Chernivtsi is the former capital of the region of Bukovina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (where it was called Czernowitz), and currently the capital of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi oblast. Austrian Chernowitz was one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the empire. It was home to Ukrainians, Romanians, Jews, Germans, Poles, Roma, and Armenians. Its rich cultural life, particularly among Jews, led it to be dubbed “Jerusalem on the Prut,” the Prut being the river that the city was built on.
Chernivtsi has been an inhabited site since the Neolithic age, but first became prominent during the time of Kyivan Rus, when it was the fortress town of Chern. From the mid-1300s until 1774, the region was a part of the Romanian Principality of Moldavia and has been heavily connected to Romanian culture ever since. Southern Bukovina is now Suceavea County in Romania. The Habsburg monarchy gained control of Bukovina in 1774 as a prize in the Russo-Turkish war, where Austria sided with Russia and Moldavia was a Turkish vassal state. It once again became Romanian after World War I, then was lost to the Soviet Union along with the modern territory of Moldova as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin. During WWII, fascist Romania joined with Germany. Chernivtsi was reabsorbed by Romania during the course of the war, only to lose it again when the war concluded.
The most famous spot in Chernivtsi is the campus of Chernivtsi National University, which is housed in the former Residence of the Bukovinian and Dalmatian Metropolitans. It is included in the list of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine. The Jewish community took part in its construction and the building contains some Jewish design motifs.
The Jewish Cemetery in Chernivtsi is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Ukraine, behind Lviv, and one of the largest in Central/Eastern Europe. Together with the even larger Christian cemetery across the street, they make up the Cemeteries at Zelena Street Historical-Cultural Preserve. It takes up 35 acres and houses 50,000 graves, with many of the graves marking the resting place of multiple people.
Please take a look at my photo essay on the Chernivtsi Jewish Cemetery here.
Between August 30th and September 4th, 1908, Jewish communal leaders and cultural activists gathered in Czernowitz, Austria (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine) to hold the Conference for the Yiddish Language, aka the Czernowitz Conference. It was the very first Yiddish Conference. Their aim was to settle questions around the teaching and proliferation of Yiddish, as well as its place in Jewish society next to Hebrew and the various languages they were surrounded by. The Jews of Czernowitz largely spoke German, for example.
Yiddish was hindered by being seen merely as zhargon, a low-class form of German formed from a linguistic grab-bag of vocabulary. The mama loshen could be a language for day-to-day mundane life, and in the German-speaking world even that became looked down upon, but the heights of Jewish culture, first religion then more secular topics thanks to the Hebraist movement, were expressed in Hebrew. Taking part in wider society meant speaking Russian, German, or Polish. But in the late 19th century, writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz catapulted Yiddish into new levels of prestige. For example, when Mark Twain was told that Sholem was called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” he responded that he would like to be known as the “American Sholem Aleichem.”
In the late half of the 19th century, especially as a reaction to the technically failed but tremendously impactful revolutions of the Springtime of Nations in 1848, peoples throughout Europe decided that national culture, and especially language, was the key to national liberation. Writers, poets, and linguists were the torch bearers of independence movements. Pádraic Pearse was an activist in the Gaelic League before leading the Easter Uprising. Lithuanians in German Memel (now Klaipėda) smuggled books into Russia, where the Lithuanian language was banned. Ukrainians rallied around the words of Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and Lesya Ukrainka. And in 1883, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda became the first Jew in nearly two thousand years to be raised with Hebrew as his first language.
The Conference was organized by a Viennese man named Nathan Birnbaum, whose personal story covers so much ground in the Jewish life in East/Central Europe at the turn of the last century. He also functioned as a surrogate for Sholem Aleichem, who was too sick to attend. While a student at the University of Vienna, he became a Zionist activist and founder of Kadimah, a Jewish student union that would later include Sigmund Freud. It was there that he came into contact with students from Galicia. His father was Galician, but this began his closer connection to the region. His contact with Galician Jewish life, where Jews were far less assimilated and spoke the Jewish language of Yiddish rather than the non-Jewish language of German, convinced him to become an autonomist instead. See my Jewish Voter’s Guide for more on the differences.
Birnbaum worked to make Jews a recognized nation within the Habsburg monarchy with the same cultural rights as Czechs or Hungarians. However, in his later years after the Conference, he turned more religious. Religion, he noticed, was the glue that held Jewish life together more in Galicia than Vienna. He condemned both Zionism and Yiddishist “Diaspora Nationalism,” two competing movements which he did so much to build, as hedonistic and he became head of the Orthodox Agudath Israel party. After being an icon of so many of the deep and competing facets of pre-Holocaust life, he fled his home in Berlin after Hitler took power in 1933. He would then die in April of 1937, a year before his native Vienna was absorbed by the Nazi empire.
The Conference itself was fairly divisive. The Zionists, who wanted Hebrew to be the national language of the Jewish people clashed with the Yiddishists. The Marxists from the Bund did not get on well with a bunch of upper-class intellectuals from Vienna. Much of the time was spent arguing over whether Yiddish was “the” language of the Jewish people or “a” language of the Jewish people. They eventually settled on it be “a” language of the Jewish people. The rest of the time, though, they focused on promoting Yiddish theater, supporting Yiddish newspaper, and translating Hebrew and Aramaic language religious texts into Yiddish.
The Czernowitz Conference did not have much of a direct impact. It was too fractious and its members never actually ended up funding the post-conference organization which they were supposed to set up. But, it was a landmark moment that energized the Yiddishist movement and was followed by events such as the founding of YIVO in 1925.
