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6 July 2014

Czernowitz – Reminiscences of a Drowned Man


My connection with Czernowitz runs deep. I can even gauge it by eye: approximately two metres. The cemeteries of this city host the remains of my aunts, my grandmother, my father and my elder brother. Even today my bride, now my widow, alas, and my cousin still live there.
 
I left the city in 1970, when I finished university. One of the reasons was simple: after graduating in English from the Faculty of Romance and Germanic Philology I was unable to find work locally. Czernowitz, like the rest of the Empire at that time, was draped with an iron curtain. There was, it is true, a camp site frequented by foreign tourists, but I never managed to get along with the KGB, even in my youth, so I wasn’t allowed anywhere near it. There was another reason though. I was a young man with big ambitions, I looked the future boldly in the eye and felt an overwhelming passion for poetry. And I believed my love would be reciprocated. I felt I was the equal of any capital city and would be met with applause wherever I went. I was wrong. But I left town and haven’t been back for nigh on 35 years now. I simply can’t get down there, even when I travel to Kiev. I know you should do the things you’re frightened to, go to places you’re scared of, overcome fear and so on. But maybe it’s not fear I feel, but embarrassment. It’s like meeting a girl you once loved forty years on. You say stupid things – “Hi there!”, “How’s life?” So, I say to the city “How’s life?” It looks at me sceptically, then says: “How’s life? Well, we managed to get by without you somehow.” It’s true, there’s no way I could come out with what that old provincial, Plutarch, used to say: “I live in a little town, and as long as it doesn’t get any smaller, I’m happy to stay there.” Czernowitz stayed little for me, like a fly in amber, stilled in the memory, frozen in history. Or like my favourite dungaree shorts with button-down braces.
 
My first encounter with the city was a huge event for me. I spent my early childhood in Chita, far to the east of Lake Baikal. This part of my life was in black-and-white, a period of total winter darkness. My father worked for an army newspaper, On the Alert. He couldn’t take to the climate of the Far East at all and was often sick. In the end he was demobilised and we left for Czernowitz where my mother had relatives. And so I was propelled from a black-and-white movie into the far Mediterranean. People say that all émigrés suffer from culture shock, but I didn’t. I’d already been immunised, and Czernowitz was the shot. Though coming from Chita, I did experience a sensual shock in Czernowitz, erotic in its own childish way. I landed up in a colour movie, in a world lit by a dazzling sun, where you almost lost consciousness from the scent of the white blossom – apple, cherry, marhul as they call apricots in Bukovina. This sensory inoculation or battery keeps me warm to this day. It is probably why I have a habit of returning not to Czernowitz but to places with the same fragrance, the same air, the same refraction of the sun’s rays: to the graveyards of Istanbul, the hills of Tuscany, to the world of the near Mediterranean.
 
In my childhood I pedalled all over the city on my “Little Eagle” cycle, and thanks to the steep streets came to understand what was meant by the phrase “breakneck speed”. I also liked to explore Czernowitz on foot. I had my favourite routes of course. I lived on Lermontov Street which came out onto Kobylanskaya. If you walk up Lermontov, cross what used to be Lenin Street and the tram tracks, walk through the shopping arcade which used to be called Passazh – and probably still is – cross two more streets and come up to the university assembly hall, you’ll wind up on the corner of my first romantic rendezvous. I had another dramatic route. Drop down Kobylanskaya to the main square, then turn left in the direction of the old synagogue, which, incidentally, was not destroyed by the Romanian fascists but blown up by the communists – there’s a cinema there nowgo past this cinema and into the pharmacy on the corner... I don’t know if it’s still there. At the very beginning of the 60s, after my father had his first heart attack, I used to run down to this pharmacy every day and return home with two oxygen pillows. Maybe old residents still remember a hot, flushed little boy always running about the centre of town with oxygen pillows. That boy was me.
 
How was Czernowitz different from other Ukrainian cities? At the end of the 50s we still had a handful of Austrian Jews in residence. They were unlike anybody else, and totally different from the stilyagi, as the Soviet teddy boys were called. The stilyagi all dressed the same: Bologna raincoats, white flat caps with grey pinstripes. The handful of Austrian Jews wore battered dark blue velour hats, grey double-breasted houndstooth coats, worn-out shoes with narrow toes, matt marble-effect cuff-links, and all of their stuff was old, almost ancient. These were their working clothes, yet looked so stylish! For me Czernowitz was always this prehistoric Austrian Jew dumped by a time machine in a Soviet zoo. In the second half of the 20th century the city fell out of the European fashion mainstream, like the velour hats and gray double-breasted coats, but it stayed elegant, it stepped out in style, even if down at heel.
 
