Department of History

New Book by Omer Bartov: "The Butterfly and the Axe"

Omer Bartov, Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, discusses his new novel, "The Butterfly and the Axe," which was inspired by his own tragic family history.

The Butterfly and the Axe (Amsterdam Publishers, 2023) is an experimental text that tries to recover the stories of those who were murdered in the Holocaust without leaving behind any documentary trace. 

In spring 1944 Max Reichert, his wife Rochaleh (née Szumer, and known as "the Jewel in the Crown" because she married an academic), their daughter Judit, and their baby son David, were murdered in a remote West Ukrainian village. Very little is known about this family's life and death. Yet their violent end warped the lives of two families, one of Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, another of Ukrainians who moved to the United Kingdom after the war. In 2003, members of the third generation, Tali Szumer from Israel and Andriy Konovalets from Britain, set out on a journey in West Ukraine to discover what actually happened in the village. Based on letters, testimonies, diaries, and confessions, the novel tries to fill in the gap in the historical record and to retrieve the fate of those erased from it. In the process of searching how their families were implicated in the murder, and confronting the inability to recover the truth, Tali and Andriy come close to a modicum of reconciliation, even love, by the time the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings history back with all its destructive fury.

The murdered family was Bartov's own, and all he knows about it and other characters in the novel comes from a single conversation with his mother shortly before her death. The village where the murder occurred was Bartov's mother’s birthplace, which she recalled fondly many decades later, and where her family had lived for generations. Having researched the area for twenty years, and having written a microhistory of the genocide in the town of Buczacz, where his mother spent her childhood, Bartov realized that his own family had entirely eluded the documentary evidence about the lives and deaths of the Jews of the region. The novel is an attempt to redress the injustice of their erasure.

Learn more about The Butterfly and the Axe

Additional media:

Omer Bartov Interview Episode 7 — TheCuriousMansPodcast

My Family’s Murder — Hosted by Claremont McKennna College, January 26, 2023