The Willed Amnesia of the Residents of Eastern Galicia


Mr. Bartov is Professor of History at Brown University and the author, most recently, of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, (Princeton University, October 2007).

In recent years I have visited Buczacz, my mother’s hometown in the former Eastern Galicia, several times. Located now in Western Ukraine, it is one of many Galician towns that were once heavily populated by Jews and Poles, and are now almost exclusively inhabited by Ukrainians. Having experienced devastating violence in the past, these towns currently suffer from a severe case of willed amnesia.

My mother and her family went to Palestine in 1935. The rest of my extended family, along with almost the entire Jewish community of Buczacz, was murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1941 and 1944. Of the estimated 10,000 Jewish inhabitants, about half were shot and buried in mass graves in the vicinity of the town. The other half were deported to the Belzec extermination camp and gassed there.

For centuries, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews lived side by side in such towns as Buczacz and the surrounding countryside. But World War I unleashed the nationalist sentiments of ethnic and religious groups. Galicia became the front line of a titanic struggle between the collapsing multiethnic empires of Austria and Russia. By the end of the war, increasing numbers of people came to believe that the seemingly unbridgeable ethnic and religious differences could only be resolved through domination and expulsion. Polish rule of the region in the interwar period saw a concerted attempt to colonize it with Polish inhabitants and marginalize and exclude Ukrainians and Jews.

In 1939 Eastern Galicia was taken over by the Soviet Union, which set out to destroy the old elites, wipe out nationalists, eradicate the middle class and nationalize the economy. This was accompanied by massive deportations of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians. Retreating in the face of the German invasion in late June 1941, the Soviets butchered thousands of mostly Ukrainian political prisoners in local jails. Local prejudice and Nazi assertions that Jews and Bolsheviks were synonymous, led to widespread pogroms throughout Eastern Galicia. Ukrainian nationalists had hoped that their new occupiers would facilitate Ukrainian independence. But while the Germans welcomed Ukrainian collaboration in the murder of the Jews, they had no time for such national aspirations.

During the next three years, the Germans murdered over 90 percent of the more than half million Jewish inhabitants, massively helped by Ukrainian militias and policemen. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) then conducted a brutal ethnic cleansing of the local Polish population. While unable to prevent the return of Soviet rule, they accomplished their goal of establishing an ethnically homogeneous region.

For decades, this remained a poor and neglected area, where the nationalists of World War II could be described only in the most negative terms, and the Holocaust was not mentioned. In Soviet-speak, the fascists and their local collaborators had murdered innocent Soviet citizens, while most Ukrainians fought bravely in the Great Patriotic War. Since the fall of communism and the establishment of independent Ukraine in 1991 all this has changed. Those who were maligned as collaborators are now worshipped as heroes. Western Ukraine, a bastion of support for President Viktor Yushchenko, has seen a revival of xenophobia and antisemitism. Here people want to remember a past whose memory was suppressed by the Soviets. But they also want to erase the memory and few remaining traces of a people and a culture destroyed by their newly resurrected heroes.

Contemporary Western Ukraine betrays ample signs of willed amnesia and selective, often fabricated memory. The region is creating a past that it never had by eradicating the last remnants of a rich multicultural legacy. This is a second ethnic cleansing, not of people but of their memory. Ukrainians are building memorials to an invented past, right on top of actual historical ruins. This is an immensely misguided undertaking of massive proportions and implications, depriving the country of a profound and complex past in favor of a shallow and empty fiction. It will produce a generation of Ukrainians ignorant of the past and therefore unable to envision a better future. It is based on the notion that because of their fear of change people would prefer to remain in the muck of the present and let their rulers keep skimming the fat while they wait for running water and paved roads.

Buczacz was one of the most beautiful cities in the region before World War I. It is also the birthplace of writer and Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon, of historian and chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto Emmanuel Ringelblum, and of “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal. But Buczacz has seen a concerted effort by several generations of ideologues and social engineers to transform it from a Galician jewel of natural beauty, intellectual fervor, and human aesthetics, into an architectural monstrosity and a memory hole. Representative of many other such towns in Western Ukraine, it is a melancholy statement on the impoverishing effects of the modern age.

In 2000 the last remnant of Jewish life in Buczacz, the impressive Talmud school, was bulldozed and replaced by a truly hideous shopping mall. The hill where thousands of Jews were murdered is now adorned with a cross commemorating Ukrainian freedom fighters. The Jewish cemetery serves as a trash dump. A new modest memorial recently erected there by the few survivors is already falling apart.

But this is no total amnesia. The town now boasts a museum to the heroes of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. A vast new memorial to Stepan Bandera, head of the more radical faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, is being built. Nor is this an exception. In Lviv, the region’s largest city, the few memorials to the murdered Jewish inhabitants were all constructed without any assistance from the local authorities. Conversely, a huge new memorial is being completed at the city’s Lychakiv cemetery, commemorating such heroes of the Ukrainian past as the men of the SS-Galicia Division which fought side by side with the German Wehrmacht. New times, new men.

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Sudha Shenoy - 10/23/2007

This is a case of govt officials pushing propaganda, the propaganda which projects the 'proper' image of the current powers-that-be. Naturally real history doesn't stand a chance.