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Everything Is Regurgitated: Jewish Memory in the old Jerusalem of Ukraine

Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine

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(All photographs Velibor Božović, from The Lazarus Project)
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Chernowtiz, now a city in Ukraine, has had as many names as it has had rulers. It was Cernuţi for the 20 years it was in Romania, Черновцы́ under the Soviets, Csernovic for the Hungarians, Czernowitz in German, טשערנאוויץ in Yiddish, now Чернівці́ under the Ukrainians. But all along, “Jerusalem on the river Prut” was most apt. An architecturally lovely stalwart of the whipped-cream-plus-neurosis ideal of Viennese culture, the city of the freshest talents of German literature—of Paul Celan, Rosa Auslander, and Alfred Margul-Sperber—was simultaneously the birthplace of Hasidism and the epicenter of European Jewish mysticism. It was also the capital of Yiddishism; the home of Yiddish writers like Itzik Manger, Alfred Gong, Moses Rosenkranz, Asch; and the host of the famous Chernowitz conference of 1908—the landmark event in the development of Yiddish as an independent language. Throughout most of its history, the town’s Jews accounted for 30 to 60 percent of the population. The ideological conflicts between Hebraists, Bundists, Zionists, and Yiddishists in Chernowitz were more pronounced than anywhere else in Europe—my curiosity about it was longstanding.

What distinguished the Jews of Chernowitz from the rest of European Jewry was that they were farmers and land barons, in addition to the usual professions. The educated Jewish middle classes of Chernowitz were stridently German assimilationists. Karl Emil Franzos, the literary voice for the ideal of Jewish-German assimilation, set his novels of the internecine relations between the various nationalities of Bukovina—the Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, and Jews—here. The psychiatrist and crankish physicist Wilhelm Reich, perhaps the city’s most infamous native son, summed up the atmosphere and contradictions of growing up as the neurasthenic and sex-crazed scion of Jewish gentry here in the first paragraph of his self-lacerating autobiography, Passion of Youth:

I was born in a small village as the first child of not unprosperous parents. My father was a farmer who, together with an uncle of my mother’s, had leased a fairly large landed estate in northern Bukovina, the farthest outpost of German culture. From the beginning, my mother tongue was German, as was my schooling. My parents considered it very important that I not speak the Yiddish of the surrounding population; they regarded it as “crude.” The use of any Yiddish expression would bring severe punishment.

The ebbing of the city’s rich tripartite culture happened in stages. The post-Great War dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the treaty of Versailles in 1919 gave half of Bukovina to Romania. Soviet troops entered the town in 1940 on their way to meet the Germans in the middle of dismembered Poland. They held the town for about a year before the Romanian army reconquered the city, but that was long enough to close every church and synagogue in the city. The Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu personally ordered the creation of a Jewish ghetto in the central part of the city into which the town and region’s 50,000 Jews were crammed: About two-thirds of them would be deported to Transistria or further. If the town’s Jews survived remarkably well compared to the rest of those in Ukrainian Bukovina, it was because of the well-known actions of the city’s heroic Mayor Trajan Popovici, who persuaded Antonescu to raise the number of Jewish exemptions from 200 to somewhere around 20,000, ensuring that the city’s fabled culture might survive—if not in Chernowitz, than at least in the living memory of its onetime inhabitants.

(Velibor Božović)

The renewal of the Chernowtiz’s Jewish community—numbering about 1,500 after the post-Soviet mass exodus stabilized—lags far behind what is going on in Ukraine’s other historically Jewish cities. The community badly lacks resources. It does not have the political clout of Kiev, the stylish insouciance of Odessa, the demographic advantages of Donetsk, or the access to the oligarchic industrial wealth of Dnepropetrovsk, whose colossally wealthy Jewish community is currently building what may be the world’s largest Jewish community center, despite or maybe because of the fact that they do not need it.

One muggy afternoon this summer I boarded a creaky green and virtually decrepit Soviet-era sleeper car for the 18-hour journey from Odessa to Chernowitz along with my fiancée, Ukrainian filmmaker Regina Maryanovskaya, and Esther Adler, a plucky French friend who was visiting us from Paris. In addition to our longstanding curiosity about the city, we were traveling to meet up with Emre Amram Sonmez, a French-born Turkish Jew who had immigrated to America in his twenties. The director of an excellent documentary about the Wannsee Conference memorial concert, Sonmez was traveling with a high-school friend named Gursall, a jovial and sagacious ex-anarchist he had met in his French language lycée in Istanbul. Gursall, who was divorced from a Turkish Jewish woman, considers himself a staunch Zionist, the only nationalism that he abides as an ex-anarchist. His son immigrated to Israel and is currently an art student at Bezalel.

