The Ukrainian town caught in the eye of the Holocaust

Representative: a historic photo of Krakowiec - Shim Harno / Alamy Stock Photo
Representative: a historic photo of Krakowiec - Shim Harno / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the fascinating juxtapositions of Bernard Wasserstein’s personal history of Krakowiec is that in the 18th century the town was the heart of the fortune of the Polish grandee Ignacy Cetner, who built a much wondered-at palace and “the most beautiful garden in Galicia”. Two hundred years later it found itself at the eye of Hitler’s Holocaust, 30 miles from the extermination camp at Bełżec and 50 miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau. One unanswered question in this often revelatory and dramatic book is whether those two facts might be connected.

Wasserstein’s impulse to write A Small Town in Ukraine lay in his family’s origins in a town that was first part of the Kingdom of Poland in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then in 1772 gathered into the Austro-Hungarian empire at the partition of Poland. Empress Maria Theresa wept for the Poles; Frederick the Great commented acidly: “She wept as she took, and the more she wept, the more she took.” She might have saved her weeping for the end of her empire only 150 years later, and for the fate of Krakowiec’s bustling shtetl, dragged into carnage as the 20th century began.

Berl Wasserstein, Bernard’s grandfather, was born in Krakowiec in 1898. Aged 16 in 1914, he fled from the First World War’s frontline with his family, living in neutral Holland, then Frankfurt and Berlin. Here the separate paths of the Wasserstein family and their hometown create the book’s biggest narrative difficulty, which Wasserstein cannot resolve. After a dozen pages on the family, starting with Berl’s arrest in Berlin in October 1938 (in an awkward emulation of Kafka: “Berl Wasserstein was arrested one morning, though he had done nothing wrong”), he switches to Krakowiec’s history for the next 90 pages.

Most readers, I imagine, would want the family story to be the ruling narrative, but only in the later chapters – when Berl, his wife Czarna and their daughter Lotte return to Krakowiec, and his son Addi makes a tense escape to Palestine – do the story’s drama and horror fully compel our attention.

The hell of the 20th century for eastern Europe’s Jewish populations reached its nadir when tides of war and Nazi genocide combined with vicious national enmities. In the case of Krakowiec – populated like hundreds of other Galician towns by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews – Ukrainian nationalists, including units of OUN-B (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) and their OUN-M rivals, committed hundreds of atrocities against Jews and Poles in eastern Galicia. In addition, fighters of the underground Polish Home Army and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) waged a dirty war on each other. Wasserstein’s account of the OUN’s and other Ukrainian groups’ activities, their anti-Semitism and viciousness, are a salutary inclusion at a moment when Ukraine is being globally praised for its stout defiance of Putin’s uncontrolled barbarism. Poland’s present firm solidarity with Ukraine’s cause is a highly welcome irony.

Almost all Jews in Krakowiec were massacred by the Germans from 1942 onwards, in killing sprees and later in the Jaworów ghetto a dozen miles away. Berl, Czarna and 18-year-old Lotte hid for more than a year, surviving in a hut near the town’s edge with the help of a young Ukrainian odd-job man who suddenly, in April 1944, three months before Krakowiec’s liberation, betrayed them. The author’s restraint in relating the deaths of his grandfather and aunt, and his thoughts about why the betrayal took place, are among his most moving pages.

In 1993 Wasserstein and his brother travelled to Krakowiec, since 1944 known as Krakovets, in the newly independent Ukraine (having been part of the Ukrainian SSR till 1991). In 2019 he returned again. The town had started to prosper, but he was troubled by what he saw as the “competitive martyrology” of a memorial to the UPA on the site of one of the Jewish massacres in a forest near the town.

He made one discovery, buried in a thicket. A single remaining marble cherub from Ignacy Cetner’s 18th-century garden was a poignant echo of Krakovets’ days of enlightenment. His find made me think that his noble, nicely detailed enterprise of historical and familial recovery might have been even more interesting if he had explored the connection between that cherub and what the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Imre Kertész has called “the absolute intellectual moment” of the Holocaust for Europe – the culminating moment of a European civilisation that had burnt itself out, ever since when we have been struggling to create and sustain new civilised values.

A Small Town in Ukraine is published by Allen Lane at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books