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Ukraine

Chernivtsi: City of dead poets

Today, Chernivtsi is a province outside of EU borders and outside of memory. Jewish artists who wrote poems and sang in their native German have passed away. But their legacy is more alive than ever.

Nora Gomringer is something of a star in the German poetry scene, a celebrated slam poet and multi-award winner. Wide awake and quite a live wire, she's sitting beside me on a bus. "I used to go to school on a bus just like this," she says, amused.

Nora Gomringer at the Jewish cemetery in Chernivsti

Nora Gomringer at the Jewish cemetery in Chernivsti

Today the vehicle is carrying writers, artists and journalists from throughout Europe, North America and Israel through the city. They've all traveled here to attend the Meridian Chernivtsi International Poetry Festival and are in search of traces of German-Jewish heritage.

Unexpected encounters

We're standing in the ceremonial hall of the cemetery, the vast cupola of which will soon collapse if nothing is done. Two women approach us. "My great-grandfather was born in Chernivtsi," one of them says.

She now lives in New Mexico, in the US. I remember seeing a photograph of her during the course of my research. It is Irene and Helene Silberblatt. "Paul Celan and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger are both related to us," she says.

Born in Chernivtsi in 1920, Paul Celan is one of the greatest poets ever to have written in the German language. He survived the Holocaust, but was heavily traumatized and committed suicide in Paris in 1970.

The ceremonial hall at the Jewish cemetery in Chernivsti

The ceremonial hall at the Jewish cemetery is in a state of disrepair

The poet Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, sometimes called "the Bucovian Anne Frank," died of typhus in the Michailovska camp at the 18.

The Silberblatt sisters are looking for the grave of their great-grandfather, who was also related to the two poets. They'd been here before in 2004 to celebrate the unveiling of memorial plaque on the wall of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger's home.

"Nobody in Chernivtsi knew much about the German-Jewish cultural legacy then," they say. "But the poetry festival changed that."

Parallels among poets

The Silberblatt sisters want to make Meerbaum-Eisinger's story and her poems well-known among English speakers. They have allowed the poems to be translated and published as a book.

They would like to give a couple of copies to an English teacher at Paul Celan's former school, High School Number Five. "I believe it's this way to the grave." Helen Silberblatt is not entirely sure, since the Jewish cemetery in Chernivtsi with its 50,000 graves is one of the largest of its kind in central and eastern Europe.

Irene and Helen Silberblatt, relatives of Paul Celan and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, September 2012

Irene and Helen Silberblatt are relatives of Paul Celan and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger

While the sisters are in search of the grave, I find Nora Gomringer again. She's jotting down a few notes. She's been a fan of Meerbaum-Eisinger for a long time. "I first encountered the book of poems 'I am Shrouded in Longing' in 2001," she says.

The poems have accompanied her ever since. Meerbaum-Eisinger stands for the strength and hope with which a young person looks to the future - and for how she so tragically lost both.

Gomringer sees a little bit of herself in the young Meerbaum-Eisinger: She began to write at the age of 16, Meerbaum-Eisinger at 15. "There are parallels. The weight, the imperative in feeling that lies in all these texts."

The German poet finds the hastily added final entry in the book of Meerbaum-Eisinger's poems especially shocking: "'I didn't have time to write to the end' … I always find that the most moving and the hardest."

Meerbaum-Eisinger was deported to the Michailovska camp in June 1942. Just before that, she managed to get her book of poems to a friend.

The last Jew in Chernivtsi

Max Schickler, 93

Max Schickler, 93, is a well-loved personality in the city

Today around 3,000 Jews live in Chernivtsi, Rabbi Mendel Glizenstein estimates. He comes from Eilat in Israel and arrived almost nine years ago with the aim of revivíng the Jewish community here.

"We're passing on the traditions, opening kindergartens, schools, student clubs and Torah lessons for all age groups," he says. "The most important thing is that people no longer need to live in fear for believing in the Jewish faith."

The rabbi's consultant, 50-year-old Alexandra Onufrasch, assists me in my search for German-Jewish traces. Together we go through a list of names, addresses and dates of birth of members of the community. We can't find more than a dozen Jewish people who experience the war and still live in Chernivtsi. We find even fewer whose native language is German.

Rabbi Mendel Glizenstein

Mendel Glizenstein is one of two rabbis in Chernivsti

One of them is Max Schickler, born in 1919. Schickler is happy to talk about the past when German was spoken on every street corner in Chernivsti: "There were 57,000 Jews and 25,000 Germans in Chernivsti. They lived in the suburb of Rosch. Even people of other nationalities spoke German."

The Romanian administration was a thorn in their side. After World War I, Chernivsti became Romanian. "But the Romanians failed to 'romanianize' the city. Chernivsti remained German speaking," Max Schickler explains in his precise, occasionally laconic-sounding German.

After the war, only around half of the Jews in the city were left - the others had been murdered or had emigrated. Then Jews from all parts of the Ukraine flocked to the city, the name of which still has a magical ring to it.

But the new Jewish inhabitants didn't speak German. A couple of Schickler's school friends remained in the city. With them he could speak in German about the old Chernivsti, about Paul Celan, who went to the same school as him, and his literary idols like Rose Ausländer and other poets.

