Book Review on Genocide

I try to get a fair amount of writing done over the break, and that usually includes some book reviews. A few weeks ago, I published a review of a book on LSD guru Timothy Leary’s flight from law enforcement, and just this week a review in the Wall Street Journal of a powerful Holocaust study by historian Omer Bartov. I have pasted it in below.

In hyperpolarized environments, many take comfort in the idea that our conflicts with other people arise mainly from misunderstandings, that if we just took the time to get to know those people as human beings, we might all get along. It will be harder to take such comfort after reading Omer Bartov’s “Anatomy of a Genocide.”

Mr. Bartov, a professor of European history at Brown University, has spent his professional life trying to understand the efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe during World War II. He has written on Nazi ideology and the German military; on total war’s relation to genocide; and on questions of representation and memory in regard to traumatic historical events. For several years, he has been interested in the role of Eastern European interethnic relations in the Holocaust and its aftermath. “Anatomy of a Genocide”—a detailed examination of deadly events in the town of Buczacz, in present-day Ukraine, during World War II—is the product of his decades of research into the ways in which ideology, ethnic tension and war become a recipe for mass murder. It is also a powerfully personal project. Mr. Bartov’s mother immigrated from Buczacz to what is now Israel in the mid-1930s. Family members who didn’t emigrate were murdered in the “cruel and intimate” events of the following decade.

If you google Buczacz, you will probably be redirected to Buchach, the currently acceptable spelling for the Ukrainian version of the city’s name. There are also Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkish versions, because today’s western Ukraine, part of what is sometimes called Galicia, has been home to a variety of ethnic groups for centuries. In the late 1700s, the province contained about 200,000 Jews and an even greater number of Christians who identified as either Polish or Ukrainian (Ruthenians). Throughout the 19th century, the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in 1867 “emancipated” the Jews: As citizens, they could now engage in commerce and own land. As more and more Jews took advantage of these freedoms, tensions arose with other groups.

Mr. Bartov notes that the “rules of the game” changed completely after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Intensified religious and ethnic identification, along with violent swings in political control, led to increased violence. Russia occupied Buczacz for more than a year near the end of the war, and fighting among Poles and Ukrainians left legacies of resentment and a “competition of atrocities in which there could only be losers.” The Poles and Ukrainians seemed to agree on one thing: that the Jews were the friends of their enemies. This meant that whenever conflicts arose, the Jewish population was vulnerable.

And in Buczacz conflicts did arise, not least in the late 1930s and early 1940s—from the Soviet occupation of the city as World War II began, to the fierce fighting between Poles and Ukrainians, to the coordinated effort to murder or expel Jews from the region. Families that had managed to live together peacefully turned on one another with startling ferocity. “The intimacy of friendships that served as a barrier to stereotypes,” Mr. Bartov writes, “was now transformed into an intimacy of violence.” Although there had been sporadic violence in the region for a long time, even the shrewdest observer “could not anticipate the scale of the horror that was about to envelope Galicia.”

There is by now an enormous body of literature on the depravity of those who organized, implemented, or just stood by and watched the mass killings of Eastern European Jews in 1942-43. But even readers familiar with this literature and the gruesome events it describes will be shaken by Mr. Bartov’s story of this single town. It is brutal. Killers knew their victims personally, and most of the time such familiarity only added to the sadistic glee with which they slaughtered children or buried entire families in mass graves. Many of the perpetrators were known as decent folk before the killings began, not displaying any particular tendencies toward violence or ideologically fueled hatred. And afterward they were able to return to their normal lives without a trace of their capacities for cruelty or any indication of remorse or shame. The bloodshed seemingly left no stain.

German overseers were brought in to Buczacz to ensure that the extermination of the Jews would be efficient. Mr. Bartov draws our attention to the gratuitous nastiness of many of the killers—this wasn’t just a military operation or a case of merely following orders. Murderers and their lovers, families and friends “appear to have enjoyed their brief murderous sojourn in the region,” Mr. Bartov writes. After all, they were powerful for a while; they held life and death in their hands, and they had access to all the food, booze and sex they could possible want. “For many of them,” Mr. Bartov says, “this was clearly the best time of their lives.”

This is not a story of industrialized murder of the sort that occurred at centers like Auschwitz. This is a story of close-up killing—of shooting a young girl in the face, of smashing a toddler’s skull against a rock or a wall. There was little effort at secrecy. The mass graves on Fedor Hill, a popular recreation site, were easily visible, and in a small place like Buczacz, everyone knew the final destinations of Jews who were marched away. Recruiting townsmen to be shooters was never a problem, Mr. Bartov notes, and participation in the murders of neighbors “nourished a grotesquely merry intimacy.”

Mr. Bartov does devote some pages to accounts of people in the region who spared the lives of Jews on the run, often at risk to themselves. These rare acts of goodness, he concludes, demonstrate that “there always was a choice”—in many cases the decision to help was a mercenary calculation, in precious few was it motivated by “altruism and grace.”

The defeat of the Nazis did not bring respite to the region. As the Soviet armies approached, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists intensified their attacks on each other. Scores of thousands were killed before the Ukrainians succeeded in 1944 in driving Polish citizens from the region. By then the Jews were gone. When the Soviets seized control, they decided that there could be no return to normal after such massive trauma. They moved hundreds of thousands of people in order to separate the competing nationalist groups. By the end of the 1940s, the once multiethnic region had become homogeneously Ukrainian.

