When There Are No Bystanders (long version)

Omer Bartov discusses how the Holocaust unfolded in the Eastern European town Buczacz.

Transcript (Text)


So what do you learn when you study one place in detail? It's very hard to understand when you are studying the entire phenomenon, say, of World War II or the Holocaust or any genocide, really. What do you learn when you look at one place? You learn that nothing is black and white, and nothing is as simple as it may appear. Rarely is there absolute altruism, absolute good, or even absolute evil. Things are always much more complicated than that.

The Eastern European town of Buczacz sits at 49 degrees north by 25 degrees east. But from the mid 1600s all the way through the end of the Second World War, control of the city changed several times. Various empires fought bitterly to rule the region called Galicia, of which Buczacz was a part. Along with Galicia's strategic position at the center of Eastern Europe, it was also part of an important agricultural region that would later become Ukraine.

The natural soil here was a rich black mixture of organic matter and nutrients that provided the perfect recipe for bountiful harvests of various grains. The region was known as the breadbasket of Europe, indicating its key role in the building of empires. Until the end of World War I, the region consisted of different ethnic groups and developing nations all in various stages of identifying themselves and their territories through bloody means. The brutal violence between these groups in the course of the first decades of the 20th century set the stage for one of the worst genocides humanity has ever known. Of the six million Jews that were killed during the Holocaust, as many as two and a half million lost their lives in cities, small towns, and villages throughout German-occupied Soviet territories.

Eastern Europe on the eve of World War I was a completely different place from what it is today, because Eastern Europe was ruled by three or four major empires: the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the new German Empire, and what was left of the Ottoman Empire. There were no nation-states there. From the beginning of the 16th century, Buczacz is a town that has a mixed population. It has Jews, Poles, and people who are called peasants who later become Ukrainians. It is on the eastern rim of what had been Poland, and then of what becomes the Austrian Empire.

By 1914, fueled by nationalist and ethnic aspirations, tensions between empires surrounding Buczacz reached a fever pitch. Finally, on June 28, following the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, World War I broke out. What followed were a series of offensives that would engulf all of Europe and result in the deaths of over 37 million people.

World War I in the East was devastating. It was a very different war, but it was a devastating war. It was particularly terrible in Galicia, and Buczacz was, in fact, occupied twice by the Russians. During the war, this widespread violence against Jews by the occupying Russian army, particularly by Cossack units. Thousands of Jews flee to Vienna, to Prague. 2,000 Jews flee from Buczacz alone to Vienna.

As the empire collapses, there is a war between Poles and Ukrainian nationalists who want to create an independent Western Ukrainian state in Galicia. There is a lot of violence against Jews because both Poles and Ukrainians think that the Jews are with the other side, and Jews don't exactly know which side to be on. And so by the end of that war, the world had changed entirely. The population of the city has been halved. These empires either disappeared or changed. And in place of those empires came a whole host of nation-states.

Poland was resurrected. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary. All those new countries appeared. They define themselves as nation-states, meaning that they were states that belonged to a single nation, or at least a majority nation. But in fact, they had very, very large ethnic and religious minorities.

They organized according to ethnic national lines. You have Jewish organizations. You have Polish organizations. You have Ukrainian organizations.

Such divisions made any real peace almost impossible, as each group was now fighting for a state of its own. Poles were fighting to have a Poland. Ukrainians were fighting to have a Ukraine. And the Jews were caught in the middle, not quite knowing where they fit in.

For many groups, the term "nationalism" described the attempt to create an ethnically homogeneous territory, not only a political area. Brutal violence was justified if it served that goal.


And by the time order is reestablished in 1921, Buczacz becomes part of Poland. There is already a legacy of violence, of mayhem, of destruction. I should say about 2,000 houses are destroyed in Buczacz during the war, just from shelling by both sides as they're fighting over the city. So there's a legacy of violence, of destruction, and of ethnic animosity. And that was really the preoccupation of politicians and peoples throughout Eastern Europe for the next 20 years until the outbreak of World War II.

Under the authoritarian leadership of Józef Piłsudski, the Jews in Poland enjoyed a period of calm and relative security. In the Buczacz area, the Ukrainian population developed its own national aspirations and viewed Polish rule as an obstacle.

So by the late 1930s, you find a region that is in crisis. Now we have Nazi Germany, which is rising in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. And both of them are looking directly at this area as an area that they would like to take over. The Soviet Union says, this is part of Ukraine. The Germans say that that's part of their Lebensraum. That's part of the area that they will take over and occupy.

Lebensraum is German for living space. It referred to the Nazi ideology that the German race was entitled to expand their territories in support of their utopian vision. They saw the region as the perfect place to develop their new Aryan society. The Soviets, too, saw the advantages of the region and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, they claimed large parts of Ukraine.

In 1939, since the Soviets and Germans didn't want to fight each other over parts of the region that they didn't control, just before the outbreak of World War II they made a nonaggression pact.

So the next crucial moment in the history of this town— and again, it's both very specific to the town and symptomatic of the area— is that in September 1939, right after the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Germany invades Poland. And 17 days later, on the 17th of September, the Red Army invades the other side of Poland, eastern Poland, and takes over Galicia. That's in agreement with the Germans. There's no fighting between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht at that point.

The result of that is that Soviet rule is imposed on Buczacz. And what does that mean? It means that over the next two years, first of all the economy of the place, whatever there was of it, is destroyed. Large numbers of people are deported. Initially, Polish nationalists, who were seen by the Soviet Union as enemy peoples, were deported into the interior of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, large numbers of Jews are deported, partly for political reasons if they're Zionists and so forth, and partly because they're seen as bourgeois. They belong to the wrong class. And then, in a third round, large numbers of Ukrainian nationalists are incarcerated, particularly in local jails.

