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.
What happened to the Jews of Stryi also serves Bartov as an example of the problem of historical memory currently plaguing modern Ukraine. The town of Stryi boasts several war memorials. There is the obligatory Soviet monument, "one of innumerable similar memorials erected all over Soviet Russia and its postwar East European Empire," Bartov writes. A huge Soviet soldier holds a baby alongside an even bigger stone column inscribed with the names of all the important battles of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet era moniker for World War II). According to Bartov, the townspeople are ambivalent about the massive structure in the middle of their main square. They may have hated 60 years of Soviet control, but more than a decade after the fall of communism, they haven't torn it down.
In the meantime, they've erected a new monument to the "Freedom Fighters of Ukraine," which is "geared exclusively to commemorating the Ukrainian nationalist victims of Soviet Communism," Bartov writes. The memorial depicts themes of Christian martyrdom and national resurrection, and by erecting it, "the city has established its link to a past of martyrdom and heroism, even as it has cleansed itself in a religious rite both of its Communist legacy and of its Jewish inhabitants' mass murder."
There is a memorial to the Jews of Stryi, but it couldn't be more different from the city's other two monuments. A modest stone was erected six miles outside the city and was paid for by a former resident of a nearby town who now lives in Vienna.
"This single indication of the fate of Stryi's Jewish community, located in a distant open field," declares Bartov, "consigns the memory of Jewish life and death to a site outside the perimeter of modern Stryi; it is meant not for the current inhabitants, but for the Jewish survivors and for family members of the victims." Most city residents have no idea that this memorial even exists.
Continuing on his tour, Bartov finds towns where the Jewish cemetery is used for herding goats. In Ivano-Frankivs'k he finds a memorial to the Ukrainian victims of German aggression that stands in front of what was the synagogue. The memorial makes no reference to Jewish victims. In Buchach, forested Fedir Hill is the site of Jewish mass graves but the monument to the victims, again, misses the point. It reads in Ukrainian: "Here rest 450 people slain by the German executioners on Aug. 27, 1941." No mention that the victims were Jews, and certainly not an accurate count of how many Jews were murdered there. To add insult to genocide, there is another monument on Fedir Hill consisting of a mound of earth with a large cross on top. As Bartov explains, "It is dedicated to the [Ukrainian] freedom fighters who had first helped the Germans murder the Jews and then resisted the reoccupation of the region by the Red Army."
Bartov's message is clear: As long as Ukraine denies, hides, or locks away the past, a dark shadow is cast on the present. "And today," he writes, "as independent Ukraine struggles to reassert its still intensely disputed national identity, this known, familiar, but deeply buried secret, emerges once more from the burial pits and ruins--not as an event to be remembered but as one to be cast away or rewritten in a manner that will serve the goals of those who inherited the land."
Today, it seems that, instead of Ukrainians taking ownership of their history, someone else is trying to unearth their dark past for them. Recent news stories have described the work of a French Catholic priest, Patrick Desbois, who, with a team of researchers and assistants, is traveling around the country in search of Jewish killing fields. Father Desbois has no plan for how to commemorate his findings; his goal is simply to mark the places of Jewish slaughter.
Bartov, no doubt, would favor Ukrainians taking up the challenge of properly memorializing the destruction of their nation's Jewish population (including their own role in it). But I doubt he's holding his breath.
Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.