Neighbor against neighbor
Books | During World War II, Eastern European Jews had more than Nazi Germany to fear
by Omer Bartov
Posted 10/05/19, 09:56 am
For this week’s Saturday Series, we excerpt, courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Anatomy of a Genocide, a book that needs a big “Caution: Brutality” warning on it. Omer Bartov’s masterpiece of ground-level history shows that for more than four centuries in the Eastern European border town of Buczacz (now in Western Ukraine), Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews mostly got along. That quickly changed with World War II, where the two nominally Christian populations fought each other—and both murdered Jewish neighbors.
It’s miserable reading. German soldiers “shot Jews eagerly,” but volunteers, including local Ukrainians and Poles, wanted in. Typically, Jews were stripped, ordered to stand by a newly dug pit, and machine-gunned, until the corpses were packed like sardines. When one shooter “emptied his magazine, another one would be lying in wait for the right moment to step in.” My great-grandparents may have been murdered like that—I do not know. Don’t read the passage below if you only like happy history. Do read it if you want to see more evidence of original sin.
Anatomy of Genocide made WORLD’s short list in 2018 for History Book of the Year. —Marvin Olasky
Almost all of the more than two hundred testimonies by Jewish survivors of the German occupation of Buczacz and its environs reflect the same ambivalence about relations with gentile neighbors, ranging from gratitude and admiration to rage and desire for vengeance. Some older witnesses and parents of young children at times had greater insight into the cynicism, greed, and callousness that genocide can bring out in those not directly subjected to it; they may have recognized with greater clarity the rare cases of pure altruism as well. The saved were obviously more likely to have experienced that altruism than the far larger multitudes of the drowned, but even in their case, instances of unadulterated goodness appeared miraculous precisely because of their rarity.
Róża Dobrecka, a well-educated young woman from Western Ukraine, who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto with her five-year-old child, Seweryn, in summer 1942, arrived in Buczacz just before the massive action of February 1943. Her husband and mother escaped the ghetto later and joined them. They barely survived, hidden by Polish acquaintances. Speaking perfect Polish and equipped with false papers, the family’s survival depended on posing as Poles whenever they left the confines of the ghetto. Things became even scarier when Dobrecka realized that she knew SS corporal and camp commandant Paul Thomanek’s “Jewish Gestapo-man Wolf,” with whom he frequently showed up in Buczacz, since he had been “often a guest in our house before the war.” Now “all dressed up in leather,” Wolf “was obviously pleased that the same people who” in the past “had wanted to have no contact with him, since he was a gambler and a seedy character, were now dependent on him.” Throughout that spring Wolf and Thomanek spent much of their time in Buczacz “terrorizing the population. They orchestrated endless orgies, demanding to have young women brought to them.” Invariably “their presence produced victims. Thomanek shot into crowds of Jews,” and at times Wolf “would take Thomanek’s revolver from his hand and shoot on his own.”
Dobrecka’s own family was soon targeted. Her mother was denounced and shot on the way to see her other daughter, Hala, who was living as a Pole in a nearby town. Her younger brother, Olek, was sent to a labor camp as punishment for having “spoken ill of the vice-head of the Judenrat, Dr. Seifer.” Even “on the edge of the abyss,” observed Dobrecka, “the ghetto’s leaders were blinded by ambition and vanity.” After his release, Olek was arrested while visiting Hala; denounced as Jews, the two siblings were shot, and Hala’s meager belongings were promptly stolen by her denouncers. Similarly, when Dobrecka and her husband emerged from their bunker after the action of April 1943, they “found nothing; our neighbors had cleaned out and taken away everything”; indeed she saw “one Buczacz resident walking around in my clothes from Warsaw.” Following the “Judenrein action” in June, surviving Jews hid with “‘their’ so-called peasants,” but as Dobrecka pointed out, “in many cases” they were quickly “robbed down to their shirts and thrown out.” Finally she and her child simply boarded the train to Warsaw, where they eventually survived disguised as Poles. Her husband and remaining brother were murdered within days of her leaving Buczacz.
