Who was the creator of the Jewish Renaissance in Chernivtsi?

The historian Iryna Yavorska talks about “Jerusalem on the Prut River” after the war, Soviet propaganda, and the Yiddish language in Chernivtsi.

Andriy Kobalia:  The Second World War changed the face of many Ukrainian cities. They ceased being multicultural. In Chernivtsi, however, despite the Holocaust, a Jewish literary renaissance began in the city after the arrival of Soviet power. Its creators were not local Jews but natives of Bessarabia and central Ukraine. According to the historian Iryna Yavorska, who studies the Jewish history of Bukovyna, the residents of Chernivtsi who survived by fleeing the city were not always willing to return.

Iryna Yavorska:  If we are talking about the postwar period, we have to begin with March 1944, when the Red Army entered the territory of Bukovyna. It was followed by Jews from the camps of Transnistria, whose prisoners had been liberated by Soviet troops. Naturally, some Jewish males were instantly called up, while the greater part were sent to labor camps. Some Jews returned to their homes. Admittedly, attitudes to them varied. Jews remembered well that black month of July of 1941, when Jewish pogroms took place in some Bukovynian villages. At the time, crowds of emotional Romanian and Ukrainian villagers treated Jews brutally in the first days of the war.

Andriy Kobalia:  And all this, probably, against the background of the disappearance of the monopoly on violence in the Soviet Union, when chaos erupted right after the Nazis arrived.

Iryna Yavorska:  Yes. There are memoirs of Jews from April 1944, when they stopped near the bridge across the Prut River and were afraid to cross it. Sometime later the new Soviet leadership, introducing administrative methods, began to set up their model of restoring the economy. Families began to return to Chernivtsi.

Besides Ukrainian Jews, members of the Soviet nomenklatura moved here, hoping to settle down. For example, my mother worked with a woman from Saratov; she was so overjoyed. She said [in Russian]: “Girls, I live opposite a fountain!” In comparison with the backwoods of Russia, occupying an apartment in Chernivtsi opposite a fountain was a big achievement. In my dissertation I mention that on 28 June Comrade Pozhidaev moved to a street opposite a synagogue; he brought with him three generations of his family as well as chickens, pigs, and even a cow. That’s what the “Little Paris” and “Jerusalem on the Prut” was transformed into.

Returning to Jewish history, not just Ukrainian Jews returned to the city but also Romanian Jews from southern Bukovyna and Jews from Bessarabia, who had nowhere to go back to because their houses had been destroyed. Chernivtsi became saturated with Jews.

Andriy Kobalia:  And despite all this, in your paper delivered at the conference on Yiddish culture and language, you spoke about a Jewish literary renaissance. How could all this have emerged under such circumstances?

Iryna Yavorska:  The literary renaissance is connected more with Bessarabian Jewry. An exodus of Chernivtsi and Bukovynian Jews took place in 1944–1946. Initially, this was an illegal migration, because people knew about 1940, when Soviet power was established here. They remembered the brutalities and expropriations, and they said: “We don’t want a reprise.” After them, young Zionists fled, then those who had cooperated with the Germans and the Romanians. In Romania, those who survived the Holocaust were awarded material compensation. In the USSR this question was not even raised. The Soviets believed that everyone suffered in the war, that many people lost family members, and that there should not be any special compensation for Jews. That’s why in 1945–1946 the majority of Jews of Chernivtsi left for Romania, and from there they went to Palestine, when Israel was created in 1948.

This vacuum was filled by incoming Bessarabian Jews and Jews from central Ukraine. That’s why the renaissance and resurgence of Yiddish culture are not about those who had lived in Chernivtsi for decades.

If we jump to 1959, of the 40,000 Jews in Bukovyna, over 20,000 called Yiddish their native language. Imagine how many there were in the 1940s. This is a large number. The Jewish State Theater functioned from 1945 to1950. It was founded in Kyiv but owing to the fact that the building had been destroyed, it moved temporarily to Chernivtsi, where the building of today’s Academic Palace was offered to it. They were not very happy about this because they had had more spectators in Kyiv. But they enjoyed immense success here for five years. I know people who attended these concerts. Beautiful Jewish music was performed there. Yiddish is generally an extraordinarily musical language. It was something homey, good, prewar. And it was a uniting force. And there were also writers and artists. All this was elevated by the existence of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

There was also a Jewish school. Admittedly, it was called the “Incomplete High school №18,” but there were 406 pupils. All the teachers were Jews. The Yiddish language was not identified as a native language. There was a teacher of the Ukrainian and Russian languages. Yiddish was taught as a foreign language. But this language was taught up to 1948.

Andriy Kobalia:  Does this school still exist?

Iryna Yavorska:  Of course not. It was closed in 1948, and the theater—two years later. The pupils were transferred to other schools.

Andriy Kobalia:  Now we can talk about the end of the 1940s. Was this theater ideologically engaged? Were they forced to talk about the “glorious party”?  

Iryna Yavorska:  Of course. How could it have been otherwise? When the trials of theater workers began in 1948, all these people were sentenced to between five and ten years. They were accused of taking part in replenishing library collections, for performances in Jewish schools, emphasizing Jewish exceptionalism, for their too enthusiastic love of Yiddish. I read the reports on the interrogations of these figures. It is frightening to read. They wrote subsequently: “Forgive me my friends. I had to tell everything about you because they were beating me so much. I had to say who headed some anti-Soviet organization.” People were weak, so…

Andriy Kobalia:  In other words, the postwar Stalinist repressions destroyed this renaissance?

