Memory Studies 4(3) 336–352Book reviews © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permission: sagepub. co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1750698011403118 mss.sagepub.com
Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer Ghosts of Home:The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 392pp. $39.95. ISBN 9790520257726
Reviewed by: Judith Friedlander, Hunter College, CUNY, USA
Ghosts of Home reconstructs the memories of Jews who survived the Second World War in Czernowitz (Cern••u••i), a city located in Northern Bukowina, which belonged to Romania during most of the war. Known as Chernivtsi today, the city now is part of Ukraine. Generally speaking, the Jews of Romania survived the war in greater numbers, proportionately, than did Jews in most other parts of Eastern Europe, but not in borderland regions such as Bukowina. With the singular exception of 20,000 Jews in Czernowitz, the Jews of Northern Bukowina suffered the full impact of Hitler’s genocidal campaign. As Hirsch and Spitzer put it:
[D]espite an elaborate plan announced in Bucharest in August 1942 to make Romania entirely judenrein by sending all Jews to Belzec, and despite a longstanding history of virulent Romanian anti-Semitism, a majority of Jews who inhabited the Romanian Regat – the heartland – survived the war … The Jews of the border regions, on the other hand, especially those living in Northern Bukowina that had been annexed by the Soviet Union under the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1940-41, suffered a much harsher fate. (p. 172)
The Jews of Czernowitz owed their relative good fortune to the courageous intervention of the city’s mayor, a remarkable man by the name of Traian Popovici. Against extraordinary odds, Popovici protected at least 20,000 Jews, including Marianne Hirsch’s parents, the experiences of whom the authors describe in vivid detail throughout the pages of this fascinating book. Carl and Lotte (née Gottfried) Hirsch grew up in the city during the interwar period. As the authors describe Carl and Lotte’s Czernowitz years, they offer a rich and nuanced portrait of the wider community of assimilated Jews to which Marianne’s parents belonged, using excerpts from historical docu•ments, memoirs, novels, poems, photographs and interviews conducted in the city during the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer made four visits to Czernowitz between 1998 and 2008 – the first time with Carl and Lotte.
Inspired by writers as varied as Eva Hoffman and Art Spiegelman, Hirsch and Spitzer have made a new and significant contribution to a large body of literature by and about ‘children of the Holocaust,’ more specifically to works by children who travelled back to the places where their parents grew up and/or survived the war. In making these symbolic ‘returns’ Hirsch and Spitzer wanted to walk the streets with Carl and Lotte, to see the buildings and touch the tiles of places Marianne had tried to visualize over the years as she listened to her parents describe the city before and during the war – as if ‘being there’ herself would give new meaning to the haunting memories she had inherited. Hirsch and Spitzer call memories such as Marianne’s and those of other children of survivors ‘postmemories’.
As Hirsch puts it:
My ‘memory’, is a ‘postmemory’. Mediated by the stories, images, and behaviors among which I grew up, it never added up to a complete picture or linear tale. Its power to overshadow my own memories derives precisely from the layers – both positive and negative – that have been passed down to me unintegrated, conflicting, fragmented, dispersed. (p. 9)
Ghosts of Home is a clear must for scholars and general readers interested in studies of individual and collective memories. This review will focus primarily on the book’s contribution to a large body of works published since the Second World War on Czernowitz and on the various ways people have recreated the collective memory of the city. Hirsch and Spitzer compare and contrast these different representations as they try to make sense out of what they call the ‘idea of Czernowitz’. In a recent review by Aharon Appelfeld of another book about Czernowitz, the Israeli novelist noted:
It is doubtful that another small city in the world has inspired so many books and articles as Czernowitz … In Germany, Austria and other places in the world, among Jews and non-Jews alike, the name Czernowitz evokes great amazement, as though possessing some captivating charm … The Jews were the yeast that created the ferment; about 50,000 of them lived in Czernowitz before World War II, approximately one-third of the population. They led a vibrant public life – and included among them assimilationists, Zionists, Bundists, Yiddishists, and a large Hasidic Community. There was a splendid Reform-style temple but also many small synagogues. The press, theater, and the literary music worlds were all in the hands of Jews. They saw to it that their children attended the best secondary schools and that on completion of their studies attended university. Many would leave for Vienna, Berlin or Paris, but a considerable number returned to Czernowitz upon earning their degrees. (Appelfeld, 2008)
In the early years of the 20th century Czernowitz defined the northeast border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the last frontier, in the eyes of many at the time, of civilized Europe. Called the ‘Vienna of the East’ the official language of the city was German, but the vast majority of the inhab•itants spoke other languages as well: Yiddish, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) to name the most common. Czernowitz was the kind of city, to quote Tony Judt (2010), ‘where cosmopolitanism [was] not so much an identity as the normal condition of life’. And the list of such urban centers, Judt reminds us, was impressively long. Some of these cities were large, such as Sarajevo, Alexandria, Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut and Istanbul; others smaller such as Czernowitz and Uzhhorod. Whatever the size, each one of them had ‘multiple communities and languages often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting’ (Judt, 2010).
