Ghosts and memories from an unforgotten cultural city,
April 1, 2010
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This review is from: Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (Hardcover)First a confession.My mother was born in Bukowina and spent most of her youth in Czenowitz.She used -and still uses- to tell me various stories from that dark period of the years 1940-1945.From time to time I let her know about some new items, articles or things that appear about Czernowitz.There are many things she has in common with most people mentioned in this new book,but the most significant fact for her which she always emphasized to me and others was that of the German culture which was to be the dominant factor in her life then.To tell the truth, Czernowitz has remained in her heart and soul and I am sure she will always be a Czernowitzer.The pride of her being able to recite from memory many poems and whole parts of plays which were written by such eminent literary figures such as Heine,Goethe or Schiller as well as the Romanian genius Eminescu causes the past to become even more prevalent in her daily life.Having asked her why she would not ever visit there,she replied that it would be a pity to see the city as it looks today and would definitely spoil her good memories from those times.Indeed ,there were also happy years and not everything was black.
By profession I am a teacher of English and a historian as well.My area of expertise is the Cold War and the role that intelligence services played during those times.Still,I got curious to know more about the city and its culture,and after having read some reports,books and articles which can easily be deemed as not serious and superficial, I made up my mind to finally read something which was well researched.
Luckily, I came across this new book written by the two authors, both of them academics.Right from the beginning it was clear to me that book would be entirely different from what I had read so far.
This volume embraces the approach of Alltagsgeschichte, or everyday history which has become so popular among many historians who prefer this style over the positivist approach which dominated the field of historical reseach, but which became marginal during the last three or four decades.It is a well-known fact that the new approach originates mainly in the French tradition called the Annales school.Those familiar with the terms need no elaboration on this.It would only be wise to state that this approach includes not only the exploration of various written sources but also the incorporation of testimonies rendered by people who lived through a certain historical era ,or in other words:oral history.
This is exactly what happens in this book.This is not a book which one could easily classify according to a certain genre,be it historical,literary or anything else.It is not only a family chronicle,as the authors state in their introduction, but,in their words,it is "as hybrid in genre-as an intergenerational memoir and as an interdiciplinary and self-reflexive work of historical and cultural exploration.It engages many individual voices,including our own,within a web of narratives,recollections and interconnections,together with other historical and cultural source materials".
Add the fact that there is a continuous dialogue between the past and the present and you will get a much more complicated yet richer picture of the key questions posed by the writers,among them being: how come that a small provincial city produced such a rich and urbane culture? Why have the Jews in Czernowitz preferred the German culture over other ones? How have the memories of the Czernowitz Jews pass down to the next generations? What was so special about the 600-year old city that was barely to be found in other similar loci?
After all, the Holocaust of Czernowitz can easily be labeled as a part of the forgotten Holocaust of the Romanian Jewry.This happened because of the monopolization of the Holocaust by many Polish and Russian historians, authors and their collaborators in Israel and other academic or research institutes.It was only during the last 25 years when the Romanian Jewry Holocaust started to emerge to surface -and this due to some factors that are not relevant in our discussion here.
To resolve these main issues, the authors have relied on historical and literary source materials and used official and private contemporary documents,public and archival materials, letters, memoirs, photographs,newspapers, essays, poetry, fiction,Internet postings and other testimonial objects.The result of all this is to be found in three main parts which constitute the core of the book and an epilogue.The result is impressive and the rich narrative and analysis attest to the fact that this is going to be one of the best-ever written books on Czernowitz,a city(and the memories and evoked) which was dissected, deconstructed and re-constructed by both writers .It was a very good idea to point out to the reader the various contradictions and unsolved issues concerning some personalities who played their part on the stage of history during the dark years of the Holocaust.
However,let me mention my reservations about Chapter 11 of this opus where the authors refer the readers to various Internet sites that include materials on Czernowitz.In an academic work like this,it would have been much wiser to tell the reader about those sites in a detailed appendix, where everything regarding the city could be elaborated on.Ditto for the fact that the authors include a list of who met whom and when while visiting the city on various occasions and you get a reunion-style report which is totally unacceptable here.Second, the detailed and engrossing story of Vapniarka(Chapter 9)comes at the expense of other ghettoes which are mentioned only casually,such as the Moghilev ghetto.Albeit this,I can heartily recommend this book-which is a multi-layered interdisciplinary microhistory- not only to the Czernowitz
Jews (who, despite the advanced German culture surrounding them of which they are so proud of, had not been able to produce eminent figures such as an Einstein or another Freud), but to anyone who is interested to find out about a lost culture which will probably be an inseparable part of some people's psyche in the future.