New work – 21st March, 2006

Chernovitz [group trip east] - Part Two

Noémi Kiss

New work–21st March, 2006

New work

"It’s not that great to be German, just as it’s by no means so great to be Székely! And in Bukovina it’s certainly not great to be Jewish! So then what is it best to be? It’s best to be dead."

4. Real Travel

Actually a city and a soul can have a lot in common. The name of a city can come to mean encounter, love and murder, but can also come to mean devastation, self-destruction. Yet the name of a city can mean radiance, shop windows, the center of town, itself as an object of desire, but it can also mean solitude, and it can mean company. Rome is such a city. Jerusalem too. Paris and Budapest. These days more and more people would also add Berlin and Cracow. A city’s name means a place of birth and death. Tedium and excitement. Penalty and reward. Don’t think for a minute that we can only see the punishment of unfortunate societies in Chernovitz. There are moments of happiness in Chernovitz, if only in the form of a raindrop. But happiness there can also be found in a drop of paprika vodka. Happiness assumes a thousand faces. 

We set off in the spring of 2005. We started in the direction of where we were headed, though we could just as well say that we set off in a multitude of directions. Czernowitz, Cernauti, Csernovic... This was two years after my first trip to Bukovina, when I went to Bukovina’s Romanian part with an anthropology group. This trip and this account are therefore sequels. Not repetition, but continuation, since it’s not possible to travel to the same place twice. The travelers sitting on the bus came from the same university in Eastern Hungary. For the most part they were the same faces as two years ago and they were shadowed by the same words, drinks, relationships, break-ups, observations and issues as then. From the moment we boarded the bus, it was clear that everyone was captive to the impressions of two years ago. There was no common anthropological framework. Everything depended on individual interpretation. If the interpreter happened to suffer from an upset stomach, thirst or hunger, then the description of the trip would be altered by these experiences. In short, the interpreter is not necessarily a social individual, so there is no one particular interpretative community on the bus. (It’s better to travel like this.) We’re not on a class trip either, but just here to observe, to find what we had once given up and which they said doesn’t exist, can’t be seen and can’t be photographed either.

The unrelenting rain makes the travelers more patient, and their sleepy expressions make them look humble. Pssst, the bus is asleep. We’ve boarded, everybody’s finally here, even the girls who are always late, those who were out dancing last night. We can set off. Our guide hasn’t forgotten anything. In fact, we can all thank him for the trip. Our trips with him are well-planned and provide true evidence of cultures and objects we thought had vanished. Back in Hungary our Travel Guide, Z. I., distributes maps and statistics on the religion and nationality breakdowns for the towns we’ll be passing through. He makes sure we receive only objective data. The bus doesn’t interpret anything without information, doesn’t judge, follows nothing and nobody. For the whole trip it moves forward, gets gas and drinks, if thirsty, that is all. The bus takes care of itself. If it sees a large pothole on the road, stray donkey or dog, wobbling bicyclist, or another car run into and drowned in a ditch, the bus reaches out its arms and helps. Our Travel Guide, Z. I., calls back to us, and we help those in need. But how heartless the same travelers are when they see floods or begging gypsy children clinging to the windshield. Then everything reverses, and they won’t leave the bus. 

At Beregsurány we cross the border. From Beregszász we head towards the Tisza. At Huszt we turn towards the main road on the Tisza’s left bank, and from then on we follow the river, crossing through Técso and Rahó until we reach Korösmezo. On the way we only had to wait two hours at the border, thanks to the high-ranking military connections of a contemporary Hungarian writer, L. B. But gas, cigarette, vodka smugglers have more clout than us, the well-connected literary types. Smugglers take more trips than writers and do more fieldwork than anthropologists. There’s no greater pleasure than finally arriving in Korösmezo, tired and tipsy after crossing the border.  The whole bus smiles when Olga waves, letting us know we’ve arrived. Yes. During the long trip, the travelers, the community, had almost forgotten where they were headed.  Without Olga waving, we would have had no idea where we were headed. This is how the world staggers along.

