Everything Is Regurgitated
Living off of Jewish memory in old Chernowitz, once the Jerusalem of Ukraine
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.
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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