Ghosts of Home:
The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory

by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer

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  "GHOSTS OF HOME: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory"
by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer

Below is the preface to the book "Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory."

This book may be purchased from University of California Press at by clicking here (at a discount) or from at by clicking here.  


Czernovitz expelled its Jews, and so did Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Lemberg.  Now these cities live without Jews, and their few descendants, scattered through the world, carry memory like a wonderful gift and a relentless curse.

Aharon Appelfeld

This is a book about a place that cannot be found in any contemporary atlas, and about a community for whom it remained alive “like a wonderful gift” and “relentless curse” long after its disappearance.  It is a historical account of a German-Jewish Eastern European culture that flourished from the mid nineteenth century until its shattering and dispersal in the era of the Second World War.  But it is also a family and communal memoir spanning three generations that explores the afterlife, in history and memory, of the city of Czernowitz.

Nowadays, of course, Czernowitz is nowhere.  As a political entity, it ceased to exist long ago, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire in 1918.  Its name now is Chernivtsi—a city located in the southwestern region of the Republic of the Ukraine, east of the Carpathian Mountains, on the River Pruth, some fifty kilometers north of the present-day border of Romania.  After the First World War, when it fell under Romanian authority and became part of Greater Romania, it was called Cernăuţi.  Subsequently, under Soviet rule after the Second World War, it was renamed Chernovtsy.

But for many of the surviving Jews who lived there in the decade before the First World War and in the interwar years—now “scattered,” as Appelfeld notes, “through the world”—the place forever remained Czernowitz, capital of the outlying Austrian-Habsburg imperial province of the Bukowina, the “Vienna of the East,” a city in which (in the words of its most famous poet, Paul Celan) “human beings and books used to live.”[i]  For members of these generations, the long imperial connection of Czernowitz to Vienna, and their own whole-hearted embrace of the German language, its literature, and the social and cultural standards of the Austro-Germanic world, are intimately connected—a core constituent of their identity.  Yiddish certainly remained alive for many of them, as a language spoken in some of their homes and as a predominant language in nearby villages and among urban intellectual proponents of Jewish diaspora nationalism.  But, as many of their parents and even grandparents had done, they had accepted the premise inherent in the century-long process of Jewish emancipation and acculturation to Germanic culture that had taken place in lands once ruled by the Habsburgs.  One could remain a Jew in religious belief, was the basis of this premise, while also becoming culturally, economically, and politically integrated within the Austro-Habsburg dominant social orderThe promise of admission to modernity and cosmopolitanism—of turning away from the poverty, segregation, and what they perceived as the restrictive lifeways of shtetl Jewry—was its motivating assumption.  Karl-Emil Franzos, the Bukowina’s first internationally famed German-language writer, best characterizes the complicated cultural identity of most assimilated Bukowina Jews at the end of the nineteenth century:  “I wasn’t yet three feet tall, when my father told me:  ‘Your nationality is neither Polish, nor Ruthenian, nor Jewish—you are German.’  But equally often he said, even then:  ‘According to your faith you are a Jew.’”[ii]

Even after Czernowitz’s and the Bukowina’s annexation into Greater Romania in 1918 and the institution of a policy of “Romanianization,” a predominant segment of the Jewish population of the city and region remained devoted to the German language and its culture.  Czernowitz, the city, with its Vienna look-alike center, its Viennese-inspired architecture, avenues, parks, and cafés, largely remained a physical manifestation of this continuing allegiance to, and nostalgic longing for, a by-gone Austrian imperial past.

