Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory

CzernowitzIn what follows, graduate student John Lurz reports on a recent event held at University Press Books at which Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer spoke about their new book, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory.


On a rainy Thursday evening last week, I had the pleasure of squishing – along with almost forty other people – into the cozy back room at University Press Books on Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley.  People filled the chairs lining the room and overflowed onto the staircase leading up to the second floor loft, like small children assembled for a story time.  The story, this time, was of the city of Czernowitz, an invisible place that used to exist in what is today the Ukraine.  Called “the Vienna of the East,” Czernowitz was a vibrant center of Jewish-German Eastern European culture that flourished under the Habsburg Empire until it was all but wiped out in World War II.  The city lives on, however, not only in the memories of those inhabitants of the city who were able to escape the Holocaust but also, fascinatingly, in the memories of their children who have received tales of Czernowitz “like a precious and haunted heirloom.”

Marianne Hirsch, William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and her husband Leo Spitzer, the Kathe Tappe Vernon Professor of History Emeritus at Dartmouth College, tell the story of this city.  They do so from both the distanced, meticulously researched perspective of a historian and the intimate, anecdotal perspective of a memoirist.  Marianne’s parents were themselves “Czernowitzer” who escaped the oppressive regimes of the Nazis, the Romanians and the Russians, and Marianne and Leo returned with them to Chernivtsi, as the city is now called, as part of the preparation for the book.  They thus intersperse a historical narrative with accounts of the four trips they made to the Ukraine to create a moving account of the persistence of this city in a communal memory that crosses generations.

Marianne began by reading an account of one of the most significant moments of their first trip.  Toting maps and cameras that obviously marked them as tourists, she, Leo and her parents were stopped by a local woman who asked where they were from.  Marianne said that her mother’s response – “from here, Czernowitzer” – was the most succinct answer she had ever heard her give.  Usually, the answer to the simple question “Where are you from?” elicited a long story involving numerous countries, but, for the first time, she was able to articulate a response that was accurate, succinct and, most importantly, right there.  The presentness of the past was palpable, a point made literal in the visit they made to her mother’s old apartment.  Though much had been changed there, the tile ovens which people in Central and Eastern Europe had used to heat their homes still existed.  Her mother looked into the oven, as if she might find her past in there, and later, Marianne wanted to touch the tiles again to regain the old spirit of the place (only to find out that the apartment had been modernized, the stoves dismantled and the tiles sold – such is the fragility of our memories).

If the tile oven was a kind of old technology that worked to transmit the past into the present, Leo read an account of another of their trips to the Ukraine in which an acquaintance of theirs took advantage of a much newer piece of technology for a similar effect.  Standing at the river which the Romanians had forced a number of Jews to cross during one of the coldest winters in history, a man took out his cell phone.  He was calling his grandfather who had endured the traumatic ordeal.  Leo recounted how he wanted his grandfather to hear the very sounds of this place, to know that his grandson was standing right there and that his family had survived.

This kind of survival was at the heart of the reading.  Some members of the audience had themselves been child survivors of the Holocaust, and the discussion after the reading swerved from academic questions about historical facts to personal commentary that resonated with the stories Marianne and Leo had been weaving for us.  Weaving is an apt description of the reading, as Marianne and Leo alternated reading from the book which they had both written.  In fact, Marianne and Leo noted the strange nature of writing a book together, how they had had to meld their different working styles and their different academic trainings to create this hybrid work of history and memoir.  The book is thus – almost too literally – a kind of child for them, one that, as children do, will go out into the world and bring its family’s stories to a new generation.