The tragedy of Czernowitz/Cernăuți

Where The Kapos Spoke Romanian

Czernowitz's former German Theater as it appeared in July 1941, shortly after the Nazi occupation and eventual Romanian administration. Look closely to see the flag with a swastika on the right and the Romanian flag to the left. Photo credit: Willy Pragher.
The former German Theater as it appears today. The building dates from 1905 and was the work of the prolific Vienna-based design team of Fellner and Helmer. No swastikas or Romanian flags these days. Photo by Mark Baker.
Czech architect Josef Hlávka, who designed the city's university complex in the 1870s. It's now a Unesco World Heritage site. Photo credit: Wikipedia commons.
An old postcard showing the grand university quarter and buildings in the background.

I first heard about Chernivtsi (see map, below) back in the 1980s, when I was living in Vienna and working as a journalist there. I still have memories of conversations with friends from those days about what a beacon of Viennese civility the city  -- known as “Czernowitz” -- once was in the 19th and early-20th centuries, under the old Austrian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

With its diverse, multiethnic population, mixing Ruthenians, Romanians, Poles, Jews and German-speakers, Czernowitz was a microcosm of the empire itself. Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph I was determined to bestow all of the trappings of a provincial capital, approving construction of a grand German-speaking university (the Franz-Josephs-Universität) in 1875 and an opulent German theater, which was designed by the renowned Viennese architectural duo Fellner and Helmer, in 1905.

Both buildings are still standing, and though they’ve gone through several iterations since those days -- as the city fell under periods of Romanian, Soviet and, now, Ukrainian rule -- they serve as useful mnemonic devices for recalling the city’s cultural origins. Emperor Franz-Joseph was probably simply marking his turf against the possible encroachment of rivals Prussia and Tsarist Russia (and clearly not everything he or the Austrians did was positive), but the scale of both buildings shows the empire’s serious commitment. The university complex is especially impressive, the work -- coincidentally -- of a Czech architect, Josef Hlávka, and now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Chernivtsi also has some serious linguistic street cred. Romania’s best-known Romantic poet Mihai Eminescu (1850-89) attended high school in the city, while the famous Romanian-Jewish poet, Paul Celan, was born here in 1920. Celan would go on to lose both parents in the Holocaust to Romanian-run camps in Transnistria, and his most famous work, the “Todesfuge” (Fugue of Death), was an attempt -- through rhythm and imagery -- to describe life in an extermination camp. After bouncing around Romania and Vienna after the war, Celan settled in Paris, where his poetry gained a wider audience. Like so many other writers whose lives were directly touched by the Holocaust (Tadeusz Borowski and Primo Levi come to mind), Celan eventually committed suicide, in 1970, by throwing himself into the Seine.

Czernowitz was also the birthplace of the Romanian, German-language author Gregor von Rezzori, in 1914. As a grad student in the 1980s, I was a fan of Rezzori’s breakthrough novel in English, the ironically, self-deprecatingly titled “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite.” I used the excuse of my visit this summer to download a copy of the book to my Kindle and give it a quick re-read. I didn’t finish this time around, but the book’s first story, a snapshot of village life near Czernowitz shortly after WWI, just as Bukovina came under Romanian administration, seems to capture perfectly that cautious balance of ethnic, national and cultural sensibility that governed so much of day-to-day life within the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Rezzori, who died in 1998, isn’t discussed much these days, and “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite” appears to have fallen out of favor (the unfortunate title probably keeps it off modern-day college reading lists). In my short re-reading, though, I found Rezzori’s themes to be still highly relevant to the modern day. The overarching idea that weaves through much of Rezzori’s work is that it was an unthinking, automatic anti-Semitism that pulled Europe into the abyss in the 20th century. That doesn’t sound so very different from the unthinking racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that appears to be pulling us into the abyss this time around.

Chernivtsi's Unesco-protected university complex as it looks today. The university was the brainchild of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who wanted a German-language university in this part of Europe. Photo by Mark Baker.
The entrance-way to the city's impressive university complex. Photo by Mark Baker.
I didn't have a chance to stop for coffee at the crazy-looking Cafe Sorbonne, near the university, in central Chernivtsi, but I did admire the eclectic architecture. Photo by Mark Baker.
A memorial to the Czernowitz-born poet Paul Celan. Celan lost both parents to extermination camps in Transnistria, and would go on to become one of the best-known poets of the post-World War II era. Photo by Mark Baker.

I mentioned in the intro it was partly my interest in the Holocaust that propelled my visit here this summer. I’ve seen and written about many of the camps and ghettos that the Germans built in Poland during World War II,  but I was curious to learn what a Romanian-built Jewish ghetto, like the one the Romanians set up in Czernowitz/Cernăuți in October 1941, would look like.

