Simon Wiesenthal   Letter 04   12-Dec-1994   Saber slash
December 12, 1994

Simon Wiesenthal
Jewish Documentation Center
Vienna, Austria

Dear Mr. Wiesenthal:

To someone receptive to the stereotype of Ukrainians as alcoholic, violent, and anti-Semitic Untermenschen, your story of the saber slash to your right thigh must provide comforting confirmation of their beliefs:

Of all the early "liberations," the brief Ukrainian postwar [post World War I] interim was most painful for young Szymon.  Like their Cossack forebears, the Ukrainians robbed, raped, and killed, but their fuel was alcohol and their troops could drink the Czar's army (as well as themselves) under the table.  One afternoon, their high command gave the Jews of Buczacz an ultimatum to deliver 300 litres of schnapps by five o'clock or their homes would burn.  Szymon and his brother and mother and every Jew in town scoured Buczacz for booze and, when the Ukrainian demand was met, they stayed indoors for the long night of revelry ahead.

The next day, as drunken soldiers still staggered and slept in the streets, women were afraid to venture outdoors, but Szymon's mother thought it safe to send her ten-year-old son across the road to borrow yeast from a neighbour for baking.  As Simon returned, a soldier on horseback gave chase and, just for fun, lunged at him with a sabre, slashing his right thigh.  Simon collapsed, but neighbours carried him into his house.   The doctor who stitched the wound had to reach his patient by a labyrinthine route through cellars and back yards.  Wiesenthal still wears that scar across his upper thigh....  (Alan Levy, The Wiesenthal File, 1993, p. 26)

To someone like myself whose knowledge of Ukrainians leads him to view them as not much different from Canadians or Americans, however, your story is baffling and arouses a number of questions:

(1) How do you know that Ukrainian soldiers in 1918 drank more than Russian soldiers in Tsarist times?

(2) Intemperate drinking is something that soldiers might be predisposed to, but it is not something that would be encouraged by their high command riotous drinking combined with robbing, raping, and killing turns an army into an ungovernable mob.  The high command either controls such activity, or else loses its army.  Thus, the story that the Ukrainian high command demanded the alcohol for the immediate and intemperate consumption of its soldiers is not credible.

(3) Surely if the high command wanted a large amount of alcohol, they would raid a distillery or a warehouse or a tavern.  If they requisition the alcohol from the Jews, then there is always the possibility that the Jews will come back with some excuse why the demand could not be fully met, or might offer alcohol of low quality, or might dilute the alcohol before handing it over.

And even if the alcohol had been requisitioned from the Jews, wouldn't the Jews themselves get it from distilleries, warehouses, or taverns rather than fanning out with their families to find it?  Where can a ten-year-old find alcohol that would be missed by his parents?

(4) How could your mother have thought it safe to send her ten-year-old son out into the street when village women were afraid to venture out, and when the street contained drunken soldiers who were sleeping, staggering, and even riding?

(5) That a Ukrainian cavalryman would ride down and slash at a ten-year-old boy is credible if one views Ukrainian cavalrymen as sub-human beasts.  If, however, one views them as professional soldiers, one would expect little pride or glory in fact, considerable ignominy to attach to such a deed.

(6) The location of the wound on the right thigh is implausible.  The most plausible assumption is that the cavalryman is holding the saber in his right hand, and in running you down, will steer his horse to your left so that both saber and you will be on the same side of the horse.  In this case, especially as you are only ten years old, you would be considerably below the cavalryman, and your right thigh would be on the side farthest from him.  The simplest move for the cavalryman to make would be to slash downward, striking you on your head or on your left shoulder or on your left arm.  For the cavalryman to strike you on your right thigh would require an acrobatic leaning from the saddle which every cavalryman might not be capable of, especially while drunk, and for which there would seem to be no reason in this case.

Other scenarios pose similar problems.  If the cavalryman was holding the saber in his right hand but overtook you on your right, then the cavalryman would have had to reach across his horse's neck, and then bending down far enough to strike your thigh would have been even harder than in the first case considered.

A left-handed cavalryman on your left presents the most implausible combination the saber is on the extreme left of the picture and the targeted thigh is on the extreme right.

Finally, a left-handed cavalryman overtaking you on your right has the problem of getting under your right arm to strike at your right thigh he might have leaned downward till his blade was level with your thigh, but then he wouldn't be able to retract his blade for a swing because his horse's feet would be in the way.

In short, an intoxicated adult on horseback striking a child running away from him on the thigh is not easy to conjure up a convincing image of.  Perhaps you could explain how it happened.

(7) The doctor reaching you "by a labyrinthine route through cellars and back yards" is also difficult to visualize clearly.

(i) First of all, a village cellar would typically have only one entrance.

(ii) Even if the cellar did have two entrances, one front and one back, so too would the ground floor, so that the doctor could have simply travelled through the house itself at ground level saving himself the trouble of two flights of stairs per house.

(iii) Travelling through houses would have meant knocking on doors (doors presumably bolted shut on account of the night's riotous drinking) and explaining the reason for wishing to traverse the house, where the knocking might have attracted the attention of the soldiers in the street and the explaining might have slowed down the rate of progress.

(iv) As the houses in a village would have been detached, the doctor could have gone around each house instead of going through it.

(v) The scene you describe is one of intoxication, but not a pogrom you mention no looting, raping, burning, or killing.  The following morning, your mother is baking and is not afraid to send you out into the street among the soldiers.  You seem to have been the only casualty.  Why, then, would the doctor have been travelling so stealthily?

(vi) A doctor would be identifiable by his medical bag, and would be given safe passage by soldiers even if they knew that he was a Jew after all, he might be on his way to tend to an ailing soldier, or he might very soon be needed by any one of them.  Soldiers need doctors, and therefore they are protective of doctors.  So, again, why was this doctor proceeding with such extraordinary stealth?

(8) In the Lingens version of the story (Peter Michael Lingens in Simon Wiesenthal, Justice Not Vengeance, 1989, p. 6), you are twelve, not ten, reinforcing the notion that being off by a couple of years is not important to you and that the trick of supplying not only exact dates but also days of the week owes more to your possession of a universal calendar than to your photographic memory.

(9) Also in the Lingens version, your thigh is "cut to the bone" but in the thigh, the femur is buried deep beneath a large amount of flesh, and a cut that reaches the femur might be expected to have severed not only significant muscles, but major veins, arteries, and nerves as well, and so one wonders how a village doctor was able to treat such a wound adequately without taking you to a hospital, merely by "stitching" up the wound in your own house, or how infection could have been prevented, or why you do not today walk with a permanent limp, or indeed how you managed to survive such a serious wound at all.

In sum, in the story of the saber slash, implausibility piles upon implausibility, until the reader is finally left with the question of whether so many implausible components could have combined into one nearly-impossible event, or whether the story is a fabrication in which you turned the scar from some politically-uninteresting accident into a career-advancing slash-to-the bone inflicted by a hated Ukrainian.

Yours truly,

Lubomyr Prytulak