The next day we visited the local museum and saw Lenin, Stalin, the Huculs, and 806 antique Hungarian household tools still in use here today. A large portion of Korösmezo’s population was settled here in the 16th and the 19th century from Galicia, Bukovina, Transylvania and Hungary. In the beginning, the Huculs were herdsmen, and later they became known for their daring and bravery: they were foresters floating timber and rafting. They could float wood from Csornahora all the way to Chernovitz, and there were even those who regularly floated to Szeged by raft. We slept in the former Budapest Hotel. The hotel was built in 1940, at the time of the reannexation of Transylvania. A Hucul-style three-story wooden building. The town’s shield was inlaid in the former ballroom, where we had dinner. And one night here, in this room, the Hungarian male anthropologists filled the female anthropologists’ mouths with vodka from a glass shotgun. But that’s not how it was. I should write instead that every day we ate meat and potatoes and with dinner we drank tea in the inlaid dining hall. 

Only later do I discover we had been staying in a place of unrest. Right below our window the Black Tisza and the Mezohát Stream flowed past. This, of course, wasn’t the source of unrest. When we head towards the valley of Mezohát Stream on the main road, we can climb up through the crags to Tatar Pass. During World War II the mountain ridge was an ever-changing border line: first Czech-Polish, then Hungarian-Polish and later Hungarian-Soviet. At the end of 1918, when the Galician Ukrainians were free from Habsburg rule, here, beneath our window they declared the Hucul Republic of Korösmezo, shortly after Korösmezo was annexed to Czechoslovakia. And from this same spot in 1941 they deported the incoming “displaced Jews” from Galicia to the Kamenetz-Podolsky region and killed them there.

The events have been obscured in a mystic fog. Today there’s vodka in the shotguns. And there are no memorial tablets. Not long ago the Huculs, too, played a role in the Orange Revolution, Olga said, well, we’re waiting for a miracle. Yushchenko’s not getting anything done in time, and Kiev is far away, maybe life is better there. We woke up early. The downpour joining the Tisza stirred up a lot of noise. As the fog lifted, we moved on. Olga came along with us. We, the community, stared, amazed.  Should I tell you when? The next day, after an approximately 5-hour trip from Korösmezo, we saw Paris. And then we saw Vienna. We didn’t understand how we had ended up in Budapest while in Ukraine.

So Chernovitz does exist. No longer on the bus, not circling in our heads, we’re no longer just imagining it. There it is, standing right in front of the bus’s nose, showing itself to the travelers. Like an elderly woman who again and perhaps for the last time shows us her old but beautiful teeth and unwrinkled skin. There the city stands before the nose of the bus. This old and new, Austrian, Yiddish, Ukrainian and Romanian city, where the dusted off foundations of a culture are visible, and where, if you turn to the walls, you can still blow off dust.  Here we are, strolling in the former capital of the province of Bukovina. We visit the train station, the theater, the German and the Jewish community houses, we go into Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish places of worship, and in the end we head away from the one-time Eastern Orthodox cathedral towards today’s university buildings.

5. Yellowed Hills

The previous trip, which I called “Bukó”, ended here, as we came to Klimauci, a little village of the Lipovans. Then we had to turn back, because we had reached the border stretching between Ukraine and Romania. We climbed up into the tower of church ruins and, from here, we looked across to the other side, in the direction of Galicia, and we imagined we could see all the way to the Dniester River. We marvelled at the vast nothingness. Which was just as frightening over there as here.  The border didn’t make a difference. In this country, Bukovina’s hilly landscape was just as yellowed and melancholy as it was over there, in that country. Here, there, the land, the crops and the faces are furrowed. After two years of longing and anticipation, we‘ve come to the place we could only see from the tower, where everything had been sharper and clearer. Now I don’t see anything when I’m in Bukovina.

Is this really Chernovitz?

