Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer. University of California Press, 392 pages, $39.95.
Reviewed by Monica Szurmuk
Almost a decade ago historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote about the differences in the “hunger” to know about the past, positing a conflict between the descendants of those who had suffered a traumatic experience and the curiosity of the professional historian, who came to the same material with different questions. Aware of this emotional gap, historians and cultural critics have been grappling with finding ways to tell compelling stories that are true to the archive and the hard facts but also evoke the individual experiences of those who were part of the past. As a result, academics have been bringing their own empathic responses into their texts, telling stories that are not only true to their sources (in the case of history) but also interesting to read as literature. For many historians, spinning stories is as important as researching them.
Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s monumental book “Ghosts of Home” is a stunning marriage of intellectual curiosity and personal search. In the process, Hirsch, a literary critic, and historian Spitzer stretch the limits of academic writing. This volume, along with their recent works “Family Frames” and “Hotel Bolivia,” have been explorations into embodied cultural history, cultural studies at its best. While most academic writing still relegates the personal to the acknowledgment page, Spitzer and Hirsch have been making their readers privy to some of their family history for over a decade.
We know that Hirsch and Spitzer are a married couple, children of European Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Spitzer’s in exile in Bolivia, Hirsch’s in Romanian Cernãuti. We already know some of their family history and have seen personal family photographs that acquire importance in the context of “Ghosts of Home.”. In this work, they bring the experience of previous research – Hirsch’s work on photography and memory; Spitzer’s on exile and memory and German culture – into material that both allows and requires a more personal involvement as well as thorough library and archival research.
The idea for “Ghosts of Home” came during a trip with Hirsch’s parents to Czernowitz, the city where they lived the first part of their lives, as children of emancipated Jews in the easternmost German-speaking metropolis of Europe. Lotte and Carl Hirsch guide their children through the city where they were born, a place where Jews had been awarded possibilities and status within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a political entity, Czernowitz ceased to exist in 1918, but it remained alive in the memories and the writings of the German-speaking Jews who called it home. After First World War, the city fell under Romanian authority, and after WWII under Soviet rule. It is now a part of modern day Ukraine but it is still holds different layers of history, languages, and memories, a place where in the words of Czernowitzian poet Paul Celan, people and books lived.
“Ghosts of Home” reads with the poignancy of memoir, yet in a collective voice. Spitzer and Hirsch wrote the book together and their voices merge and mingle into each other. The overarching authorial voice is nuanced and reflective but also informed. The researchers embark on four different trips to the city: the first one with Hirsch’s parents in 1998, and the last one in 2008 for the celebration of Czernowitz’s six-hundredth anniversary. During one of the visits they also visit the region of Transnitria where Jews were deported during the Holocaust. The research on the Vapniarka camp is amazingly detailed and throws light on the special characteristics of the Holocaust in Romania, and on the distinctions between extermination and work camps.
An interesting tidbit in the book is the analysis of one of photographs of the Hirsches during the war. In one of them there is a spot on Carl Hirsch’s lapel that the writers think might be the Star of David that Jews were required to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe. Hirsch and Spitzer do extensive research on the use of the Star, interview different survivors, read memoirs, and keep enlarging the photograph until it is a blur, an approach reminiscent of the obsession of the translator-photographer in Julio Cortázar´s brilliant short story “Las babas del diablo.” The spot never reveals itself unequivocally to be a Star or not. The haunting ambiguity about the past – what was, what could have been — is present throughout the text. We all know that memory is selective, capricious, fastidious. Some elements are forever lost, while others endure and are passed on.
“Ghosts of Home” is a testimony to Czernowitz and its inhabitants, but also a homage all the Jews at the turn of the twentieth century who embraced modernity and civic life with ardor and passion in Europe and in the Americas. It shows the nuanced ways in which emancipation marked a generation, and defined its life, before, throughout, and after the Nazi terror. But it is also a book about buildings, about books, about the theatre, the opera, and political activism. It is a fascinating reconstruction of a place throughout the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on the power players who dominated it – from Austro-Hungarian Czernowitz to Romanian Cernauti, Soviet Chernovsty, and Chernivtsi in the Ukraine. Above all it is a book about home, family, and loss.
Mónica Szurmuk is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Instituto Mora in Mexico City. She is the author of “Mujeres en viaje: escritos y testimonios,” “Women in Argentina, Early Travel Narratives,” “Memoria y ciudadanía,” and co-editor of the “Diccionario de estudios culturales latinoamericanos.”