The main building where the Czernowitz Conference took place was and still is a cultural center. But, not a Jewish one, an ethnic Ukrainian one. Activists in the Ukrainian national revival set up People’s Houses throughout the Ukrainian lands, both in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The halls of the Chernivtsi Narodniy Dim thus became a site of both the Ukrainian and Jewish national revivals. Today, it is a headquarters for several cultural organizations in the city, such as Plast, the Ukrainian scouting movement.
The Square of the Turkish Well was once a center of the Jewish Community in the city, especially the more working-class lower city. The well itself was used to draw water for the community mikvah, or ritual bath, and was built in the 18th century when Chernivtsi was one of the furthest northern reaches of Ottoman control. An hour’s drive away is Khotyn Fortress, which defended the frontier between Ottoman-controlled Moldavia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, later the Russian Empire.
During WWII, the square was the center of the Jewish ghetto. 50,000 Jews from Chernivtsi and the surrounding area were crammed into the neighborhood by the Romanian authorities. The majority, 30,000, were eventually deported to Transnistria, where they were murdered. However, the remaining 20,000 were spared thanks to the efforts of the city’s mayor, Traian Popovici. Popovici had initially declined to become mayor because he did not want to be part of the fascist government of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, but was convinced otherwise. He was able to stall the creation of the ghetto until Corneliu Calotescu was appointed governor of the Bukovina region, and was able to expand the list of 200 Jews to save from deportation to 20,000. Calotescu was originally sentenced to death for his crimes during the war, but that was commuted to hard labor by King Michael I. Still newly minted Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu rehabilitated him in 1968 after French President Charles de Gaulle asked to see his old classmate from the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr. Becoming a génocidaire hadn’t dulled their old friendship.
For his life-saving work, Traian Popovici was granted the title of Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem.
The Turkish Square also has a statue to the poet Rose Auslander, who had returned to the city only shortly before the war in order to care for her sick mother. She lived a long life, she died in 1988 at the age of 86, and was extremely prolific. Most of her poems relate to her home, her mother, and nostalgia for the Bukovina that was. The following is one of her poems about that time:
Czernowitz Before the Second World War, translated by Vincent Homolka
Peaceful hill town
encircled by beech woods
Willows along the Pruth
rafts and swimmers
Maytime profusion of lilac
About the lanterns
May bugs dance
Speak to each other
enrich the air
till bombs fell
von Buchenwäldern umschlossen
Weiden entlang dem Pruth
Flösse und Schwimmer
um die Lanterner
verwöhnen die Luft
Bis Bomben fielen
The Czernowitz Synagogue was built in 1873. It was originally built in the Moorish style, which was popular in central Europe at the time. This was a Reform synagogue used by the on average wealthier and more Germanized part of the community.
It was burned down by fascist German and Romanian soldiers in 1941, after the city was conquered by the Axis and annexed by Romania. The region is historically mixed Romanian-Ukrainian-Jewish, and earlier was a part of the Kingdom of Romania after WW1, until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
After the war, the walls of the synagogue were used to build a movie theater, which it remains to this day. The basic dimensions of the synagogue are still there, but the moorish features were destroyed.
Meanwhile, out of the 70 synagogues that used to exist in Chernivtsi, The Great Synagogue was the primary meeting spot for the Orthodox community. While there was no designated Jewish quarter of the city, most poor Jews lived in the Unterstadt, the lower part of town where it is located. The poor also tended to be more traditional, unlike the more middle-class Jews who adopted German culture and joined the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, Movement.
It is currently used as a business center.
There are two Orthodox synagogues operating in Chernivtsi city center, along with a conservative congregation and a few others in the outlying areas. Beit Tefila Binyamin was the only operating synagogue during the Soviet era. It was built in 1923 in the Kingdom of Romania by the Binyamin Shapiro family. It is ornately decorated, mostly with painting related to the Zodiac. The larger is the Sadovsky Street Synagogue, which was originally built around 1900, closed by the Soviet authorities in 1952, and reopened in 2011.
In the heart of Chernivtsi city center, on Teatralna Square, you will find what was once the Judische Haus during Austrian times, a cultural center to promote Jewish life in the city. You will still find Jewish design motifs in the interior. Today, it is the city’s Palace of Culture. Palaces of Culture were an institution from the communist era where people could receive a Marxist education or watch a play. It is still the sort of place where you can bring a child to take karate or dance classes. When I visited, there was a kid’s party for the tail end of the New Year season.
The Palace of Culture is home to two modern Jewish institutions. The first is the Jewish Community of the Chernivtsi Region. The other is the Chernivtsi Museum of Bukovinian Jewish History and Culture.
Chernivtsi is an excellent gastronomic city. The Austrian and Romanian influences give a good amount of variety to the traditional cuisine of the region. I was able to find three restaurants which served Ashkenazic cuisine. The first is at the Sadovsky Street Synagogue, called Kosher Organic. I’m fairly certain that it is the only kosher option. The second is called Rita Steinburg. Their philosophy is to use century-old Jewish recipes particular to the Bukovina region. The third is Pansʹka Huralʹnya. The restaurant is based around its distillery if you want a wide variety of Ukrainian liqueurs and horilka. Its menu items are a selection of Ukrainian, Romanian, Ashkenazic, and specifically Bukovinian options, and are marked as such if you want to take a single-meal food tour.