24 September 2008

Book: Vanishing traces of Jewish Galicia

Brown University professor of history and German studies Omer Bartov spoke at the recent Chicago 2008 conference to rave reviews.

His latest book, "Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine," (Princeton University Press, 232 pages, $26.95), was reviewed in the Haaretz Book Supplement, by Simon J. Rabinovitch, a University of Florida Jewish History postdoctoral associate.

"Erased" is a byproduct of Bartov's efforts to study the Holocaust's perpetrators and victims together in historical context. In the way that Jan Gross did in 2001 with "Neighbors," a book that investigated the 1941 massacre of the Jewish population of Jedwabne, Poland, Bartov, a professor of history and German studies at Brown University, intended to demonstrate that the murder of Jews often took place in the most intimate of settings.

Yet "Erased" is also a deeply personal project. While visiting the region of his mother?s childhood (he is writing a separate book on his mother's hometown of Buczacz), Bartov discovered that in town after town in eastern Galicia where Jews once made up a majority or plurality, the very memory of their existence and elimination is now imperceptible.

His travels resulted in this new project, a book that in its mixture of description and emotional commentary seeks to bring to light the shear success of efforts to expunge the Jewish past from eastern Galicia. It is as if not merely this region of Ukraine, but Ukrainian memory itself, has been ethnically cleansed.

Rabinovitch says Bartov is not the first to be shocked at what is missing in western Ukraine, and he mentions Daniel Mendelsohn's "The Lost," and Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated." Both books grew out of the authors' trips to the same geographical area to find family history.

Writes the reviewer:

The genocide of the Jews in Ukraine was remarkable for its efficiency and simplicity. Though ghettos and extermination camps were used, most Jews were executed in mass graves in or around the towns in which they lived. Auschwitz satisfies those who seek to remember the destruction of the Jews, but the lack of either commemoration or restoration in the towns of Galicia thoroughly disturbs those who seek to remember Jewish life there.

Bartov rightly cares that Jewish life in western Ukraine be both remembered and properly memorialized, and his and the other books are all in some sense an effort to compensate for the failure of Ukrainians to do so. But the question remains, why do we as Jews care so deeply what the people who now live in this region (or for that matter the other countries of Eastern Europe) remember? Jews have made efforts to commemorate Jewish life in these towns through the compilation of memorial books and the creation of memorials in the Americas, Australia and Israel, even as the number of Jews who either live in or travel to this area remains very small. And yet as Jews, we still do care that synagogues and cemeteries themselves are preserved and mass murder commemorated through memorials, as a reminder to the current inhabitants about Jewish life there and the circumstances of its destruction.

Do read the complete review at the link above.

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