Facing a Difficult History

Brown professor Omer Bartov writes about daily life during the Holocaust


One day, when he was 41 years old, Omer Bartov finally asked his mother about her childhood. Their conversation led Bartov to Buczacz, a long-suffering Ukrainian village. The community was a mix of Eastern European peoples, who had lived in relative peace since the Middle Ages. But when the Holocaust came, neighbors turned on each other, and thousands of local Jews were killed.

Bartov chronicles these horrors in his latest book, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. Raised in Israel, Bartov teaches European history at Brown, and he was already an acclaimed Holocaust scholar when he began his research.

“People always say that genocide is indescribable,” Bartov says. “But I never believed that, because people keep finding ways to describe it. I wanted to see what it was like, on the ground, for the people who were there. The best way to examine this is to find the place where it happened. The motivations of everyone can be understood quite easily, when you break it down.”

Packed with quotes, anecdotes, and archival photographs, the book is a tapestry of daily life in Buczacz, illustrating how the town’s delicate fabric unraveled. Villagers endure hellish torments at the hands of the Cossacks and Bolsheviks – and then the Nazis show up. Friendly neighbors become informants and callous killers. In scene after scene, Bartov describes Nazi atrocities, as well as the mind-boggling cruelty of ordinary townsfolk.

“In many ways, everyone was expecting that this would happen,” says Bartov. “There was always the talk, even before World War I. Who are the outsiders? Who are the parasites? Who is doing the actual work? There’s a great deal of talking about violence, and of cleansing and removal. But when it happens, everyone is entirely shocked. The violence is so astonishing.”

As a Jewish Israeli growing up in the 1950s, Bartov often felt isolated from his forefathers. Survivors never spoke of the Holocaust, except in symbolic terms. Israel was a brand-new state, and Bartov felt a lack of personal history. His mother left Buczocz in 1935, evading the Nazi takeover, and died before she could return. But Bartov plumbed the depths of her hometown, enriching his own understanding of his ancestors’ journey.

“For people in my generation, the past was something to get away from,” Bartov asserts. “These were not questions you asked. But we became unhappy, having such a short past. As we grew older, we started asking ourselves, ‘Where did we come from?’”