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Voices on War and Genocide

Omer Bartov, Brown University

Now available in print and eBook, VOICES OF WAR AND GENOCIDE “assembles three extraordinarily rich personal accounts covering different periods and aspects of the history of the Galician town and region of Buczacz. Such narratives are extremely rare; even rarer are ones that are as informative and illuminating as these three” (Thomas Kühne, Clark University). Learn more here.

This book is derived from research I carried out for my recent monograph, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018). In the course of looking for documents in scores of archives and libraries, as well as  seeking personal accounts that would help me reconstruct the “biography” of a small town in eastern Europe, I found three remarkable diaries about events in Buczacz during the two world wars. While the monograph I was writing attempted to capture the individual voices of the town’s residents as a way of understanding how a community of interethnic coexistence was transformed into a site of communal genocide, it was not possible to bring to light the different protagonists’ personal stories as told from their own perspective. This is precisely what Voices on War and Genocide offers. 

The three accounts included in this volume are remarkable in that they depict the unfolding of wartime and communal violence from an intimate, family point of view, but also from very different national/ethnic perspectives. Taken together, they give the reader a much more comprehensive and empathetic picture of events that are conventionally narrated either from a single national vantage point or in large strokes that miss the granular details of personal daily life in times of crisis. The first diary was written by the headmaster Antoni Siewiński during World War I. A patriotic Roman Catholic Pole, whose sons joined the Austrian army but fought for the reestablishment of independent Poland, Siewiński provides a unique account of Buczacz under Russian occupation, the persecution of its Jewish population, and the horrific violence of the fighting. Once the war ends, Buczacz is taken over by Ukrainian nationalists who declare an independent West Ukrainian Republic, and Siewiński’s diary details the realities of Ukrainian rule and the suppression of such Polish nationalists as himself, his colleagues, and sons, often by their own neighbors and colleagues, until the region is taken over by the new Polish state. Siewiński intended for his diary to be read by others but it ended up in a Polish library and has never been published to this day.  

The second diary was written by the Ukrainian, Greek Catholic high school teacher Viktor Petrykevych, and describes the events in the nearby city of Stanyslaviv and then Buczacz during the Soviet occupation off 1939-41, the German occupation in 1941-44, and again under Soviet rule until Petrykevych’s death in 1956. This too is an exceedingly rare account of life in a small town during World War II by an educated Ukrainian patriot who fought in the previous world war for an independent Ukraine, harbors strong resentments toward the Poles, and acts as a dispassionate observer of the mass murder of his Jewish neighbors in Buczacz by Germans and Ukrainian collaborators, even as he laments the brutalization of his Christian neighbors and the utter destruction of the town in which he made himself a home. The diary was kept for decades by Viktor’s son, who destroyed some parts of it after his father’s death for fear that they would compromise him with the Soviet authorities. Yet what remains of it is a powerful depiction of the devastation of  a town and a community told from the heart of the storm. 

The final account is a no less remarkable narrative of life, struggle, and resistance by the young Jewish radio technician Moshe Wizinger, which he reconstructed from his notes and wrote during his incarceration in a British detention camp in Cyprus following his failed attempt to reach Palestine in 1947. This Polish-language account lay for decades in the archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, although Wizinger clearly wanted it to be published. What stands out in this beautifully-told narrative is first the gradual destruction of the Jewish community of Buczacz as seen from the perspective of a young man and his family. From the very beginning, Wizinger tries to resist German rule, often with the help of other young – mostly Zionist – men and women, along with Polish and Ukrainian friends. He builds a radio that provides news from the outside world and constructs hiding places of his fellow Jews. But eventually the community is mostly murdered, including his own mother and brother. In the second part of the account Wizinger and several other Jewish survivors join a local Polish resistance unit, which in turn ends up fighting together with a Soviet partisan formation. The desperate, forlorn young Wizinger is transformed into a fierce and vengeful warrior. Yet by the time Buczacz is liberated by the Red Army and he ends his account, even those few survivors have mostly been killed. Wizinger’s account preserves the memory not only of local genocide but also of those who fought and died, a band of Jewish, Polish, and Soviet brothers and sisters mostly missing from conventional accounts of the Holocaust. 

Voices on War and Genocide therefore gives readers an intimate look into individual lives at time of crisis, and allows them to empathize with the protagonists, their passionate nationalism and suffering, loyalty and prejudices, pain and hope. By giving us a better understanding of how violence and mass murder unfolded in one distant town many decades ago, this book also allows us to glimpse what may happen in our own towns and neighborhoods when the social order breaks down and nationalism and bigotry take over. 

Read Introduction


Omer Bartov is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University. He is the author of Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018) along with several other well-regarded scholarly works on the Holocaust and genocide, including Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories (2013) and Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine (2015).

ALSO BY OMER BARTOV

IN GOD’S NAME
Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century
Edited by Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack
With a conclusion by Ian Kershaw