But of all the famous sons and daughters of the city, he's most in awe of Josef Schmidt, the singer whose fans called him the "Bucovian Caruso."

The small man with a big voice

Josef Schmidt

Josef Schmidt's career was ended by the Nazis in 1933

This evening, a homage to Josef Schmidt is taking place in Chernivsti's cinema, a former synagogue. Max Schickler is there. Although it takes a lot of effort for him to walk, there's no way he'll miss the event. Old film clips show the great man who measured just 1.48 meters. "He wore high heels; that's ridiculous," Schickler says.

But Schickler's admiration for Josef Schmidt remains untarnished. "Josef Schmidt's mother lived here. Every year in fall he came to Jewish celebrations and gave concerts. The entire Jewish community attended the concerts. They all sang his songs," Max Schickler recalls.

Schmidt bought his mother a pharmacy in the street leading to the train station, the first house on the left. As a huge star in Berlin he could surely afford it. But his career ended in 1933. Schmidt fled to Vienna, then to Belgium, on to Paris and then to Switzerland where he was interned as an illegal refugee. Demoralized and in ill health, he died of heart failure in 1942.

Forever Chernivsti

In the golden age, when Bucovina was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Olga Kobylanska Street was named "Herrengasse" following the Viennese model.

Nora Gomringer on Olga Kobylanska Street in Chernivsti

Nora Gomringer on Olga Kobylanska Street in Chernivsti

Nora Gomringer is reading her works in an old palace. She tells the audience that she has already been to Chernivsti many times in her thoughts - in search of the poets who were born here, like Paul Celan, Rose Ausländer and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger.

"Because I've always written a lot about the Shoah, I'm always asked to speak to young people in Germany about the topic. So I produced three texts which were used for a German textbook series in schools," says Gomringer. One of them is titled "Monologue" and is dedicated to Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger.

After the reading I meet Felix Zuckermann. He is the son of Rosa Zuckermann, who was made famous by Volker Koepp's film "Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann." It tells the story of two elderly Jews from Chernivsti who met in the evenings to talk about their memories.

While Max Zuckermann is talking about his mother, about how cultivated and witty she was, someone taps him on the shoulder. It's Volker Koepp. He's making a new film featuring Chernivsti once again.

Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann

Felix Zuckermann in the garden at his home in the city

Felix Zuckermann in the garden at his home in the city

After the surprising encounter, Felix Zuckermann and I amble through the streets which become more peaceful, greener and more rural with each step. After a time we find ourselves in front of a freshly renovated two-storey house that looks just like any you'll find southern German towns. It's the house of his father's parents.

When his mother was alive, the family lived in the city center. "My mother was a tough nut. She was hardened by her difficult life." Rosa Zuckermann was deported along with her parents, husband and son Marcel to a Transnistrian camp. They all died of typhus, except for Rosa Zuckermann.

Meridian Chernivsti

I am due to meet the Silberblatt sisters, but Helene has a cold so Irene and I make the journey alone to Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger's former house. On the way she explains she was also in the city when the Meridian Chernivsti International Poetry Festival was first launched two years ago.

"It was fascinating. Paul Celan wrote that Chernivsti is a meridian, a kind of immaterial 'something' that unites people all around the world," says Irene Silberblatt. "It was just yesterday when I started to think how true it is."

Memorial plaque to Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger

The memorial plaque to Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger

We're standing before the house with a memorial plaque and a likeness of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. It almost looks as though the girl, in many ways still a child, is smiling at us, full of curiosity about a new life.

What would Meerbaum-Eisinger have become if people hadn't robbed her of her future, Irene wonders aloud. "I'm sure that she would have become a generous, warm-hearted, passionate and understanding person," she answers her own question. "She was never afraid to speak out against injustice."

Before we become even more sentimental, a dog barks at us from a first-floor balcony, jolting us back to the here and now. Irene shows me a photograph of her dog, a Silky Terrier. "He's called Mick Jagger."

A farewell tour

Nora Gomringer and I travel to the Jewish cemetery for the last time. The vehicle, an old Lada, doesn't fare well on the cobblestone streets. The driver does all he can to avoid potholes, but we're shaken about inside nonetheless.

Felix Zuckermann told me where I could find the graves of Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann. I place small stones on both and then meet Nora Gomringer in the mortuary. She can speak a little Hebrew and is trying to decipher the scripture on the wall. She suddenly starts to sing "Selma's Lullaby for Longing."

Nora Gomringer in the ceremonial hall at the Jewish cemetery

Nora Gomringer in the ceremonial hall at the Jewish cemetery

The German poet takes with her the recognition that Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger's works open up new ways of approaching the Holocaust. "With Selma, we have the chance to learn more about the Shoah, not through documents, but through art. And to that belongs the recognition that poetry is very political."

As we head off back to the city, the motor gives up. While the driver tries to repair it, we mosey around a nearby market. Farmers sell the produce from their fields here, traders offer cheap imports from China, and the place is overrun with dogs. Everyone is very friendly.

After about an hour, our vehicle is up and running again and we rattle through the streets of Chernivsti one last time.

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