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Everything Is Regurgitated

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

Vladislav Davidzon
November 28, 2012
Velibor Božović, from The Lazarus Project
Velibor Božović, from The Lazarus Project
Velibor Božović, from The Lazarus Project
Velibor Božović, from The Lazarus Project

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

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.

The truth turned out to be much more strange and entertaining. We drove up to a badly tended synagogue with no security and an unlocked door—an odd thing in Ukraine but, according to Isaac, a sign of the town’s enduring philo-Semitism. The second-floor waiting room was crowded with about seven or eight twitchy and forlorn and truly unhappy-looking people.

“None of these people are Jews,” Regina whispered to Esther and me in French. “They’re all Ukrainian peasants. What are they doing here?”

I dutifully and leadingly inquired of the woman closest to me in Russian. “Are you here to see the rabbi? I have heard he has certain powers.”

She smiled at me condescendingly. “One can believe in anything if one wants too. He is a very interesting man and he knows many things. He served in the special forces as a paratrooper, you know.”

“Are you Jewish?” Regina asked her.

“No, no,” the woman admitted. Despite this, the rabbi helped her. “I have been coming to see him for a long time, but I go to see a priest as well,” she explained. We went on to find out that people traveled an entire night by bus from all over western Ukraine to receive the rabbi’s advice and predictions as well as to have him lift curses.

At that moment Rabbi Noikh Kaufsmansky walked out and invited us into his messy office. Being honored guests from Odessa, France, and America, we were walked into his office without having to wait in the receiving line. It was an hour before the setting of the Shabbat sun, and we thanked Kaufmansky for his sparing a few minutes for us. A pile of dollars, euros, and Ukrainian Hryvnia, in various states of crumple, lay uncounted in the middle of his desk.

After the Soviet army had retaken the city they had closed 85 of the town’s 86 synagogues, he told us, but his grandfather’s shul was allowed to operate in a low-key fashion for whatever reason. He had inherited his grandfather’s synagogue, largely because no one else needed or wanted it. He had been a professor of nuclear physics during the Soviet era and had only later become religious. This is what he professed, at least.

When we asked him about tensions between him and Rabbi Mendel, Kaufmansky chalked it up to the usual “two Jews, three synagogues” syndrome. The amusing post-Communist twist was that relations, apparently, came to an end when Kaufsmansky confronted Mendel about the obligatory portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the latter had put up: “Why don’t we just get it over with and pray to a picture of Stalin or Chairman Mao?” he yelled. Esther, who knows Yiddish, interrogated him about where he received his smicha—to which the rabbi replied, after some hesitation, “Netanya.”

We then inquired whether he charges a set price for a consultation from his clients. “They give me offerings of their own accord,” Kaufmansky replied. “I never ask for an exact amount. I tell them to give me whatever they feel comfortable with. This is not about money,” he continued. “The other synagogue, they only care about money. I am doing God’s will.” It seemed that Rabbi Kaufmansky had gone shaman.

As we were about to leave and were thanking him for his time, the rabbi abruptly told us that he was collecting money for an obelisk to the child victims of the Holocaust. “Glad to help,” I said and began reaching for my wallet, when the rabbi interjected: “No, no, that won’t be necessary. We are very transparent here. Everything you need is to be found here,” before handing me his business card with the details of his Kiev bank account on the back.


A similar medley of medieval superstition surrounds the grave of the Vishnitzer rebbe of the Hager dynasty in nearby Vishnitz, a village outside the city that can be reached after a 40-minute drive. The village is the next one over from where Applefeld was born, and it is the template for the shtetls in Iron Tracks. A Jewish community of about 15 people remains, out of a total population of 5,000 (the town used to be almost 97 percent Jewish). The 15 stalwarts live there essentially to keep up a presence for the purpose of keeping property under Ukranian law pertaining to religion, thus ensuring that somewhere down the line a parking lot is not built over the ancient Jewish cemetery. The village is one of four in the environs of Chernowitz that house the remains of great tzaddikim.

Alexander Tausher, a stout older man with gold teeth who runs the village dry-goods shop and arcade and holds the keys to the cemetery, met us after Misha called him on his cell phone. Local tradition holds that the tzaddik can grant any wish, and pieces of paper in Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian scrawled with scraps of dreams littered the tomb. I left one asking the tzaddik to find Esther a nice boyfriend.

