When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, I found myself glued to Twitter, reading updates and reactions. As the war ground on and Russia increasingly attacked and destroyed civilian infrastructure and lives, I saw various people mention an informative book that details some of the struggles Ukrainians (and Poles and Belarusians) have endured over the last 100 years due to murderous policies of both Germany and Russia and the geographical location between these two countries.
How do you realistically review a book like this? You really can’t. It’s an insightful and depressing look at humans at our worst. When discussing the horrors of World War II, we often think about the raw numbers of dead — 14 million people explicitly murdered between 1933 and 1945.
It’s a number that is so huge that it makes no sense and it’s impossible to understand. How could something like that happen?
This book explains how. In excruciating detail, it dives into the famines induced by Stalin’s collectivization of farms, which caused the starvation of 3 million Ukrainians.
It examines Stalin’s Great Terror (700,000 victims in 1937 and 1938, many of Polish ancestry) and the killing quotas Moscow imposed.
The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.
It explains how German armies marched through towns, rounding up Jews to murder.
…then they lined up the prisoners against a wall at the bank of the Vistula River and shot them. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were shot—as the one survivor remembered, like ducks. Some three hundred people died.
…in one case a hundred civilians were assembled to be shot because someone had fired a gun. It turned out that the gun had been fired by a German soldier.
…in Dynów, some two hundred Jews were machine-gunned one night in mid-September.
…then they drove several hundred more Jews into the synagogue and set it on fire, shooting those who tried to escape.
And on, and on, and on.
From front to back, this book is just a sea of destruction and despair. But it’s important history to know and remember.
A salient point this book makes that equally applies to current events as we see endless news of Ukrainians being murdered, and cities and homes destroyed:
“Jewish resistance in Warsaw was not only about the dignity of the Jews but about the dignity of humanity as such, including those of the Poles, the British, the Americans, the Soviets: of everyone who could have done more, and instead did less.”