What we have to remember is that that period of two years of Soviet rule has a huge impact on the subsequent violence because the Soviets do away with the elites of all three groups. And they orchestrate violence against all the groups that incites one group against the other.

While many Jews were subject to deportation, other Jews found a place for themselves in the new Soviet administration. As part of this process, the Soviets imposed a system that did not discriminate against religious minorities. This allowed Jews to assume responsible positions, study in higher education institutions in greater numbers, and enter previously restricted professions. This new reality, however, caused the local population to associate the Jews with Soviet rule— the same system that had dominated the Soviet Union for two decades.

The imposition of Soviet rule onto this formerly Polish region provoked tremendous resentment toward the Jews. In June, 1941, the Germans broke their pact with the Kremlin, launching Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest military campaign in the history of warfare.

So they reach Buczacz and other towns in early July 1941. What happens in that region at that time is that as the Soviets are retreating, they have tens of thousands of people in jails who were imprisoned. Mostly Ukrainians— there are also Jews and Poles there, but mostly Ukrainian nationalists are in prison. And an order comes from the NKVD, from the secret police of the Soviet Union, to— if you can't take them with you, shoot them. And so they shoot about 30,000 prisoners in local jails.

And as the Germans are coming in, the Germans and Ukrainian nationalists who are marching together with the Germans say, the Bolsheviks and the Jews are the same. The Jews have killed our patriots. And that unleashes a wave of pogroms all over Galicia, including in Buczacz.

Initially, when the Germans come in, they already find a Ukrainian militia that had organized itself. A local militia that is working before the Germans come in and after the Germans come in to kill those they see as former collaborators with the Soviets. And so once the Germans come in, the kind of license for violence that had already been given by the Soviets is now entirely open. From that point on, that town, Buczacz, and all the towns in this region are subjected to an extraordinary range and extent of violence for the next four years.


As soon as the region of Buczacz was conquered by the Nazis, they began a campaign to clear it of all Untermenschen— subhumans— which for the Nazis consisted mostly of Roma peoples, Russians, Poles, and Jews.

Spring, 1942, the Germans begin a series of what they call Aktionen, or Aktia, or Aktias. These are roundups of Jews. The manner in which this is done, the local German security forces— about 20 to 30 German policemen, Gestapo people, criminal police, Waffen-SS— a small number of people— they have under their command between 250 and 350 Ukrainian policemen.

Whenever they do a roundup, they come to Buczacz in vehicles. They round up the Jews. And initially, they put them on trains to the extermination camp designated for Galicia, which is Bełżec. Even during those roundups, we may think of them, OK, well people were rounded up and put on the train and then they go. They're extremely violent events in which many people, hundreds and hundreds of people, are killed on the streets.

They do that until February 1942. At that point, they are no longer using Bełżec as an extermination camp. They take large numbers of Jews and they take them to the Fedor Hill nearby and shoot them there in mass graves. There are probably about 5,000 Jews in mass graves on that hill today.

Between one Aktia and another, the Jews try to hide. Now, they may hide in a bunker that they dig under their own floor or into the side of the mountain, but they often will try to hide in the villages. And when you go to the village, you say to the villager, look, I'll give you money to buy food and all that, and also I'll compensate you for this. But hide me. So the villagers say, fine— they're all poor.

And now the question is what happens? Let's say you run out of money. What do they do with you? They can't afford to buy you the extra food. Any extra food they buy is in any case noticed very quickly by your neighbors, because these are small and very poor villagers. Why are you buying an extra liter of milk? There's something— what's going on here? Where do you have the money from?

So you can either be totally altruistic and somehow keep them. You can throw them out. Or safest for you, you can denounce them. You can say, these Jews just moved into my barn. I don't know what they're doing here. Come get them. You call the local police. The local police come, take them out, and shoot them on the spot. Often they don't use the Germans at all.

Eventually, the vast majority of the Jewish population of Buczacz and the surrounding area is killed. What is, again, unique to Buczacz, and a particularly painful tale, is that in March 1944, the Red Army liberates Buczacz. And as the Red Army comes in, up to 800 Jews come out of hiding, both in the city itself and in surrounding villages.

However, two weeks later, there's a counter-offensive by the German army, and the town is retaken by the Germans. And almost all of those Jews who survived are killed. They try to escape with the Red Army. Many of them are very weak, of course, because they've been in hiding. They cannot walk. They're famished. And the Red Army is not particularly interested in taking them along.

By the time the Red Army returns in July 1944, maybe 100 Jews survive. So that's the end of that community. So you immediately understand that in a genocide like this, you cannot stay within the relationship between perpetrators and victims, because in no place does that happen. There is a social environment to that, and that social environment feeds into the nature of the killing, the nature of the event.

And these so-called bystanders who have been recognized— people like saying, well, we have perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. That in small towns, there are no bystanders. That the notion of a bystander is a contradiction in terms when you think about what happens in a town when killing starts.

It's not that people just sit and look. What you find in these little towns is not that there was dehumanization. On the contrary, there was intimacy. The whole event was entirely intimate. You were never simply a bystander. You were always part of the event. And the smaller the town is, everyone knows everyone else.

So these are things that you cannot understand when you look from the top and you say, well, this was industrial murder. People from Berlin were put on a train. They went to Auschwitz. In 20 minutes, they were dead in a gas chamber. It was dehumanizing. It was mechanized. No one really was involved.

Here, everyone was involved. And this event, what happened in this town of, let's say, 15,000 people, happened in hundreds and hundreds of towns throughout Eastern Europe. In fact, half of the Holocaust happened like that.


Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.