My Trip to Czernowitz – 2006

By Reinhold Czarny (Mönchengladbach, Germany)
Published by the author in the Bukovina Society of the Americas Newsletter,
Vol. 16, No.4, December, 2006

Below is a short synopsis of my vacation in Czernowitz, once the capital of the Austrian crown land of Bukovina. Actually“vacation” in the pleasurable since of the term is a misnomer,since I walked around the whole day with twelve pounds of baggage on my shoulders (video camera, photo camera and tripod).

While today’s Czernowitzer is usually sad as he/she reflects on former good times in Bukovina’s erstwhile capital city, I set out with mixed feelings. What did I expect to find in this city now incorporated into Ukraine? My recollections were stories related by my mother and her siblings. Everyone had good feelings about Czernowitz!

My trip began on June 13, 2005, when I set off from Dusseldorf to Amsterdam (with a Fokker 50 – a propeller aircraft).From there I flew with a Boeing 737 to Kiev, where I stayed for two nights. It is now possible to fly directly from Dusseldorf to Kiev with Austrian Airlines or Lufthansa (Germany).

Kiev, at least what I saw of it, is a lovely place, especially its churches with their gilded domes. I stayed at a place on a little hill near the Church of St. Andrew, which is comparable to Montmartre in Paris because of its artists who sell their works on the open streets. In addition, the well-dressed women made a fine impression.

On June 15 I departed Kiev on a small and noisy propeller airplane (an Anotow 24) on a one and one-half hour’s flight to Czernowitz. Landing at the Czernowitz airport that afternoon was one of the nicest presents I could possibly have received on the day that also happened to be my birthday. During the landing I was able to identify the railway station and the white city hall at the Ringplatz.

To aid me in touring the city, I had engaged the services of a guide, Ljudmila, from the Bukovina Center, who met me at the airport. Although only twenty-two years of age, she is already an instructor at the University of Czernowitz, where she teaches Germanic philology. (This would be inconceivable in Germany, given the long duration of study). We spent the good part of everyday visiting the city’s historic sites.

During my twelve-day stay, I not only viewed all the city’s important attractions but also had an opportunity to videotape it from on high, i.e., from the towers of the city hall, the university (the former Bishop’s Residence) as well as from the hill of the Jewish cemetery and from the upper floor of a discotheque.

Unfortunately, the trees in some areas are so high that it was not possible to videotape the railway station from this vantage point. Nonetheless, through the intercession of a young Ukrainian lady named Oksana Nakonechna, who spoke with the owner of the discotheque, I was able to get excellent pictures of the theater.

Oksana is twenty-years old, speaks German and English fluently, knows a lot about the history of Czernowitz including its former street names, and pointed out reasons why I should photograph particular places. She recognized signs on houses or roads and identified a manhole cover from the Austrian and Romanian eras. Example: the inscription, “Leon Schrenzel” on Franzengasse referred to a company established in 1887, which manufactured building materials. Anyone looking for such historic markers will surely find them.

At Oksana’s grandparents’ home – an attractive large blue-green house on Schulgasse, I photographed an old stove dating from the early twentieth century. Such a stove is very rarely seen nowadays, since people have converted to gas heat.

In my discussions with Ukrainian students at the university, I was impressed by the fact that in their eagerness to learn they were involved in projects over and beyond their regular studies, such as theater, writing stories in German, and organizing photo exhibits.These projects are sponsored by the Bosch-Stiftung (Bosch Foundation), under the direction of two German women: Kathrin Hartman and Stefanie Stegmann.

But it was the preparation of a DVD that provided a central emphasis for my trip to Czernowitz. Some of the prominent urban sites I was able to film include the Jewish National House –including the Stars of David along the stairway which had been sawed off by the Russians but later restored, a small synagoguenear Arbeitergasse and Wolangasse, the inside of the Stadttheater (city theater), and the memorial to the Ukrainian author Olga Kobilanska..

After a considerable search I found and photographed the three houses once belonging to my grandparents, located on Pfarrer-Kunz Gasse, on Arbeitergasse and on Dr. Roth Gasse. To my delight I was invited into the house on the latter street and asked by the Russian homeowner if my surname per chance happened to be Wimmer (the surname of my grandparents).Perhaps the man remembered my aunt’s visit in 1985.

My host then showed me his piano, which had once belonged to my grandmother and on which my mother had played. This affected me greatly. At the entrance of the house he pointed to a sign indicating that a Soviet hero had lived here in 1940. In any event, I showed the man some pictures of my grandparents and gave him one taken at their wedding. This seemed to please him as he then proceeded to put it on the piano.

I also visited the Jewish and the Christian cemeteries. The former has not been tended in many years. The Christian cemetery does not look much better. Since the weeds and underbrush make many gravestones virtually invisible, it took me one and one-half hours to find my grandfather’s grave.

The city’s archives, housed in the former Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, proved another interesting stop where I spent several hours researching old newspapers and records pertaining to Czernowitz. The newspaper, Czernowitzer DeutscheTagespost for which my father worked as a freelance reporter after 1934, proved to be of particular interest to me. I also perused the directories of 1895 and 1914. In the latter I found an entry about my grandfather, Emil Wimmer, who served as a government official, as well as an interesting comment about the Arbeitergasse. Although the Arbeitergasse had been renamed Zalozieckigasse in 1914, people for decades later continued to call it by its former name. I also found an advertisement for the drugstore Schmidt & Fontin, where my mother had once been employed.

On two occasions I had lengthy discussions with the last German man living in Czernowitz: Mr. Schlamp, now ninety years old and still very active. A big fan of the singer Joseph Schmidt,he has almost all his songs on CDs and even sings them to tourists in the Café Vienna. The year 1940 to him proved disastrous. As a Communist, he chose not to accept resettlement to the Reich when this opportunity was offered to the Bukovina Germans. But his supposed friends, the Russians, imprisoned him and sent him to Siberia where he labored for nineteen years. Only in 1959 was he able to return to Czernowitz. Of course, I took photos of him and even filmed him singing.

In conclusion I must state that Czernowitz impressed me greatly. There has been much rebuilding in the Herrengasse with four new shops opening in the short time I was there. Following an afternoon stroll, many guests stop for coffee at the Café Vienna; while its owner speaks a little German, the waiters do not.On Herrengasse we also find the Polish House and the German House. In the latter, German films are shown every Thursday evening.

I found the people friendly and polite. Although lacking the conviviality of its Austrian days, the city indeed makes a positive impression on its tourists. I can truly say that I have fallen in love with Czernowitz and hope one day to return.