Ethnological sightseers should not make it a point to visit this multicultural center in the Ukraine—if they can find it on the map.
By Jen Karetnick | Photographs by Henry Grunberg
Usually when a city has more than one appellation, it’s because a particular attribute lends itself to an apt nickname, or because fond denizens refer to a place privately among themselves while the world refers to it more formally. For instance, Paris is the City of Lights; Los Angeles is the City of Angels, but also L.A.; andwhilemost of theEarth’s population refers toNew York as NYC or the Big Apple, those living nearby just casually call it “The City.”
But in the case of Czernowitz—orCernauti, Chiernovce, Chernovtsy or Chernivtsi, as it is also called—the city located in the foothills of the CarpathianMountains on the banks of the Prut River, the plethora of titles is thanks equally to a multicultural population and shifting nationalistic claims that has plagued it since its inception. In fact, you’d be forgiven if you not only couldn’t figure out which way to spell Czernowitz et al so you could Google it, but if you didn’t even know where to look for it on amap.
Once you do find it, however, you’ll realize that this south westernUkraine cultural center has a lot to offer ethnographical sightseers, where the ever-changing “street names, written in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Ukranian and Romanian remind us of the fragility of national borders in this part of the world,” notes photographer Henry Grunberg, who visited the city several months ago.
Czernowitz began life as one of the earliest towns of Kievan Rus, amedieval state of theEastern Slavs.Until 1769, itwas part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, then taken over by Russia; in 1775, it became Austrian; 1849 saw it as the economic and industrial capital of the Bucovina region, in part because of the river traffic and a railway. But when the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled in 1918, it passed to Romania, who held it until theUSSR occupied it in the late 1930s and officially seized it in 1940. Today it is stronglyUkraine, returned to its roots in almost every way but one—its Jewishness.
Always a bookish town, with a university established in 1875 holding sway, byWorldWar I was nearly 50 percent Jewish.Upper-class Jews spoke German as a result of their Austrian heritage, while the lower classes chatted in Yiddish, but they all chanted Hebre win the synagogues, of which there were roughly 78 by 1940.Among them, the architecturally strikingReformTemple, sometimes referred to as the main synagogue,was noted not only for its domes and towers, but for the spectacular choir that sang there every Shabbat.
Czernowitz was also renowned for its intellectualism, its cafes and bookstores where academics, artists, poets and philosophers gathered to read and argue the passions of their natures, leading the capital to be labeled “Little Vienna.” Indeed, Czernowitz hosted the first International Yiddish Congress in 1908, which took place at what was then the brand-new Jewish NationalHouse. At that time, the Congress declared Yiddish the official language of the Jews, right alongside Hebrew.
All that nationalistic pride evaporated with the onslaught of the USSR’s racismand the beginning of the Holocaust. The Czernowitz Jews were force-marched to labor camps, including the infamous Shargorod, Scazinetz and Transnitsia. The Jewish population was effectively eradicated. Those that survived the concentration camps had lost most of their immediate relatives, and themajority emigrated toNorth and South America rather than return to Czernowitz, where thememories proved too painful.
Today the Jewish population of Czernowitz, or Chernivtsi as it’s formally referred to as part of the Ukraine, is almost lost among the 65 ethnicities: only 1,300 Jews live among the roughly 240,600, according to the 2001 census. But the Jewish National House, located on Theatre Square and recognizable by its Viennese neoclassicist architecture—including columns and an elaborateGothic façade—is still a landmark. In fact, this iswhere the Eliezer Steinbarg Jewish Cultural Society, christened for a Yiddish writer, did some of its original work.
That work includedmemorials and commemorative plaques throughout the city,which note everything fromthe literature of poet PaulCelan and the contributions of cantor Joseph Schmidt to the marking of the mass grave in the Jewish cemetery. Walking through the squares and parks forwhich the city is recognized will uncover many of these monuments to the people and events that shaped Czernowitz during its prominent Jewish era, although you will likely encounter more Russian and Ukranian memorials, such as the Taras Shevchenko statue or the Red Armymonument in Cathedral Square.
Indeed,much of what was Jewish did not survive or has been restored. And even what did has been renamed. The Jewish National House is now called the Chernivtsi Palace of Culture. The main synagogue is now a huge cinema, standing sedately on a corner. As you enter the central hall—what was probably the men’s section, where these days handfuls of moviegoers wait patiently in line to be entertained in the illusive dark—you can only imaginewhat itmust have been likewhen hundreds of Czernowitzers congregated here for the High Holy Days.
Of course there are many sights that hark back to Russian and Ukraine roots as well, including the Chernivtsi State University, which was established in 1875 (though built by Czech architect Josef Hlavka). Just walking through the plazas of downtown yields an incredible education in architecture. The buildings, harking back to the 15th-17th centuries, feature elements of baroque, cubism and Roman-Byzantium styles. It’s an elaborate mix. The more arresting buildings to view include the Chernivtsi Drama Theatre, which was constructed in 1905; the Regional Council (1906); and the apartment house located at 53 Kobylianska Street, which was the former German National House. You could almost compare façadehopping here to the touring of Gaudi designs in Barcelona.
Indeed, the Chernivtsi City Council has an established route for visitors to take in this regard, as well as such tours as “Shalom, Chernivtsi,” “Bukovynian Diaspora,” “Pearls of Religious Buildings” and “Necropolises of Chernivtsi” (formore information, see http://www.city.cv.ua/English).
Chernivtsi also has museums to please the cultural connoisseur including the Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy;Museumof Fine Arts; Bukovynian DiasporaMuseum, Museumof Folk Architecture andWay of Life; RegionalMuseum of Fine Arts; and the memorial museums of writers Olha Kobylianska, Yuri Fedkovych and Volodymyr Ivasiuk. In addition, the aforementioned Drama Theatre, Regional Philharmonic Society andOrganandChamberMusicHallprovide aplethoraof entertainment for locals and guests alike.
Both the historical downtown and the Central Park region offer boutique hotels but larger hotel complexes tend to be farther out fromthe city. It’s up to you to choose yourChernivtsi experience. But themost holistic way to do it is to embrace all the cultures and ethnicities that thrive there now, even as you delve into the Jewish past that helped create it.