Sonmez had come to scout out the city for his upcoming adaptation of the great Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s classic post-Holocaust novel Iron Tracks, which tells the tale of a Holocaust survivor named Erwin Sigelbaum who travels around Eastern Europe in search of the Nazi officer who killed his family. Sigelbaum, Appelfeld writes, “is a traveling salesman of sorts. He buys up abandoned Judaica, the few tangible remnants of the Jewish culture that thrived in towns and villages for hundreds of years before the war. … Buying up Judaica from peasants is both a strange act of postwar parasitism and an act of salvation.”

Appelfeld’s mother and half his family were killed during the occupation when he was 8 years old. He escaped the camps to wander through the woods and to find shelter with Ukrainian peasants for two years and has spent his literary career fascinated with Chernowitz in one guise or another. In memoirs, essays, book reviews, and dozens of novels he had returned to the city again and again in his imagination. (This year’s prize-laden Blooms of Darkness, loosely based on his childhood, is the latest to follow the pattern.) After a meditative 40-year absence, he returned to it physically, with an Israeli camera crew in tow, and wrote about the experience for The New Yorker and Haaretz. He counseled Sonmetz that there was not very much of his city, the old Chernowitz, remaining and that he might meet some dubious characters who made their living off of Jewish memory. Both predictions proved to be correct.

***

The literature of the post-Soviet Ukrainian Jewish pilgrimage runs the gamut from the scabrous to the treacle of internal heritage tourism. Having been born in the Soviet Union, I am all the more foolish for having a weakness for the lures of irrecoverable memory. However, being born in the Soviet Union and knowing the language, as well as the precise extent of post-Soviet social debasement and ritual schemes, inoculates one from undergoing the most interesting and illuminating experiences. Sonmez, a gentle and worldly man in his mid-forties, however, had no such blinders. He had arrived in Chernowitz a few days prior to us and so got to experience those things at first-hand. He had hired as his guide a woman named Natalia Shevchenko, whom he had been informed was the leading living expert on Bukovina Jewry. After a 3-minute phone call, Regina realized that we wanted nothing to do with her. Shevchenko in turn recommended her driver, a young man by the name of Oleg—whom we found out later she had neglected to mention had been sacked from his job teaching English at the local Jewish day school for making anti-Semitic remarks in front of the Jewish pupils. Shevchenko, Emre later recounted, was the archetypical “concièrge politique,” the apparatchik daughter of a general: “She knew who was what, where they lived, where they came from, but was uncannily vague about their destiny.” The Soviet Cafeteria where they had begun his tour was located tellingly enough in the former headquarters of the local branch of the Communist party.

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A great article, highlighting the whimsicality and absurdity of post-Holocaust Jewish history. My dad is from Podbuzh–I think that’s how you spell it, and I don’t even know if it still exists–but ended the war hiding in a bunker under a house in Drohobych, which at the time was Polish, but is now the Ukraine. When I was a kid, I found my child-of-Polish-Holocaust-Survivors status to be mildy embarrassing, but the older I get, the more I embrace it. Go Eastern Europe!

A wonderfully informative article, beautifully written. Highly recommended

James Libby says:

Gregor Von Rezzori’s ‘Memoirs of an Anti-Semite’ takes place in Bukovina, and makes a fine atmospheric visit to this odd outpost of the Austro-Hungarian world.

I enjoyed the article, well written. I have been to Czernowitz quite a few times. I think an injustice was done to Natalia Schevchenko. When I visited a few years ago she was curator of the small jewish museum, worked very hard at setting it up, and was very helpful. I do believe that she is Jewish and had no reason to exploit anyone.
The article missed out a description of the vast Jewish cemetery, being cleaned up and restored by two summer work camps, one German and the other Ukrainian. The tomb stones are of artistic interest, and reflect the history of the city. By the way a plaque has been put up to the mayor who saved 20,000 Jews from deportation by my wife who is one of the survivors.

