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Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory, by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.  362 pp.  $39.95.


Only a few readers of the word “Czernowitz” will think of a present-day city in the Ukraine such as  Lviv, Charkiv, or Kiev. Since “Czernowitz” is the German language version of Chernivtsi, for many a myth will come to mind, a myth that has to do with the poets Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer, with numerous newspapers in the city’s languages of Yiddish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish, and German, with the place of Erwin Chargaff, Joseph Schumpeter, Nathan Birnbaum, Itzig Manger, Eliezar Shteinbarg, Shlomo Bickel, Mihai Eminescu, Joseph Schmidt, Karl Emil Franzos, Zhu Bailan, Aharon Appelfeld, and many others, with the Yiddish language Conference in 1908, with the Chassidic rabbi dynasty of Sadagora, the numerous “Kaffehäuser,” a multicultural scenery, and much more. The dark side of this history is the center of this book’s research: the 1941 Ghetto of Cernăuţi and the deportation of more than 20,000 of its Jews to Transnistria during World War II. The authors ask why it is that so many of the generation of those who fled or were born only after their parents had left Czernowitz are today still fascinated or even obsessed by the German-Jewish culture, language, and history of this former Habsburg town. How do the former Jewish residents remember the city and the traumas of the German-Romanian occupation in World War II that brought a violent end to the German-Jewish history of Czernowitz?

              Hirsch and Spitzer are very aware that this myth is not an object of historical facts alone but also of subjectively communicated feelings, emotions, and social forms of remembrance—especially if one is a member of this globally scattered diaspora of “Czernowitzers,” as Marianne Hirsch can claim (she was born after World War II of Czernowitz parents in Romanian Timişoara and raised in Bucharest; Leo Spitzer is from a Vienna background and was born in exile in Bolivia).

              What the authors do is to examine the seams and patterns of Hirsch’s parents’ memory on a visit  with them to Chernivtsi in 1998. In the architectural remnants of an almost undamaged former Habsburg town they explore how “real life” was for Hirsch’s parents in Romanian Cernăuţi before and during WWII and investigate how the history of the place intertwined with her parents’ lives. Many voices are heard in the growing choir of their relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, names, photographs, buildings, tile stoves, courts, the river Prut—they all offer different approaches to a gripping story of a happy middle class living in a busy town and hard survival in times of terror and war. The authors base much of their historical background of Jewish development on the two volume Geschichte der Juden in der Bukowina (ed. Hugo Gold), which was published as a type of “Yizkor”-book in Israel in 1958 and 1962. Written from the perspective of surviving Czernowitz Zionist activists such as Mayer Ebner, the two volumes do not reflect too much on the political divergences between Zionists, Bundists, Yiddishists, Poale Zionists, etc. after WWI. On this part the history and very splintered political situation in Cernăuţi during the Romanian interwar period of Czernowitz is presented in a rather plain manner.

              However, Hirsch and Spitzer dwell intensively on what the sound of the past means for themselves as the next generation. Hirsch has developed the notion of “postmemory” to describe the odd status of the children of former “Czernowitzers” who were raised and formed in their families with a  permanent memory and discussion of a city and its Jewish life they actually had never seen so that they could recall all the former street and family names, the magazines, synagogues as a kind of “ghosts of home.” Through very careful hints we may gain awareness of how difficult it may have been for those next generation children to identify with the real places in their life such as Bucharest, Jerusalem, Chicago, or Melbourne.

              After their first trip the authors go to Chernivtsi on three more occasions, the last on the occasion of the 600-year festivities of the city, during which they take part in the inauguration of a small Jewish museum. In 2006 they go to the first reunion that the internet group of worldwide Czernowitzers held in the city they are unable to forget. This virtual community (www.czernowitz.ehpes.com) wants to reunite as a real group of human beings with Czernowitz memories. On this occasion the authors accompany some participants who go to Transnistria, the land between Dniestr and Bug that in World War II was the place of the “silent Holocaust” where thousands of deported Bucovinian and Bessarabian Jews died of typhus, shooting, hunger, and cold. Hirsch and Spitzer develop a deeply reflective psychology and ethics of the memory of the trauma. It is one of several highlights of this outstanding book when the Ukrainian mayor of Shargorod, a town where many of Bucovinian Jews died in a camp, talks to a small group of survivors in simple but moving words about neglect and forgetting and asks them to accept a deeply felt apology.

What make this book a milestone in the research of the historical events in Romanian times and the  afterlife of Czernowitz are its well adapted theories on how the Czernowitzers mourn loss and try to live on, how the history and psychology of this process can find its necessary closing narrative. Concentrating on the personal lives of a group of Czernowitzers and their migration and connection to other Czernowitzers all around the globe, this masterly written “story” gives the reader a vast horizon of what one can know today about the Jewish segment of a formerly multicultural Habsburgian and then Romanian town and its afterlife.

Markus Bauer

Freelance Writer