Holocaust studies / Inevitable fragments of nostalgia - Haaretz Daily Newspaper
Ghosts of Home:
The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory
by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer
University of California Press, 392 pages, $39.95
As time goes by, the Holocaust and the ordinary lives lived by Jews throughout Central Europe before the 1930s recede as experience remembered. The witnesses and survivors diminish in number dramatically each year. But even for survivors who were young when the war ended in 1945, the trauma of expulsion, flight and brutalization was compounded by the exceptional fate of survival in the face of mass terror and murder. This made recollection and storytelling about the war and the world that it destroyed more complicated, selective and unreliable than retelling generally is.
A synagogue in Czernowitz in the 1920s
|Photo by: "Ghosts of Home," courtesy of the authors|
Talking about the past among the families of survivors was particularly difficult. Why did some make it when most did not? No matter how witnesses dealt with the past, whether in silence and secrecy or through obsessive engagement and idealization, the generation that followed, the children, felt overwhelmed as much by what was left unexplained, by the gaps and contradictions, as much as by what was said.
For children born during the war and shortly thereafter, the challenge was to construct a coherent history that approximated the verifiable and simplistic sense of the past shared by children with families and homes that were comparatively intact. Delving into the past became imperative, if only to reject it. This predicament led the authors of this book, distinguished scholars who have spent much of their lives dealing with memory and history, and both of whom are themselves children of survivors, to write about Czernowitz, the place from which their parents, and their parents’ closest friends, came and about which their parents spoke constantly.
The authors brought their aged parents back to Czernowitz, today a city called Chernivtsi, in Ukraine, after the fall of the Soviet Union. They returned without them several times as they gathered material for a book, researched the Jewish history of the city, joined other survivors and children of survivors in a group “roots” trip, participated in the burgeoning online community of descendants, and worked to establish a museum that would document prewar Jewish life in Czernowitz.
One particularly compelling part of the book describes how the authors, after completing their initial visits and research, then re-examined prewar and wartime family photographs in an effort to better understand the predicaments their parents faced and how they responded.
At the core of the book is a familiar paradox. Czernowitz was a thriving center of Jewish life and culture from the mid-19th century until World War II. The Jews in the city and its immediate environs, in the region of Bukowina, included traditional and religious Jews, activists and pioneers in the world of Yiddish culture and politics, all manner of Zionist organizations and proponents of the Hebrew language, acculturated German-speaking citizens loyal (in the spirit of Joseph Roth) to the Habsburg monarchy, Jews who were communists, and to a far lesser degree, Jews who embraced the Romanian culture rather than the German. The astonishing variety and vitality in Jewish life before 1939 speak to the multi-generational stability and health of the community, notwithstanding the ever-present anti-Semitism among aristocrats and peasants of all ethnicities, notably Ukrainian and Romanian.
One of the most difficult things for any Jew alive today is to understand and accept with empathy how normal and how rooted Jews were in Eastern and Central Europe, particularly under Habsburg rule, in the era before Hitler. Those who immigrated to America and Palestine between 1880 and 1938 were a minority. For most of the Jews living in Czernowitz − and indeed all over Europe − the Holocaust, despite Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s prophetic warnings, was not a predictable historical inevitability, a catastrophe that could have been foreseen if only Jews, particularly those comfortably integrated into the middle-class culture of educated German-speaking urban elites, had possessed a more candid and pessimistic understanding of the radical implications of late 19th-century European anti-Semitism.
The variety of Jewish reactions − first to the rise of fascism, particularly Nazism, and then to the threat and reality of war − correlated with differences in class and geographical location, and with the ways Jews defined themselves culturally and politically. The way the victims thought about what was happening and what might happen − the choices individuals believed they faced − in turn mirrored expectations drawn from different constructs of the history and place of the Jews. Zionists and Communists reacted differently from each other, and those with allegiances to the legacy of a more benign Habsburg dynastic politics had yet another response.
A lost, almost mythic home
But Hirsch and Spitzer’s book is not about what happened and why. Rather, it is an effort to reconstruct the world before the destruction, more through the prism of survivor recollection than through historical research. The book does offer some straight history as well, such as a long overdue account of the brutality of the Romanian participation in the persecution and extermination of Jews. Written by authors born during the war years who have no direct memories of that period, “Ghosts of Home” seeks to paint a picture by negotiating memory as distorted by nostalgia, denial, shame and fear. The authors’ goal was to gain an image for themselves of a lost, almost mythic home and heritage.