It’s not widely known -- and not even very widely acknowledged in Romania -- but the Romanian government, from 1940-44, was a willing participant in the Holocaust, working alongside Nazi Germany in killing Jews and expropriating their property.

There’s not enough space here to write out all the unfortunate reasons this came to pass (and I certainly don’t pretend to be a qualified historian). A short version, though, might go something like this: many Romanians fell under the spell of a right-wing strongman, Ion Antonescu. The Germans, in turn, were highly skilled at exploiting Romania’s long-standing rivalries with Hungary and Russia, and adept at dangling the prospect of acquiring (or at least not losing) historic territories in Transylvania and Bessarabia. The Jews themselves were often demonized as a dangerous fifth column of Bolshevik Russia.

It was a caustic mix that ended up costing the lives of up to 400,000 Jews in Romanian-controlled areas during the war, according to Yad Vashem. The atrocities included the mass murder of Jews living in the provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina, as well as the killing of thousands of Jews in the Romanian city of Iași and the Romanian-controlled city of Odessa, Ukraine; and at least tens of thousands, like Paul Celan’s parents, who died in extermination camps in faraway Transnistria (now nominally part of the Republic of Moldova).

In Chernivtsi/Cernăuți, the story went as follows: After the end of World War I in 1918 and the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the area around Chernivtsi -- Northern Bukovina -- was awarded to Romania. This wasn’t such a stretch as Romania had longstanding cultural and historic ties to the region dating back to the 14th century; though in the decades immediately following World War I, Romanians made up only around a quarter of Chernivtsi’s 112,000 people. Jews constituted the biggest group, at least 27%, according to the 1930 census. This was followed by Romanians, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles.

When Nazi-Germany invaded Poland in 1939 to start World War II, the Soviet Union used the invasion as a pretext to occupy Northern Bukovina, including Chernivtsi. Romania tragically joined forces with Hitler in 1940. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, they and their Romanian allies quickly overran Northern Bukovina (and Chernivtsi). The Germans arrived in the city in early July and transferred control of the area back to Romania.

What's left of the Grand Synagogue, located within the former Jewish ghetto, at Synagogue street 31. It now houses a couple of shops but is mainly abandoned. Photo by Mark Baker.
A photo of the city's sole surviving, still-functioning synagogue. Photo by Mark Baker.
Scenes from the former Czernowitz ghetto as it appears today. A Lada car parked in front of the preserved shop of Jewish painter Jsak Eisikowicz. Photo by Mark Baker.
The city's former main synagogue was partially destroyed in World War II and refurbished into a movie house in the decades after the war. It's now occasionally referred to as "kinogoga." Photo by Mark Baker.

By all accounts, the Romanian administration was a disaster for Chernivtsi’s Jews. Romanians, generally, bent over backwards (at least in the early years) to carry out the anti-Jewish policies of their German allies. They stripped Jewish citizens of their rights and property and quickly drew up plans to concentrate thousands of Jews in a small, sealed ghetto, just to the north and east of the city center. From there, as in other areas controlled by Nazi Germany and its allies, Jewish prisoners were then transferred to exterminations camps. In Chernivtsi’s case, most of the transports went east, to Transnistria.

It’s difficult to find hard and fast facts about the Jewish ghetto in Chernivtsi, but a sealed ghetto was already in operation by October 1941. At its height, the ghetto housed around 50,000 Jews. Many residents died from inhumane conditions inside the ghetto, while thousands of others perished en route to Transnistria or at the death camps themselves.

Amid this unfolding tragedy, there is an Oskar Schindler-like story in Chernivtsi that isn’t widely known outside the city – and might serve as a more positive way to finish up this part of the story.

A handful of Romanians did manage to push back (at least temporarily) against Antonescu’s anti-Semitic policies, including the city’s Romanian mayor at the time, Traian Popovici. Popovici was opposed to the ghetto and, by all accounts, appalled by the transports and mass killings. He appealed to Antonescu to save the lives of some 19,000 Jews by arguing that they were integral to the functioning of the local economy.

Popovici was eventually pushed out as mayor and the mass killings were restarted. By then, though, it had become increasingly clear to Chernivtsi’s Romanian leaders that Nazi Germany might well lose the war. Legal sanctions against the Jews were eased in October 1943, and six months later the city was captured by the Soviet Red Army. An estimated 15,000 Jews survived the war, thanks in large part to Popovici’s heroic efforts. Like Oskar Schindler, the mayor was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

A signed portrait of World War II-era mayor, Traian Popivici, who's credited with saving the lives of some 19,000 Jewish residents. Popovici gave this photo to one of the women he helped to save, Sylvia Marcu (born Sylvia Tuttman). Photo credit: Sylvia Marcu.
The former Jewish National House as it looks today. The building is best known as the venue of an international conference on the Yiddish language, led by a very enthusiastic scholar, Nathan Birnbaum. Photo by Mark Baker.
A display from the small museum of Jewish history located in the former Jewish National House. Photo by Mark Baker.
Another one of the displays from the small museum of Jewish history in the former Jewish National House. Photo by Mark Baker.

