A Jewish Diarist in Occupied Ukraine

4 September 2012, 16:22 | Society-digest | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Alexander J. Motyl

31 August 2012 World Affair

Just around the time I was writing a recent blog post on my mother’s hometown of Peremyshlyany, I came upon a fascinating diary by Samuel Golfard, a victim of the Holocaust in that very place. (The full bibliographic reference is: Wendy Lower, ed., The Diary of Samuel Golfard and the Holocaust in Galicia; AltaMira Press, 2011.)

Don’t read the diary for Lower’s superficial introduction. Although an impressively productive Holocaust scholar, Lower knows little about Ukraine and even less about Peremyshlyany and simply superimposes a ready-made Holocaust “template” on a complex country and town. But do read the diary for a gut-wrenching glimpse into the heart and mind of an articulate Polish Jew who fled his native Radom after Hitler and Stalin dismembered Poland in September 1939 and, along with more than 2,000 other Jewish refugees, settled in Peremyshlyany, then part of Soviet Ukraine. Golfard’s diary was written in Polish and encompasses the period from January 25 to April 14, 1943.

Golfard’s friend and fellow refugee, Jacob Littman, describes him as “an urbane, informed, and self-confident man” with “liberal-progressive-leftist convictions.” In the months before his death, writes Littman, Golfard “was the only Jew in the immediate territory to land a job with a German firm in charge of collecting scrap metals for recycling… [He] became a garbage collector with no pay but with a tin badge on his chest to prove his special status.” That status enabled Golfard to look, to see, and to reflect.

Golfard comes down hard on everybody. He denounces the local Jewish Council in no uncertain terms: “Those bandits have done their duty, have finally recognized that it is time to leave. Instead of arming young people and sending them to the woods, they consigned them until now to camps and a slow agony. They ‘saved’ Jewry by taking contributions from them, rounding them up for the camps, and deploying the Jewish militia in the massacres, as long as there was no threat to themselves. They sacrificed their people for the price of their own lives. Now, fleeing with their moneybags, they disappear in the nick of time—leaving, at last, the few remaining Jews to their own inevitable fate.” Golfard’s judgment is rather harsh, but his sense of betrayal and his outrage are perfectly understandable.

About Germans, Golfard speaks like a biblical prophet: “Let the German people be cursed forever. Let the damnation of the murdered mothers, children, and elderly pursue the German people to their own ultimate destruction.” However, notes Golfard, “The Germans are not alone guilty of our tragic fate. The English and the Americans who tolerated the acts of the German nation are also guilty. They fattened Hitler and nurtured the present regime in Germany.” Oddly, Golfard fails to condemn Stalin, who, as he obviously knew, “fattened” Hitler in 1939–41.

Golfard’s views of Ukrainians are both highly critical and remarkably measured. On the one hand, he says: “The participation of Ukrainians in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews is beyond any dispute. To this day they carry out, often ruthlessly, the beastly Hitlerian orders…. In Przemyslany the perpetrators of this were the Ukrainians. Had they been allowed, they would even today take apart the entire ghetto in their passion for plunder.” On the other hand, Golfard also notes: “I cannot for a moment equate a people with a bigger or smaller minority of its bandits. They can be found in each nation, even among the Jews.”

Poles come across best in Golfard’s account. True, he writes that “Poles as well … would rather send helpless ones to death, even when extending some help posed no threat to them.” But Golfard also says the following: “In the camps the flower of the Polish nation is perishing. Millions of Poles in Germany do the work of hard labor convicts. Tens of thousands have perished in camps… The nation in bondage is carrying a heavy yoke. But not for a moment does the nation lose hope that freedom and the fatherland will be restored.” Clearly, Golfard’s is not the prevalent image of Poles as inveterate anti-Semites.

Naturally, Golfard’s views, like those of all diarists and memoirists, must be taken with a grain of salt. He came to Peremyshlyany in mid-1941 and obviously had no time to understand the complexities of the town and its inhabitants. Living on the edge of extinction, while possibly feeling guilty for enjoying “special status,” was unlikely to foster moderate views. And, as a left-wing Jew from central Poland, Golfard probably shared many of the stereotypes that characterized Polish views of their eastern borderlands and left-wing views of nationality relations. 

In that sense, Golfard was, as one would expect, a man of his times. Like most interwar Europeans and Americans (even those who claimed to be democrats), he believed that “Every nation possesses its innate traits.” Thus, “I became convinced that there is no and has never been any racial solidarity among Jews.” The innate trait of Poles is “their overly hot temperament and recklessness. With the Ukrainians, it is indisputably their hypocrisy and cruelty.” In other words, Jews can’t get along, Poles are hotheads, and Ukrainians, like the anti-Semitic image of Jews, are crafty and vicious and have a “passion for plunder.”

Like most left-wingers, however, Golfard believes that these traits, though “hereditary,” are “by no means constant. They developed in the psyche of the Ukrainian masses as a result of their political situation, always uncertain, and as a response to the methods of ruthlessness and violence that constituted their daily bread in our eastern lands” from the 17th century onward. Indeed, concludes Golfard, class is at the root of all evils: “Despite its nationalistic appearance, the struggle in the eastern provinces has its base in class discrimination with the nationalist factor only as a secondary phenomenon aroused by political parties and foreign forces.”

Golfard died in mid-1943 while attempting to shoot a Nazi official. His death was as heroic as his attempt to survive as a scrap-metal collector was not. His comments are as insightful and objective as they are one-sided and extreme. Samuel Golfard was human—indeed, very fallibly human—and he reminds us that World War II and the Holocaust were not scholarly constructs or polemical devices, but enormous human tragedies.

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  • velovs@ukr.net | 5 December 2019, 10:53

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  • velovs@ukr.net | 5 December 2019, 08:04

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