In the Soviet Empire Czernowitz was a Jewish town. Incidentally, in German literature, too, it was always referred to as “Jewish”. In the mid-50s only a fifth of the city’s population was Jewish, and of those the Austrians were a minority, the majority were Bessarabian. But Jews have a powerful energy field. Even if they are comparatively few – thirty thousand or so – they make the weather in a city. Even as a child I knew there were Jews in Kiev, in Moscow, in Leningrad, but Jews in the
capitals all seemed respectable, rich, prosperous, while in Czernowitz we had all sorts – bums, prostitutes, killers, currency speculators, wunderkinds. Humpback Jews wandered the streets, contraband matzos loaded onto their humps. We had more than just Jewish lumpen, of course. There were famous boxers and wrestlers, who made the Olympic team and world championships. It seemed to me, when I was little, that Jews were great sportsmen, especially the wrestlers and boxers.
 
As a child I felt I lived in Israel, only it was called Czernowitz. It was my father who first told me about this. When I asked if he had ever been abroad, he said: “We live abroad.” But he never explained where abroad or how abroad. I was aware of the existence of the state of Israel from an early age. People used to leave for Palestine even during the chilliest snaps of the cold war. I was very sympathetic towards Israel. In the 60s it was the Jewish riff-raff who left: abandoned mothers with snot-nosed brats, cripples left to rot in storerooms by caring relatives, recidivists, poets who wrote in Yiddish, a language of no use to anyone. It was only a trickle, but one which, it seemed to me, might pollute the pure reservoirs of Israel whichhad been created by Jewish genius in the desert. When my young Jewish friends left school, to spite the low-lifes and losers they went off to Siberia and got their PhDs in mathematics and physics by the age of fifteen. I didn’t think very deeply why they chose Siberia. It was very much in the spirit of the Jules Verne novels I was reading at the time, and the fact of a quota for Jewish students at Ukrainian universities was too banal for me. But the trickle steadily swelled, widened, and then burst its banks. America was never in vogue in Czernowitz. Everyone went to Israel. It seemed to me that I must know everyone in the new Israel by name, as they surely all came from Czernowitz. I stood so close to the stream, that in the end I, too, was washed away and carried off. But it wasn’t until I was almost forty that I actually went to Israel. It turned out to be a huge country after all, with a huge population. And I didn’t come across a single one of those Czernowitz “Israelis”, neither by the Dead Sea, nor in Jerusalem, nor in Kfar-Darom.
 
I remember my father’s friends. He worked on the local Ukrainian-language paper, Soviet Bukovina. My father was born in Odessa and knew the three languages, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish, which were part of the Odessa air. I well remember the Jewish poet who wrote in Yiddish, Meyer Kharatz, whose works became classics in Israel. He was a survivor, who managed to come out alive from the Holocaust and the Gulag where he also did his time. At the end of the 50s they decided to finish the job after he published some poems abroad in a Polish Jewish paper without permission. The Party cell at Soviet Bukovina worked him over. I don’t think my father had any part in it, otherwise Kharatz wouldn’t have come straight over to our place after the Party meeting at the office. A little grey sparrow of a man, he sat at our table and said nothing. Then suddenly he began to recite his poems in Yiddish. Neither I nor my mother, who was raised in Russian-speaking Kharkov, understood a word. I was 12, and for me Yiddish was the language of the plebs, of semi-basements, of people cut off from high culture: cawing from a rookery, not a language. And now while I was listening to the eagle-like rasp of Meyer Kharatz reciting his poems, I became suddenly aware of poetry’s purpose, that is to give language wings. I remember this winged Yiddish to this day.
 
My father often took me for walks around the city, and he would surreptitiously point out talented Ukrainian writers, Volodimir Bablyak, Roman Andriyashik. I would make straight for them, of course, while my father tried to hold me back. Even now I can see the tension in their faces, as though they were carrying weights. Only later, in 1972, when I moved to Kiev, a city frozen by fear after the nationalist crackdown, did I understood what weights Bablyak and Andriyashik were carrying and why they died young. Another local celebrity was Khoma the gangster. I was well
acquainted with his younger brother, a halfwit generally known as Blyum who was friendly with my elder brother. One day a small-time hooligan by the name of Shmok was stupid enough to whack Blyum between the eyes. As soon as he’d done it he realised he’d made a mistake and rushed off to Kobylanskaya to apologise to Khoma. Khoma heard him out, then calmly knocked him out cold. After his first stretch inside, our town was too small for Khoma and he relocated to the richer pickings of Lvov. It took him less than a year to make the place sit up and notice. Then he tamed West Berlin. Khoma and Blyum were devoted sons. After making their first émigré million, they shipped in their invalid father from the USSR, but the old man’s heart gave out at a height of eight thousand metres and the brothers met a corpse at the airport. Blyum didn’t make it to forty. He died of a brain tumour, while Khoma had his throat slit in Munich by one of his own boys, Timokha or Tengiz, one or the other. So the entire family vanished into Czernowitz myth and legend. I also recall an inspired prostitute called Fira, better known on the street as Fellatina. I dreamed about her from the age of 12. But by the time I was able to live the dream, Fira had vanished, carried off by the winds of emigration to Haifa, to the joy of the local dockers and sailors and the dismay of the local whores. In Haifa Fira brought the general tariff down drastically, without, however, compromising the quality of her services.
 