As someone born after the war in Europe of Eastern European Jewish parents, I empathize with the impulse eloquently and unabashedly put forth by the authors, a husband-and-wife team. They were both brought up with a language from a home they never knew. They heard endless tales of a place they could only conjure in their imaginations, constructed at best with the help of a few photographs that chronicled individuals who, for the most part, did not survive. They tasted the food and absorbed the habits and prejudices of a world at once sentimentalized and reviled. Much as the authors would like to resist the temptation to become sentimental and selective, by taking as a starting point the process of survival, the extension of memory and the return of their parents to the place they once called home and in which they had been young, they cannot help but leave readers with an image of Czernowitz that raises more questions than it answers.
For all the authors’ effort to interpolate a more comprehensive and less blatantly subjective account of the past, the personal is not transcended, neither by attempts at theoretical musings on the nature of memory nor by close critical readings of the tales of survivors themselves. But this is not a criticism, for the book is about the present and our struggle with defining the past. To deconstruct the personal would have demanded a heartlessness and distance Hirsch and Spitzer thankfully lack.
By now the children of survivors are themselves quite advanced in years. Most members of this second generation live in the United States, Israel, Canada or Australia. What they have in common is the experience of unanswered questions and extreme contradictions. How can the violent destruction of Jews and Jewish life between 1933 and 1945 be reconciled with the inevitable fragments of nostalgia and the sense of loss that emerge from the idealization of a pre-war culture, language and community life whose history extends back to the late 19th century? And how can one describe the experience of families before the restoration of ghettos, and the creation of concentration camps, that does not conform to a reductive picture of European Jewry?
That simplified account portrays Jews as either deluded by the promise and reality of acculturation (notwithstanding Gershom Scholem, the actual functioning symbiosis of middle-class Jews and German culture), or as paralyzed, poor, provincial and profoundly traditional (whether or not they are Hasidic) – the sort of Jews S. Y. Agnon so brilliantly brought to life in his novels. How does one reconcile the murder of family members and the loss of all worldly possessions with fond memories of cafes, pastries and cute idioms that evoke the use of German as the language of intimacy?
These questions led the authors to write an unusual book, organized by a mix of past and present. Much of the narrative is in the first person, structured by their visits to Czernowitz, the first of which took place in the 1990s. Their subject was once a multilingual city, many of whose Jewish inhabitants were middle class and German-speaking. The city itself was, until 1918, an important but provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In that period, Czernowitz saw itself as a diminutive Vienna. Some Jews remember it as having a sense of grandeur, while others saw it as limited, its aspirations notwithstanding. After 1918, the city became part of Romania; the Soviet Union took control of it briefly, in 1941; and then it again became part of Romania. Ultimately, it fell under Nazi occupation and became part of the Soviet Union until the establishment of an independent Ukraine.
What justifies wider interest in Czernowitz and Bukowina is the remarkable contribution to literature made by writers from the region, not only in German but in Romanian and, in the case of Aharon Appelfeld, in Hebrew. The most famous of these writers was Paul Celan, arguably the greatest German poet of the second half of the 20th century. If Franz Kafka − a Jew from Prague, a city distant from the center of German-speaking Europe − has sparked interest in the social and cultural history of that city’s Jewry, Celan has drawn attention to Czernowitz and the history and culture of its Jews, if for no other reason than to shed light on his origins and influences. This book makes clear how much any language can gain from being used by people living far from a major city and who are surrounded by many different languages, all used interchangeably. This point was made powerfully by the young Fritz Mauthner in the philosopher’s memoir of his own childhood in Prague.
To the authors’ credit, they are explicit in warning the reader that their intent is not actually to find answers to the nagging and impossible questions about the process of destruction itself, or even about what was destroyed. What lends the book its coherence is an attempt to probe the process of memory and, more significantly, the logic of recollection. The Czernowitz that Hirsch and Spitzer seek to recover through memory was largely defined by language and the middle-class Jewish allegiance to all things German. The city was defined by its role as a distant outpost of Habsburg culture and its architectural and culinary evocations of Vienna. By following the fate of a few families, the authors reveal the self-appointed role assumed by many Jews as defenders of that Habsburg identity. Hirsch and Spitzer communicate the shocking realization of powerlessness brought to the Jews of Czernowitz through their persecution by the Nazis, Romanians and Soviets.
This book is more about how we have chosen to remember the Jewish experience in the past than it is about what that past might actually have been like. But it is well worth reading as a powerful account of survival and exile, and of the impact those phenomena can have on children.
One learns more about Czernowitz the legend than about the real people, politics and culture of the prewar city. For that, those fluent in German should read Ilana Shmueli’s fine 2006 book, “Ein Kind aus guter Familie: Czernowitz 1924-1944.” But it is precisely the gaps between contemporary fragments and fictions and past realities that make this book fascinating and poignant. After all, the way modern Jewry in America and Israel construes the 20th-century European Jewish experience will continue to affect Jews’ image of themselves, and therefore their politics.
Prof. Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.