After winning the war in 1918 the allies dismantled the Austro-Hungarian Empire and gave Bukowina to Romania, one of the 13 new states created by the Versailles Treaty. For people like the Hirsches and Gottfrieds, this new political reality did not alter their cultural allegiances. Lotte and Carl may have gone to Romanian-language schools in the interwar period, but their families continued to speak German at home and identify themselves with the literary and artistic fashions emanating from Vienna.
According to the map of interwar Europe, the inhabitants of Czernowitz now lived in the Romanian city of Cern••u••i. The streets all had Romanian names too, but young assimilated Jews like Carl and Lotte made dates to meet friends on what they still called the Herrengasse. It mattered little to them or to members of their parents’ generation that the street sign now read Iancu Flondor. In June 1940, several months after Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact and divided Europe between them, Cern••u••i became part of the USSR and its name changed again to Chernovtsy (written in Cyrillic script) – at least for a year. Twelve months later the Nazis declared war on the Soviet Union, invaded Chernovtsy and returned the city to their Romanian allies, who immediately changed its name back to Cern••u••i. And so the city remained until 1945, when it became part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and assumed once again its Russian identity. Finally, when Ukraine declared its independence from Russia in December 1991, Chernovtsy’s name was translated into Ukrainian. Contemporary maps now identify the city as Chernivtsi, and locate it within the borders of the new state of Ukraine. Today the official language of the city is Ukrainian and the names of the streets mark Ukrainian historic places and heroes.
For the most part, ‘the idea’ of Czernowitz described on the pages of this book is the German-speaking city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place remembered lovingly by assimilated Jews who remained faithful to the language and culture of Franz Josef. It was almost as if the culture of the old empire protected the Jews of interwar Cern••u••i from the wounds of anti-Semitism inflicted on them regularly in the Romanian language, not in German. The culture with which they identified was represented by poets such as Paul Celan who continued to write in German, even after the Second World War, in contrast to novelists such as Aharon Appelfeld, who aban•doned German for Yiddish and Hebrew. Although they both wrote bitterly about the world they had lost, their languages and inflections were different. When Appelfeld wrote nostalgically about Bukowina, he remembered the ‘premodern rural, maternal world in the countryside, the Yiddish shtetl life of his grandparents that offers warmth and joy, and a small degree of protec•tion from the ruins of the cosmopolitan diaspora that surround his child protagonists’ (quoted in Hirsch and Spitzer’s book on p. 292).
The Jews of Czernowitz, Appelfeld reminds us, had different ways of identifying themselves as Jews and these differences had an impact on how they remembered the city. Hirsch and Spitzer carefully describe this diversity, pointing out, for example, that even Marianne’s father had joined Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist-Zionist movement that urged Jews to speak Hebrew, but paradoxi•cally, Marianne observed while interviewing her father, ‘“the Hashomer seemed to consolidate your allegiance to German language and culture.” (He) did not disagree’ (p. 85).
