- - Sunday, February 25, 2018



By Omer Bartov

Simon & Schuster, $30, 416 pages

Foreign policy observers have long decried the decisions colonial powers made following World War I that shuffled the Middle East into unwise mixtures of racial and religious groups.

The resultant turmoil is now entering its second century, with no signs of resolution between the diplomat-created states.

But geography, not human misjudgment, was responsible for creating another mix of opposing societies where hatred and violence have prevailed since the pre-medieval era.

The site is the portion of Eastern Europe where present-day Poland, Ukraine and Russia share an uneasy-coexistence. And for hundreds of years, they have inflicted their shared hatreds on a large Jewish population which lives in the area.

The mother of historian Omer Bartov grew up in the area, in a border town named Buczacz, now part of Ukraine. He traces the tortured racial history of the town beginning in the 1600s, when the 450,000 Jews of Poland made up the largest Jewish population in the world.

In Buczacz, named for an ancient Polish family, the Jewish community constructed schools and a synagogue and there were long periods of tranquility.

But there were outbreaks of unspeakable cruelty. And be forewarned: Mr. Bartov’s book is not for the squeamish. In a Cossack and peasant uprising in 1648, some Jews “were skinned and flesh thrown to dogs. The attackers tore open the bellies of live women “and placed cats in them .” Then they sewed them up “so they could not remove the cats.”

More horrors erupted early in the 20th century, when Poles and Cossacks, jealous at relative Jewish prosperity, turned on their Jewish community. Adding to the horror was that killings were not done by invading foreign soldiers, but by persons with whom the victims had shared close daily lives.

As Mr. Bartov writes, “People repeatedly asked, ‘Why did our neighbors, classmates, teachers, colleagues, friends, even family members, turn their backs on us, betray us to the perpetrators, or join in the killing?’”

A teenage Jewish girl recalled a Ukrainian invader, “a good friend of Father’s.” As he looted the family home, he said, “Now the good times are over for you, now we can no longer be friends, now it’s our time.”

But worst was to come, in the form of the German army, which marched into the border at the outbreak of World War II.

The German Sipo, the murder unit, committed murders with sickening casualness. A thug named Kurk Koller shot four teenagers in the head as they knelt and begged for mercy. He held a pistol in one hand, and the hand of his 5-year-old son in the other.

There was the Sipo officer who walked into a canteen and asked, “Who wants to come along to shoot some Jews?” Or another who unleashed his dog and watched as it attacked a man and “stripped him naked.”

Mass murders were commonplace. Ukrainians were impressed into a “militia” which marched Jews into the countryside to be shown by the hundreds. Squads of soldiers invaded hospitals and murdered helpless patients in their beds.

The Germans also showed a predilection for extortion. Leaders of the Jewish community were seized and threatened with death unless a ransom of 1 million rubles was paid.

Once the money was paid, the community was forced to organize a Judenrat (Jewish council) to help govern the community. For enforcement, the council was forced to create a police force, the OD, composed of men who “had a particularly bad reputation.”

To be sure, some of the collaborators were unwilling, given the alternative of “cooperate or die.” Others were willingly cooperative, including a man named Kramer “who would walk around with a hatchet and betray the hiding places of the Jews.”

He also “amused himself with the Germans and forced young Jewish women to come to such amusements.”

The Germans delighted in what they called “execution actions,” generally on Friday evenings. Jews would be assembled and marched to an outlying area called Fedor Hill for death by machine gunfire. Children would be beaten and left with “smashed heads and splattered brains.”

Uncountable thousands more were marched off to concentration camps, never to be seen again.

To make matters even more horrific, the Ukrainians saw an opportunity to rid the area of Poles so they could claim the area for their own nation. Thus ensued a “massive ethnic cleansing” of the Polish population.

The ensuing civil war cost the lives of between thousands of persons on both sides. And when the Soviets sent in their own troops to try to restore order, even more died.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Buczacz is now part of Ukraine, and its black-and-red banner flutters over the medieval Polish castle overlooking the city.

As Mr. Bartov concludes, “History was back to its old tricks.”

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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