“You would not believe the kind of things the Ukrainian peasants ask me,” Tausher confided in me.“They really believe in his powers,” he continued, gesturing at the grave of the tzaddik while opening the gate to the crypt. “They come and all I ask them to do is to respect him by not crossing themselves in front of him.” He pantomimed a Ukrainian peasant making the Orthodox cross. “Last month a farmer came and begged the tzaddik for help getting his not-very-bright son into university. He prays and leaves. Then he comes back two weeks later yelling at me ecstatically: ‘Alexander Michaelovich! It worked! The tzaddik got my retarded son into University! It’s a miracle!’ I told him ‘good’ but then the farmer said to me, ‘I have one more problem. Can I ask the tzaddik for just one more favor?’ ‘Of course,’ I told him.” The farmer then recounted the long and unhappy tale of his neighbor’s horse continuously wandering into his yard and eating all the cabbage. It was a major problem, seemingly insoluble through less mystical solutions, and so could the holy tzaddik then please have God kill the horse?

“ ‘No. No,’ ” Tausher had rebuked the peasant gently, “ ‘we can’t ask him to kill anything. Maybe we could just pray about it and hope that God would fix things in another manner. Maybe your neighbor would sell the horse or something.’ ”

None of this is particularly new—the Yiddish literature that was born here was the secularized expression of the Hasidic tales of the Carpathians, just as now Applefeld’s stories are the deracinated teleological conclusion of that literary history.

We drove a few kilometers from the town up the mountain to a Carpathian ski resort that operates in the summer as a restaurant with an expansive view of the stunningly green mountains that the Baal Shem Tov wandered in the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. The Ukrainian waiter at the restaurant spoke with Misha and Regina in a rustic argot peppered with Hungarian and Romanian words that to my ear was completely undecipherable. A billboard next to our table announced that Brezhnev had vacationed here half a century ago. “Is that true?” I inquired of a passing Ukrainian in his mid-thirties who had been eyeing me, an obvious foreigner, with pronounced curiosity. “He was really here?” “Don’t know about that,” the Ukrainian bantered back with a roguish grin. “All I know is that Stepa Andryiovich sure was!” He had used the affectionate diminutive appellation for Stepan Bandera—the virulently anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist who alternately fought the Russians, the Poles, and the Germans during World War II before being assassinated in a West Berlin café by Soviet Intelligence—which was probably our new friend’s way of trying to tell me what the inhabitants of these parts think of Russian tourists.

After we drove back down from the hilltop, we made the requisite stop, as all Jewish tourists do, for a dip in the Baal Shem Tov’s mikvah. Misha, almost as an afterthought, told us that he had the rabbi’s private CD still loaded in the Discman and inquired whether we wanted to give it a go. It turned out that on his off-time, a Lubavitcher rabbi listens to upbeat Hasidic folk songs set to the tunes and lyrics of classic Red Army marches. Invigorated by the spirit of the mountains and the mikvah, we began to joyfully sing along with these Chabad Red Army songs. Misha discreetly rolled up the windows of the car so that we would not get stoned by the locals.

Now steeped in a sleepy provinciality it had never known under the Austro-Hungarians, Chernowitz still retains all the characteristics of a feisty frontier town. Its location on the far western edge of the Soviet empire allowed it to take a leading role in the Refusenik movement, with underground Hebrew circles and secret study groups proliferating. Israel’s hard right diaspora relations minister Yuli Edelstein is from here and was active in the Hebrew circles before being deported to the gulag. A family friend who was born here, Tamara Silverman, now an Israeli living in New York, told me of the clandestine midnight baking of matzoh by a few families in the early ’60s—18 years old in the early ’70s, Tamara remembers walking into the chamber of Supreme Council of Soviets in the Kremlin and demanding that they let her and her people immigrate. The cream of the population were of course the first to immigrate, and it is a bittersweet fact that declining birth rates and assimilation are poised to finish what began with the labors of the Romanians and was speeded along by mass emigration.

Yet, if the chances of the community surviving into even the medium term are bleak, perhaps, this too is something Beznos can simply will away with the correct admixture of graceful guile and force. For now, that the community endures is a testament to its frontier grit as well as the town’s remarkable past and special role in Jewish history. You could do much worse than to visit on your next vacation: Bring a book of Celan’s poems, leave a note with the Vishnitze rabbi, brush up on your Yiddish. If you have a drink with Isaac, tell him I sent you.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.