The Right (to) Commemoration: Jewish Chernivtsi in the Present
In late 2015, the President of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations in Ukraine, Josef Zissels announced a plan to open a Holocaust museum and memorial in the West Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi. His idea was to locate it in the historical mortuary building (Leichenhalle) at the entrance of the town’s large Jewish cemetery. This would be not only a chance to find a place for the commemoration of the Holocaust in this city, but also an opportunity to invest in the renovation of this historical building as it was becoming a ruin.
Zissels’ plan came up against a great deal of resistance on behalf of the Jewish survivors from this region and their descendants living around the world and connected through the so-called Czernowitz-List. These same people have been instrumental in the last few decades in reclaiming ‘the right to commemoration’ of the Jewish past in the region of Bukovina and the town of Chernivtsi . However, for many of those with a personal connection to the Jewish past in the city, this latest idea was not appropriate: it may fulfill the right to commemoration, yet it did not seem to be ‘the right commemoration’. What did the Jewish cemetery – arguably the ultimate symbol of the Jewish community’s size, wealth, status and degree of establishment in this part of the world – have to do with the Holocaust?
This example captures some of the more complex problems surrounding the issue of the Jewish legacy and heritage in Central and Eastern Europe today. After a long period of repression under Communist rule, the rediscovery of the Jewish past in the last two decades has been remarkable and widely welcomed. However, it remains a sensitive subject and a field of contest. It raises the urgent question: what is the purpose of the commemoration?
The Right to Commemoration
In order to understand the background to the project put forward by Zissels, it is necessary to know something about the history of the Jews in Chernivtsi – once Russian Chernovtsy, Romanian Cernauti and Austrian Czernowitz – and the history of Jewish ‘memory’ in the region. This story can best be told through the prism of the physical traces in the town. The town’s main Jewish temple, for example, is known as the Kinagoga because it was turned into a cinema (Kino) by the Soviets after the Second World War. Today, it is regarded as a key symbol of the fate of the Jews in the region: the building and its central location embody the fact that the city’s Jews once represented over 30% of the town’s population; its transformation stands for the destruction of the community during the war and the Holocaust, the emigration of survivors in the aftermath and the Soviet indifference to the fate of the Jews later on.
Indeed, particularly striking for the western visitor to this city in the early 1990s was the lack of commemoration of the Jews and their experiences. Since then, a considerable and incremental amount of ‘memory work’ has been completed. Memorials for its famous Jewish German-speaking poets, Paul Celan, Rose Ausländer and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, mostly sponsored by the German and Austrian organisations and institutions, were erected relatively soon after the collapse of Communism. In 2008, an international collective initiative resulted in the opening of a Jewish museum in the former Jewish house on one of the city’s main squares. In the last few years, private individuals placed memorials directly referring to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. A memorial to the victims of the ghetto was unveiled just a few days ago – now 75 years since the events. The city’s Jewish past, which was never forgotten outside of Chernivtsi, but largely erased on the ground, has finally ‘returned’.
In this process, the large Jewish cemetery with some 50,000 graves, located a few kilometres outside the city centre, is a key location. It is a focal point for the memorialisation of the Jewish past in the city today and has been for the past two decades. The reasons for this are manifold. For one thing, it is a repository of family memory and important for descendants of the community. For another, with the absence of a Jewish community large enough to maintain it – overgrown and abandoned – it has become a powerful symbol of what happened to the Jews and their heritage in this part of Europe after the Second World War.
The cemetery, like other Jewish cemeteries in the region, has been at the centre of various photographic projects and shown in many films. It is a key stop on the tourist trail. Last but not least, dozens of volunteers from all over the world take part every year in summer camps to undertake the Sisyphean task of clearing the area of overgrowth and weeds. As a peaceful, beautiful and both spiritually and historically significant site, it is an ideal place for people to engage with the past and seek understanding or reconciliation.
The ‘Right’ Commemoration
Thanks to the physical remnants of its past, Chernivtsi as a whole feels for many like a place where one can get a sense of Jewish life in the region and the meaning of its loss. However the engagement as it stands, is mainly on an emotional level. As such, there is little concrete information or historical explanation for what you see there. The Jewish museum only deals with the Holocaust in a very brief way. The most telling artefact is a small map pointing to the number of Jews still living in different parts of Bukovina as of 1941 when a census was carried out. The number is 19,475 – down from over 120,000 before the war. But it is small, in a corner and in Romanian (as the region belonged to Romania at the time). This illustration raises more questions than it answers. In Chernivtsi, history is tangible and everywhere, but still largely under-contextualised.
With this in mind, one may be inclined to endorse Zissels’ plans for a Holocaust museum and memorial in the mortuary hall at the entrance of the cemetery. At the same time, however, the arguments of the survivors and their descendants opposing it are compelling. Hedwig Brenner, a key figure of the community today, born in 1918 in Czernowitz and living in Haifa, argued that the cemetery is a ‘sacred place’ and a place of life, and which in fact has nothing to do with the history of the Holocaust. She also pointed out pragmatically that outside of town as it is, the site may be vulnerable to vandalism.
Most list members agreed with her: a Holocaust museum and memorial, yes, but not there. Marianne Hirsch, a descendant of Bukovinians and a famous scholar of memory from Columbia University, became involved in the discussions too. She wrote a letter to Zissels in which she summed up the concerns expressed by survivors and pointed out that the memory of the Holocaust does not belong there, ‘on the edge of town’, but in the centre, where it took place. She raised the ethical problems of such a project and the insights that could be gained by looking at what has been done elsewhere.
An especially interesting contribution to the debate, however, was that of Christian Herrmann. Herrmann is a German citizen, who was born after the war. But having been an organiser of some of the volunteer trips to the cemetery for years and the author of a successful photographic blog project on cemeteries in the region, he has developed a strong interest to the region and its people and has strong links with members of the Jewish community both in Chernivtsi and abroad.
Herrmann adopted a different viewpoint. He argued that this is not simply about historical accuracy or authenticity. For him, it is also about the building in and of itself, and seizing an opportunity to save it. Moreover, he pointed out that raising awareness about the Holocaust, whatever the means should be the priority. Finally, he defended Zissels for acting pragmatically, in a way ‘which is appropriate to the reality of present Czernowitz and present Ukraine.’ He emphasised the importance of civil society in post-communist Ukraine – particularly in light of the current conflict in the East of the country – and that insofar as Zissels stands precisely for civil society, he should be supported:
‘We are speaking about a place with low financial resources, a place where buying of votes was practised in the last local elections, a place where men get drafted to the army and return in coffins. It is not a place of wishful thinking.’
This may not be wishful thinking but it is food for thought. What place should contemporary Chernivtsi and its current inhabitants be given in our reflection on how best to commemorate the Holocaust?
For now, there is no solution on the horizon; money is scarce – the support of Jews abroad essential – and disagreement has not been resolved. But for anyone interested in issues of memory, commemoration and memorialisation, the mortuary hall in Chernivtsi is ‘a space to watch’. This example brings to life an interesting tension between history, representation and the needs of the present. This is a well-known and well-understood discussion in the field of Memory Studies. Remembering is never simply about the past: It is ethical, political, symbolic and performative as well. It shapes not only understandings of the past, but the conditions for the future. With this in mind, it is perhaps not possible to ever find ‘the right’ answer for everyone. Nevertheless, it remains important to discuss and reflect on the meaning we give and want to give to the past.