[Cz-L] Article from Ha-Aretz

From: Miriam Taylor <mirtaylo_at_indiana.edu>
Date: Sat, 30 Aug 2008 07:51:21 -0700
To: "Czernowitz Genealogy and History digest'" <czernowitz-l_at_list.cornell.edu>
Reply-To: "Miriam Taylor" <mirtaylo_at_indiana.edu>

The following article appeared in Ha-Aretz, almost 3 month ago:
By Aharon Appelfeld
Tags: Zvi Yavetz, Ukraine 

It is doubtful that another small city in the world has inspired so many
books and articles as Czernowitz. Why has it received so much attention?
That's not an easy question to answer. If we say that Czernowitz is located
between Eastern and Western Europe, and that it was influenced over the
generations by both worlds, we would be correct.

That it was a city of many minorities, whose members lived there until Worl=
War I in a degree of harmony, is also correct. That there were a number of
decent secondary schools there and a university; theater, a passion for
education, and an active intelligentsia -these are also correct. But all of
this, it seems to me, is not sufficient to explain the amount of interest
this city continues to generate. In Germany, Austria and other places in th=
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 live=
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 and 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, they attended
university. Many would leave for Vienna, Berlin or Paris, but a considerabl=
number returned to Czernowitz upon earning their degrees.
It's no wonder that such a vibrant community gave birth to such acclaimed
journalists as Elias Weinstein, public leaders like Benno Sternberg and
Avraham Mark, actors such as Theodore Bikel and Sidi Tal, famous singers
like Yosef Schmidt and also countless writers, poets and scholars, includin=
art historian Moshe Barasch and of course Paul Celan, the greatest poet of
all to emerge from the city.

Czernowitz was a cultural entity with a thirst for literature, theater and
music. It contained a messy blend of passion for learning, petit bourgeois
snobbery, arrogant wealth and many poseurs, but also true intellectuals,
whose world was embodied in the written word.

This is the background against which one should read "My Czernowitz," by Zv=
Yavetz. Yavetz, emeritus professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv
University, is correct when he says that most of the books written about th=
town are similar and don't have much to say that's new; nonetheless, the
interest in Czernowitz carries on to this day.

The town's spirit

"My Czernowitz" is not a subjective work, as one might infer from its title=
many of its chapters are devoted to the city's history. But the
autobiographical part is also very instructive. Yavetz is right in writing
that every generation experienced the city in a different way; still,
something about the town's spirit has been linking natives of Czernowitz fo=
several generations now.

Jews began flocking to Czernowitz after the annexation of Bukovina to the
Hapsburg empire, in 1774. Compared to the neighboring regimes - Russia,
Ukraine, Romania - the Hapsburgs were enlightened and related to Jews with
understanding. The Jews adopted Hapsburger German, kneading it in a manner
that made it either Bukovinian or Czernowitzian.

The foundation of the Czernowitzian language was Viennese German, to which
words in Yiddish and Ruthenian were added in everyday speech. This mixture
created a new language; I do not know if it was organic, but it was full of
nuances and contrasts, and was the source of Czernowitzian humor, something
of which Yavetz brings to his book. (The Czernowitzian language was
manifested mainly in speech, and when the town's intellectuals sat down to
write German, they paid great attention to the purity of the language and
were known for the elegance with which they used it.)

The Czernowitzian spirit brought to the world types of people in whom the
Jewish and the humane combined in a special manner - as was the case with
the author's grandfather, Moshe Yavetz. For them, religious belief was
replaced by love of Hebrew language and literature and the Jewish sources.
These enlightened, educated Jews did not cut themselves off from the
synagogue, but they did not visit it frequently either. They looked around
themselves with an inquiring, mostly critical and sometimes sardonic eye.

The town had an extensive middle class: merchants, industrialists, doctors,
lawyers and journalists, many of them keen consumers of culture. They fille=
the concert halls, flocked to lectures, went to the theater and read books,
and when a well-known Jewish writer, poet or leader came to town, they
packed the auditoriums. The petite bourgeoisie of Czernowitz tended toward
assimilation, but there were still a great many homes where kashrut was
observed, and family members attended synagogue or temple.

Which is not to say that the old world had completely disappeared from the
streets of Czernowitz: There were neighborhoods inhabited by traditional
Jews, mostly in the city's poorer sections, and there was a certain amount
of tension between the religiously observant and the assimilating class. Th=
assimilator, even if he did not deny his Judaism, did not want people to
identify him as a religious Jew.

The friction between the religious and the assimilationists ended even
before World War I. The religious minority increasingly shut itself within
its own four walls, and the assimilationists traded the faith of their
fathers for enlightenment, education, art and Zionism. Here and there
ideological quarrels arose, but for the most part an easygoing spirit
prevailed in Czernowitz.