We are somewhere else, and it’s as if we were home. The corners of this former Habsburg city are familiar; the buses, the cobblestone streets, the theater and coffeehouses are not at all foreign, they were recovered from the vacuum following the bombings. The hill built up on the bank of the Prut is more than just a hill, it’s a whole period. The Hungarian traveler can navigate here and there on the familiar streets. The traveler has to orient herself using maps in two or often three languages.  She looks at a facade, a balcony, a museum entrance, and she knows where she is.  Every city is different, but the difference can’t be found in the buildings or the fashionable commentaries on style. You can only grasp the difference through impressions.

We wander using an old book, because everything is nearly the same as it was then. When we blow the dust off the Ukrainian street signs, we can see the German street names. We use the Illustrierte Führer Baedeker to tour the Habsburg period cityscape point by point. A few things aren’t in their places: the statue of Schiller and Schiller Park, the famous Pieta in front of City Hall, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop’s palace, the Vienna Coffeehouse, the bookstores, the Chernovitz Morgenblatt debates, Der Nerv journal’s avantgarde poets, Paul Celan’s fugues, Karl Krauss’s editorials, Sperber’s books, Gregor von Rezzori’s memoirs or Karl Emil Franzos’s Half-Asia; Ring Platz and Austria Platz, Siebenbürger Strasse, Enzenberg Hauptrasse. These are nowhere.  What isn’t there we imagine there, so that it can still somehow exist.

6. Unreal City

During the day the cities and towns of Bukovina lack lyricism. An unpleasant feeling descends on us from the direction of the hills, skutchno blankets the cities. Skutchno is heartache. I should describe the people of Bukovina. During the day they barely seem alive, or at least in the hills they don’t appear to be living. Desire almost imperceptibly turns into skutchno, they are dulled by a vast tedium and pain, which overpowers any drive. And so it’s said that at night they see their wishes realized in their dreams. And what do people dream about here? We cannot know this. A dream is a secret. A secret is a secret. You cannot know what or who that secret is. You can’t know what’s concealed. Perhaps nothing, perhaps something, perhaps the world beyond Bukovina. The nature of the secret itself renders discoverers unnecessary.  Therefore here even the traveler becomes someone without desire, somebody irrelevant, who can freely move anywhere, eyes and attention fluttering over the land, but who can change nothing. Irrelevance itself is the most beautiful feeling here, which is why the people of Bukovina are happy.

Gregor von Rezzori, the famous emigré writer of the province, called Bukovina’s turn of the century train stations, houses and courtyards the illusions of civilization. In the same way he retouched the ways of the hillside nobility too with a landscapist’s brush, and he laid down a new coat of paint, the shadow of illusion, onto everything and everyone. Only market days let people forget their skutchno-blanketed, melancholy uncertainties. Actually, the markets are important in Half-Asia, if not the most important social and economic events, and alone are capable of breathing life into the people, even stirring up the whole province of Bukovina.  Chernovitz’s famous markets are still running today. 

We stopped by a smaller market, a fascinating sight: plastic shoes made in China, brand-name bags, military coats, cassettes and porn videos, the latest Star Wars, medication, vegetables, turkeys, painted eggs, Hucul pots and pans, sick cats, books, screws, fuses.

Skutchno accompanied us throughout the whole trip, just as it had two years ago. I envisioned skutchno in many forms: as a stray pregnant dog who had moved into the bus’s baggage compartment, wanting to bring her puppies into the world on a Volán bus; then as mangy horses waving as we drove past them, their bridles stretching and their stride quickening, hoping we might take them away with us; then in a fur cap, drunk, on a bike; a pretty young girl’s soot-black dress; or simply clinging to the glass of the bus window as mildly appealing pear-shaped raindrops, wanting to come with us.

How reliable it is to travel in this direction, somebody said, because nothing changes.