On my visit to Chernivtsi this summer, I retraced the steps of the former Jewish ghetto, situated along today’s Sahaidachnoho and Synagogue streets, to look for any surviving remnants of Jewish culture there. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike the former ghetto areas of Polish cities like Radom, Częstochowa or Łódź, the Chernivtsi ghetto wasn’t particularly outwardly depressed. In Polish cities, a kind of dark karma still hangs over the old Jewish ghettos all these years later, and it’s often easy to find these places simply by scouting around for the most-destitute neighborhoods. Chernivtsi’s former ghetto looks like any other modest quarter in the city.

Synagogue street was the most crowded part of the old ghetto, and today you can still see the surviving Grand Synagogue (at no. 31) and a view toward the old Jewish hospital (now abandoned) through a gate nearby. The city still has one functioning synagogue, a relatively small, attractive building not far away on Luk'yana Kobylytsi street. The main synagogue, a grand Moorish-Revival building from 1873, is located closer to the center on today’s Universytets'ka St (no. 10). It was damaged in World War II and later converted to a movie theater, a role it still has today (“Kinogoga” as it’s sometimes ironically called).

Another surviving building I wanted to see was the former Jewish National House, which stands incongruously next to Emperor Franz Joseph’s grand old German theater, on Teatralne Square (no. 5). There’s a small museum here to Jewish life; otherwise, it's pretty quiet.

The building is best known as the location of a landmark international conference on the Yiddish language, held in 1908, and still viewed as a high-water, cultural moment here for Jewish heritage. As I wandered around the building’s still-impressive chambers, I listened for echoes of Yiddish that might still be bouncing off the walls and tried to imagine for a moment what might have been.

A shot of pretty, modern-day Chernivtsi. Photo by Mark Baker.
Some beautiful Art Nouveau decoration, from around 1910, on a building near the city's central square. Photo by Mark Baker.
The center of modern-day Chernivtsi, looking very much like an old Austro-Hungarian provincial capital, plunked down somewhere in Ukraine. Photo by Mark Baker.
Elegant Kobylyans'koi St is pedestrian-only and lined on both sides by restaurants, cafes and bars. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of the meals on my visit was a traditional Romanian 'tochitură' (an excellent pork stew in tomato sauce, served with an egg and a side of polenta). Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. I love Romania, and it’s far and away my favorite country in Europe. One thing that always bothers me, though, is what I perceive to be widespread ignorance about the country’s World War II alliance with Nazi Germany and active participation in the Holocaust.

    This post was inspired in part by a lunch I had a year ago with a Czech friend who was working at a large multinational company in Prague. She invited me to stop by her company’s cafeteria one day to grab lunch together and chat. And so it was we met, got our food and found an empty table. We began talking and for some reason the conversation wandered over to World War II and the Holocaust. I have no idea how we got to such a dark topic, but it’s a subject we’re both interested in and it seemed natural at the time.

    A couple minutes later, one of my friend’s work colleagues, a Romanian woman in her mid-20s, walked over and asked if she could join. The more the merrier, we figured, and we invited to her to take a seat.

    We continued the conversation for a couple of minutes, and the Romanian woman chimed in saying she was also interested in World War II. And then she added a couple of sentences that left both me and my friend speechless. She said something to the effect that she was happy Romania was never involved in any of the tragic acts of the war or participated in the Holocaust. “We just didn’t have that many Jews in our country,” she said.

    Neither my friend nor I said anything at the time to contradict her. It was supposed to be a pleasant lunch, and the conversation could have become quite heated. Besides, the woman didn’t seem to have any ill intentions; she was simply repeating what she sincerely believed. After an uneasy pause, we changed the subject, but both my friend and I left the table shocked.

    Since then, I’ve started to wonder what Romanians actually learn in their schools about World War II and, more generally, how many people are aware of their country’s role in the war and in the Holocaust. Of course, that conversation was simply one incident and it’s never safe to generalize. But the woman was clearly intelligent and well educated. If she believed Romania had nothing to do with the Holocaust, then there are probably many others exactly like her.

    I’m not singling out Romania as unique in failing to own up to or acknowledge its historic crimes. As an American, I realize I’m susceptible to more than a little bit of “what about-ism.” What about the slavery of African-Americans? What about the destruction of Native Americans? Every country has its dirty secrets.

    My point with this post wasn’t to identify any individual country or people as uniquely bad, but rather to try to promote a broader belief that when it comes to history, transparency isn’t a sign of weakness, but one of strength.

  2. Thanks for this detailed post about a town I hadn’t known about until venturing here. And thanks for the anecdote at the end, which reminds me that education—and the lack of it—forms opinions.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker