Tales from the Borderlands. Making and Unmaking the Galician Past

Bartov, Omer
Anzahl Seiten
392 S.
$ 30.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anna Wylegała, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warszawa

Omer Bartov has written a fascinating book providing a “first-person history” (p. X) of a place, civilisation and culture that were destroyed by the World War II calamity. It is the story of Galicia, or the borderlands, a place at the end of the world as seen by the empires, but a world in itself in the eyes of the region’s inhabitants. Fitting seamlessly into Bartov’s earlier works1, but different in style and methodology, “Tales from the Borderlands” does not limit itself to the story of annihilation during the Holocaust and other instances of ethnic cleansings, but is primarily concerned with the situation before that.

Methodologically, Bartov adopts what could be called a frame perspective. His book aspires to give a historical glimpse of the wider borderlands of Eastern European empires stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Yet, Bartov rightly states that it is impossible to write a history of this entire borderlands without falling prey to simplification. Hence, his book is mainly about Galicia, and first of all about the town of Buczacz (Buchach), now situated in the Ternopil oblast of Western Ukraine. Bartov’s idea is that a careful close look to Buczacz will enable readers to imagine other Galician towns such as Brzeżany, Lwów (Lviv) and Czortków as well, and to some extent also Nieśwież (in present-day Belarus) or Kiejdany (in Lithuania). He aims to achieve this “close look” effect primarily by telling the stories of specific people, women and men, in their own words whenever possible. He also makes no secret of the fact that this is a personal story to him, as it is linked to the history of his own family from the beginning to the end.

What do these assumptions mean in practice? The reader gets an erudite, highly readable book, which is not quite a scientific monograph, nor a regular lecture on the history of Buczacz and the region before World War I or World War II. Although the narrative runs chronologically, it is mostly built from in-depth, but isolated glimpses of events that are for some reason relevant (to the author, to the concept of this book, to the people of the region...). Besides, the attentive reader will quickly discover that the chronology is illusory, because the book revolves around references to the Holocaust, which appear practically at every turn and are a kind of coda to most of the threads.

For example, this happens when Bartov quotes legends about the Buczacz synagogue and the Fedor hill overlooking the city, collected by the Nobel Prize-winning writer from Buczacz, Shmuel Josef Agnon, and concludes: “Yet shortly after [...], neither the mountain nor the government came to the rescue, and that very protective mountain became a site of mass murder. Fifty years later, the local authorities sent in a bulldozer and tore down the abandoned study house” (p. 87). When he writes about the seventeenth-century Cossack siege of Tulczyn, he parallels the predicament faced by the Tulczyn elders to the situation of Chaim Rumkowski in the Łódź Ghetto, who was similarly forced to decide whom to save and whom to expel. Writing about the fact that the poorest people were conscripted into the Austrian army as they lacked the means to buy themselves out or to study at the yeshiva, he states that this situation would repeat itself 150 years later, in much more murderous circumstances. The Holocaust is a leitmotif in this book, a persistent echo that reappears again and again, making it impossible to forget that the story we are reading does not have a happy ending.

So what is Bartov’s book? It is a story of three generations of borderland residents born between the Spring of Nations and the outbreak of the Great War. They are mostly Jewish; the single non-Jewish characters seem like chaperones that confirm the ethnic diversity of the narrative (while the featured region’s ethnic diversity hardly needs confirmation). It is also a story of various “isms”, phenomena and social institutions that define the meaning and organise the life of the borderlands: pogroms, forbidden love, education, communism, Francoism, Haskalah, assimilation, nationalism. There are quite frequent forays and digressions far beyond Galicia: For instance, the chapter on education and upbringing ends with an extensive interjection about the pedagogical ideas and fate of Janusz Korczak.