In the case of Appelfeld, however, who was orphaned during the Second World War, he rejected the German language that his parents had also taught him and their world of assimilated Jews. For people like him, the idea of Czernowitz evoked the multi-lingual Jewish community, chosen as the site of a famous conference in 1908, where Jewish intellectuals and political activ•ists gathered to determine whether Yiddish should become the national language of the Jewish people. The participants in this historic gathering came from many different provinces and states; the most prominent of them were from centers of Jewish culture in Czarist Russia. After heated debates the assembled agreed to recognize Yiddish as only one of the possible Jewish languages, along with Hebrew.
Why did Jewish nationalists hold their meeting in Austria-Hungary? Because Franz Josef was more tolerant than Nicholas II on questions of cultural diversity, even though he refused to recog•nize Yiddish as a national language. Debates were raging across several ‘national’ communities in Austria–Hungary at the time. According to the eminent sociolinguist Joshua Fishman, ‘many seg•ments of [Austria–Hungary’s] hitherto significantly Germanized Jewish intelligentsia were already struggling to revise their attitudes toward Yiddish – a struggle that was particularly crucial for that period in Austro-Hungarian cultural politics vis à vis Germans, Poles, Ukrainians/ Ruthenians, and Jews in the Bovina and in Galicia as well’ (1983: 375). But why hold the meeting in Czernowitz, rather than in a better known center of Yiddish culture? Because the main convener of the conference, Nathan Birnbaum, had decided to leave Vienna and make Czernowitz the center of his political/linguistic campaign.
Aside from the obvious personal reasons, Hirsch and Spitzer defend their decision to concen•trate on Czernowitz’s German-speaking Jewish community, because, they claim, these Jews were the most significant group in the region in the early years of the 20th century:
For the majority of Bukowina and Czernowitz Jews until the end of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire, German remained the predominant language of choice in communication and the acquisition of cultural capital. Ranging broadly across the political and social spectrum, these included political moderates, who believed that anti-Semitic upsurges, exclusions and brutalities were passing aberrations, as well as democratic socialists and ‘Golus’ or ‘diaspora nationalists’ – those who opposed assimilation and wanted Jews accepted as a culturally and religiously self-directed, if not self-governing, distinct national group within the framework of the Habsburg multinational state. (pp. 42–3)
Demographers might want to challenge the authors’ claim that German was the predominant lan•guage among Jews in Bukowina at the time, even if the census supported it. As Yiddish was not recognized as one of the national languages spoken in the empire, the Jews were forced to identify themselves on the census form with one of the languages that was. On the other hand, it is generally agreed that the leaders of the various Jewish nationalist movements spoke predominantly Russian (in Czarist Russia) and/or German (in Austria–Hungary) among themselves. In many cases the Austrian champions of Jewish national languages spoke Yiddish and/or Hebrew poorly, if at all, including Nathan Birnbaum. What is more, in promoting language nationalism, intellectuals like Birnbaum also embraced the philosophical traditions of German Romanticism that justified the exclusion of the Jewish people from Austrian and German society. As Hirsch and Spitzer aptly put it: ‘Even in their opposition to German and other national languages of assimilation, Zionists and diaspora nationalists had absorbed German Romantic notions about the indelible spiritual bond between language and Volk – the very same assumptions indeed that were used by German-exclusivist nationalists to keep out “others,” especially Jews, and to draw a circle of inclusion around their own’ (p. 43).
The authors of Ghosts of Home did not set out to write a complete cultural history of Czernowitz, but to reconstruct the world inhabited by Marianne Hirsch’s family. This they do beautifully, in much of its cultural and political complexity, enhancing the personal narrative with material writ•ten by and about other assimilated Jews such as themselves. The book also explores the ways the children of Czernowitz survivors appropriated, interpreted and transformed the memories of their parents, both shared and imagined, as they tried to understand what their mothers and fathers had experienced. In Ghosts of Home, Hirsch and Spitizer walk the streets with Carl and Lotte and see the places they had heard about many times before, but had never experienced with the same level of intensity. The visit was deeply moving for everyone.