Possibly the oldest Buczacz witness was Józef Kornblüh, already sixty-five at the time of these events. His survival, while remarkable for a man of that age, revealed the entire gamut of gentile engagement in Jewish fate, ranging from sheer exploitation to selfless rescue. Kornblüh had paid the Judenrat 2,000 Złoty to allow him to stay in the ghetto after the mass execution action of April 1943, but in early June he wisely went into hiding with a local Polish municipal worker. This saved him from two rounds of killings later that month, but on June 28 he was asked to leave because the Germans were inspecting former Jewish homes (suggesting how his host came by his property). After a few wretched days in the open, Kornblüh was offered assistance by a young Pole who turned out to be a proper profiteer, handing Kornblüh from one person to another and charging him ever more money. Eventually, in November 1943, Kornblüh was ejected from his hideout with a Polish widow, who claimed that she had received no payment for her trouble, and found himself without any shelter at the height of winter: “I didn’t know where to go. I knew there was no rescue for me and sat down at the edge of the woods. … The following morning an elderly beggar-woman spotted me. She saw at a glance that I was a Jew and asked me why I’d been sitting in a place where everybody could see me and hand me over to the police. I told her that I had been thrown out and that there was no place for me to go. She asked me if I was hungry. I told her that I didn’t have any food.” That afternoon the woman returned “and brought me coffee and food. I learned at that time that there also exist people who are willing to help without expecting anything in return.” Eventually Kornblüh made it to the village of Żnibrody (Ukrainian: Zhnyborody), twenty miles south of Buczacz, “where Poles helped me.” He described his rescuers as “very proper and noble.” When the Red Army reached the other bank of the Strypa, Kornblüh could not cross over since the bridge was heavily guarded; instead his Polish host’s son “arranged to meet me at the river, undressed completely and carried me across the river. Thanks to this noble man I reached the Soviet side earlier and was liberated.”
THE LAST MONTHS OF THE GERMAN OCCUPATION were a period of unmitigated chaos, mayhem, and brutality, sprinkled with rare moments of altruism and grace. Many of the Jewish victims at that time were murdered not by the Germans but by an array of Ukrainian paramilitaries, local bandits, and brutalized peasants. Remarkably, most of the few survivors were saved by a German administrative official and a couple of Wehrmacht officers; it is thanks to the testimonies of those they rescued that we know anything about this world turned upside down, in which the handful who escaped systematic genocide were mercilessly hunted down, yet in recording their agony also preserved the memory of their saviors.
Eleven-year-old Samuel Eisen was an exception; rather than being saved by others, he became a fighter. In summer 1943 Samuel witnessed the murder of thousands of Jews in his hometown of Tłuste, including many inhabitants of Buczacz recently deported there: “They dug four deep pits in the cemetery, then put boards over them. Ten people, stripped naked, were ordered to stand on each board and a machinegun shot them into the pit; they were followed by another ten people.” Surviving Jews related that “they had to go down into the pits and arrange the corpses one next to the other, packed like sardines, in order to squeeze in as many as possible. Children were thrown into the pits alive, and covered up with the corpses. A German would grab a child by the neck and shout: ‘Nimm das dreck und schmeiss herein! [Grab the filth and throw it in.]’ The children were swimming in blood in those pits. Two girls managed to dig themselves out from under the corpses and came back to town but they had lost their minds and could not speak.”
For a while, Samuel, his little brother, Jakób, and their father worked on an agricultural farm, but after six weeks the father was killed in a Ukrainian police raid. The boys found him “lying naked among all the other corpses; they had taken away everything. … My brother and I dug a hole and buried our father naked. We had no clothes for him.” They then went into the forest. “We had no money, but many Poles lived in that village, they all knew us and were kind to us. They were afraid to hide us, but they always gave us food. We slept in the forest. … We washed our shirts in the river and dried them in the sun. We were only afraid of Ukrainians who might give us away.” As winter approached, Samuel joined a Soviet partisan unit operating in the region; he left little Jakób with Ignacy Wiszniewski, giving the Pole “a gold watch” and promising to “give him everything” he had “after the war if he hid my brother.” Samuel relished his service with the partisans. “I was with them for the entire year. … They taught me to ride on horseback … to hold the reins with our teeth so as to free our hands to load a submachine gun. … We were not afraid of anything. When we heard that the Ukrainian police were in the village, we went there, caught them and hanged them on trees in the forest.” They also ambushed and destroyed a German unit, taking many prisoners. Samuel’s partisan detachment welcomed the returning Red Army. “I was the youngest, so they gave me a red flag and I rode in the front between two officers.” He then gave all his property to Wiszniewski and took back his brother; in May 1945 they were living in Kraków. “I only want to work in Palestine,” Samuel wrote. “But when it comes to fighting again, I shall defend it, I shall know then what I am fighting for.”