Lenny Prince says:

I was born in Chernovtsy, last summer i went back to see my birth home. I also visited newly renovated shul. It was a beautiful site and being back brought back many memories of my childhood

Yisrael Medad says:

so, what was Brody?

Miriam Reifer Taylor says:

The article contains many inaccuracies, such as: After WW1, All of the Bukovina became part of Romania, not just half of it. Only slightly more than half of
the Jewish population of Czernowitz, about 23000 people, were deported
to Transnistria, not two thirds. Current Chernivtsi has a different population
from the one it had before WW2 and a different culture, but most buildings remain as they were and in general the city is much better preserved than most other cities in central Europe.
What Vladislav Davidzon writes about Natalia Shevchenko is slanderous.
Natalia Shevchenko is highly educated and knowledgeable person. She was the one who set up the Jewish museum in Chernivtsi and was its first curator.

Miriam Reifer Taylor says:

Brody was a Jewish center before Czernowitz, but by 1931 Brody had a Jewish population of only 8288, while the Jewish population of Czernowitz numbered close to 50 000. Brody was part of Galicia and Czernowitz was part of Bukovina.
After WW1 Brody was part of Poland and Czernowitz became part of Romania.

Emre Amram Sonmez says:

It was truly a pleasure for me to travel and share our thoughts and experiences
with Mr. Davidzon during this trip.

This was the first time I had visited the Ukraine, and as Mr. Davidzon pointed out,
the purpose of my trip was to research the possibility of filming in the
Bukovina region for a future project based on the work of Aharon Appelfeld.

I thought Mr. Davidzon’s article showed a well-tuned sense of awareness about the
ironies and difficulties of coming to grips, if that is at all possible, with
this exceedingly dark and troublesome place.

I wanted to write a comment, not just to praise Mr. Davidzon which he richly
deserves, but to also respond to some of the comments pertaining to Ms Natalia
Shevchenko.

Ms. Shevchenko was recommended to me as the foremost expert on Jewish life in Bukovina. I do not know her background. When I asked her about it she was vague, so I did not insist. I had a very short period of time in which I had to cover quite a bit
of territory, so I hired her and a driver to guide us through the various centers of Jewish life in the area, which I intended to film as reference footage. In the end I felt uneasy about her much heralded expertise, mostly because I thought her knowledge consisted of knowing where things were, the detective work of matching names to addresses, but showing no particular interest nor knowledge about who the people were or what they represented for their communities. I was left with the bitter taste that I was visiting a “Museum of Extinct People” of sorts, a pet project of Hitler by the way, who in fact had spared the Josefa neighborhood of Prague precisely for that purpose. Still, I understand that this lack of knowledge, or even lack of deeper interest on the part of Ms. Shevchenko is certainly not a crime, just as my lack of
enthusiasm for her services is not slanderous. I would have been (pleasantly)
surprised had I met a Torah scholar in the person of Natalia Shevchenko.

The destruction of a vibrant Jewish life was so thorough in this region that what
remains is inevitably tainted with layers and layers of lies and half-truths.
Particularly since the destruction of Jewry in this region was not as “industrial,”
but far more local, and as some of the commentators pointed out, additionally complicated by a succession of occupiers.

Although I had some knowledge of the many facets of Jewish life in the Ukraine, and the destruction it faced during the Holocaust, I was unprepared for the reality of
what this represented. The enormity of it, spreading from one village to the next, for thousands of villages, is unfathomable, and leaves one numb. “Jewish life” is not an abstraction, it is the life of ordinary people, communities, every day, for centuries. It is also the cumulative wealth of centuries of ideas, texts and learning, both religious and secular. These lands were particularly fertile in that regard. They were the birthplace of one of the most important and successful Jewish movements, namely Hassidism. They were also places were another successful Jewish movement, Zionism grew and drew many of its contentious leadership from.

This rich body of knowledge, which was a common source of wealth, the patrimony of the Jewish communities throughout Bukovina, is now largely erased from that
land. Today, it is thankfully the patrimony of Jews everywhere in the world. But
what remains in Ukraine, sadly, is just information rather than knowledge, which
in turn, perhaps unavoidably, has become a commodity of sorts and as such is freely
bought and sold. This is not Ms. Schevshenko’s fault, she didn’t create this
situation, and incidentally, in regards to information, the buyers are most likely us, and the local Jewish communities, who often need this information for various reasons, just to exist. They too have to pay a fee for it. It is a complicated relationship.

