Bernard Wasserstein’s latest book began with a plan to tell the story of every inhabitant of a small town in Ukraine. Krakovets is a place that has been fought over by tyrannies, superpowers and empires. It has been part of the Habsburg Austrian empire. It has been ruled by Poland and found itself at the centre of tussles between Russian communists and Nazis.
ormerly known by its Polish name Krakowiec, it had a meagre existence under Soviet rule and is now part of Ukraine, a border outpost where thousands of refugees have been fleeing the war in recent months.
In the early part of the 20th century, there were three main communities in the lakeside town, which at its peak had a population of 2,000: Polish Catholics, Ukrainians who were part of the Greek Catholic church and a large community of Jews.
Wassertein’s Jewish great-grandfather ran a bakery, and there was a thriving synagogue. At one time, a Polish lord’s palace stood in the town.
But in the 20th century, its Jewish way of life was obliterated. The vast majority of the Jews were massacred by the Nazis, or deported to the east by the Soviets. Poles were expelled and Ukrainians remain.
Wasserstein explores this complex history and the fate of his family in A Small Town in Ukraine. “One of the things I try to show in the book is that it is not a good idea to stick labels on people as ‘collaborator’, ‘resister’ or ‘betrayer’,” he says.
As the story of his family shows, in the midst of bitter conflict, the same person who protects you might also betray you. The church leader who welcomes the Nazis as liberators might also protest at the persecution of Jews. Wasserstein, who was born in London and lives in Amsterdam, did not set out to write a book encompassing the history of his family. He resisted the idea, particularly when his parents were still alive.
“I started out hoping to gather the life stories of all the inhabitants who had ever lived in this little town,” he says. “It became an obsession, and I ended up with thousands of mini-biographies.”
His original ambition was impossible, but over time the project changed and once his parents had died, he felt free to write the “autobiography of the period before I was born”. He wanted to observe how some of the great forces that determined the history of our time could affect ordinary people like his grandfather, Berl.
Although born in Krakovets, Berl was living in Berlin in 1938 with his wife Czarna, son Addi (the historian’s father) and daughter Lotte. He was a prosperous businessman who manufactured raincoats.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Berl’s family felt the weight of discrimination and persecution gradually. By autumn 1938, the oppression of Jews had intensified. Late one night, police knocked on the Wassersteins’ door and Berl was ordered to leave the country.
The family travelled east to Krakovets, which was then in Poland, but Addi stayed behind for a time, before fleeing elsewhere.
Berl and his family stepped from the frying pan into the fire. After fierce fighting and bombing by the Luftwaffe, Krakovets was occupied by the Germans in 1939. Jews were rounded up but soon released after the intervention of a priest.
Then, within weeks, much to the relief of the Jewish population, Krakovets fell under Soviet control as a result of an agreement between Hitler and Stalin to carve up Poland.
Wasserstein says most Jews in the area that had been evacuated by the Nazis greeted Soviet occupation with relief, if only as the lesser evil.
“The joke went around that whereas the Nazis had condemned the Jews to death, under the Soviets the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment,” he says.
Under the Soviet regime, Jewish worship and traditions were discouraged.
Wasserstein says the Jews may have fared better under the Soviets than under the Nazis, but because they were not classified as “workers” or “peasants”, they could be regarded as mini-capitalists. As a result, many were deported to the east of the Soviet Union.
Deportation may not have been pleasant, but it could also be a blessing in disguise, protecting these Jews from the Holocaust. “Paradoxically, many of those Jews [who were deported] survived the war, because the Nazis did not get that far east,” he says.
The Wasserstein family stayed in Krakovets and in the summer of 1941, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union began and the town was again occupied by German troops.
The Nazis were assisted by Ukrainian nationalist militias in their persecution of the Jews. According to Wasserstein’s account, these militias killed thousands of Jews.
The book tells how mobs attacked their victims with whips, sticks and bricks. Women were humiliated, tortured and raped. Late in 1942, the vast majority of Jews from Krakowiec were either murdered or forced to go to the nearby town of Jaworow, where they lived for a time in appalling conditions in a ghetto. Residents were taken to a nearby forest, shot and buried in mass graves.
Back in Krakovets, Berl and his family managed to avoid being rounded up. They were sheltered by a volunteer policeman, Mikola Olanek.
Wasserstein can only speculate about this man’s motives in initially protecting them: “Olanek most likely hid Berl and his family in return for money.”
In April 1944, just three months before the German army was ousted from the town, Berl and his family were betrayed to the Nazis. The betrayer was the same Olanek who had sheltered them for more than a year.
“It seems they were forced to dig their own graves near the lake and then shot,” Wasserstein says.
He ponders what went on in Olanek’s head as he spent months protecting the family and then handed them over to the Nazis. Perhaps Berl’s money just ran out.
The historian believes Olanek may have revelled in control: he was exerting power over a Jewish family when he protected them, and also exerting control when he betrayed them.
Wasserstein owes his own existence to the fact that his father, Addi, stayed behind for a time in Berlin before travelling to Italy, where the thorough suppression of Jews had not yet begun. While it was relatively safe when he arrived in 1939, that situation changed.
Wasserstein believes his father was lucky to survive the war. He might not have escaped were it not for the intervention of a senior Jesuit priest, who helped him to get the necessary stamp on his passport, enabling him to get away to Turkey before Jews living in Rome were rounded up. From Turkey, he moved to Palestine, and later became professor of classics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Under Soviet rule, Krakovets fell into a deep slumber. It was a dead end next to a closed border crossing. The synagogue was turned into a cinema and the Catholic church was repurposed as a tractor repair workshop.
Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wasserstein paid his first visit to the town and found it in a decrepit state. On more recent trips, he found the town more prosperous, and it is now a major crossing point for freight between Ukraine and Poland.
As he finished his book, Krakovets again found itself at the eye of the storm as the invasion of Ukraine stirred up a tsunami of refugees sweeping westwards at the town’s border post. Men from the town have been called up to the Ukrainian army.
Of course, Vladimir Putin likes to exploit the fact that some Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. Wasserstein says it is the basis on which the Russian leader calls independent Ukraine a “Nazi state”.
“Of course, it is ludicrous, given that the president of Ukraine [Volodymyr Zelensky] is Jewish.”
While there is a Ukrainian far-right movement that harks back to the ultra-nationalists of World War II, Wasserstein says it has not enjoyed success.
He says there is still a lingering sense of pride among some Ukrainians in nationalist figures such as Roman Shukhevych, a paramilitary leader from Krakovets who was linked to atrocities against Jews and Poles in World War II. A statue of him, erected in 1996, stands in the town square and a local school is named after him.
“But Ukraine is not a Nazi state. It is a flawed democratic state in many ways, because of corruption, but to say it is Nazi is pure propaganda on the part of Putin.”
‘A Small Town in Ukraine’ is published by Allen Lane