My friends and I would devour books, but we were still little barbarians. We couldn’t feel solid ground under our feet. We had no idea what veins of gold we were trampling, what priceless ruins we walked over. We were not run-of-the-mill barbarians, of course. We had Russian, American, and French literature in us, but barbarism is the absence of memory, historical, cultural memory. It wasn’t our fault. They had deprived us of memory. I first heard of Paul Celan when his name was borne to Czernowitz on winds from Kiev. Only then did I seek out people in Czernowitz who had been at school with him, been his friends. I remember going in 1972 to see the Kiev modernist poet Mykola Bazhan, who was also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine – I was taken to see him by another Ukrainian poet from Czernowitz, Moses Fishbein – and how touchingly, how respectfully Bazhan spoke about Czernowitz and Paul Celan. The capital knew more and had a deeper understanding of history.
 
Old Czernowitz was a crossroads of cultures. Pasternak has a line about the “air rent with cries”. The air of Czernowitz was rent with cries, groans, sighs in German, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian. Photographers work with light and shade, composers with series of sounds, while a writer works with language. It doesn’t require great imagination to appreciate the richness of the linguistic background, the linguistic landscape of Czernowitz. I called it a “waft of tongues”. Out of this polyphony poetry was born. Capital cities establish the classic criteria, define standards, but the provinces are the real capitals of modernism. Because out in the sticks the bookish young polish their blood. How can their deviance and hyper-emotion be quenched by the scrolls and curlicues of the Secession? But curvature of cornice and gable can carry impressionable young people far. Heinrich Heine had the notion that periods of decline reek of subjectivity. This was said disapprovingly, if anything. For me, though, this thought is simply a diagnosis. When all around is falling apart – empires, canons, reputations – who do you rely on, if not yourself? So you become “subjective” and work with your own “I”, you refract reality as you see fit, because you are fraught, pregnant with “subjectivity”.
 
Of the Czernowitz writers, I feel an affinity with Gregor, aka Grisha. I wouldn’t risk saying he was close to me in a literary sense: he wrote prose, not poetry. His official name was Gregor, though to the grave he would call himself by the childish Grisha when you met him. It was the irony of the aristocrat. Grisha’s full name was Gregor von Rezzori. In his prose he referred to Czernowitz as Chernopol. He was close to me in lifestyle. Recently the Russian artist Viktor Pivovarov, who lives in Prague, gave me a painted plate inscribed “to the joyful melancholic”. That’s how he sees me. I think that Gregor – Grisha – von Rezzori was a joyful melancholic. He worked as a radio journalist. I, too, have toiled as an “aerial acrobat” for nigh on thirty years. He wrote cookery books, acted in movies with Brigitte Bardot, no less. He was close to me in style and temperament. I can boast of a couple of monographs on wine, though I’m no match for Grisha, of course. In the end he preferred Italy to Germany. There he lived, there he died. And his route took him from the far Mediterranean to the near.
 
In Paul Celan I like the pauses and caesuras. His syntax. He experienced the death of his parents in a Romanian camp, and he himself was imprisoned in a labour camp. It was then, I believe, that his heart stopped. For him the caesuras and pauses between the words, between the grammatical structures are not an avant-garde affectation, but pauses between heartbeats. His response to Theodore Adorno’s rhetorical question “is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz?” was not rhetorical, but poems. And here is something else I am grateful to Celan for. He was an invisible poet, a ghost poet. Vitebsk was daubed by Chagall from head to foot. You can’t take a step in Dublin without stumbling, tripping over a sentence from Joyce. In Celan, even in his most tragic verse, you hear no difficulty in breathing. He left behind no junk, immovable furniture, blood or sweat stains.
 
Czernowitz was also a city of great doctors. Brafeld, Klein, Kroshkin – everyone in the city knew their names. The doctors pronounced their sentence, appealed to God, their God – Asclepius –, and obtained a review of the case, a reprieve. Brafeld would come – the Ukrainians called him Brachfeld – and shout at my mother and father: “Open the window, let the frost in, otherwise your son will die!” And then would leave. A magician’s scarlet cloak swirled around his shoulders. Nobody in either the Old or New World ever gave a more exact diagnosis. Our magicians had to grow especially sensitive antennae and probosces, seeing the laboratory of Wihelm Röntgen and Franck’s needles as the height of progress on the outer lip of the empire. Recalling now these Czernowitz wizards with their satin cloaks, I abandon atheism. Faith is the smell of benylin in the nursery, the cold of someone’s fingers probing the abdomen, the print of a stethoscope on the shoulder blade. How can I be an atheist, when my nursery felt the presence of Brafeld, Klein and Kroshkin?
 