Today, Buczacz’s citizens memorialize the martyred Ukrainian nationalists who fought for their cause. The Polish population has all but disappeared, and there is just the occasional Jewish visitor to a Holocaust monument buried deep in a dense forest. Mr. Bartov’s anatomy of genocidal destruction is a monument of a different sort. It is an act of filial piety recollecting the blood-soaked homeland of his parents; it is a substantive contribution to the history of ethnic strife and extreme violence; it is a harrowing reminder that brutality and intimacy can combine to destroy individual lives and reshape the destiny of a region and its peoples: history as recollection and as warning.

Mr. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. Among his books is “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

Book Review: “The Castrato and his Wife”

Yesterday the Washington Post published my review of this wonderfully interesting book of European history. In my Modern and Postmodern class we kept coming back to what it means to talk about the “really real.” So did Ms. Tenducci in the 18th century, and the historian Hellen Berry today.
In 1775, Dorothea Maunsell and her new husband, William Long Kingsman, went to court to show that they were indeed legally married. They had already had two wedding ceremonies (one in Italy, the other in England), but there was a problem: a long, public record of Dorothea already being married to opera singer Ferdinando Tenducci. Those two had eloped in 1766 and had lived as a couple in England and then Italy. But Dorothea and William went to court to argue that the earlier liaison was in fact no real marriage. Tenducci had been castrated as a boy so as to preserve his pure voice. As a eunuch, he was deemed physically and legally incapable of being married.
Helen Berry, a gifted historian with a great story to tell, relates that the intentional removal of testicles was banned by the pope in 1587, as was the marriage of eunuchs. But the surgical mutilation continued for the next two centuries because, as Berry writes, “The fully trained castrato voice epitomized everything about Baroque style — artifical, sensuous, luxurious, and exotic.” As a youngster Tenducci was singled out for his lovely voice, and “someone in authority” probably suggested that having him castrated could lead to some money for his poor family.


(Oxford University Press) – ’The Castrato and His Wife’ by Helen Berry

Tenducci became a well-known singer in Italy, and his fame grew as he sang opera and more popular material in London and Dublin. He excited admiration and affection from men and women alike, and he was known to boast that he could satisfy women without risk to them. Berry describes him as having become a “celebrity pin-up,” and she explores how women who flirted with him (and other castrati) “found a loophole that was an escape from the sexual double standard.” Women could intimately associate with castrati, since these were not supposed to be “real men” who could ruin their reputations.

Dorothea had been one of these women. She studied music in Dublin with Tenducci in 1765 when she was about 15 years old, but not too long afterward asked him to take her away as his wife. Their elopement was scandalous, but the notoriety didn’t hurt Tenducci’s career. They eventually escaped the wrath of Dorothea’s father (and some of Tenducci’s debts) by moving to Italy. There the young woman was sometimes described as the singer’s student, often as his wife. In early 1768 Dorothea published in London a 68-page pamphlet, “The True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci.” Of course there was gossip, but Dorothea accompanied Tenducci to his concerts and even sang with him to critical acclaim. Dorothea had escaped her Dublin family and was a part of Tenducci’s operatic life. Berry reports the astonishment of the famous Casanova, a man not easily shocked, at meeting Tenducci and his wife. Casanova even remembers them having children. How was it possible for a castrato to be a husband, let alone a father? What was a real husband, anyway? In any case, the couple seemed happy. They were on stage.

The sources are silent on why Dorothea left Tenducci. We know that she was alone in Florence, and she may have resented being left behind while her famous husband went away on tour. Perhaps the reports of her being a mother indicated that her relationship with Kingsman was longstanding. In any case, in November 1771 she sneaked to Naples to meet up with Kingsman, who had just received his inheritance. The following spring she married him in an Anglican ceremony in Rome. She begged her father’s forgiveness and asked to return to Dublin. He sent money for the trip, and the couple had another marriage ceremony in the summer of 1773. They wanted their child to be granted legitimacy retroactively — not an unusual occurrence in the 18th century.

In early 1776 the court ruled that Dorothea had never been married to Tenducci because the singer was incapable of being a husband. The judge had considered much detailed testimony on the opera star’s anatomy, including a salacious report that Tenducci carried his surgically removed testicles with him in a red velvet purse. Dorothea’s legal marriage was to Kingsman. He, a normal man, eventually died in a debtor’s prison. We have no records of Dorothea continuing to write or sing.

Tenducci is reported to have lamented the loss of his wife, but he did not contest the verdict. He went on to a distinguished if tumultuous late career, including concerts with J.C. Bach at Versailles and Paris in 1778, where Mozart composed a piece for him. When the French Revolution raged, the singer retired to Italy, where he gave music lessons and the occasional concert as “Count Tenducci.” Upon his death, a mass featuring “the finest musicians” was celebrated in his honor in Genoa.

In the 18th century, questions about identity, freedom, love and nature were inflected by the beauty of performance made possible by mutilation. Are the contemporary versions of these questions so different? Berry’s meticulously researched yet very readable story of Tenducci and Dorothea resonates across the centuries to our own time. What makes a marriage real? Do we want our celebrities (or spouses) to be “natural” or eccentric?The Castrato and his Wife is a fascinating account of how masculinity, femininity and marriage were being reshaped in 18th-century Europe just when modernity was taking shape.