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The Robert Salomon Morton Lecture

by Jessie Sigler

What is it about Galicia? A relatively small territory between Central and Eastern Europe, home to a huge Jewish population pre-war, it has captured the imaginations of many modern Jewish historians, well out of proportion to its size or the seeming importance of historical events there. The Galician city of Lviv (now located in Ukraine and known at different times and by different peoples as Lwow, Lvov or Lemberg) was the focal point of a fascinating Morton Lecture by international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands at Northeastern’s Holocaust Awareness Week in 2017. That lecture, based on Sands’ recent book East West Street, traced the origins of the legal terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” intertwining them with stories of the lawyers who coined the words, and the story of Sands’ own family — all connecting in Galicia.

This year, the audience at the 2019 Morton Lecture was transported once again to Galicia, this time by renowned genocide scholar and Jewish historian Omer Bartov, who spoke on his new book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (pronounced “bu-chach”). Philippe Sands, in his review, described Bartov’s book as one of “forensic, gripping, original, appalling brilliance.” Although Bartov spoke quite humbly, this brilliance was on full display at this year’s Morton Lecture. Through the lens of the Holocaust as it was enacted in the small town of Buczacz, Bartov provided the audience with novel insight into how genocide takes place.

Buczacz had a complicated history before the rise of fascism in Germany and the Second World War. It was a place of both interethnic strife and multiethnic coexistence before the war, populated by a mix of Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. First occupied by the Red Army and then by the Germans, the region saw every kind of ethnic slaughter possible during the war: Ukrainians slaughtering Poles, Poles slaughtering Ukrainians, Germans slaughtering Poles, and everyone — Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians — slaughtering Jews.

Outside of Holocaust and Eastern European scholarship, why should we care about these killings? What are the lessons of these killings for our everyday lives, today? Bartov’s work has lessons for us beyond the history of Buczacz; he and his work speak to human behavior in any time and place, about the veneer of society and what human beings are capable of. He explained that Anatomy of a Genocide was in the works for two decades before being published in 2018. The book had its genesis in events of the 1990s: the decline of Communism; the fall of the Soviet Empire; and other rapid changes in Europe which caused people to say that it was “the end of history.” The world then witnessed two genocides — Bosnia, followed by Rwanda — before the end of the decade. Coincidentally, around this time, the Holocaust was becoming recognized as a major event in the history of the 20th century. (It is a common misconception that the Holocaust against the Jews has been continuously commemorated as a major event since it occurred.)

Bartov was concerned when he saw that the Holocaust was being treated as a “unique” event in history. While he recognized that the Nazi system of extermination camps was unique,he also knew that the majority of Holocaust victims were killed where they lived: in their towns, in nearby forests and pits, and often with the help of their neighbors. Bartov saw this phenomenon echoed in the Rwandan genocide, in which victims were killed by people they knew. This similarity prompted Bartov to write the story of what happened in one small town in order to extrapolate larger ideas about the nature of genocide. His work brought great insight into the theme of this year’s Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week, “From Never Again to Again and Again,” in which the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was also commemorated.

Bartov chose Buczacz as the subject of his study for a number of reasons: its multiethnic nature; the famous novelist S.Y. Agnon, whom he admired, was from Buczacz; and perhaps most importantly, his mother lived in Buczacz as a young girl before emigrating to Palestine in the mid-1930s. Along the way, Bartov found out that Buzacz had some other famous residents: “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal and historian Emanuel Ringelblum, founder of the Oyneg Shabes archive from the Warsaw Ghetto. (The archive is the largest archive of Holocaust testimony written as it was happening and the inspiration for the book and documentary, Who Will Write Our History, which was screened by the NU Jewish Studies Program in January.)

A large part of Bartov’s focus is what he calls “intimate violence,” which encompasses not just “collaborationist” violence (such as Ukrainians or Poles killing their Jewish neighbors) but also Germans killing Jews whom they had come to know intimately while living side by side with them. These Jews had, for instance, worked in Germans’ homes in Buczacz for months after the occupation began before they were killed. Once the killing began, it was extremely public; nothing was hidden from the residents of the town.

During a question and answer after the talk, Professor Lori Lefkovitz asked Bartov how residents in Buczacz even made the leap from ethnic tensions and interpersonal resentments to brutally murdering their neighbors. Another audience member asked what Bartov sees as strategies for genocide prevention. These questions are closely related: if we can figure out how that impossible leap was made, we can perhaps understand the impetus behind genocidal action and move towards preventing it in the future. In his response, Bartov articulated his conclusion that in every society, there are a number of people who are simply willing, or even eager, to kill — if they are given the chance to do so with impunity. Bartov spoke about this in the context of German units, such as the police battalion units described in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Bartov said that members of these units were interviewed after the war and asked if they had specific execution squads for murdering Jews. The response: no, we didn’t, because we didn’t need them. There were always a few men ready and willing to do the job. On the topic of genocide prevention, Bartov remarked upon the importance of refraining from “othering” groups in society. In a standout moment during his talk, Bartov spoke about how in situations like that which occurred in Buczacz, there are no such things as bystanders, only people engaged in a violent system to varying degrees. If a Jew came to the door of a Pole looking for shelter, he or she was either let in or turned away. Bartov emphasized how acceptance of a violent system is equivalent to complicity in that system, and the audience was left to contemplate the resonance of his acute remarks.

Jessie Sigler is a fourth year Computer Engineering student with minors in Jewish Studies and History and the 2019 Ruderman Scholar.

Read the rest of the Spring 2019 Newsletter here.

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