The continuing vitality and strength of this identification is not surprising.  It attests to the positive connection so many of Czernowitz’s Jews had drawn between Jewish emancipation and assimilation in the imperial Habsburg realm, and the significant social, political, and cultural rewards that this process had yielded.  Despite the immediate, and the increasingly vehement, anti-Semitic assaults on Jewish emancipation and assimilation that occurred in the imperial core and its periphery in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, citizenship privileges enjoyed by Jews were not withdrawn.  In contrast, for the majority of the approximately 100,000 Jews in the Bukowina region in the immediate years after 1918, Romanian rule and Romanianization closed doors to rights and opportunities that they had enjoyed for decades under the Austrians.[iii]  For several years after Romania gained control of the area—indeed, until 1924—Jews in the Bukowina were denied the full citizenship rights from which they had benefited under Austrian rule.  Their new legal definition and exclusion as “foreigners” greatly inhibited their cultural integration and social advancement within the Greater Romania that they now inhabited.  In this context, the German language in which they communicated with each other, and the Austro-German/Jewish cultural background they shared, provided them with an alternative basis of continuing group identity.

It is perhaps this point that is most startling: that even when political reality indicated otherwise, Jews here kept alive an idea of a pre-First World War multi-cultural and multi-lingual tolerant city and a modern, cosmopolitan, culture in which German literature, music, art and philosophy flourished among a significant majority of their numbers.  Instead of the Cernăuţi in which they now lived, they continued to nourish and perpetuate the idea of “Czernowitz” as it had been transmitted to them physically and in cultural memory.  The place where these Jews grew up was thus already haunted by the memory of a lost “world of yesterday” that many of them had actually never experienced but only inherited from parents and grandparents who had enjoyed the benefits of Jewish life under the Habsburgs.[iv]  If, in their youth they held on to that lost world nostalgically, it was not simply to reconstitute or to mourn what they posited as a better imperial past.  It was also one of the ways in which they resisted Romanianization and its increasing social, political and intellectual restrictions.  In this sense, their “resistant nostalgia” reflected what Svetlana Boym has characterized as inherent in all nostalgic constructions: the longing “for a home that not longer exists or has never existed.”[v]

At the same time, however, Czernowitz/Cernăuţi was also that place where Jews suffered anti-Semitism, internment in a Fascist Romanian/Nazi ghetto, and Soviet occupation.  It was where they were forced to wear the yellow “Jew” star, and where, a fortunate minority among them, managing to escape deportation, survived the Holocaust.  Of the more than 60,000 Jews who inhabited the city at the start of Second World War, only some 25,000 were alive at its conclusion.  When, after the war, the bulk of these survivors left the, by then again, Soviet-ruled Chernovtsy, they thought it was forever.  They knew that the place they had considered their home had now definitively been taken from them.  Czernowitz in the Bukowina, now twice lost to Jews, came to persist only as a projection—as an idea physically disconnected from its geographical location, and tenuously dependent on the vicissitudes of personal, familial and cultural memory.


Our primary goal in Ghosts of Home is to illuminate the distinct culture of the city of Czernowitz and its Jewish inhabitants during the Habsburg years before the outbreak of the First World War, and the afterlife of that urbane cultural ideal over subsequent decades.  By focusing on how the inhabitants of this one city constructed their life worlds over time, we trace the exhilarating promises and shattering disappointments associated with the process of Jewish emancipation and assimilation.  Within the span of this objective, moreover, our book engages two relatively unexplored chapters of recent European Jewish history.  It tells the story of a place and of a Jewish population that was confronted by a largely Romanian-perpetrated Holocaust during the Second World War, facing different structures of persecution, deportation, and possibilities of survival than those characterizing the more thoroughly studied Nazi Judeocide in Poland and other areas of German-occupied Europe.  And it considers the positive as well as negative aspects of the role that the Stalinist Soviet Union played for Jewish refugees from Fascism and Nazism: the possibility it offered them for rescue and survival, but also the consequences of its own anti-Semitism, repression, and persecution.  Within a larger analytical framework, this work also particularizes how Jewish Czernowitz/Cernăuţi/Chernovtsy engaged and participated in some of the grand narratives of the European twentieth century: the intensity, reach, but also the tragedy, of the German-Jewish symbiosis; the encounter between Fascism and Communism; the rise of Zionism and modern Yiddishism; the displacement of refugees; and the shadow of Holocaust memory on the children and grandchildren of survivors.

Two temporal levels structure our narrative in Ghosts of Home.  On the level of the past, our book is an account of Jewish Czernowitz and key moments in its history over the course of the past hundred-and-twenty-five years.  On the level of the present, it is fueled by a collaborative quest, reflecting four journeys we made to Ukrainian Chernivtsi—in 1998, 2000, 2006, and 2008—and to Transnistria, during two of these visits.  The first of our trips inspired this project.  We made it with Carl and Lotte Hirsch, our parents/parents-in-law—their first return to the city of their birth since their hurried departure (with false papers) from Soviet-ruled Chernovtsy in 1945.  With them as guides and mentors, we searched for physical traces of old Czernowitz and Cernăuţi, for material connections to the places, residences and times that had been so central to their, and to their fellow exiles’, sense of origin and identification.

In that regard, our first journey could be characterized as a “roots” trip.  But it differed in two significant respects from other second-generation “return” journeys to old Jewish East European towns chronicled in a number of recent books.  We were fortunate in being accompanied by articulate eye-witnesses, and to hear and record accounts they narrated in place as we walked, explored, and videotaped the time-worn but still largely intact streets and sites of what had been Habsburg-era Czernowitz.  Secondly, unlike others who had undertaken such journeys, we were not primarily motivated to travel to Western Ukraine in search for traces of sites or family members victimized or erased from records by Holocaust destruction.  Certainly, as the chapters in Part I of this book reveal, the surprisingly divergent experiences of Cernăuţi Jews during the Second World War did come to absorb our interest during our explorations of the city.  Yet, what most fascinated us initially was the fact that its Jewish survivors—even those who had lived through deportation and immense suffering in Transnistria—continued to maintain and to transmit to our post-war generation such strong, positive, nostalgic memories of a city and culture that had long disappeared in reality, though not in the realm of remembrance, image, and re-creation.

We went on our second journey to Chernivtsi in 2000, without accompanying parents, to a city no longer unfamiliar to us.  Confident enough of our bearings, we were now able to act as guides for a cousin, David Kessler, and a colleague, Florence Heymann—second-generation Czernowitzers like Marianne, who were visiting the place for the first time.[vi]  We set off as academic researchers, intent on mining the city’s public and private archives, and on broadening and deepening our knowledge of Czernowitz/Cernăuţi and its Jewish community, for the book we had begun to conceive.  Yet in the course of our investigations, the ever-darker side of the city and region’s story emerged in greater detail.  We found material and documentary evidence of old anti-Semitism, Habsburg-era, Romanian, as well as Soviet, of persecutions, impossible choices, and painful compromises faced by the city’s Jews during the Fascist and Communist periods, of struggles for survival during the Second World War.  And we also found evidence of normality and continuity, of kindness and rescue, in these grim historical circumstances.  We made a side trip to Transnistria then, to the region to which Jews from Czernowitz, the Bukowina, and nearby Bessarabia (now Moldova) were deported, and where approximately 200,000 of them perished.  We went in order to see and to actually make contact with the place that its survivors had referred to as “the forgotten cemetery.”  There we also searched for, and were ultimately able to find, remains of the once notorious Romanian-run Vapniarka concentration camp to which David Kessler’s father and a number of other Cernăuţi Jews had been deported—a camp whose very existence had been erased from the records and memories of the present-day residents of the sizeable town near which it had been located.

Our third trip in 2006, basis for Part III of this book, reflected a somewhat different intent on our part.  This time we went to Chernivtsi, and through Transnistria, to participate in a large multi-generational gathering of people who had either been born in inter-war Cernăuţi, or who were children and grandchildren of Czernowitzers.  The group consisted of persons from all over the world who had “met” through the internet and World Wide Web on what had, in effect, over the course of two or three years, become a site in which Czernowitz was actively being reconstituted in virtual reality, through extensive contributions and on-line postings of photos, maps, documents, memoirs, recipes, and links to relevant scholarly and popular materials.  This group’s passionate interest and heartfelt effort to discover and re-discover minute details about the history of a place where many of them had lived only a few childhood years—and from which some had been deported as very young children—confirmed for us the unusual nexus between nostalgic and traumatic memory that Czernowitz elicited among its Jewish survivors and their descendants.

We returned to Chernivtsi again in 2008 to find the city in the midst of ambitious renovations in preparing to celebrate its 600th anniversary.  Accompanied by Cornel Fleming from London and, again, by Florence Heymann, we went as representatives of the growing Czernowitz-L internet listserv group that had taken an active part in urging city officials to include Chernivtsi’s Jewish history in the planned commemorations.  Bearing images and objects donated by list members, and our own knowledge of Bukowina history, we came to participate in discussions about the small museum of Bukowina Jewish history and culture that was in the process of being installed in two rooms of the former Czernowitz Jewish National House.  Except for a few memorial plaques on buildings formerly inhabited by Jewish writers and intellectuals, the extensive Jewish contributions to the city had, until that moment, been forgotten, if not erased from its public face.  With the planned establishment of this tiny museum, Chernivtsi was entering a new phase of acknowledgment of its layered multi-cultural past.  But the memorial debates we engaged only served to demonstrate how fraught the politics of memory are, and are likely to continue to be in the foreseeable future, in the Ukraine.

The dialogue between the past and present levels of this book raises some of the key questions that shape our inquiry: How did this small provincial Habsburg capital produce such a rich and urbane cosmopolitan culture—one that would remain so vivid and powerful in the imagination of the generation of Jews who came of age in Romanian Cernăuţi during the interwar years?  What had made their identification with Czernowitz and its Habsburg-era German-cultural appeal so strong as to enable them to preserve and protect their positive memories of the city in the face of devastating negative and traumatic experiences?  What role did the Habsburg Empire’s multi-ethnic tolerance, however real or mythic in retrospect, play in the construction of this layered and contradictory memory?  How, moreover, did nostalgia for the past, and negative memories of anti-Semitic discrimination and persecution, co-exist and inflect each other in the outlook of the city’s Jews, and how were these memories passed down over generations?  And how are Jews currently remembered in the Eastern European cities they so actively helped to build before being deported or exiled from them?

To address these questions and illuminate our representation of Czernowitz’s past, we rely on a variety of historical and literary source materials.  We employ official and private contemporary documents, public and family archival materials, letters, memoirs, photographs, newspapers, essays, poetry, fiction, internet postings, as well as material remnants that we think of as testimonial objects.[vii]  Central to our approach is the use of oral and video accounts from old Czernowitzers and their offspring—histories and narrations that we collected and taped in the course of our research in the Ukraine, Israel, Austria, Germany, France, and the United States, or that we heard and watched in oral history archives in several places.  These materials are more than evidentiary sources for us.  They focus our narrative around telling individual anecdotes, images and objects, serving as “points of memory” that open small windows to the past.[viii]  They also enable us to reflect more theoretically on how memory and transmission work both to reveal and to conceal certain traumatic recollections, and how fragmentary, tenuous and deceptive our access to the past can be.  In the effort to capture the effects of the past on the present and of the present on the past, and to trace the effects of the “telling” on the witness and listener, our book exemplifies what James Young has called “received history.”  It explores “both what happened and how it is passed down to us.”[ix]  And, in that process, it exposes the holes in memory and knowledge that puncture second-generation accounts—accounts motivated by needs and desires that, at times, rely on no more than speculative investment, identification and invention.

Our own two voices and reflections are certainly present within this book, singly and in dialogue.  We write collaboratively, from the perspectives of a literary and cultural critic and of a historian, both active in the emergent field of memory studies.  But we would enjoin our readers not to assume that our distinct disciplinary training is reflected in different sections of this book, or that the “I” we use in different chapters is in any way stable.  On the contrary, in the process of writing and rewriting, our voices have often merged and crossed.  Our perspectives are those of the Romanian-born daughter of parents who were born, raised, and who survived the Holocaust in the place they never ceased to call Czernowitz, and of the Bolivian-born son of Austrian refugees who had fled to South America from Hitler’s Vienna.  Family narratives are important components of Ghosts of Home, but this book is not a family chronicle.  Instead, we think of it as hybrid in genre—as an intergenerational memoir and an interdisciplinary and self-reflexive work of historical/cultural exploration.  It engages many individual voices, including our own, within a web of narratives, recollections and analyses that connect with each other, and over time, through familial and communal relationships.  Such a web of recollections and interconnections, together with our other historical and cultural source materials, allows for the affective side of the afterlife of Czernowitz to emerge in fuller and richer dimensions.

The title of our book, “Ghosts of Home,” highlights this affective aspect of personal, familial, and cultural remembrance.  But it also points to the contradictions that shape persistent memories.  It evokes the haunting continuity of Czernowitz as place and idea for generations of Jews who survived its political demise—a spectral return emanating both seductive recollections of a lost home and frightening reminders of persecution and displacement.  These layers and contradictions, we found, are still remarkably absent from present-day Chernivtsi, a city whose repeated twentieth-century transformations—albeit materially evident in its architecture and urban design—are just beginning to be acknowledged in its cultural landscape.  When we first traveled there with Carl and Lotte Hirsch in 1998, visitors, like the four of us, searching for traces of this history, appeared like ghostly revenants or haunting reminders of a forgotten world:  we unsettled the present by refusing to allow the past to disappear into oblivion.  But now, ten years later, this is no longer so.  Roots travel has become ever more popular, and 2008 Chernivtsi has made space for tourist groups with several new or renovated hotels, new restaurants with translated menus, English language city maps.  Tour buses pull up on the city’s central squares on a regular basis, spewing families of survivors and their descendants from Israel, Western Europe, Australia and the Americas.  What accounts for this dramatic shift?  Certainly, the economic evolution of Eastern Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the increased availability of the internet with the multiplication of genealogical and cultural sites that disseminate more and more information, have made travel to places of origin easier and thus perhaps also more compelling.  But what do these trips to the past actually reveal?  What do we find when we identify the streets where our forebears walked, the houses they inhabited, the locations where they suffered mistreatment, deportation, extermination?  These, too, are among the central questions propelling our inquiry in Ghosts of Home.


A Note on Translations

            Unless otherwise indicated, all translations into English are by the authors.  Translations of Paul Celan are by John Felstiner.

Notes to Preface

[i] Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,” Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, ed. and trans. John Felstiner (New York: Norton, 2001), 395.

[ii] Handwritten document in the Franzos archive at the Wiener Stadt-und Landesbibliothek, cited in Ernest Wichner and Herbert Wiesner, eds. In der Sprache der Mörder:  Eine Literatur aus Czernowitz, Bukowina— (Berlin: Literaturhaus Berlin, 1993), 31.

[iii] The 1910 census of the region—the last under Austrian rule—counted 102, 919 Jews in the Bukowina, 13% of the total population of the province.  See, “Bevölkerungsentwicklung” in Albert Lichtblau, ed., Als hätten wir dazugehört: Österreich-jüdische Lebensgeschichten aus der Habsburgmonarchie (Vienna: Böhlau, 1999), 43-45.

[iv] See Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday [Die Welt von gestern] (New York: Viking Press, 1943).

[v] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xii.

[vi] See Florence Heymann, Le Crépuscule des lieux: identités juives de Czernowitz (Paris: Stock, 2003).

[vii] Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, “Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender, and Transmission,” Poetics Today 27, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 353-383.

[viii] We use this notion, “points of memory,” as an alternative to Pierre Nora’s well-known, but more nationally based “lieu” or site of memory.  See Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[ix] James Young, “Toward a Received History of the Holocaust,” History and Theory 36, no. 4 (December 1997)


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