Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010


by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer
University of California Press, 2010

Review by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins ... " The conclusion of T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" (1922) gave voice to what would become an entire century's experience of ruins. It was matched, seventeen years later, by Walter Benjamin's image of the angel of history who moves toward the future while staring at the "wreckage" of the past. The search for an aesthetic and epistemological language of representation out of the shards of lives that were destroyed first by "progress" and then by two world wars becomes increasingly elusive and desperate. Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer is one of the most eloquent culminations of that search and a powerful indicator of the physical and cultural traces that survive into the twenty-first century.

Of all the places that came under the sign of the swastika -- with the possible exception of Warsaw -- Czernowitz seems to have produced the most lasting cultural monuments. This book encompasses the story of a city that changed its national, cultural, and linguistic identity four times in the twentieth century alone: it entered the century as Czernowitz, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1774-1918) but was later incorporated into Romania as Cernăuţi with the collapse of the empire; invaded by the Soviets in 1940; overrun by the Nazis in 1941; recaptured by the Soviets in 1944 and incorporated into the USSR as Chernovtsy; and claimed by the Ukrainians as Chernivtsi with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The story within the story is even more dizzying: since most of the survivors who identify themselves as "Czernowitzers" were born after 1918, the city they treasure was already something of a ghostly presence even in their own childhood. What the authors come to call "the idea of Czernowitz" is a place that "cannot be found in any contemporary atlas." Like so many other centers of Jewish culture -- Prague, Budapest, Galicia, and of course Vienna itself -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire had left its architectural mark on the landscape and its linguistic mark on the Jews who had become enfranchised into bourgeois European culture through their allegiance to the German language. Even if some of the most important Jewish writers and poets who hailed from Czernowitz and the surrounding region of the Bukovina would exchange their German for Yiddish, the language of the folk (as did Itzik Manger), or for Hebrew, the language of collective asylum and "rebirth" (as did Dan Pagis and Aharon Appelfeld), it is the German of Paul Celan or Rose Ausländer that most embodies the primordial loyalty to and struggle within the language that Ausländer calls her "motherland." As Celan (who wrote early postwar poems in Romanian and would live out his last decades in French) said publicly in 1958, when he travelled to Bremen to receive a literary prize, "there remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language.... But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.... Passed through and came to light again, ‘enriched' by all this."

Still, the enduring "idea of Czernowitz" is not only the well-deserved afterlife of a multilingual and multicultural city that had been incubated under the benign gaze of Franz Joseph. It is also due to one unlikely act by one man, a bureaucrat even more obscure than Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, who just happened to be in the right place at the right moment with the right qualities of heart and mind. The intervention of the city's mayor, Traian Popovici, with the Romanian fascist authorities in October, 1941, was the single most determining factor in the survival of nearly half -- some 30,000 -- of Czernowitz's prewar Jewish population, including Marianne's parents. Compare that with a survival rate of less than 30 percent of the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe as a whole.

But this is a story that can be stitched together from the extant testimonies and histories. What makes Ghosts of Home so unique is that it combines, almost seamlessly, the perspective of a historian (Leo) and a literary scholar (Marianne) with the first-person testimony of Marianne's parents, Carl and Lotte, who were born in Czernowitz between the wars and who accompanied their daughter and son-in-law on their first trip to the city in 1998. It also binds in the perspectives of other survivors, their children, and the voices that emerge from the archives. I say "almost seamlessly" because the ostensibly ragged juxtaposition of discourses is self-conscious and reflexive, and literally breathes life into the story. Lapses of personal memory are allowed to exist alongside bursts of recollection and carefully researched documentary evidence; "impersonal" photographs of hapless Jewish deportees thronging the banks of the Dniester in 1941 share these pages with a tiny photograph of Carl and Lotte as newlyweds walking arm-in-arm on the Herrengasse. The photo is marked "Cz. 1942" and gives a deceptive sense of normalcy, except for that tiny white smudge on Carl's lapel. Is it the yellow star? The reckless space where the star is supposed to be?

