Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Buchach: A Ukraine Town Determined to Suffer Amnesia

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.


The Wall of the Great Synagogue
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, practices 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 Israeli-born, Oxford-educated historian who now teaches at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Mass grave holding 3635 martyrs who perished on 27 Shvat 5703 (February 2, 1943).
This picture was taken in 1945 after the war.
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.” (Source: National Post)
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