International Research Institute Prof. Dan Michman presents Joanna Tokarska-Bakir with her prize certificate
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev with Brian and Lee Joffe, prize donors, prize winner Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, and Prof. Dan Michman
08 December 2019
On 28 November 2019, Yad Vashem's International Book Prize for Holocaust Research was awarded to Omer Bartov for Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (Simon & Schuster, 2018), and Joanna Tokarska-Bakir for Pod Klątwą: Społeczny portret pogromu kieleckiego (Cursed: A Social Portrait of the Kielce Pogrom) (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca, 2018). The prestigious prize is awarded annually to authors of high scholarly research on the Holocaust.
Since 2018, the Yad Vashem Book Prize is awarded in memory of Benny and Tilly Joffe z”l, thanks to the generosity of their son Brian, his wife Lee and their family. Tilly Joffe (née Waistein) was born in a small village of Balninka in Lithuania and moved to South Africa with her parents when she was four years old. The parents of Benny, who was born in South Africa, came from Zagare, Lithuania. Both Tilly and Benny lost relatives during the Holocaust. Tilly’s first cousin, Ben Zion (Nolik) Schmidt was murdered at the age of 19 in the Kovno ghetto. His legacy lives on through his sole surviving painting, which is housed in Yad Vashem’s Art Collection and can be viewed online on Yad Vashem’s website. The painting was featured in an exhibition entitled, “Art from the Holocaust – 100 Works from the Yad Vashem Collection,” which was held in Berlin in 2016 at the German Historical Museum. Nolik’s niece Dusia Krechmer attended the book prize event, and commented that after recently watching a cousin’s testimony for the first time, after he had passed away, she realized that the survivors' generation is almost ended. “Testimonies will be the only proof that the Holocaust happened," she said at the ceremony. "Nolik’s memory remains here at Yad Vashem through the only painting that survived the inferno. Events such as this means that we can continue to commemorate those who were murdered during the Holocaust, as well as Holocaust survivors who are no longer with us today."
Head of Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Research and Incumbent of the John Najmann Chair for Holocaust Studies Prof. Dan Michman delivered the judges' considerations, commenting on the importance of the two books. Omer Bartov's Anatomy of a Genocide "contributes to the deeper understanding of the processes of violence and mass murder in multiethnic situations in Eastern Europe, which took place in an era of mass violence that was unleashed by Nazi Germany," he claimed. "It shows that the Holocaust, which encompassed the entire European continent, was intertwined with local developments which thus impacted on the different extents of Jewish victimization in different settings, as well as the plight of and perpetration by other ethnic groups."
Bartov gave a fascinating address, in which he used the town of Buczacz in Eastern Europe, the hometown of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Oneg Shabbat Archive founder Emanuel Ringelblum – as well as Bartov's own mother – as an example of the Holocaust on a local level, and the nature of the encounter between the perpetrators and the victims. Citing the laudable prewar interethnic coexistence between Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, he named nineteenth century nationalism and the violence of WWI as key catalysts for the breakdown of the social order and the view by both ethnic groups of Jews as "enemies of their nationalist goals." Having suffered under interwar Polish and then Soviet rule, Ukrainian nationalists were therefore only too ready to aid the Germans in their murderous policy against the hapless Jewish community. In addition, the Germans themselves were often on familiar terms with their Jewish victims, Bartov claimed, "using them as childcare providers and cooks, cleaners and maids, tailors and dentists before they killed them."
Bartov concluded that the common view of all populations of Eastern Europe being victims of a titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia is greatly undermined when observing violence – genocide and ethnic cleansing – on the local level. "Our perception of the nature of the Holocaust is greatly complicated when the event is seen 'from below,'" he claimed. "This shows that the sense of security we have in our own neighborhoods is often based on a thin crust of social order and respect that can easily be overturned by way of identifying certain groups as outside the bounds of human solidarity, and by turning the forces of law and order against those marked for expulsion, incarceration, or death."
When speaking about Joanna Tokarska-Bakir's book, Prof. Michman explained that in the aftermath of WWII, neither antisemitic prejudice nor anti-Jewish violence subsided. In fact, Jewish survivors in Eastern Europe continued to fear for their lives as they tried to return home, and a series of pogroms occurred in Eastern Europe. "Cursed: A Social Portrait of the Kielce Pogrom provides a close examination of the pogrom of July 4, 1946, in which local inhabitants of Kielce, mobilized by the rumors of a blood libel, murdered 42 Jewish men, women and children… The book offers a close reading of hundreds of personal accounts, including the voices of Jewish persecution and thus creates what the author calls a 'social portrait of the pogrom.'”
Tokarska-Bakir credited the success of her study to her meticulous investigation of every piece of documentation and testimony about Kielce she could lay her hands on. She also made a point of trying to discover not what caused the pogrom, but how it was made possible. “Cursed is first and foremost a tribute to the over forty victims of the pogrom," she stated. "But it is also a tribute to the survivors, who, despite all, found in themselves a will to live… We live in times when the past is coming back. And I believe that each and every one of us can do something about it."
In addition to the book prize winners, two other authors received honorable mentions: David Fishman for his book, Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (University Press of New England, 2018); and Susanne Urban for the German-language book, Mein Einziges Dokumentist die nummer auf der Hand (My Only document is the Number on the Hand ..." Statements of Survivors of Nazi persecution in the International Tracing Service).
Members of the Yad Vashem International Book Prize Committee include Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem; Prof. Dan Michman, Yad Vashem and Bar Ilan University; Prof. Dina Porat, Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv University; Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Yad Vashem; Prof. Atina Grossmann, The Cooper Union, NY; and Prof. Natalia Aleksiun, Touro Collage, NY.