And then suddenly comes Romanticism. Neo-Baroque and Neo-Classicism.  The handprints of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt in the theater and the beds where they once slept in Hotel Moldavia on Holowna Street. Greek mythology featured in the theater’s reliefs. The Viennese architect Otto Wagner’s buildings. But above all the Jugendstil train station, the work of more Viennese architects, the famous Chernovitz theater, the Judicial Palace, City Hall, churches, high schools, the hospital, and the once enchanting Episcopal palace, today home to the university. In 1905 a traveler wrote that one could drink coffee from Hamburg and put lemons from Trieste into tea in Chernovitz’s Vienna Coffeehouse. But let’s not replace social realism with a false nostalgia. On the spot where the Pieta formerly stood on Marktplatz there was a Lenin memorial, which we (unfortunately?) can no longer see, because it disappeared in 1991. Currently there’s nothing on the square, except for the braided hair of the beautiful and tough Ukrainian prime minister, Tymoshenko, on a poster.  The art museum and the bank are beside the square. Skutchno’s freshest faces are these busy buildings and the gaps between them, empty spaces, the synagogue built between 1873 and 1877 on what was formerly called University Street. According to my book it was once like an Arabian tale. Today no one would say this. Of the city’s forty-six synagogues, one was reopened not long ago, and the others they converted into movie theaters, apartment buildings, and department stores. 

Two years later spiritual emptiness is still emptiness, it just has a different effect. When we look at this guarded city, the West of the East, we no longer get our souls mixed up in it. We just stand and look, and the whole time, from the first moment to the last, Chernovitz is the joining of two memories. As I sit here now and try to approximate what I saw, I feel this city is like a photo of an impression that can be developed at any time. While we look, what immediately gets stirred up in us is a desire to see the turn of the century. But this is a deceptive desire; it would be a deception to look at Chernovitz as though it were a turn of the century city. In the last hundred years everything has changed, and those who live here are not interested in talking about the coffeehouses. Chernovitz, the Wien on the bank of the Prut, was in fact built on hills. I willingly believe it, though they weren’t that big, the hills. Our long-distance bus from Miskolc climbs them easily. I know the hills are there, because I stood on them. Everybody stood there, they had to, because we departed an hour late. In Chernovitz time passed quickly, and we didn’t have time to listen to the people. Meanwhile I’ve realized that the photos of the town are wet because the Prut River and the tears of the people appear in them. I don’t know if this true or not, but I do know I saw them, or if I didn’t, then I imagined them there, or if I can’t even imagine them anymore, I’ll write it down here: I saw tears.

7. Der Friedhof or We’ve Come to Bury

It’s not that great to be German, just as it’s by no means so great to be Székely! And in Bukovina it’s certainly not great to be Jewish!

So then what is it best to be?

It’s best to be dead.

In the course of history, foreigners pillaged the province of Bukovina countless times. They pillaged, but they also gave to the area. By the 19th century, the different communities living here had transformed it into a place of tolerance. 

My travel guide – a slick, new volume I picked up not too long ago at the Örs Vezér Square Mall in Budapest, written by a girl and a boy who came here a few years ago – points out the three most interesting things to see: the Museum of Fine Arts, for its Secessionist style, Chernovitz University, for its blend of Eastern Byzantine and Western Renaissance styles, and the cemetery. One of the largest cemeteries in Central Europe is situated on the city’s eastern outskirts, in the former Vorstadt Kaliczanka. A wide road cuts the cemetery in two. The Jewish cemetery is on one side, and on the other side we find all sorts of people from the Habsburg Monarchy: Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and Catholic graves. And what connects the two sides? The portraits. Almost without exception, every gravestone has a photograph of the dead. 

In part the book is right, though in part it isn’t, because neither during the Monarchy nor today did these people form either the unified groups or the separate units they do here, in the cemetery. The old Chernovitz cemetery today is no longer an organic part of the city. The Jewish cemetery is all but abandoned, almost as if it didn’t even exist, as if the cemetery belonged to the dead, instead of the living. But the cemetery belongs to the living.

We enter.

