- From Czernowitz to the German Order of Merit: A Memoir of Cultural History and Autobiography by Bianca Rosenthal
Czernowitz, today’s Western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi and the formerly Romanian city of Cernăuți (1918–1940, 1941–1944), was once Vienna’s easternmost outpost in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy until the beginning of World War I. Half of the city’s population was Jewish and German-speaking, creating a Western cultural exclave within Eastern Europe. While German-speaking Czernowitz stopped existing in the summer of 1941 when German and Romanian troops invaded the temporarily Soviet city (1940–1941) and deported the Jewish population to their death in Transnistria and moved the non-Jewish German-speaking population to Germany, the city itself was not destroyed. To this day the monuments and glamorous buildings of Czernowitz stand as a reminder of this lost culture.
Paul Celan and Rosa Ausländer have captured the imagination of this mythical city that was lost to genocide and expulsion, and thus it remains a [End Page 143] fascinating topic in Austrian Studies, especially since both Celan and Ausländer experienced an Austrian city under Romanian control that was already disconnected from Vienna. In her autobiography and memoir of cultural history, Bianca Rosenthal, professor emerita of German at Cal Poly University, presents her readers with a personal narrative of Czernowitz in the 1930s that provides insights into the final years of German-speaking Czernowitz from the perspective of a child at the time as well as the story of surviving the Holocaust, and the difficulties of emigrating from Czernowitz to the United States after the war.
Rosenthal’s autobiography does not follow the usual narrative techniques but rather emphasizes that these are childhood memories supported by a listing of historical events that underscore her experiences. Her chapters are titled as vignettes of each year in the 1930s and 1940s that chronicle local and international news as it would have been relevant to Czernowitzers and in particular to a growing child at the time. Romania was a relatively unstable and anti-Semitic country in the 1930s, and the Jews worried about constant revisions of the citizenship laws, which these former Austro-Hungarian citizens feared the most, jeopardizing their status in the country. Other than this, it was a happy childhood for the author, and she recounts the films she saw in the movie theater, which included some of the great American and German films of the time. When Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, the Jews in Czernowitz again primarily feared the hubris of the Romanian government vis-à-vis citizenship. “But on June 28, 1940, everything changed” (211), when the Soviets invaded the city. It was the beginning of the end of German-language culture in Czernowitz. The Jews were encouraged to study Yiddish instead, and many prominent members of the community were deported to Siberia. The worst came a year later when the Nazis and Romanian Fascists returned and Jews were murdered in the streets of the city. Deportations followed, but Rosenthal’s parents managed to stay with her in the city, and they thus survived the Holocaust in Romania. The Soviets returned in 1944, but no one wanted to stay in the city. Rosenthal’s family emigrated via Poland, Budapest, and Vienna to Munich, where she would stay until 1951 as a displaced person (dp). The narrative of her autobiography does not go into great detail on her life in the United States, except that she earned her Ph.D. in German from the University of Washington and served as a professor of German at Cal Poly from 1971 to 2007. One of the highpoints in her career, as [End Page 144] mentioned in the title of the book, came when she was awarded the German Order of Merit.
One of many fascinating aspects of this book are her references to Paul Antschel (Celan), whom she knew from Czernowitz. While many books have been written in German in...