No flood of emotions
Zvi Yavetz's own story comprises a moving document that tells of the
maturation of a youngster destined to become a Torah scholar. At the age of
5, he came down with polio and his father committed suicide, but to
counterbalance these disasters he had devoted grandparents and a loving

The author laments his supposed lack of talent for describing and expressin=
emotions, but his story is told in an eloquent and fascinating manner.
Extensive descriptions and a flood of emotions are not always the guarantee
of a good story - refraining from them for the most part only improves the

The author's story provides enchanted details from the life of a sensitive,
aware and ambitious youngster who absorbs the world of Judaism from his
grandfather, and from his mother, German poetry. The story affords
expression to the pangs of adolescence, a gnawing sadness, disappointment
and youthful mischief. The boy absorbs Czernowitz, with its four languages =
German, Yiddish, Romanian and Ruthenian - and along with it the poetry and
spirit of the times.

This early absorbing, at first at home and afterwards outside it, at primar=
and secondary school and in the Zionist youth movement; the acquisition in
the wake of this of knowledge, and exposure to different and contrasting
worlds - these are what prepared the son of terrestrial Czernowitz to becom=
a well-known scholar and a Jew in his soul and learning.

Yavetz devotes a special chapter to the city's poets. In talking about
poetry in Czernowitz, one must begin with Alfred Sperber, who was active
between the two world wars - a poet, translator, critic and discoverer of
young talents. Sperber's home was the meeting place of the two most famous
poets to grow up in the city: Rosa Auslander and Paul Celan.

Of poetry, Sperber said: A poem is nothing but talk of something that never
was, a hope for the realization of something that cannot be realized and th=
embodiment of the secret by the word echoing in the well of silence. This
highly charged statement has its echoes not only in the work of Celan and
Auslander but also in the poems of Emmanuel Weissglas, Alfred Kittner, Selm=
Meerbaum-Eisinger and others.

Most of the Czernowitz poets wrote in German. Like their fellow Jewish poet=
in Germany and Austria, they were already vested in German poetry and
culture, but after World War II this trend changed and from within the
lyricism the modern Jewish mythology emerged.

Celan was considered the greatest of the lyric poets in the second half of
the 20th century; his poetry attracted the attention of German philosopher
Martin Heidegger; and from the other direction, Gershom Scholem took an
interest in it. Heidegger, presumably, pondered Celan's modernism; Scholem
was interested in the Hebrew words scattered through his work that hinted a=
a connection to kabbala.

What is there of Czernowitz in Celan's writing? His poetry after all deals
with the depths of the soul and is to a large extent supra-local. Were it
not for World War II, the tragic death of his parents on the Ukrainian
steppes and his own imprisonment in a labor camp, it is doubtful his poetry
would have looked the way it did. His poem "Death Fugue" is among the first
attempts to give artistic expression to the Holocaust. And to recount the
Holocaust in the German language, the language of the murderers, adds one
difficulty to another.

Anyone who met Celan in Israel in 1969, a few months before his suicide,
realized how Jewish he was, how well he knew Hebrew and Yiddish. The Jew in
him and the German lyricist in him were welded together in the flame of his
tortured mind.

What is no more
The Czernowitz of today is a gray Ukrainian city, lacking the Jews who had
carried German culture into the heart of Eastern Europe. Its streets and
buildings are silent witnesses to what was once and is no more. A large par=
of the city's inhabitants were deported to camps in World War II. Those who
remained alive immigrated to Israel or to the countries of the Jewish

Anyone who searches for what used to be there will find nothing, but the
focus on the Jewish-German culture that was created in that city has not
ceased even after its eradication from the earth. Many books are still bein=
published - among them nostalgic memoirs, books that distort the reality an=
attribute its glory to the German minority that lived in Czernowitz, and
just plain shallow works.

Books like Yavetz's "My Czernowitz" provide a good balance between quiet
longing and a wealth of information. Scholars will appreciate the author's
comprehensive research; readers and natives of Czernowitz will be grateful
for the pulsating autobiographical chapters.

Aharon Appelfeld, winner of the 1983 Israel Prize for Literature, was born
in Czernowitz in 1932. His most recent book in English, "All Whom I Have
Loved: A Novel," was published last year by Schocken.
This moderated discussion group is for information exchange on the subject =
Czernowitz and Sadagora Jewish History and Genealogy. The Czernowitz-L list=
 has an associated web site at http://czernowitz.ehpes.com that includes a =
 searchable archive of all messages posted to this list. Please post in "P=
 Text" if possible (help available at:

To remove your address from this e-list follow the directions at

To receive assistance for this e-list send an e-mail message to:
Received on 2008-08-30 14:51:21

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : 2008-10-17 22:48:14 PDT