Bartov’s book also attempts to capture the change that took place in the region by picturing people who at some point made the decision to step outside the closed world of the borderlands, a choice that had all sorts of consequences for them. This part of the book is perhaps the most coherent. Here, we depart from the loose form of stories and move to the biographies of a few selected men, born in Buczacz in the second half of the 19th century. Bartov introduces them as “trailblazers” who came from the margin, but “struggled to make themselves known to the world, and in the process became part of its remaking” (p. 228). This set of biographies includes David (Zvi) Heinrich Müller, an eminent Hebraist who became a university professor in Vienna, and Adolf Langner, a communist activist born in 1892, who became affiliated with the communist government apparatus in the People’s Republic of Poland after the Second World War. Then there is Fabius Nacht, trained as a doctor in Vienna, who upon his return to Buczacz founded a hospital for the Jewish community and became a member of the modernising local elite. While he returned, his two sons, Siegfried and Max, both involved with the socialist movement in various ways, left and never came back. Both of them survived the Holocaust and died in old age in the US (which was mainly due to having left before, as Bartov points out clearly).

“Tales from the Borderlands” is also a jumbled story of real and fictional characters, literary heroes and their protagonists. Bartov explains his attention for literary works when providing an extensive recapitulation of the plot of Ivan Franko’s “Boa Constrictor”: in the case of the most prominent writers, he claims, the plots of their books give an insight into both their own worldview and what the social world looked like at the time. Hence, “this mix of splendid esoteric legends, parables and myths, on the one hand, and stark, sordid reality, on the other, tells us a great deal about how the identity of the people who came to the borderlands was shaped over time” (p. 100). These analyses can sometimes be tedious, especially when fictional storylines are recapitulated in great depth. Bartov’s particular fondness for Agnon, who indeed came from Buczacz, is understandable, but someone who is not familiar with his work may not grasp many of its nuances. While no one questions the importance of Gogol’s work for Ukrainian and Russian identity, the multi-page analysis of the plot of “Taras Bulba” leaves the reader feeling that this story is about something else after all. Also puzzling is the absence of references to Polish literature: Bartov draws on the works of Kulish, Shevchenko and Franko, but the only Polish authors featured are minor chroniclers of the city or the region who can hardly be compared to either Agnon or the above-mentioned classic Ukrainian writers.

Finally, “Tales from the Borderlands” is a personal story. Actually, personal themes are everywhere, as Bartov is linking his family’s history to both the literary works and historical events he is describing. And thus, when he mentions the works of Hayim Nachman Bialik, he immediately adds that Bialik’s funeral in 1934 was attended by his grandfather in Tel Aviv. Similarly, when he wraps up the story of Dan, the protagonist of one of Agnon’s novels who returns to Buczacz after years of service in the Austrian army, he concludes that for this generation the very idea that a Jew could be a soldier remained unthinkable. However, a few generations later, Jewish soldiers were fighting the Germans and their collaborators in the ranks of the British Army (Jewish Brigade Group) – with Bartov’s father being one of them.

The last part of the book is the most personal – it is basically the transcript of an interview with the author’s mother, opened by a photo of her with the author as a newborn baby in her arms. Bartov complements his mother’s words with own comments, sometimes providing contextual information, sometimes expressing regret that he failed to ask about something or asked for the first time during this interview. This is by far the most moving part of the book. Although it perhaps does not quite fit into the structure of the book, it is nonetheless consistent with it, because it tells the story of a woman from the borderlands, about the family she grew up in and the world she lost when emigrating to Palestine in the 1930s.

Unlike the first part of the book, the latter one does not only tell the story of a world lost – in a personal perspective, due to emigration, and in a group perspective, due to the murder of most Galician Jews. It also unfolds the story of a promised world that turned out to be not quite what it was supposed to be, namely Palestine and Israel from the late 1930s to the present day. Although it differs in form, it serves in fact as the closure of the structural triad of the entire book: After answering the questions “Where did we come from?” and “Where did we go?”, it explains where the group under scrutiny arrived and stayed.

While I do not dare to prejudge whether this book represents the last word in Omer Bartov’s exploration of Galician history, it ends with a telling reflection that can be seen as a summary of everything he has written about Galicia so far: “If I have learned anything from the tales of the borderlands, as much as from the story of my family, it is that we are all who we are not only because of the stuff we are made of but, at least as much, because of the haphazard yet relentless unfolding of events” (p. 327).

1 Omer Bartov, Erased. Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, Princeton 2007; idem, Anatomy of a Genocide. The Life and Death of a Town called Buczacz, New York 2018, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, 29.06.2018, (05.08.2023), also available in German: Anatomie eines Genozids. Vom Leben und Sterben einer Stadt namens Buczacz, Berlin 2021.