to embark on that quest by a deep-seated yearning to learn more about the birthplace of his mother (Bartov’s father is the celebrated Israeli writer Hanoch Bartov). She was a native of Buczacz (Buchach), the hometown of both Israel’s Nobel laureate in literature, Shmuel Yosef Agnon and the Warsaw Ghetto chronicler, Emanuel Ringelblum.[2] In his introduction, Bartov explains:

This little book has deep biographical roots…. While it is not about the author, I cannot deny being more invested in it than in any of my previous historical writing. This is a story of what once was, what has remained, and what has been swept away…. I traveled into what was for me a white space on the map; there was a sense of adventure in this undertaking akin to what I felt when I read as a child about the great explorers of previous centuries. But it was also a black hole that had sucked in entire civilizations along with individual and never-to-be-met family members, making them vanish as if they had never existed, just as those explorers of old ended up transforming the white spaces on their maps into colonial hearts of darkness…. (ix) I had to imagine how-in pretty little towns, the vast forest, the rolling hills-people who had lived side by side for generations were transformed into killers and quarry, how a few altruistic souls were drowned in an ocean of hate, greed, and incitement. (xvi)

Up until the Shoah, East Galicia was an especially fertile ground for Jewish creativity, a bastion of both Hasidism and Haskalah that produced a long line of outstanding Jewish luminaries as well as innumerable stamm Yiden-the  effervescent, though unloved, Galizianers of Jewish lore. Galicia was also both the Polish and Ukrainian Piedmont-the cradle of nationalism of two rival nations, whose birth pangs were, more often than not, inflicted on the hapless Jewish population that lived among them. Not surprisingly, it was also a hotbed of Zionism, though the language in which it was manifested was as often Polish as Hebrew.

Erasing the Jewish Past

A comparison of the information contained in successive prewar Baedeker guidebooks covering the region-and that published in 1943 for the Generalgouvernment, into which the area was subsumed reveals the thoroughness of the destruction of East Galician Jewry.[3] By 1943, the Germans were unabashedly announcing that cities and towns in which Jews had traditionally constituted a plurality if not a majority of the local population,[4] were now all but Judenfrei.

That destruction was followed by a concerted effort to obliterate all trace of the area’s Jewish (and to a lesser extent Polish) past. This was no mere act of neglect or abandonment, something that could be understood and even grudgingly acknowledged as “natural.” One could hardly expect anyone to care for the heritage of the “outsider,” all the more so when one had taken part in his destruction and plundered his property. However, as Bartov demonstrates, what happened in East Galicia was something far more sinister: the past was utterly negated, and the Jewish heritage was crudely  excised from the landscape. What little physical evidence of their presence that remains today is, more than anything else, a result of the carelessness and Schlamperei of those responsible for wiping it away.* As Bartov notes, “The prewar world of Galicia is no more. But its past, and the denial of the past, is more visible than in other parts of Europe, thanks to the neglect, indifference, and forgetfulness. Western Europe has rapidly modernized, and has thereby covered the traces of destruction with concrete and rhetoric” (8-9).

To be sure, a similar process occurred to a greater or lesser extent throughout East Central Europe with its notoriously fickle borders. It was thus with the trappings of the German heritage in the territories that Poland recovered after the war and even more so in the parts of East Prussia under Soviet Russian rule; the Hungarian heritage in Transylvania or Transcarpathian Rus; the Polish heritage in Lithuania, Belarus, and Western Ukraine, and elsewhere. In that great expanse of territory from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, behind the Iron Curtain, whatever remained of the millennial Jewish patrimony was trampled on and ultimately erased.[5] There was little that Jews could do to stop it then and not much more now. To that end, Bartov describes a group of Israeli tourists helplessly witnessing the destruction of the Beit Midrash (House of Study) in Buchach, bulldozed to make way for a shopping center.

Bartov evaluates the Ukrainian approach to the Jewish ghosts in its closet:

the very concept of a newly independent Ukraine does not have much room for a memory of regions in which the predominant urban population and much of the cultural and economic influence was wielded by Poles and Jews. Hence, whereas one aspect of the past has emerged from Soviet repression, another has remained in obscurity. Worse still, those who were presented by the Soviet citizens as villains reemerged as heroes and martyrs, while those who were subsumed by the Soviets as “innocent Soviet citizens” have to be concealed even more strenuously by the new nationalist discourse precisely because the villains-turned-martyrs were so often their executioners. And, finally, with the fall of Communism, old popular and traditional anti-Semitism could also reemerge, combining Soviet anti-Jewish imagery with local and religious prejudices that defined the former Jewish populations of these towns as never truly belonging to them-an alien, unpleasant, exploitative, disloyal, strange, and threatening element, even if at times exotic and vaguely fascinating. In other words, the Jews have come to be seen not as a permanent aspect of Galician life, as old and as inherent to what Galicia was as any other population, but as a transitory entity that came and went but had little to do with the “essence” of the existence of the Ruthenians/Ukrainians in their ancestral lands. (88-89)

On the Verge of Disappearance

Bartov’s book is divided into three parts. The first is an overview of the region; in it the author explains the area’s history from the beginnings of the Jewish community to the present day. Second, there is a series of maps that are especially useful for those unacquainted with this region. The third part is a chapter titled “Travels in the Borderland,” which is subdivided by cities and towns and includes vivid and powerful descriptions of what Bartov found in modern-day L’viv, Sambir, Drohobych, Stryi, Boekhiv, Ivano-Frankivs’k, Kolomyja, Kosiv, Kuty, Horodenka, Husiatyn, Chortkiv, Zolotyi Potik, Buchach, Monastyrys’ka, Ternopil’, Berezhany, Zolochiv, Brody, and Zhovkva.