One account illustrates the sheer horror of these final months of German rule in the region. Mojżesz Szpigiel, a forty-four-year-old former estate manager, survived the June 1943 mass shooting in Tłuste with several members of his family, including his father and fourteen-year-old son. They joined the labor camp in nearby Hołowczyńce (Ukrainian: Holovchyntsi), where the Polish work supervisor “extorted money from Jews” seeking to be certified as officially employed in the camp. Some of the wealthier Jews had gone “into hiding with Poles or Ukrainians” but “returned a few weeks later because the farmers had taken everything from them and thrown them out.” In contrast, the German supervisor of all the camps in the area, “Vathie,” as Szpigiel called him, “had a good relationship with the people” and “was tolerant.” Yet the general situation of the Jews in the region was so utterly hopeless that even after the second mass killing in Tłuste, in mid-June, which cost the lives of another 1,800 people, “the few who had escaped began returning to the town because in the woods they were attacked and killed by the Ukrainians.” In early July the camp laborers in Hołowczyńce were warned of a liquidation action and escaped to the forest, and “the local Ukrainians took advantage of this, went into the camp and took everything away from all those who still had something.” Sometime later the camp was raided by the Germans. As the Jews fled into the forest, testified Szpigiel, “we were assailed by peasants. The Ukrainians began catching people, torturing them, and taking their money.” That night Szpigiel’s father and his two nephews were murdered by a Ukrainian who had worked for their family. Yet the few survivors had no choice but to return to the camp in the morning. Now “a reign of hunger and misery began” since “the people did not have clothes and underwear, because they had been robbed of everything,” even their shoes, which led to a typhus outbreak and a mass shooting of the sick.
In January 1944 the camp was attacked by heavily armed Ukrainian militiamen; the slaughtered included Szpigiel’s son. “It is important to state,” he declared, “that this killing was not a German action, that it was performed by Ukrainian policemen and bandits.” Apparently that day Vathie was on vacation. Still, Jews kept streaming into the camp, having been evicted from their hideouts by peasants fearful of bandit attacks. The camp was raided again on March 8; by Szpigiel’s count approximately a hundred bandits massacred forty-six Jews with knives and pitchforks. Returning from the forest “in the morning, we saw a terrible scene. The child orphans were stacked up in a pile, ten children were butchered, one on top of the other. … Other victims were lying with open guts in different locations. We buried them, gathered the injured and took them on two horses and carts to the camp in Tłuste. Everybody said they would rather die from a German bullet than from a bandit’s knife.”
When Vathie left just a couple of days before the Soviets arrived, “the Jews earnestly cried,” “afraid of this transition period.” By now they “were no longer afraid of the Germans because the Gestapo was there no more”; rather they “were afraid of the Ukrainians.” To their surprise, the new commandant of Tłuste, a young German Army officer, “who saw that we [felt] sorry about Vathie” leaving, announced to the surviving Jews, “As long as I am here, nothing will happen to you.” He then “ordered [someone] to butcher a cow and to give us potatoes.” He was not the only Wehrmacht officer to protect the Jews from armed militias. As Szpigiel testified, the following day a unit of Ukrainian policemen “came to the camp with their guns drawn,” yelling, “Vodka or death!” Szpigiel managed to flee and alerted a German Army major, who “went there with his aide, hit one [Ukrainian] policeman on the head with his revolver, threw them out, and ordered them to leave the area immediately.”
Soon thereafter the Red Army rolled in. They were finally liberated. However, seventeen-year-old Ester Nachtigal, who was recovering from wounds sustained during a Ukrainian attack, vividly recalled that just then “German planes arrived” and “strafed anyone who was running”:
I managed to get off my bed and reached the door and began to cry. … Until then we always thought only how to survive, always thinking quickly from one moment to the next how to avoid death. Now I understood that I was alone and had survived. But this was not yet the case, because suddenly everything was flying around me, I was already faint from hunger. I found myself in a half-destroyed hut. The other hut was burning. The wounded there died in the flames. I stood there alone without knowing what to do, all covered in blood.
From Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov. Copyright © 2018 by Omer Bartov. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Omer is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University.