The Magazine

Out of Mind

In search of Ukraine's victims of the Holocaust.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine

by Omer Bartov

Princeton, 256 pp., $26.95

Omer Bartov has a unique concept of a travelogue. Instead of the fine descriptions of exquisite French meals à la M.F.K. Fisher, or the journalistic eye of Rebecca West in Yugoslavia, Bartov's trip around Ukraine is a detailed examination of what he doesn't find; what isn't there. And what isn't there are Jews, or hardly any remnant, memorial, or marker of what happened to the millions of Ukrainian Jews who once populated every town and hamlet of Western Ukraine, formerly known as Eastern Galicia.

As he explains here, "The prewar world of Galicia is no more. But its past, and the denial of that past, is more visible than in many other parts of Europe, thanks to neglect, indifference and forgetfulness."

To Bartov, not only were the people erased but almost all traces that they had once existed are also vanishing into the ether. This book, he writes, is "my encounter with a past mostly forgotten, a present committed to rewriting the past, and a kind of reverse archaeological undertaking in which the last remains of destroyed civilizations are being buried under the new edifices of the new."

Bartov traveled through 20 towns, many of which until 1939 had boasted Jewish populations that dated as far back as the 14th century. Bartov set out to assess how the newly independent Ukraine is dealing with its past and what (if any) remnant of Jewish life, or death, remains. What he finds is that almost every town tells the same war story: Many were slaughtered by either the Fascists or the Communists, but few, if any, are specifically recognized as Jewish victims.

In L'viv, 40 miles southeast of the Polish border, he finds the remnant of the former Golden Rose Synagogue, built between 1580 and 1595. The building has one remaining wall, and beer bottles and garbage are strewn on the ground. A plaque records that the building was built as a synagogue and that the Nazis burnt it to the ground in 1942. But there is no marker for what happened to the Jews of L'viv.

"Nowhere is it mentioned," he writes, "that in the pogroms that followed immediately on the heels of the German Army's entry into the city on June 30, 1941, somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 Jews were murdered."

The prewar population of Stryi consisted of 11,000 Jews and 25,000 Poles and Ukrainians. Bartov finds the shell of the Great Synagogue, where vegetation now grows out of the former house of worship. The synagogue has no marker for what occurred there on May 22, 1943.

On that day [the Stryi ghetto] was surrounded by German soldiers, gendarmes, and Ukrainian militiamen. In the course of the Aktion, more than a thousand Jews were crammed into the Great Synagogue and kept locked inside it for several days. Many died there for lack of food and water and from the terrible congestion. The rest were taken out and shot at the Jewish cemetery.

What happened in Stryi--during and after the war--serves as a useful example for Bartov. He argues that the murder of Ukrainian Jewry was not an atrocity limited to Germans, but rather was undertaken with gusto and fervor by local Ukrainians, many of them nationalists, who were happy to do the Fascists' bidding in the name of fighting the Communists.

"Before withdrawing from the city in late June 1941," Bartov writes, "the Soviets murdered many political prisoners in the local jail, including several former Zionist activists. This did not prevent local Ukrainians and Poles, who blamed the Jews for collaborating with the Communists, from carrying out a major pogrom in which many were murdered."

As Bartov travels from town to town he finds this story repeated over and over again. The Soviets were brutal to Ukrainian nationalists and Jews before retreating in 1941, only to be followed by the Nazis who, with the help of vengeful local Ukrainians, perpetrated what is known today as "The Holocaust of Bullets." Unlike in other parts of Europe where mass killings were often limited to concentration camps, in Ukraine, hundreds and thousands of Jews were slaughtered by being herded together near freshly dug pits, shot at close range, and buried in mass graves.

The problem for present-day, independent Ukraine, is that this history of collaboration conflicts with their sense of national victimhood: "The vast majority of Ukrainians perceive World War II as their national martyrdom," Bartov explains. And indeed, the numbers do tell a horrific tale: 4.1 million Ukrainian civilians died in World War II, but half of those (1.9 million) were Jews.