But this complication should not compel us to a mindless, uncritical embrace of
commemoration at any cost, or worse, commemoration of Judaism without Jews, or
still worse, at the expense of Jews.

What does it mean to claim Jews and their work, in places from which they were
banished for being Jews? I think this deserves a more rigorous examination than
the earnest and sometimes confused
displays of solidarity.

Before traveling to Czernowitz, we stayed in Odessa where we spend Shabbat at Rabbi Wolf’s synagogue, the local Chabad Shul. Rabbi Wolf’s enthusiasm for his
community was contagious. I told him I would visit Vyzhnitsia, among other
places. While he was showing me the construction of the super modern mikva they
were just completing, he told me about the Hager Hasidim of Vyzhnitsia: Rabbi
Menachem Mendel Hager, the first Vyzhnitsia Rebbe, and his son, Rabbi Baruch
Hager, the second Vyzhnitsia Rebbe, Yisroel Hager, his son, the third Vyzhnitsia
Rebbe. He told me briefly about their work, their commentaries on the Torah,
most often post-humously collected in various works (Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Hager ‘s Tzemach Tzaddik, and Rabbi Baruch Hager’s Imrey Baruch). He told me just a small Torah from Imrey Baruch, which of course was enough to wet my appetite for more. I am also grateful to Rabbi Nehemia Polen, for having introduced me to Reb Chaim of Czernowitzer (and his work Sedoro Shel Shabbat), a contemporary of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. These small introductions to these
extraordinary works gave me much to think about, but above all it helped me see
a deeper, missing dimension from these desolate landscapes. It gave body to
thoughts and faith. For this of course I am very much in their debt.

From Ms. Shevchenko, I learned that the Hager Yeshiva was now a former water
bottling plant. Our arrangement was that she would show me where it was, and
that I would film it. In exchange she expected payment, which I disbursed in
full.

Perhaps the various commentators who rose in defense of Ms. Shevchenko, are doing her a disservice by claiming that the above description of our interactions with her was slanderous, a very serious accusation. I have no ill-feelings towards Ms. Shevchenko what so ever. In the end she delivered as promised, and I paid her as agreed. But I do think that I am well within my rights to wish to engage in a more
meaningful way with a heritage which I consider myself a rightful owner, as much as any other Jew. To claim, on behalf of Ms. Shevchenko such an engagement and expertise, is not just an exaggeration, but also probably misrepresentative of her own interests, to which she is fully entitled to after all.

Finally, if one must rise in defense of someone, I would strongly urge support for the
small Jewish communities of Bukovina, which are sometimes represented by a
handful of Jews, who often work under far more onerous conditions and resources
than Ms. Shevchenko does, with far more at stake. I am sure they would greatly
appreciate as I am sure would Ms. Shevchenko.

I tried to share my thoughts regarding these issues with Mr. Davidzon, who I
believe wrote about them with accuracy and insight.

Emre Amram Sonmez

Sergey Kadinsky says:

In the postwar years, Chernowitz was a popular gathering place for local survivors arriving from devastated villages across Bukovina, Transcarpathia and Moldova. It was a station on the illegal emigration route used by many Palestine-bound survivors who sneaked across the nearby border into Romania and Hungary. My grandfather arrived in Chernowitz as an orphan in 1945, found work in a factory and met my grandmother.

In spite of the holocaust and lingering presence of nationalist guerrillas, the arrival of survivors revived the city’s Jewish community. In January 1948, at the height of Stalin’s reign, my grandparents married under a chuppah in Czernowitz.

George Duravetz says:

A wonderful article, although a bit obtuse.
My grandparents and father immigrated to Canada from Chernivtsi in 1910 and 1926. I lived there for 10 years 1995-2005 and met my wife there. The article is informative but contains many errors. e.g. there are approx. 5,000 Jews in Chernivtsi; Stepan Bandera was assassinated in Munich in front of his apartment not in a Berlin café. The second largest ethnic minority are the Moldavians/Romanians. No mention is made of the large Gypsy/Roma group. Chernivtsi is hardly a backwater, it is on the crossroads from Romania, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Belarus. It is now a large commercial and manufacturing center.
Tourism is booming after the fall of the Soviet Union due to the large Ukrainian Diaspora in the United States and Canada

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Everything Is Regurgitated: Jewish Memory in the old Jerusalem of Ukraine

Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine