On Sept. 6, during my trip to Romania to work on my (Candle)sticks on Stone project, I made a day trip to Chernivtsi, Ukraine -- A.K.A. Czernowitz or Cernauti -- just across the border. The city has changed, at least in outward appearance, since my last visit three years ago: 2008 marked the 600th anniversary of the town, and there was considerable investment expended in clean-up, paint-up and fix-up.
We strolled down the lovely main pedestrian street, admiring the fine buildings along it, newly painted in pastel candy colors. Suddenly, we heard the familiar strains of Jewish music -- first a Yiddish folk song, and then Hava Nagila.
The music was coming from up ahead, it wasn't exactly clear from where. I thought it might be something connected to the European Day of Jewish Culture, which was being celebrated that day. But no -- it was just a wedding (or, rather, an apparent series of weddings). Not Jewish, though. The couples and their friends exited the church and came to dance on the pedestrian way, near a little park. Here a band was set up under a red, white and blue tent. And, we were told, face-paced klezmer and Israeli songs were a big hit.
I had come to Czernowitz, in fact, to take part in a European Day of Jewish Culture event -- the presentation of Simon Geissbuehler's new book on Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina.
There had been a presentation event in Radauti the day before, hosted at the new Gerald's Hotel, which had contributed some sponsorship to the book, but in Czernowitz it took place at the Jewish culture building (Jewish National House) and was organized by Jewish institutions. I was gratified that in his talk Simon quoted from the Introduction of my "Jewish Heritage Travel" to describe his own feelings:
When I first researched this book, I became absolutely mesmerized, even a little obsessed with what I was seeing. I wanted to visit, touch, see, feel as many places as I could. I almost felt it a duty. As I entered broken gates or climbed over broken walls into cemeteries where a Jew may not have set foot in years, I wanted to spread my arms and embrace them all, embrace all the tombstones, all the people buried there, all the memories.
The building is where the historic international Yiddish congress took place in 1908. The meeting drew 70 delegates representing many political and religious factions -- they included luminaries such as the authors I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch. There were heated debates over when Hebrew, which was then being revived, or Yiddish, whch was spoken by millions of Jews, could be considered the Jewish national language. In the end, a resolution was adopted that declared Yiddish "a" national language of the Jewish people, along with Hebrew. Click RIGHT HERE for a web site that includes papers, photographs and other material from that congress.
The Jewish National House was built at a time when all major minorities in the city erected imposing cultural headquarters. On our walk through the city, we passed the German National House and the Romanian National House.
Today it houses a number of Jewish organizations as well as new new little Jewish museum, opened in 2008. It's just a two-room exhibit, and there are not a lot of artifacts on display (many of them, though are quite interesting every-day objects, including advertisements, houseold items and even a fur streiml), but the story of Czernowitz Jews is told in photographs and narrative panels that are -- amazingly -- translated into English.