Memories gone Judenrein
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 September 2008)

The 12,000 people who live in the western Ukrainian town of Buchach are mostly Ukrainians. Probably, they consider that fact both unremarkable and altogether proper, but for many centuries Buchach was partly Ukrainian and partly not. Many Poles also lived there. Early in the 20th century, Jews made up half the population.

Lee Strasberg, a great teacher of actors in America, was born there in 1901; and Simon Wiesenthal, the famous pursuer of war criminals, in 1908. In the 1930s, thousands of Jews still lived in Buchach.

It was Polish territory until 1939, when the Soviets (following their agreement with Germany) annexed it as part of their Ukrainian republic. The Poles, made unwelcome, soon left. Then the Germans came and most Jews were murdered by Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.

Today in Buchach you can easily find evidence of the Polish community; there's a Roman Catholic church that they built, which is well maintained. But it's hard to see any sign of the Jews. Evidence of their presence seems to be carefully eradicated. The Great Synagogue, for instance, was torn down in 1950 because the locals decided it was no longer needed. The site became an open market, with no indication of what it replaced. The study house for scholars, next to the synagogue, came down in 2001, replaced by a shopping centre.

The study house has a place in literary history as a crucial setting for the novels of S. Y. Agnon, a Jew who was born in Buchach, settled in Palestine in 1909, and won the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature. In the town's little museum, several glass cases hold books by Agnon, most of them donated by visiting Israelis in 2001, but there's nothing to explain why he's part of Buchach's past. In 2003, the municipality renamed the street where he lived Agnon Street but the marble plaque identifying his home was stolen soon after it was installed. A notice in a wooden frame replaced it but doesn't mention that he was Jewish or wrote in Hebrew.

Buchach, like many other Ukrainian towns, practises a kind of reverse archaeology. It obliterates the civilization of the past rather than uncovering it. That's the point of an unsettling and highly revealing book, Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (Princeton University Press), by Omer Bartov, an Israeliborn, Oxford-educated historian who now teaches at Brown University in Providence, R. I.

Bartov has a special interest in Buchach. That was his mother's town, until she left for Palestine with her family in 1935. Bartov sees its monocultural character as typical of the region. He describes in detail 20 towns and cities in western Ukraine where the pattern repeats itself again and again. The local people, while devoted to their nation's history, have developed an amnesia about their one-time Jewish neighbours.

Bartov writes about this phenomenon with an understated emotion, fact piled upon fact, until his evidence becomes overwhelming.

In 2002, Jonathan Safran Foer placed his first novel, Everything is Illuminated, in the same district. Searching for his family's history, he discovered no trace of it. Instead he imagined a surrealistic narrative about his grandfather's long-ago village.

These empty spaces in history have become a major subject for Bartov. He's now writing a book entirely devoted to Buchach, a biography of the town and its residents from the 14th century to the end of its multi-ethnic tradition in the 1940s. He wants to understand what transformed a community based on cooperation into a community of genocide. In this process, he's found himself rethinking the nature of the Holocaust.

The killing of the Jews in the towns of western Ukraine (about 500,000 died there) was not, he points out, a neatly organized undertaking, directed from far away. It was "a vast wave of brutal, intimate, and endlessly bloody massacres." Hannah Arendt's famous phrase, "the banality of evil," doesn't describe this case. There was nothing abstract, distant or bureaucratic about it: "Far from meaningless violence, these were often quite meaningful actions, from which many profited politically and economically."

There are Ukrainians today who refuse to take part in consigning the local Jews to oblivion, just as (Bartov notes) there were Ukrainians who risked everything to save Jews during the Holocaust. Here and there, an outspoken academic urges recognition of Jewish-Ukrainian history and a Holocaust centre in Kiev has for several years been educating Ukrainian teachers about the killing of the Jews. But in Bartov's account, the silence is close to deafening and the reasons for it are painfully obvious.

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