Everything is upside down. It’s a wretched feeling going to cemeteries, someone says and holds his hand up in front of his eyes. There are those who don’t even realize they’re walking among ruins, because they are captivated by the huge Expressionist graves and sporadic synagogue-sized graves. There is stone everywhere. What a titillating feeling to tread on the lives and bodies of others. To read their lives in under three seconds. We can determine a lot from the dates, though, of course, we can’t determine everything. Red stars and Stars of David appear side by side on the post-war graves. There’s an enormous portrait of a woman. Somebody didn’t want her interred only as a Communist. In World War II fifty thousand Chernovitz Jews were killed. She was presumably among the few thousand survivors who didn’t emigrate to Israel in 1948. We are afraid of death, yet on the faces of all the cemetery visitors sits a kind of titillated excitement. As if we were solving a crossword. What we see in the cemetery barely exists and soon will disappear without a trace, because the graves are in extraordinarily bad condition. We are standing caught in a crossword column that cannot be completed. Overgrown little hands of liana clutch at most of the graves, we search between the tree branches and bushes, and there are places into which we simply cannot fit. On the stones there’s a mosaic of names from the past: Zucker and Zuckermann, Mr. and Mrs. Zwilling, rose and almond, Franzos and Antschel. Hier ruht die Mutter. Hir mein Sohn und mein Mann.  Hier bin Ich. Hier werde ich ruhen. Here rests my mother. Here my son and my husband. Here I rest. Here is where I will die. (Where did you die? In Michalka, in a camp?)

“What a huge head that woman has,” everyone says who sees my cemetery photos, without exception. This grave is like a temple. Everyone marvels at how there could be, or excuse me, how there could have been such a world. But it existed and is still visible. Huge heads, heads of little girls, portraits of husbands and wives, portraits of children, smaller statues of victims, epitaphs, epitaphs, epitaphs. In Hebrew, German, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian. Chernovitz is a necropolis. If Bukovina is the land of books, as Celan said, then Chernovitz is the land of photographs. We need the help of a mechanism to develop the cemetery portraits.

There’s somebody here. I almost forgot him. The host. What was it he said about the forester? 

“The Jew of the forest, my dear gentlemen, is someone to whom the name Rothschild doesn’t say much. If you will excuse me, it says absolutely nothing. The name of Jura’s son, Mikola Halamasuk, however, said a lot. Everything. Because Mr. Rothschild is datsch. Halamasuk was my neighbor. I bought a cow from him, actually. And what a cow! Every day we talked to him. And they talked to us. But don’t you believe for a moment that I don’t know what elegance is! I know thanks to Mr. Stanislawow, who put on a new clean silk shirt every morning. Well, and where did it get Mr. Rothschild? That famous datsch?! He put on a new shirt three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yes, really!  How dreadfully inconvenient! And then what about our splendid lord, the Czar, His Majesty? Perhaps at every moment he’s taking off and putting on a shirt – ha, ha, ha. What a terrific hassle. You see, I know everything,” laughed the host. “But come on in.”

Anyway, he told us it wasn’t so good, being German. It was much better to be a poor forest Hasid in Cseromos. The best was to hide away from the world altogether. To stand on the smallest, most remote point in the world. That was the best by far.

Miskolc-Chernovitz, April 28–May 1, 2005

Suggested Readings for a Trip to Chernovitz:

Fazekas István: Hetedíziglen. Bukovinai székely családi krónika, Polis, Kolozsvár, 2005.
In der Sprache der Mörder. Eine Literatur aus Czernowitz, Bukowina, Hg. Ernest Wichner-Herbert Wiesner, Literaturhaus Berlin, 1993.
Kovács Sándor: Ahol a Tisza születik, Hungarovox Kiadó, Bp., 2005.
Sós Judit – Farkas Zoltán: Kárpátalja. Lemberg és Csernovic, Jel-Kép, Bp., 2004.
Stanislaw Vincenz: Találkozás haszidokkal, Múlt és Jövo, Bp., 2001

Translated by Rachel Miller


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