A City That Was and Is No Longer

Is there another small city in the world that has inspired so many books and articles? What is about Czernowitz that continues to captivate so many, long after it ceased to be a center of Jewish-German culture? Aharon Appelfeld thinks that Zvi Yavetz, in his memoir-history of the town, goes a long way to providing the answers.

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 World 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 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 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 considerable 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 Yozef Schmidt and also countless writers, poets and scholars, including 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 Zvi Yavetz. Yavetz, emeritus professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University, is correct when he says that most of the books written about the 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 for 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 filled 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. The 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 mother.

The author laments his supposed lack of talent for describing and expressing 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 tale.

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 primary 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 become 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 the 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, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger and others.

Most of the Czernowitz poets wrote in German. Like their fellow Jewish poets 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 at 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 part 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 Diaspora.

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 being published - among them nostalgic memoirs, books that distort the reality and 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.