Iryna Yavorska:  Yes. Perhaps it was too brilliant for the USSR. When I was researching the topic, I gained the impression that this splash was too powerful, which could not have helped piquing the Soviet government, although where ideology was concerned, theaters held performances that did include Sholem Aleichem’s repertoire because he was so apolitical and domestic. Of course, demands were made of the theater. The first performance was I Live, and later various anti-fascist and anti-German works. I read correspondence in which directors were forced to put finishing touches on certain episodes so that they would have Soviet coloration. It was difficult for them to preserve the language and to satisfy ideological requirements. It was a very hard period…

Andriy Kobalia:  Have some of the works that this theater staged retained their worth to this day? Today many Soviet texts are worthless because they were created in order to obtain an apartment.

Iryna Yavorska:  Of course! The works of Sholem Aleichem are eternal. Tevye the Dairyman and Wandering Stars are important not only to Jews but to the world.

Andriy Kobalia:  The repressed Jews of Chernivtsi were all tried together in a single case, which also swept up residents of Bessarabia. None of them were shot, but many had to leave Chernivtsi forever. The theater and the Jewish school disappeared along with them. The historian Iryna Yavorska recounted details of Jewish life following the repressions of the 1940s.

Iryna Yavorska:  The bearers of the Yiddish language in the 1950s were religious Jews, the older generation that sometimes did not even know how to write, and Yiddish was their only language. They concealed their Jewishness within themselves. They led a double life. At home, people were Jews, they celebrated the Sabbath, placed a candle on the windowsill. But on the street they overfulfilled socialist norms. It was a hidden Jewishness. But then the Sidi Tal ensemble appears. It was founded in Chernivtsi and was basically the only such collective in Ukraine that promoted the Yiddish language. It was our pride and beauty. My music teacher was a former actress of the Jewish Theater. She welcomed Sidi Tal as guests to her home. I played Mozart, and they would chat in Yiddish. Her concerts were a real celebration of the Yiddish language. They were optimistic. I liked the titles of the performances, for example, “It Is Beneficial to Laugh” or “Everything Will Be Fine.”

We called her “Arkady Raikin in a skirt.” Sidi Tal was a woman who during a single performance could transform herself into various images, from a guide to a beggarwoman. And this appealed not just to Jews; Yiddish had so much emotionality and intonations ranging from the high level to the very low.  This attracted even people who were not fluent in the language. All these people continued to live in Chernivtsi; for example, Moishe Altman was a writer who was the literary editor of the Jewish Theater. After his exile, he returned. They may have been depressed, but they wrote, even though not a single book was published. But they published their texts in some Polish-Yiddish periodicals. Later, the first Yiddish-language magazine finally came out in the USSR in the 1960s.

The Soviet journal Sovetish Heymland, which lasted from 1967 to 1989, published the works of Yiddish poets. They often visited Chernivtsi. These encounters took place in today’s Central Palace of Culture, the former Jewish Home. These were cultural holidays for Jews. There was some minor easing of restrictions introduced by the Soviet government.

Andriy Kobalia:  Especially after the collapse of the USSR, a certain number of Jews tried to leave the country; some went to Israel, others to the U.S. Are there examples of Jews from Chernivtsi, Bessarabia, or elsewhere, who, once they left for new lands, were nostalgic and recalled the city of Chernivtsi as it had been before or after the war? Are there any memoirs of people who remembered this Chernivtsi?

Iryna Yavorska:  After the war there were three great waves: 1945–1946, when, as I already mentioned, the Jews of Chernivtsi and Bukovyna left; the 1970s, when well-off doctors and sportsmen and less prosperous Hassids from the Orthodox community left the USSR; and the 1990s, which was called the “sausage emigration,” when people left deliberately in search of a better life. Each one has its own emigration story. People in Israel call it a “fisherman’s story.” There were men who were running away from the wives, another got rid of his relatives, another went to build Israel, another wanted to get rich, another was sick of people who divided everyone by culture and religion.

Andriy Kobalia:  In other words, people who did not tolerate Jewish culture?

Iryna Yavorska:  Precisely. In the USSR it was difficult to develop Jewish culture; this must be recognized. Someone went to Israel and became famous there and finally published his texts. The latest population census took place in 2001. At that time, there were 1,000 Jews in Bukovyna, and 104 in Chernivtsi, although over a hundred gather in the city on Jewish holidays. But these are not just Jews. In fact, the Jews have left Bukovyna. Some individuals are quietly returning at the present time. Now the city has two synagogues. There is also the tsaddik’s palace. All this is thanks mostly to American funding. There are also conferences. The daughter of the prominent writer Naftali Herts Kon said that her father would be thrilled to see that his name is remembered and this history is not being forgotten.

Andriy Kobalia:  So, are there memoirs?

Iryna Yavorska:  Yes, there are. Yiddish Chernivtsi is not a well-researched topic, even though there really is a lot to say. And we have not only Yiddish writers.  We have stars like the German-language writers Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer. Even though she lived in the U.S. and died in Germany, Chernivtsi was a central theme for her—the “Jerusalem of the soul.” Her carp “was silent in five languages.” Only inhabitants of Chernivtsi could understand what she meant. Chernivtsi was a multilingual city.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.