Inside Story

Eastern Europe’s faultline

A distinguished historian uses one family’s story to illuminate the borderland between Europe and Russia

Mark Edele Books 21 March 2023 2036 words

Ukrainian refugees using the Krakovets border crossing into Poland on 9 March last year. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Russia’s war of aggression against its neighbour has piqued unprecedented interest in the history of Ukraine. Volumes explaining the background of the war crowd the display tables of local bookshops. Some are examples of instant scholarship; others are based on decades of research, writing and thinking about this region. Historian Bernard Wasserstein’s A Small Town in Ukraine is among the latter.

Wasserstein has done an extraordinary amount of research for this book. The bibliography lists thirty-four archives in seven countries (Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Israel, Britain and the United States) alongside oral history interviews, written testimonies, websites, unpublished doctoral dissertations, official publications from Austria, Britain, the United States and the Vatican, and a long list of published books and articles. These materials were assembled, read and digested over three decades of “digging ever deeper into what turned out to be an immense historical quarry.”

During his research, the historian built up “vast data banks of official records, newspaper dispatches, census materials, registers of births, marriages and deaths, electoral results, medical reports, maps and photographs, as well as meteorological, geological, ecological, ornithological, architectural, judicial, military, ecclesiastical and every other category of information I could find.”

Wasserstein’s biographical database alone includes information about “over seventeen thousand persons” who once lived in the small Galician town of Krakowiec (pronounced Krah-KOV-yets), the place where his grandparents were born and where, together with their daughter, they were shot at the end of the second world war.

With all this material, he could have produced a turgid multi-volume history of the town of his ancestors. At the very least, he could have written one of those doorstoppers commercial publishers somehow believe “the general public” has time to read. Thankfully, however, he has instead written a short and eminently readable account.

Wasserstein’s readers might recently have encountered Krakowiec — or Krakovets, as it is called today in Ukrainian — just across the border from Poland, in reporting about the refugee crisis created by Russia’s aggression. Founded sometime in the early fourteenth century, the town started life as a frontier settlement of the Kingdom of Poland. When Poland was partitioned in 1772, it became part of the Austrian-ruled Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. As it grew and became more prosperous, it turned from a Polish settlement into an increasingly Jewish town — a shtetl.

The Jewishness of the town was typical. In Galicia, landowners tended to be Polish aristocrats, the peasants were mostly Ruthenians (some of whom, by the nineteenth century, began to call themselves “Ukrainians”), and the town dwellers — tradesmen, tavern keepers, money lenders, and shop owners — were Jews. The division of labour was both functional and conflictual: its violent potential would be enhanced in the age of nationalism, racism and total war.

Wasserstein uses the history of this interaction between Poles, Ruthenians and Jews — and eventually a variety of invading military forces — to situate his own family’s history. He is not the first historian of East European Jewish heritage to embark on such a project. Shimon Redlich, in Together and Apart in Brzezany (2002), was among the earliest; most recently, that celebrated historian of the Holocaust, Omer Bartov, did something similar for another Galician town, Buczacz, in Anatomy of a Genocide (2019).

These accounts belong to a broader but relatively new genre of history writing: the transnational history of Eastern Europe. In books like Sketches from a Secret War (2005) and The Red Prince (2010), Timothy Snyder used the fate of individuals to chart new historical grounds between established national narratives. In A Biography of No Place (2005), Kate Brown presented an intimate portrait of how the borderland between Poland and Russia became a “Soviet heartland.”

The Wassersteins in Berlin: (clockwise from top left) Czarna, Berl, Hela Kampel, Lotte and Addi, on the day of Addi’s bar mitzvah. Courtesy of Bernard Wasserstein

At times of war, when national narratives are hardening, such books provide important correctives between and beyond national and nationalist history-telling. In each of them, the first world war plays a pivotal role.

As happened elsewhere in the region, that war came to Krakowiec as “a sudden, direct, and shattering blow.” The “unrelieved terror and carnage” it unleashed lasted not just four but seven years: it prompted the dissolution of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Romanov empires, and transformed seamlessly into a civil war and wars between successor states over real estate and the peoples of the fallen empires.

These years left “a residue of vicious collective suspicions and hatreds,” writes Wasserstein. “Ordinary human relationships collapsed into dog-eat-dog ruthlessness. The people of Krakowiec were plunged overnight into a dark realm. Their world would never be the same again.”

In this maelstrom, all sides distrusted the Jews: the Austrians no less than the Poles (who were soon in charge of their own state); the Russians of the Tsar no less than the Red Cavalry that came later from Soviet Russia to “liberate” the region from the “Polish lords” and the “capitalists” (the Jewish shopkeepers, mill owners and money lenders). Although the revolutionary Ukrainian state, formed in 1917 and declared independent in 1918, was originally committed to multi-ethnicity, the troops of the Ukrainian republic were soon engaged in pogroms just like everybody else.

Only the Germans, despite the harshness of their occupation in 1918, were not known for anti-Jewish excesses — a perverse legacy that convinced some locals two decades later that the stories of Nazi atrocities were Soviet propaganda and there was no reason to flee.

Eventually, the newly established Polish republic won out over its Ukrainian and Soviet Russian competitors. The Treaty of Riga of 1921 divided the Ukrainian state between victorious Poland and defeated Russia, and made Krakowiec Polish yet again. It would remain so until 1939, when Poland was invaded, first (on 1 September) by the Germans from the west and then (on 17 September) by the Soviets from the east. Krakowiec ended up on the Soviet side of the border and was integrated into Soviet Ukraine.