Readers ought not, however, read only the descriptions of the specific localities in which they have a particular interest. Many of Bartov’s astute observations, relevant to the entire region, are ensconced in the various descriptions of individual towns and cities. There are numerous and often shocking accounts of the way in which the local narrative has turned history on its head. A single example serves as an appropriate metaphor for what is taking place throughout the area: the rabbi’s stately house in Kosiv now contains a museum devoted to the story of the UPA (Ukrainian Nationalist Insurgent Army) soldiers who gleefully hunted down and killed Jews. As Bartov notes, “It seemed all too cynical to house an exhibition for the killers of Jews in the house of the victims’ spiritual leader” (93).

Bartov’s book also contains numerous photographs, including  some contemporary ones juxtaposed against prewar images of the same sites. Especially chilling are barely visible Jewish names on shops in Chortkiv about to be painted over and forgotten: “on that day, the long dead M. Tauber and Leib Wasserman were still advertising their paint and iron store.”

As Bartov depressingly notes, the former East Galicia is today

a region suspended in time, just a little while longer, before it too will be swept with the tide of modernization and globalization, commemoration and apology. Sooner or later, the people of Western Ukraine’s Galicia too will become aware of what they had lost and forgotten, but by then they will have destroyed these last material traces of the past in their rush to catch up with the present and will have to recreate another past, one capable of more conveniently accommodating the spirit of tolerance and nostalgia in the incineration of difference and memory. (9)

In a footnote, Bartov goes on to explain “the predilection of some descendants to speak of their ancestors’ towns in Galicia (or elsewhere in Eastern Europe) as no longer being there since having lost their Jewish population, they were deemed extinct by the few Jewish survivors who could only remember them as shtetelach” (210). Sadly, given the fact that the material heritage of Galician Jewry seems destined for oblivion, those towns and cities so deeply engraved in Jewish consciousness might just as well be extinct.

The Polish Jewish poet Henryk Grynberg penned a searing verse titled “The Perfect Crime” which gives expression to the nature of collective crime and of attempts to erase the evidence. It perfectly describes the prevailing reality in Ukraine: “if they shout us down to death / there is no trace of crime / if they do it for no reason / there is no motive / if they all do it / no one knows who has done it.”[6]

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* Editors’ note: The term Schlamperei does not have an exact English equivalent. It may be translated as disorderliness, negligence, carelessness, slackness, untidiness, or looseness. Its meaning could also include a mindless moral failure. In the context of the above passage, the term Schlamperei imparts the idea of negligence.

[1] Jack Gardner appears in Bartov’s book as an unnamed “foreign benefactor” and “an American Jewish  descendant of Sambir” (46).

[2] Buczacz was also the birthplace of other notables such as Simon Wiesenthal and Reuben Feldschu (Ben Shem).

[3] “Professional scholars may well believe that popular guidebooks lie beneath their dignity,” wrote Norman Davis. “If so, they are mistaken. The work of Baedeker and his successors of all ilks provide the basic information on which public knowledge of Eastern Europe is based.” God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 515-516. The Welsh historian’s point is well taken. Today it is widely understood that guidebooks and travel literature constitute an important primary source, if not on the actual state of affairs at a given moment, then certainly on contemporaneous perceptions. Bartov and other scholars would do well to heed that advice and to cull that material, in particular the well-known guidebooks of Baedeker and his Polish counterpart Mieczyslaw Orlowicz. Significantly, in postcommunist times, an excellent guidebook to the area was published in Poland, the work of Grzegorz Rakowski. Unlike its communist-era predecessors, in which Galicia’s Jewish heritage-and especially the destruction of the Jewish community-was scarecly mentioned, this work contains copious references to Jewish sites throughout the region. See Grzegorz Rakowski, Podole-Przewodnik krajoznawczo-historyczny po Ukrainie Zachodniej (Pruszkow: Oficyna Wydawnicza “Rewasz,” 2005). The appearance of that work is but one indication of the way in which a part of Polish society has embraced its country’s Jewish past – a phenomenon almost altogether absent in independent Ukraine.

[4] According to Bartov, the city of Brody, for example, was 86 percent Jewish in 1799. In 1910, though the proportion of Jews had fallen, they still accounted for twelve thousand out of eighteen thousand inhabitants (177).

[5] The heritage of Jewish communities associated with the formerly dominant though now displaced powers, was especially ravaged, even though Jews had been their primary victims. On occasion, this was manifest in especially absurd ways, as for example in the Silesian city of Bielsko that had once been a part of Austria and was ceded to Poland in 1918. Immediately after the war, the surviving remnant of the largely German-speaking Jewish population was compelled to efface the German-language inscriptions on tombstones in the Jewish cemetery that dated back to 1849.

[6] Henryk Grynberg, Pomnik nad Potomakiem (London: Oficyna Poetow i Malarzy, 1989), 18.

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DR. LAURENCE WEINBAUM is chief editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.