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American Imago 59.3 (2002) 253-276

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"We Would Not Have Come Without You":
Generations of Nostalgia

Marianne Hirsch & Leo Spitzer

"Czernovitz expelled its Jews, and so did Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Lemberg. Now these cities live without Jews, and their few descendants, scattered through the world, carry memory like a wonderful gift and a relentless curse. For me, too, the childhood home is that 'black milk'—to use the expression of Paul Celan—which nourishes me morning and evening while at the same time it drugs me."

—Aharon Appelfeld, "Buried Homeland"

"In der Luft da bleibt deine Wurzel, da in der Luft"
("In the air your root remains, there in the air.")

—Paul Celan, "The No-One's Rose"

We dedicate this paper to the memory of Rosa Roth Zuckermann, whose lessons about courage and survival have deeply enriched our lives. Her hospitality, along with that of Felix and Marina Zuckermann and Matthias Zwilling, during our 1998 visit to Chernivtsi embodied its continuity with the lost Czernowitz. We would also like to thank Lotte, Carl, and Lilly Hirsch for their helpful and intense conversations about a painful past.

Resistant Nostalgia: "Where Are You From?"

On our first walk through the city once called Czernowitz, a woman stopped us on the street. In a mixture of Russian and Yiddish, she asked Marianne's mother, Lotte: "Where are you from?" With our cameras and maps, we were obvious tourists, and she no doubt wondered whether we were coming from Germany, Israel, or the United States. In response, Lotte pointed, emphatically, to the ground: "From here, Czernowitzer." It was the first time in our memory that this [End Page 253] simple question, "Where are you from?" evoked such a brief, clear-cut response. Three words. "From here, Czernowitzer." Usually, it has required a long-winded, complicated narrative, if not an entire history and geography lesson.

At the present time, of course, Czernowitz is nowhere—a place that cannot be found in any contemporary atlas. It ceased to exist as a political entity long ago, in 1918 (the year Lotte Hirsch was born), with the collapse of the Austro- Hungarian Habsburg Empire. Nowadays, its name is Chernivtsi, and it is located in the southwestern region of Ukraine, on the river Prut, some fifty kilometers north of the Romanian border. After the First World War, when it fell under the rule of Greater Romania, it was called Cern(breve)au¸ti; and subsequently, under Soviet rule after the Second World War, Chernovtsy.

For Lotte and Carl Hirsch, however, and for all the surviving Jews of their generation who were born there but who are now dispersed throughout the world, the place has forever remained Czernowitz—the "Vienna of the East" and capital of Bukowina, an outlying province of the Habsburg Empire. It is a city in which (in the words of its most famous poet, Paul Celan) "human beings and books used to live" (2001, 395). 1 The long imperial connection of Czernowitz with Vienna and their own whole-hearted embrace of the German language, its literature, and the social and cultural standards of the Austro-Germanic world are for the Hirschs and their fellow refugees intimately intertwined—a core constituent of their identity. They, like their parents and grandparents, had accepted the premise inherent in the century-long process of Jewish emancipation and acculturation to Germanic culture that had taken place in lands once ruled by the Habsburgs. Its basis was that one could remain a Jew in religious belief while also becoming culturally, economically, and politically integrated within the dominant social order. Karl-Emil Franzos, Bukowina's first internationally famed German-language writer, best characterizes the complicated cultural identity of most assimilated Czernowitz Jews at the end of the nineteenth century: "I wasn't yet three feet tall when my father told me: 'Your nationality is neither Polish, nor Ruthenian [i.e., Ukrainian], nor Jewish—you are German.' But equally [End Page 254] often he said, even then: 'According to your faith you are a Jew'" (cited in Wichner...


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