Many will welcome this work as a significant contribution to memory studies and the literature of return; others as providing little known details about the lives of some of the 20,000 Jews of Czernowitz who escaped the fate of tens of thousands of Jews throughout Northern Bukowina, thanks to the city’s mayor. Traian Popovici succeeded in saving these particular Jews by claiming to the authorities that he could not run the city without the skilled labor of its Jewish population. He could not, however, stop the deportation of 30,000 others, half of whom died in camps located nearby in Transnistria. Hirsch and Spitzer visited Transnistria as well with the hope of finding traces of these internment centers, which they eventually did, despite the efforts of most of the people they met to deny that the camps had ever existed. Even by the shameful standards of the time, living conditions in the camps of Transnistria were horrifying.
Marianne Hirsch’s family – parents, grandparents and other members of the extended family – spent most of the war years living in their own apartments. In October 1941 they were forced briefly out of their homes and into the city’s hastily constructed ghetto, but a few weeks later they returned. While living in the ghetto, Carl and Lotte received permission from the Romanian police to go to Cern••u••i’s City Hall to get married by a judge in an official civil ceremony.
Marianne’s father was an engineer, a much needed profession in wartime Cern••u••i. He had work; the family had food, not in abundance to be sure, but they did not starve. Life was terrible and gratuitously humiliating during this time, but virtually all members of the Hirsch and Gottfried families managed to get by. Carl and Lotte walked freely in the streets, wearing the hateful yellow star, but they lived openly as Jews. Although they had several close calls, their daily lives by and large had little in common with the reality of the vast majority of Jews struggling to survive in Eastern Europe. At times Carl and Lotte delighted in defying the laws that discriminated against Jews, or so it seemed on a photo, taken of the couple on the streets of Cern••u••i in 1942 by a profes•sional photographer, in which neither one of them was visibly wearing the yellow star (p. 165).
Carl and Lotte Hirsch were clearly very lucky, but what makes their story particularly compelling is that they were not alone. Hirsh and Spitzer report that there were between 60,000 and 70,000 Jews in Cern••u••i before the Second World War. After the Hitler–Stalin Pact, when northern Bukowina became part of the Soviet Union, Romanians fled in both directions. Some went south, into fascist Romania, including some Jews, who feared communism more than fascism; others fled north, par•ticularly those committed to various forms of socialism. People such as Marianne’s father welcomed the communists with enthusiasm, but Carl soon changed his mind, after living in Czernowitz under Stalinist rule, during which time he witnessed the deportation of Jews and Gentiles to Siberia. When Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union the following year and ‘liberated’ Cern••u••i in June 1941, thousands of people fled once again. Many retreated with the Red Army. Carl would have gone too, despite his reservations about Soviet Communism, but Lotte’s family wanted to remain.
According to Traian Popovici, on whose demographic information Hirsch and Spitzer rely heavily, by August 1941 there were about 50,000 Jews left in the city. Approximately 30,000 Jews were deported in October and November of 1941 and an additional 4,000 in 1942. Half of them perished. Using census figures and ration-card records Popovici estimated that he succeeded in keeping 16,000 Jews in Cern••u••i legally and another 4,000 illegally.
In 1945, after the Soviet army liberated Czernowitz, Carl and Lotte moved to Bucharest, in an effort to escape living under communism again. Two years later Romania became a communist state as well. Eager to move either to western Europe or the USA, the Hirsches began the endless process of applying for exit visas, which they finally received in 1961.
Marianne was born in 1949 in Timi••oara, a city located in western Romania. A few months later, the family moved back to Bucharest, where they remained until they left the country. Marianne attended school in the Romanian language, but following the tradition of assimilated Jews from Czernowitz, she spoke German at home.
