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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Ghosts of Home recovers prewar Jewish life

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It is a rare scholarly work that appeals to both specialist and generalist audiences, but this is true of Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory, co-written by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer (University of California Press).

Hirsch is a major figure in American academia – and the dominant voice in this collaboration – whose signal contribution to Jewish studies is the notion of “postmemory,” which she explores in light of her own experiences growing up under the influence of European-born parents.

Her identity, she explains, was overshadowed by their “stories, images, and behaviours” connected with their youth in interwar Czernowitz. “Strangely,” she writes, “the streets, buildings, and natural surroundings of Czernowitz – its theatres, restaurants, parks, rivers and domestic settings, none of which I had ever myself seen, heard, or smelled – figure more strongly in my own childhood memories and imagination than do the sites and scenes” of her own childhood.

It is this highly personalized approach to a recovery of a particular European past that renders Ghosts of Home eminently readable. But its pleasures include, too, a detailed portrait of the Bukovina, the far-flung province of the Hapsburg Empire where Czernowitz became a cultural and political outpost of Vienna.  There, a large, Germanized, assimilated, bourgeois Jewish community flourished during the last half of the 19th and early 20th century.

This status quo – a paradigmatic example of Jewish emancipation and cultural influence – was undermined after World War I with the rise of Romanian nationalism and its fascist and militarist supporters.

The Holocaust in Romania is not Hirsch’s focus, though she does portray the rise of prewar antisemitism, as well as the Romanian state’s willingness to deport and incarcerate Jews. One of the quirks of her approach derives from her parents’ outlook and memories of their prewar selves. In 1998, Hirsch made her first visit, with her parents as guides, to the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. There, with much of the architecture of what was prewar Czernowitz intact, Hirsch strolled the Herrengasse, the main drag of her parents’ youth, and found her way into her mother’s prewar home, which, however worse for wear, was not greatly changed after 70 years.

Hirsch’s parents were both incarcerated with their families in the Czernowitz ghetto, but they managed, again with the bulk of their family, to evade the massive deportation of Jews to the area between the Bug and Dniester rivers known at the time as Transnistria.

Hirsch’s parents do not think of themselves as survivors. Their memories of the wartime are in part influenced by their escape from the worst-case scenario offered by Romanian-German collaboration in the Bukovina, but their outlook is coloured, too, by the idea, alive in the minds of many old Czernowitzers, of a “pre-First World War multicultural and multilingual tolerant city and a modern, cosmopolitan culture in which German literature, music, art and philosophy flourished among a significant majority of their numbers.”

It is this ideal, its prewar life and postwar memory that Ghosts of Home examines with care and insight. In later trips to Ukraine – most recently in 2008 – Hirsch travelled without her parents and undertook a kind of travel that is sometimes called tragic tourism. She made her way to the deportation sites of Transnistria, as well as to the Vapniarka concentration camp, where she found a complete lack of memory, whether among the local population or by way of memorials at the site of atrocities.

Ghosts of Home concludes in Chernivtsi, with an account of the newly founded Bukovina Jewish Museum of History and Culture, which is housed in a building that once belonged to the Jewish community. Though Hirsch finds the contents of the museum lacking, she recognizes that its goals are “part of a larger movement to revitalize Jewish life in Ukraine… to connect Chernivtsi to a larger religious Jewish world abroad, not to highlight its particular history.”

Ghosts of Home brings to light a prewar and wartime history, acted out in an eastern borderland, which most readers will discover anew. Hirsch’s depiction of prewar Jewish life is masterful, and her presentation of the challenges of postwar memory is both moving and provocative. Ghosts of Home is a fine example of scholarship that is both serious and intimate.

Norman Ravvin’s recent books include a novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau), and the co-edited Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein (McGill-Queen’s).

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