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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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Sonmez could not quite shake a pervasive feeling that he was being continuously misquoted if not essentially misdirected by his purported guide and translator. He began probing a quiescent Shevchenko on the reasons why she was interested in Jewish culture. She responded that she knew many Jews, though when he asked her what happened to all the Jews she had known, she responded that “they were gone now.” Galled by the vagueness of the answer, he pressed her to speak about the fate of her Jewish acquaintances, but Oleg intervened: “He said we could all deduce what happened, inviting me to be logical.” In one of those deliciously Wildean instances of life aping art, a disabused Sonmez had found in Shevchenko the double avatar of the Iron Tracks traveler-collector, pawning fragments of Jewish memory back to Jewish travelers, “minus” in his dry formulation, “the redemption.”

With most of its Jews gone, the town’s Jewish character is now emblazoned everywhere with statues and memorial plaques dedicated to obscure and long-dead Yiddish poets. These signs hang on houses down just about every street, with lines from their poems inscribed in Yiddish, Russian, and Ukrainian into the footpath stones of the major boulevards. With the exception of the occasional Bulgarian or Polish tour group or rogue German motorcyclist, the town was desolate. (We could not find any coffee on Sunday because no café in the city opened before noon.) The infrastructure was mostly in light decay, but gorgeous and unscathed. The blue Moorish cupolas of the grandiose Chernowitz Synagogue—once one of the main sites of Reform Judaism in Eastern Europe—had been demolished. The Soviets had made a half-hearted attempt at dynamiting the rest of the building after the war, but the foundation was so strong that the only thing that cracked was the façade of the building across the street. Left alone afterward and converted into a movie theater, it was festooned with humongous posters advertizing the latest Adam Sandler comedy.

We were welcomed at the newly rebuilt and renovated main synagogue by the tough and charismatic president of the Jewish community, Isaac Beznos. “Beznos” is a Russophication of a Hebrew name, Bez meaning without and nos, nose, so he is literally “Isaac the noseless,” a delightfully Gogolian name for a man who picks up on the slightest scent. He is a very particular east European type: the Jewish provincial strong-man who hold everything together with a combination of brains, muscle, and skill. The head of all sorts of local organizations and committees, he is trim and of wiry build; a colonel during Soviet times and now a reserve officer in the Ukrainian army. He had spent his youth as a professional folk dancer and an Olympic-caliber gymnast, working in Germany and traveling the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he always returned to Chernowiz. He is now in his early sixties, and his wife—who it was obvious was once the best-looking girl in the city, if not the region—told us that he will still do the occasional standing back flip and land on his palms to entertain her when she is in a sullen mood.

When we first arrived and met Isaac in the synagogue, he took me to have a morning drink in memory of the anniversary of the death of his father. To my delight the old men drinking vodka with me in the synagogue at 11 in the morning joked and teased each other in a medley of Russian and Yiddish. Chernowitz is certainly the last place in Ukraine and probably the last place in Eastern Europe where a quorum of native speakers keeps the Jewish language living with daily use. Plans are afoot to capitalize on this and start a Yiddish festival, thus returning the city to its roots. Over the three days we were with Beznos and his family, we spent our meals telling Jewish jokes, translating them telephone-game-style from one end of the table to the other: from Russian and Yiddish into English, and from there to Turkish and French.

***

Chernowitz has seen something of a renaissance under the guidance of energetic and talented Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was newly installed by Chabad a few years ago. The opening of the city’s first kosher restaurant is slated for this fall. There are plans also to start up a travel and tourism company to facilitate Jewish pilgrimage and tourism. The community, whose average age skews ancient, is also in desperate need of a microbus or two to bring pensioners from their homes to the synagogue.

Issac soon placed us in the care of Mendel and his own personal driver, Misha, whom he considered a trustworthy young man. Misha did turn out to be an honest, industrious, and agreeable young Ukrainian who knew what he wanted in life—he had bought a pair of Mercedes-Benz cars on credit and worked 18-hour days in the hope of making the transition from driver to car-service owner. Mendel had appraised his qualities and had subtly encouraged him to study with the other men in the synagogue. Misha admitted that he could imagine himself converting. He explained that he had “never met Jews like you before—hip and young, easy to talk with and that don’t wear black or have beards.”

After spending the day seeing the sights, Misha asked us if we wanted to see the “other rabbi”—with whom the mainstream community had broken relations. The rumor was that the other rabbi “lives in a non-Jewish way,” Misha confided to us. There were also rumors that he was not really a rabbi at all, but “just a guy who was pretending to be one to make money”—and who was rumored to have trained as a cosmonaut in Moscow. Hearing this, we naturally instructed him to take us to the synagogue immediately.

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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