How neighbours turned on neighbours
So said Professor Omer Bartov, a keynote speaker at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre’s (JHGC) Holocaust commemoration on 27 January.
An acclaimed academic author, Bartov spoke about his 2018 work, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, a book which took twenty years to complete.
“While the Nazis created an unprecedented killing apparatus, the killing in Buczacz shows us that at some point, the thin veneer of order and civility can break,” said Bartov. “The police you may call up could come to arrest you. Your neighbour can arrive with an axe, and kill your family.
“We must be vigilant. The early warning signs are when people start talking about others [in terms like] who doesn’t belong, whether they are called vermin or cockroaches.”
Through his research, Bartov found that contrary to popular belief, elements of Holocaust murder were in fact intimate and public. “About half the total of Holocaust victims died in inter-ethnic communities. The killings there were more like the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda than previously thought.”
Bartov’s research began in the 1990s in the wake of two separate genocides, one in Bosnia in 1992, and another in Rwanda in 1994.
“Rwanda was distinguished in that it was the fastest genocide in history,” said Bartov. “In about ten weeks, 800 000 people were murdered, mostly by machetes and fire.”
It was around that time that the Holocaust was recognised as an international event and understood as an instance of industrial killing. “People being deported from different parts of Europe in sealed trains, brought to camps and murdered,” Bartov said. “It was seen as an instance of compartmentalisation, where no one in particular was responsible, and very little connection between perpetrators and victims existed.”
This perception changed for some because the subsequent genocides in the 1990s were very personal, intimate massacres in which neighbours killed neighbours.
To see if the same was true of the Holocaust, Bartov focused on one European town. He chose Buczacz, the birthplace of Nobel-prize winning writer Shai Agnon and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, as well as Bartov’s own mother, who in 1925 escaped to British controlled Palestine. In 1995, Bartov asked her about growing up in Buczacz.
“She had fond memories of Buczacz,” said Bartov. “When the Nazis came to Buczacz, they didn’t come to an empty space in which there were Jews, and kill them. They came to a place where there were Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians living together. The fabric of that society is what determined the nature of the Holocaust there, and in hundreds of other cities.”
He said that the three population groups lived side-by-side for about 400 years, the Jews having been there since the 15th century. Though their society wasn’t harmonious, it functioned mostly without much violence.
According to Bartov, this changed in the 19th century because of nationalism, pitting some groups against others. Poles and Ukrainians each staked a claim to the land, arguing who should be in control. Still, violence remained rare until the outbreak of World War I. “The war prepared the ground for the mass murder of World War II,” said Bartov. “World War I was disastrously bloody, waged against soldiers and civilians, many of them Jews.”
Once the war was over, Poles and Ukrainians began to fight each other.
“The Ukrainians kept fighting for their liberation from Polish rule, often underground,” Bartov said. “They wanted a Pole-free and Jew-free Ukraine. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany became a major supporter of the Ukrainian movement.” The Soviet occupation of the area in 1939 made the situation worse, resulting in dire poverty and further political instability and antagonism towards Jews.
As the Soviets retreated in the face of the Nazi invasion, the local population (led by Ukrainian nationalists) carried out a vast series of pogroms against Jews, arguing that they were allied with the Soviets to kill Ukrainians. The Ukrainians also formed militia, hopeful that the incoming German forces could help them create an independent Ukraine.
“The Germans had no such interest, but were happy to work with the Ukrainians to carry out their own plan – exterminating Jews,” Bartov said. “They transformed these militia into police forces, and created a Waffen-SS division of Ukrainian volunteers.
“In order to exterminate Jews, the Nazis didn’t do what we usually read about, using their own firing squads to kill. Instead, they created outposts of security police in small towns, and had them kill the local Jews.”
One of these was established near Buczacz, comprising only twenty German officers who brought their wives with them and enjoyed absolute power. Between the end of 1942 and June 1943, they killed about 60 000 Jews.
“Twenty men, however ruthless, could not kill these people on their own,” said Bartov. “They used their Ukrainian police, about 300 men in all. They would swoop into towns, round people up, and either deport them or kill them on the spot. Ten thousand Jews were killed in Buczacz, over half of them on the spot.”
He stressed how crucial it is to understand that the killing began only a year after the Germans arrived. “During that year, they worked with the Jews,” he said. “They had Jewish doctors, dentists, babysitters, cooks. Jews come in and out of German homes, and by the time the killing starts, people know each other by name.”
“They spent time together to the extent that in some cases, people called out to a German they knew moments before execution, saying, ‘How can you shoot me? I was your barber.’”
The same is true of the Ukrainians, the people the Jews had lived alongside for decades. Even when the region was declared “Jew-free” in 1943, the Ukrainians continued their genocidal activities, turning against Poles. The violence continued until the Soviets arrived, suppressing the fighting, and deported many Ukrainians to gulags.
In March 1944, Buczacz was liberated for the first time by the Soviets. Two weeks later, however, the Red Army made a tactical retreat, and for the 800 Jews who came out of hiding, this was the end. Too weak to flee, they were exterminated. Only 60 Jews survived.
Only a single small memorial stands in Buczacz today, requiring a guide to be located. On the other hand, a prominent memorial for Ukrainian martyrs stands on the site at which many Jews were executed. The Jewish cemetery (used as a killing site during the war) was surrounded by a wall only last year. The last remaining Jewish building in Buczacz, the Beit Midrash, stood until 2001, when the mayor demolished it to erect a shopping mall.