Dissidents can be not only people, but towns. The architecture of Czernowitz in the Soviet empire was dissident. Walking past these buildings, living in them, you could not help but be infected by their spirit. It was a dissident town which gave us, its inhabitants, lessons in beauty, liberty, duty. Czernowitz was a quotation, from another epoch. One which only the most subtle connoisseurs could parse. A quotation from the wonderful Austrian poets who lived there between the two world wars. Walking around the city, you walked around a quote. You read it. The former city is no more. What remained were fragments of sentences, splinters of words which had penetrated the consciousness, the cultural environment of the German and Austrian reader.
 
There is a child’s game – “Freeze!” Between the wars Czernowitz “froze”. It lived its own life, not expecting, not anticipating the Holocaust. It was a city of bookworms, with many memoirs written about it, including one by Rose Ausländer. In 1978 I landed in Germany and my friend, who taught in a German gymnasium, called Ausländer, who lived in Düsseldorf. “You don’t know me”, she said, “but I’m calling because I have a friend, a Russian poet from Czernowitz, who you might be interested to meet.” By that time Rose Ausländer had won many awards, she was a celebrity, a classic. “I’d like to”, she replied, “but at the moment I’m not well enough.” She truly was unwell, with a serious form of arthritis, she could no longer write and had to dictate her poetry, but I think her real reason was different. She once wrote that Czernowitz was a “town drowning”. The image of the city as Atlantis was hers. So I think she was probably put off by the thought of meeting someone who lived and wrote poetry at the bottom of a drowned city. It meant someone had settled in her Atlantis. And my physical presence, talking about poetry and the simple fact that I wrote would shatter her crystal image of the drowning city. She didn’t want to meet a drowned man.
 
While I was living in Czernowitz I almost never wrote about Czernowitz. But no sooner had I moved to Kiev than I instantly saw it at its full height:
 
FROM THE AUTHOR
 
Away all doubts! The reader is not fearful,
The reader likes the sharpest razor blades.
He would be glad to die along with me
Beneath a desk-lamp, from a bursting windpipe.
Am I mistaken? Well, let’s not evade
Mistakes I have committed, nor my insights.
Why be bashful? When young, my little town
Drilled into bad taste, a lasting lesson –
Where pathos lingered, beauty lingered too,
Where life and death collided – that’s where art was.

Get on the saddle. Bicycle’s at hand.
A one, a two. And off we fly. The fading
Familiar faces. Just the temple throb,
And an anorak that billows out behind me.
Hold on more tightly. Cable grips are snapped.
For us there can be no more thought of stopping.

A garden, look. That boy there: on his lips
There’s cherryade, loose braces over shoulders.
The poplar’s silver down and peeping through,
The Jewish quarter, like a home-baked loaf
With garlic well rubbed-in. Old women’s eyes.
Just look. Inhale. You’ll understand that fear
Along with water bursts out from the standpipes.

And tyres go hissing on. How steep the slope.
And dust gets in the tickles in the nostrils.
Now something stings my face. My ears still hear
It ring “I love you!”. Tears held back by wind-force
Which brings salvation.

Sheer drops of arms. Cliff faces. How frail
The cheerful whipping air-stream.
Dragonflies
Have made it seem transparent now and lighter,
Fragrant of cornflowers. Far away
The frontier, and railway carriage bustle,
The customs scrutiny. The mother of my friend
Now boards. Once more, once more, one final effort.
No helping them. The saddle-bag drums on.
We fly, dear reader! Spokes and sinews flexing.
I am here. With you. I’d love to take you too
Not down the hillside, but past the lip of nothing,
If only doubt would vanish...
 
Czernowitz is a city with a secret. And a mystery. The secret first. There are towns which are not only lucky, they deserve their luck. I mean towns which have been smiled on by God, even with just a tiny curl of His lip. But why did they attract his attention? Culture has its own logic, its own magnetic fields. Well then, God looked down on Czernowitz, didn’t look even, His ear just caught a faint sound, detected a rustle, an overflow of diphthongs and phonemes, a patchwork of languages, and was astonished by the miraculous draft rising up from this mere dot on the globe. A linguistic thermal. As for the mystery, it’s within us. The mystery is the work of our imagination, it is the cellars and attics of our memory, and as long as they exist, Czernowitz will continue to be a mystery city.
 
In 1975 I wrote of Czernowitz thus: “my Dublin, my Vitebsk, my little town”. I involuntarily equated myself with James Joyce and Marc Chagall. I was overambitious. I am not their equal. Not by a long shot. But Czernowitz is.
 
Text translated by Frank Williams, poem translated by Alan Myers



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