Omer Bartov is the author of the new book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. It focuses on an Eastern European town and how it was affected by the Holocaust. His other books include Germany's War and the Holocaust and Erased, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal. He is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: You note that this book “spans two decades, three continents, nine countries and as many languages, and scores of archives.” Did you expect this project to encompass so much time and effort when you began?
A: No, not at all. I thought I was writing about a little town in eastern Galicia—how many documents could there be? In the town itself, there is nothing, but once you start looking, there are documents all over Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and America.
Q: What would you say was the most surprising discovery about the World War II period that you made in the course of your years of research?
A: Much of the research I did was not only about World War II; there were many other interesting findings with the other periods.
Specifically about World War II, the most astonishing aspect was the disproportion between the number of German perpetrators on the ground and the number of people they managed to murder. That was one major aspect. Between 20 and 30 [in the German security police outpost] killed about 60,000 Jews in that area.
The second was the extraordinary disparity between what they were doing and how they were living. There were not only Germans involved with the security police, but others. They were having a good time. It’s not entirely surprising, but it was so blatant and so thoughtless.
The third is the reason I started the project—to understand how such a genocide begins on the ground. It became clear it was not only an event with perpetrators and victims but an entire population who were neither perpetrators nor victims but didn’t fall under a category of bystander. The sociology of a local genocide, to me, was the most revealing, not only of the Holocaust but other [genocides].
Q: What can you say about your own family and your connections to this town?
A: About 20 years ago, I started asking the question, what does a genocide look like on the local level? I had to find a small town in Eastern Europe where [many] Jews lived and most were killed.
The one town I knew something about [was Buczacz]. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the only Hebrew-language writer recognized with a Nobel Prize came from Buczacz. I studied him in high school and admired him. Second, my mother came from there. I thought I might as well find out about the town she came from. In 1995 I interviewed her, and that got me going.
For Agnon it represented in his writing not just that town, but the entire Eastern European Jewry. He left in 1908. He wrote a vast book that came out after his death. It represented an entire lost universe. I also thought of Buczacz in that sense—not only as that town, but as a representative of what happened…
Q: How would you characterize relations between Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Buczacz in the centuries before World War II?
A: There were Jews and Poles and Ukrainians living side by side in the town and the surrounding areas from the 1500s. Ukrainians were called Ruthenians or just peasants, and later were called Ukrainians. They lived side by side. Most of the urban population was Polish and Jewish, and a large percentage of the peasantry was Ukrainian.
They were distinguished by religion--the Poles were Roman Catholic, the Ukrainians were Greek Catholic, and the Jewish were Jewish—and by their relationship to the place.
It became more ideologically defined in the late 19th century. Until then, they would tell each other different stories about why they lived there, but it was not necessarily antagonistic. They would interact and speak each other’s languages.
The second part of the 19th century, with nationalism, there was a question of who belongs to the place and who doesn’t. By World War I, though there was very little violence, the discourse became quite antagonistic.
The Poles claimed they brought civilization, the Ukrainians were saying they were colonized by the Poles and the Jews were their lackeys. The Jews didn’t really claim they belonged there; they viewed themselves as transitory, but they viewed the town as their town where they were [involved in] commerce, were the heart of the economy, the carriers of a distinct culture.
Once World War I began, the discourse was transformed into violence. There was the war itself, and then after 1918, it continued as a war between the Poles and Ukrainians over land. The area became part of independent Poland, and the Ukrainians felt they were striving for independence and were suppressed by the Poles.
The discourse against the Jews was traditional anti-Semitism, and associating the Jews with the other side. Both sides were saying the Jews were actually with the Bolsheviks. The growing independence movement of Ukrainians had strong fascist tendencies, and became increasingly anti-Semitic…
By the time World War II started, there was increased nationalism and there were underground organizations, people the Soviets and the Germans could mobilize to establish their own political goals.
Q: What lessons can be drawn from what happened in Buczacz during World War II?
A: One can draw all kinds of lessons. There are the usual lessons one draws when studying genocide—once you start talking about a certain group in a society that doesn’t belong, is different, is less human, you establish a precedent for violence.
What’s more interesting in this case is the extent to which there was a community of coexistence for centuries, people knew each other intimately, their children went to school together—how quickly that can change into a community of genocide, and the tipping point is not always easy to perceive in advance.
It’s important for us to understand that if you remove certain constraints, [for example] if the police disappear, all kinds of grudges can suddenly trigger major violence…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve turned my gaze to my own country of origin. I was born in Israel, and I’ve been working on [the issue of] Israel and Palestine. I’ve been teaching it for three years. In the next year, when I’m on leave, I’m interested in [looking at] my own generation, Jews and Arabs born into the first generation of the state of Israel, and how they relate to that place.
It is a continuation of this [discussion] about the relations between communities, people and the place they live in, and how they make it their own, or not.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There is a certain narrative about what happened in World War II and the Holocaust that this book challenges. It’s made of two points.
The first is that the Holocaust was a mechanical, highly efficient organized bureaucratic genocide, where the perpetrators never encountered the victims; they put them on trains. That’s true in 50 percent of the cases. The other side is that everyone saw it, it was a very public event. Everyone participated, and nothing was detached or secret. It was a completely public affair where everybody knew everybody else.
The other is the other narrative about Eastern Europe, that it was invaded by Germans from the West and Soviets from the East and the victims are all part of the titanic struggle between the two powers. That’s also in part true, but there was also violence that was internal, triggered in part by the Soviets and the Nazis but in part not…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb