A Small Town in Ukraine: The Place We Came From, The Place We Went Back To by Bernard Wasserstein - review by Owen Matthews

Owen Matthews

Return to Krakowiec

A Small Town in Ukraine: The Place We Came From, The Place We Went Back To


Allen Lane 320pp £25

We believe that we think with our minds. But a part of us – a deep and important part – thinks with the blood. Our sense of self is deeply entwined with the places we came from and the people who formed us. Who do we think we are? The answer, for each one of us, lies in our individual origin stories. For the historian Bernard Wasserstein, that origin story includes the violence, injustice and trauma suffered by his family at the hands of the Nazis. But A Small Town in Ukraine is more than just a family biography. It is Wasserstein’s attempt not just to chronicle the suffering experienced by his parents and grandparents but also to understand it. His method is to examine, in minute and forensic detail, the history of the place from which they came, the small town of Krakowiec – ‘a little place, you won’t have heard of it’, as his father used to say.

To Wasserstein as he grew up, Krakowiec (now known as Krakovets) was a ‘mysterious, almost mythic, ancestral hearth’. A ‘curiosity about our origins’ quickly swelled into something of an obsession. ‘I conceived a crazily impossible aspiration: I would assemble a biographical dictionary of every single person in recorded history who had ever lived in Krakowiec. This would be no telephone directory but the life story of each inhabitant, a kind of … super-prosopography.’ In pursuit of this end, and ‘driven by some inner need’, the author assembled information about over 17,000 residents of the town over four centuries. ‘Among them are serfs, aristocrats, craftsmen, merchants, rabbis, Christian clerics of the Roman and Greek Catholic rites, an eighteenth-century music-master, a nineteenth-century lady of leisure and a twentieth-century mass murderer revered today as a national hero.’

Mercifully for the reader, Wasserstein realises that his inner need to seek answers is more interesting than the full chronicle itself. And what is the wellspring of that need? Partly, it is a desire to understand why people – and in the case of the author’s grandfather and

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