Although it could not have been intended at the time of writing, there is something tragically pertinent about Omer Bartov’s history of Buczacz, a small town on the Strypa River in Western Ukraine, about 135 kilometers southwest of Lviv. It may have started as a history pre-1939, but no reader can now think of anything but the continuous present.
Bartov’s account of the political, social, cultural and religious turmoil of this stretch of land from the Black Sea to the Baltic — encompassing what has at various times been claimed as Ruthenia, Poland, Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Galicia is a term derived from Hungarian), Russia, and the USSR — is personal, profound, and moving. This land is, of course, the heart of the Pale of Settlement. It was where “the great expanding empires [of the late nineteenth century] overlapped, clashed and disintegrated.” It is, as many will recall, part of what Timothy Snyder dubbed “the Bloodlands,” and Bartov, “the cradle of modernity.” He does this not just to go back in time, but to “learn how life was led and understood … and why what we have created for ourselves may not be the best version of human civilization.”
Bartov sees the tumult of war and subjugation through the lens of the first person narratives of those who lived it in the raw: the small communities and peoples who were overrun and ravaged again and again, but still constructed identities and cultures, and clung tenaciously to the stories they told about themselves. Bartov uses what he calls micro-histories, diaries, and personal communication to illustrate the relatively diverse sociocultural environment in what he calls a thick description. He attempts to give the region a voice, using personalized stories to reflect larger historical events; and in this way he pays tribute to the resilience and tenacity of the people.
Much of the book rests on the fact that the historian has a personal relationship with the area — his mother was from Buczacz. Indeed, many of the photographs are Bartov’s own (or from his private collection). Buczacz is also the birthplace of Simon Wiesenthal and the Nobel Laureate, Shmuel Agnon; throughout the book, there are echoes of Agnon’s concerns about the ways in which traditions and changing circumstances scrape against each other.
Tales from the Borderlands is impressively researched and detailed, and in some respects it can be seen as a companion piece to Bartov’s earlier work, particularly Anatomy of a Genocide, which details the events in the same area in and around Buczacz during WWII. Taken together, and within the context of Bartov’s entire body of work, they form not only an account of the past, but a cry for the present and a warning for the future.