The book is organized around the four visits the authors made to Chernivtsi between 1998 and 2008. On the first trip with Marianne Hirsch’s parents, the authors accompanied Carl and Lotte back to the famous streets whose names Marianne had learned in German, to hear once again about the events that took place on this corner or that under Romanian street signs. By the time she and Leo saw these very same streets the signs, of course, were in Ukrainian. The authors visited the apartments where Carl and Lotte lived – a few things were still the same, a stove here; some tiles there. They saw the corner where Carl made the split-second decision that saved the family from deportation, which was no longer a corner; and the bridge over which the survivors of the camps in Transnistria returned to Cern••u••i. They also met a few cousins who had never moved away and were still living in the city.
During the later trips without Carl and Lotte, Marianne and Leo did archival research, walked the streets again, and conducted more interviews. In 2000, for example, they went to the offices of the Registry of Marriages and Births, located on what the authors still stubbornly called the Herrengasse. There, with the help of a Ukrainian employee, they found the entry indicating that Marianne’s parents had married on 18 October 1941 in City Hall (casa comunal••). The document gave the home addresses of the couple’s parents, even though their families had just been evicted and were living in the ghetto at the time. It also gave their ages and occupations – Carl Hirsch 29, construction engineer of the Mosaic faith and Lotte, 23, student of the Mosaic faith. Mentioned as well were the names of the couple’s parents and those of Lotte’s sister and brother-in-law, who had been witnesses at the marriage. Hirsch and Spitzer returned triumphantly to the USA with the document (prepared for them in a Ukrainian translation!). To their amazement, however, Carl and Lotte did not share the same sense of excitement:
[W]e were taken aback by the fact that they hardly looked at it. Obviously, this official corroboration of their history – signaling their continued documentary presence in today’s Chernivtsi – meant a great deal more to us than to them. And, in fact, when we later looked through the documents they had brought along with them from Romania, we found an official marriage certificate, not from 1941, but a copy issued on December 30, 1950 in Timi••oara, stamped with Romanian Socialist Republic stamps’. (p. 179)
In 2006 the authors attended a reunion of survivors and their children; in 2008 they returned for the 600th anniversary celebration of what was now the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, during, which the history of the city’s Jews was virtually forgotten, even though 2008 was also the centenary year of the famous Czernowitz conference. Throughout the different parts of the book, Hirsch and Spitzer seamlessly weave together their historical reconstruction of the city, with evocative literary pas•sages, memoirs, interviews with survivors and the ‘postmemories’ of their children.
For this reviewer the least successful sections of the book are the authors’ theoretical reflections on ‘postmemory’. They interrupt the power of the multi-layered narrative Hirsch and Spitzer have so beautifully constructed, the compelling details of which seem to defy this kind of theorizing. Hirsch and Spitzer are more effective in their use of theory when they talk about poetry and fiction. Their discussion of Appelfeld’s work is particularly interesting; for example when they describe how ‘Appelfeld has inherited the “idea of Czernowitz” – the multicultural and cosmopolitan humanism that defines the assimilationist aspirations of Czernowitz Jews – only to the extent of exposing the false sense of promise to which Jews have turned out of naiveté, perhaps, or out of a sense of ignorance’ (p. 292).
What conclusions have Hirsch and Spitzer drawn? Writing this book seems to have shaken their ‘idea of Czernowitz’ as well. Had the war never happened, the city might have lost much of its importance in the collective memory of assimilated Jews of the interwar generation, many of whom had already been eager to get out in the mid-1930s. As Lotte Hirsch put it: ‘I could not wait to be old enough to leave. It was not to happen until after the war, but we traveled a great deal dur•ing my youth, and after visiting Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, Czernowitz seemed like a backwater.’ Her father and his friends would have most likely lived elsewhere as well: ‘By the mid-1930s … Carl and many of his friends had left to study and work in Romania. Would they have returned had the war not broken out? Perhaps the “idea of Czernowitz” which is, after all, largely an effect of its loss, tells only one side of a much more contradictory story’ (p. 291).
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