Marianne: The city where I grew up during the 1950’s, Bucharest, in Romania, was shadowed by another place, Czernowitz -- my parents’ native city that they had fled just a few years earlier. For my friends, and me all children of exiled Czernowitzers, this was our origin and, dare I say, our “home.” Although none of us had ever been there, its tastes, attitudes, and behaviors shaped us profoundly. And, strangely, the streets, buildings and natural surroundings of Czernowitz—its theaters, restaurants, parks, rivers and domestic settings, none of which I had ever myself seen, heard, or smelled—figure more strongly in my early memories and imagination than the sites and scenes of my own childhood in Bucharest. Some of these same places, however, were also the sites of my childhood nightmares of persecution, deportation, fear and terror. “I come from the war,” Eva Hoffman writes in Lost in Translation,” it is my true origin. But as with all our origins, I cannot grasp it.”
I felt like that too, but I thought I could grasp it – too much, even. Can you ever know too much about your parents’ lives before you were born? Czernowitz and the war were topics of daily conversation during my entire life with my parents. So much so that I felt saturated, inundated, squeezed out. The memories were contradictory. Nostalgic stories of a close-knit community of German-speaking Jews whose allegiance to Austro-German culture persisted stubbornly throughout Romanian rule in the interwar period – youth groups, hikes in the Carpathians, swimming in the Pruth river, political education, on my father’s side; school, theater, strolls through the city, cultural events, dancing, ice skating, on my mother’s. Traumatic stories of Soviet occupation, a Nazi ghetto, their evasion of deportation due to the intervention of a Romanian mayor who saved a third of the city’s Jews deemed “necessary for the city’s functioning.” The yellow star, curfews, further deportations, all evaded, another year of Soviet occupation, eventually their flight into Romania in 1945. The close calls, the split second decisions, I knew them all. Uninvited, my father would often ask over breakfast: “Do you know what happened 25 years ago today?” (Or 20, or 30, or 36). A long story would follow: The Russians came in, the Hitler Stalin pact was signed, the ghetto was formed, he was taken to forced labor, my mother’s sister was arrested, then released. I listened to these stories with half an ear, uncurious to know more, eager to move on to more pressing present concerns. The last thing I was ever planned to do is to work on Czernowitz.
What changed? The eighties, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and the attention now played to survivors and their testimonies. And the political story – 1989, the fall of the wall, the possibilities of travel to the former USSR. Also, the personal story. My parents’ aging, realizing we could still travel there together and that if we are to go, we’d better go sooner rather than later. And then the trip in 1998. Arriving in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, eager to see the places I had heard so much about, and realizing, with shock and dismay how little I actually knew. Highlights, certainly, but how did they fit together? I had absolutely no idea of how to get from here to there. My newfound engagement, and our collaborative book -- eight years of work and eight years of my life and Leo’s -emerged from this trip, and I would say from three essential aspects of it.
First, that startling revelation — that all those years, I had not really listened and that now, when I was ready to listen, the available witnesses were aging and fast disappearing. The realization of how passive my knowledge and how multifaceted and indeed hard to grasp the story actually is.
Second, I realized, that the power of my parents’ past to overshadow my own memories derived precisely from the layers—both positive and negative—that had been passed down to me, un-integrated, conflicting, fragmented, dispersed. How could nostalgia for the past and negative memories of anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution co-exist and be passed down over generations? The particular circumstances of Czernowitz, its Austro-Habsburg promise of emancipation and assimilation, and its Romanian, not German, rule during the Second World War provided an opportunity to study the coexistence of such radically contradictory memories. They needed to be untangled.
What also emerged, and this third point (perhaps more visible to me as a historian and the son-in-law accompanying Marianne and her parents) was the realization, on site, that the accounts we were hearing had numerous layers. It became clear to us that Carl and Lotte Hirsch’s story was only one of many that could and needed to be told about Jewish Czernowitz and the fate of Jewish Czernowitzers, during the war. Their narrative needed to be contextualized within a larger history. It was on site, moreover, that we became especially aware of how profoundly accounts of the past are shaped by the present – by the interaction between speaker and listener, and by the place and scene of narration.
Indeed, in working on Ghosts of Home, the book that was conceived during that first journey we made to Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) with Marianne’s parents in 1998, we realized that there is a tension between what “educated listeners” bring to the scene of oral narration (where the story is being narrated) – between what the listeners would like to hear, on the basis of their general historical knowledge of what supposedly occurred, and what they are, in fact, being told. The challenge for us was to become better listeners and co-witnesses: to modulate our own preconceptions and expectations with what we were being told and with what, on site, we were observing. A constant negotiation had to be allowed to take place between what our witnesses were telling us, and what we wanted (or, perhaps more accurately, had expected) to hear.
Let me try to illustrate this for you:
Both Marianne and I had long felt that there was something about the tone and character of Carl and Lotte’s Hirsch’s accounts of the war years in Czernwowitz that seemed to complicate, if not contradict, our previous knowledge and understanding about the brutality of the Romanian Holocaust. “It was not so bad, others went through so much more” Carl would often repeat. “We were young, it was not such a bad time,” Lotte would say. “Those of us who were not deported stuck closely together. We went over to each other’s houses, and we played cards. We had to sleep over, on the floor, so as not to break curfew. One can of sardines often fed a whole crowd.”
True, they were saved from deportation; they survived the war in their own homes. Carl was able to work as an engineer. He even received a token salary.
Still, after working on the Holocaust, teaching about it, and reading and hearing many other testimonial accounts, we found these characterizations troubling and somewhat hard to believe. We wanted affective and factual confirmation of trauma but, instead, heard Carl and Lotte’s stories of relative normalcy. What they were telling us seemed off – somehow, not right. But, there in Chernivtsi, on site with them, what emerged when they again made their seemingly more positive assessments was something else: the irony, the absurdity of “the normal” in times of life-threatening extremity.
So here is a concrete example:
When we were standing in front of the train station where Carl had worked every day, he told us for the first time that during these war years under Romanian fascism Jews were forbidden to walk into the station through the main entrance. As a Jewish employee – as an “essential engineer” working in the railroad station building – Carl had two options, he explained to us: for the two year period he was compelled to work there, he could either climb over a fence several long blocks away and walk to his work quarters the back way, or he could take off the yellow star and walk in through the main entrance, trying to pass as a non-Jew. “One day a German officer looked me right in the eye and said: ‘If I see you without that star one more time, you go straight to Moghilev [Transnistria],’” Carl told us. In front of that station, on site, it came clear to us that he had to make that decision, every single day for two years.
We realized then, and in many other such instances, that one of our challenges in writing about our parents and others during the war was this: How to take hold and incorporate into our previous understanding instances of everyday life (such as the one in front of the railroad station) that are not usually recorded, and how to do justice to their revelatory texture and quality. We realized on the spot that as significant as that narrative about the train station seemed to us, to Carl it seemed normal, hardly worth telling.
How many other such stories were there? How many were now forever inaccessible? And – how could we succeed in evoking and transmitting to readers the quality of danger, as well as the sense of normality, that Carl and Lotte and their contemporaries needed to hold on to throughout the war years, and, subsequently, in their recollections? How could we access and convey their fuller, more complex, stories of survival within the horrors of wartime – the indignities, threats, violence, but also the ironies and, at times, even the humor of trying to cope? How could we preserve the knotted emotional fabric of daily existence under extreme circumstances as well as its afterlife in the process of recollection and witness? This was a central concern when we decided to write Ghosts of Home.