In their role as guides to the city in 1998, Carl and Lotte convey their own brands of emotional immediacy along with a sense of the burden and privilege of history, producing, at times, revealing conflicts: as Carl is telling the story of the compliance of a majority of the residents of the Ghetto with the deportation order (to, as it turns out, the desolate region of Transnistria, where tens of thousands of Jews would perish), Lotte interjects that a "Romanian soldier came to our door and said, ‘Ok, now you have to go.'" Carl, impatient, says: "We all knew. We have to tell the same story. The soldier is beside the point. The Jewish Council said, get ready." Then Marianne picks up the thread and ruminates: "Did a soldier come to the door to summon them to get out, or were they already prepared to do so anyway? Did it really matter? These were things we would have to sort out later, I knew."

She never really sorts it out. What we have here is a rare glimpse into the process of historical reconstruction, along with a self-conscious interrogation of agency and of both its world-historical and its very personal results. If Mayor Traian Popovici had not insisted to the governor that certain Jews were too important to be left to an uncertain fate; and if a neighbor hadn't come along while Carl and his extended family were waiting with their bundles to be transported to their yet-unknown destination, pulled Carl aside, and told him the rumor that some professionals were going to be allowed to stay in Czernowitz; and if Carl hadn't acted on impulse and taken the eleven members of his family back into the ghetto, where they would eventually return to their homes and survive the war; and if he had followed his best friend and sought refuge deep inside the Soviet Union instead of staying in Czernowitz ... would Marianne have been born?

Before dismissing such questions as trivial, please stop to search yourself: what are the contingencies that have shaped your life?

In many ways this is a book not about the inevitabilities of history, but about its contingencies, its impossible but fateful choices and its myriad small acts of chesed.

Like the last, technicolor scene in Schindler's List, but without the kitsch, this book is a story of the present. As the current Ukrainian administration put together its version of the city to celebrate, in 2008, the six-hundred-year anniversary of a place now called Chernivtsi, with very little room designated to represent the story of the Jews, and most of that devoted to religious relics, it is the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Carl and Lotte and their generation who carry its traces.

"Many of us thought, Romania is not Germany," Carl told us, [recalling the mindset of the Czernowitzers in the late 1930s]. We had interrupted our walk through the city in order to have coffee and a pastry, but continued to videotape Carl and Lotte as we carried on with our conversation. "We were hoping that war could be avoided."

Carl's narrative, which is often cast in the first-person plural, has the immediacy of memory and the force of history. But the interruption for coffee and pastry may be the most powerful testament to the "afterlife" of Czernowitz in the appetites and life projects of Carl's and Lotte's daughter and son-in-law. It is a modest counterpart to both the hapless pledge of the Jewish partisans during the war -- "mir zeinin do!" -- and the arrogant flag-waving of Israeli youth in Krakow or Auschwitz today.

There are three layers of history and memory represented in this book: prewar, wartime, and postwar. But it is the last that is the most gripping: the journey that Marianne takes in the wake of what she herself, as theorist of memory, calls her own and her generation's "postmemory." Born to the postmemory of a world that was already a ghostly presence in her parents' generation and then was completely obliterated, Marianne has, as her father says, "no Heimat." But she has something else. So many of us who were fortunate to have been born during the war but elsewhere, or during the war but survived, or after the war, search for physical remains in which to anchor memory. Those fragments Marianne would shore up against her ruins take the form of a few tiles from the stove that warmed Lotte as a child (I won't reveal to the reader whether she in fact succeeds in procuring them). For me it is a fragment of a tombstone from the overgrown Jewish cemetery of my mother's hometown of Ostrowiecz, Poland, that sits on my desk in Jerusalem. We invest these shards with the aura of authenticity and with what Yehuda Amichai calls, in reference to the broken gravestone on his desk, a "great yearning":

... The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,

were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,

a longing without end, fills them all:

first name in search of family name, date of death seeks

dead man's birthplace, son's name wishes to locate

name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul

that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found

one another, they will not find perfect rest.

Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says "Amen."         

   (Open Closed Open, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

Ghosts of Home collects the fragments of one place and provides us with an artifact that is as close as we will ever come to "perfect rest."

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2007, she became a Guggenheim Fellow for her current project on "Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return."

Source Citation: Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. 2010. "A Great Yearning Fills Them All." Tikkun 25(6): 64

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