What followed would change the face of Krakowiec even more dramatically than had the first world war and the ensuing civil and inter-state wars. Stalin’s police went after political enemies of the Soviets as well as “class enemies.” Many of them were Polish, of course, but also Jewish: a shopkeeper, a factory owner, even the operator of an export business for Galician eggs (which were shipped to Germany and as far as England) were “capitalists” in Soviet eyes, particularly if they “exploited” (employed) others to do some of the work.

Many Jewish entrepreneurs were arrested and their families deported to the Soviet hinterland. Perversely, this saved many of them: life in Stalin’s concentration camp state was less lethal than being Jewish under the Nazis.

When the Germans invaded in the summer of 1941 they brought with them the genocidal Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that systematically murdered Jews. They had help from Ukrainian nationalists who had become inspired by fascism, like the radical right everywhere. An increasingly bitter four-way struggle developed between these radical Ukrainians, the Polish underground Home Army, German counterinsurgency troops and Soviet partisans, with Jews caught between all fronts. When the Red Army liberated Krakowiec in May 1944, only one Jew emerged from his hiding place. Of the 104,700 Jews who had lived in Krakowiec before the war, only 1689 survived.

Wasserstein’s grandparents, Berl and Czarna, and his aunt Lotte had originally escaped deportation to a ghetto and then the ghetto’s “liquidation.” But the Ukrainian neighbour who had sheltered them for a year eventually gave them up. The Nazis shot them in April 1944, just three months before the Red Army arrived.

Why and how the Wassersteins found themselves in Krakowiec when the war broke out, and why Wasserstein’s father Abraham (“Addi”) escaped their fate, is a history in itself.

A Small Town in Ukraine begins with the deportation of Berl and Addi from Berlin in October 1938, part of a mass expulsion of Ostjuden (“eastern Jews”) from Nazi Germany. Berl had been sixteen when the first world war came to his native Krakowiec. Like many Galician Jews, he and his family fled the advancing Russian army in 1914, eventually moving to Vienna, capital of the Habsburg empire, of which they were loyal subjects.

Perhaps trying to evade military service, Berl kept moving, first to Holland, then to Germany, where he married Czarna Laub, who also hailed from Krakowiec. The couple settled first in Frankfurt and then in Berlin, where Berl built a business producing raincoats. Neither he nor his wife ever became German citizens, but their children grew up speaking German rather than Polish or Yiddish. Nevertheless, for the Nazis after 1933, they were aliens in two senses: Polish refugees and Jews. The deportation of this group in 1938 marked one step in the radicalisation of anti-Jewish policies that would culminate in genocide.

Thus, the Wassersteins were forced back to the provincial Krakowiec they had worked so hard to escape. Berl was allowed a short visit to Berlin to collect the women of the family and liquidate his assets under rules that effectively meant confiscation. Addi, equipped with false papers, managed to travel through Germany, ostensibly en route to Latin America. He arrived in time to say farewell to his sister and parents at the Eastern Railway Station in Berlin. He would never see them again.

Like the family of historian Richard Pipes, who would do so a little later and under somewhat more adventurous conditions, he then moved on to Italy. When Germany went to war with Poland shortly after Addi arrived in Rome, Mussolini’s government suspended tourist visas. Eventually he managed to reach Palestine via Turkey. His survival — the result of quick decisions and chance encounters — was little short of a miracle.

Wasserstein’s book ends with an account of his own travels to Krakowiec after the fall of the Soviet Union and his deeply ambiguous encounter with contemporary Ukraine. The once multi-ethnic Krakowiec, now Krakovets, has been transformed beyond recognition. The Nazis destroyed the Jews, and a postwar, state-led campaign of ethnic cleansing in the border regions moved Ukrainians from Poland to the Soviet Union, and Poles and the few surviving Jews in the other direction. Today, the town is a thoroughly Ukrainian settlement.

Popular memories there diverge sharply from those Wasserstein reconstructs in his book. The town was the birthplace not only of Wasserstein’s grandfather but also of Roman Shukhevych, a controversial Ukrainian national hero. He served under the Germans during the second world war before deserting to fight his own war once it became clear the Nazis would lose. Among other deeds, he commanded a German-controlled unit that “shot all the Jews we encountered” in at least two villages, according to one of his subordinates. In the postwar years he fought a guerilla war against the Soviet occupiers until his death in battle in 1950.

Today’s Krakovets not only has a monument to its questionable hero; the school Berl Wasserstein attended is named after Shukhevych as well, as is a street.

Wasserstein completed A Small Town in Ukraine just as Russia attacked the country early last year. At a time when shades of grey seem to have vanished, when intellectuals are called on to unequivocally condemn “NATO expansion” as the source of the war or throw their lot in behind Ukraine, defender of freedom and democracy, he carves out a third position.

His feelings, he writes, are “mixed.” He shares “the general abhorrence at Russian aggression and brutality” and notes that “Russian claims about ‘Nazis’ in Ukraine are outrageous black propaganda.” Ukraine today, he notes correctly, “is a democracy, albeit a fragile one.” At the same time, he is filled with “unease” at the prospect of a Ukrainian victory parade “past the garlanded statue of Roman Shukhevych” on the square in which the town’s Jews were assembled for deportation.

The glorification of Shukhevych and his comrades from the second world war, Wasserstein warns, is not “harmless exuberance.” Collective identities based on false history “are inherently contaminated and potentially dangerous.” His book is the very opposite of such mythologies: a thoughtful exploration of a painful past that lives on in the present. •

A Small Town in Ukraine: The Place We Came From, the Place We Went Back To
By Bernard Wasserstein | Allen Lane | $35 | 320 pages