Letter from Chernivtsi: Ukraine’s ultimate literary capital

28 September 2021
Top image: Max Kozmenko

Near the border with Romania, the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi — and the greater region of Bukovyna, split across both countries — is a lingering testament to the ghosts of the 20th century. Chernivtsi has long been a melting pot of different cultures, languages, and traditions. Having been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, the USSR, and Ukraine, the city abounds in complex stories and cultural crossovers. After all, Bukovyna was the most ethnically diverse province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where not only Ukrainians but Romanians, Jews, Germans, Poles, and other ethnic groups lived together.

Yet, despite its rich history, to walk through the streets of Chernivtsi on a daily basis, as I do, is to walk through a neglected graveyard: you notice how many of the once magnificent buildings and cobblestone streets are blighted by neglect. Tourists who visit Chernivtsi today are quick to remark on the beauty of the city’s architectural style, such as the Residence of Bukovynian and Dalmatian Metropolitans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the same time, hotels and casinos overtake once-charming historic villas built in the Art Nouveau style. With each passing year, Chernivtsi risks becoming a shadow of its former glorious self.

In the midst of this disregard for the past, it’s literature that keeps Chernivtsi alive. This has historically been the case, and is the case now, thanks to one of Ukraine’s biggest literary festivals: Meridian Czernowitz. Launched in 2010, the festival’s founding goal was to return Chernivtsi to the cultural map of Europe. As a result, guests from all over Ukraine and, in fact, from all over the world gather in Chernivtsi at the beginning of September for this annual poetry festival.

Image: Meridian Chernowitz via Facebook
Image: Meridian Chernowitz via Facebook
Image: Meridian Chernowitz via Facebook
Image: Meridian Chernowitz via Facebook

This time round, the festival was a particularly special celebration because it was the first held in person since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. With the safety of festival attendees in mind, many of the events were held outdoors or in large auditoriums. During those three days it felt, if only for a passing moment, that the city had come back to life. Ukrainian stars Serhiy Zhadan and Kateryna Kalytko summoned an otherworldly literary presence as they read their poems, as well as the verse of Bertold Brecht in translation, obscured by fog and crimson light. Listening to the legendary writer and journalist Igor Pomerantsev — whose voice has long blessed the airwaves of the BBC and Radio Svoboda — talk about poetry and love put me in such a state of tranquility that it felt as if he spoke the language of heavenly angels.

But it’s not just contemporary literature that Meridian Czernowitz celebrates. The spirit of the festival, and in many ways the spirit of modern-day Chernivtsi, is, in fact, the German and Romanian language poet Paul Celan. Born Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in 1920 in what was then Cernăuți in the Kingdom of Romania, Celan would go on to become one of the most important post-war poets of the 20th century. The guilt he carried for surviving the horrors of the Second World War when his parents did not, especially his beloved mother, was too much for him. After the war he eventually settled in Paris, but mental health issues plagued him for the rest of his life. In 1970 the ghosts of Bukovyna flung him into the River Seine. His poem “Death Fugue” (“Todesfuge”), translated by Pierre Joris, is one of the definitive texts about the Holocaust, specifically about the concentration camps. It is a seemingly impenetrable poem, that pulls you in the more you try to understand it.

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes
He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland

Paul Celan statue in Chernivtsi. Image: Max Kozmenko
Paul Celan statue in Chernivtsi. Image: Max Kozmenko
The house where Paul Celan was born. Image: Max Kozmenko
The house where Paul Celan was born. Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko

Celan believed that writers could only express themselves honestly in their native language. As a German-speaking Jew who had survived the Holocaust, this was a complicated rule for him to live by. Yet Celan knew many languages: he spoke German at home and Romanian in school. At one point during his youth, he studied in a Hebrew school, and he also knew French, Russian, and Ukrainian. It is common to meet people in Bukovyna with such an impressive knowledge of languages even today: such is the reality of life on the borderlands. Nevertheless, there was a period of Celan’s life when he wrote poems in Romanian. So why did he choose later on in his life to write exclusively in German? Was it a form of self-punishment compelled by his survivor’s guilt? Or perhaps he was trying to rebirth the language, to strip German of the horrors he so strongly associated with it.

Another great writer who had preceded Celan in Chernivtsi some 70 years before, in the 1850s and 60s, is Romania’s most famous romantic poet, Mihai Eminescu, who is celebrated with a statue at the intersection of the central University Street and Stepan Bandera Street. Born in 1850 in Moldova, Eminescu spent a significant part of his life in Chernivtsi and would go on to become the leading figure in modern Romanian poetry. His contribution to shaping the modern Romanian language is equal to that of Shevchenko and Pushkin for their shaping of modern Ukrainian, and Russian, respectively. Speaking to S–, a Ukrainian student I once tutored in English, I was surprised to learn that Eminescu was not part of his world literature curriculum (although he did learn about Paul Celan). On the other hand, S–’s cousin, who lives in one of the predominantly Romanian-speaking villages in Bukovyna, had a school curriculum which devoted a significant amount of time to the poet’s work. A true figure of the 19th century, Eminescu’s work is deeply tied to mysticism and nature, as is evidenced by his masterpiece “The Morning Star” (“Luceafărul”) in translation by Corneliu M. Popescu.

From ‘neath the castle’s dark retreat,

Her silent way she wended,

Each evening to the window seat

Where Lucifer attended.

And secretly, with never fail,

She watched his gracious pace,

Where vessels drew their pathless trail

Across the ocean’s face.

The house where Eminescu lived as a pupil. Image: Max Kozmenko
The house where Eminescu lived as a pupil. Image: Max Kozmenko
Eminescu statue. Image: Max Kozmenko
Eminescu statue. Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Statue of Ukrainian poet and writer Yurii Fed’kovych. Image: Max Kozmenko
Statue of Ukrainian poet and writer Yurii Fed’kovych. Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko
Image: Max Kozmenko

Blending literature and technology, the project “In the footsteps of Eminescu” was launched last year, bringing admirers of Eminescu’s poetry — regardless of where in the world they are based — to several locations in Chernivtsi and Bucharest that are associated with the poet’s life. Created by the Laboratory of Culture, a Chernivtsi youth organisation founded in 2016 and headquartered in the renovated Ukrainian People’s House, the project shows Eminescu’s poetry in this virtual reality alongside the digital recreation of his school, bedroom, and other places that shaped him into a poet. (The Laboratory of Culture’s founder, Andriy Tuzhykov, is part of Chernivtsi’s new generation of writers — an AI engineer and self-described webpunk who writes poetry in a style that is reminiscent of Paul Celan, as these lines will attest: pale snow of Siberia / you are in a bleached straightjacket / the same as a young moon / immerse you face in this snow…)

Chernivtsi has been home to so many significant literary figures that it would be impossible to mention them all. Across the whole of Ukraine, there are statues and monuments dedicated to them. Plaques adorn the houses which once belonged to the modernist Ukrainian writer and feminist Olha Kobylianska, where Lesya Ukrainka, the best known Ukrainian female poet from the turn of the 20th century, also stayed during visits to her dear friend. Yet people live in these houses today. Somebody occupies the apartment where Paul Celan was born and grew up. There is so much more that could and should be done to preserve the literary history of Chernivtsi. You would think that one of the most central cities in the history of European literature would have a modest yet impressive literature museum, but Ukrainians have not yet embraced museum culture on the scale of their Western European neighbours, and it seems that they are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Accepting the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958, Paul Celan once referred to Chernivtsi as “a region in which human beings and books used to live”. It has long been a city of literary ghosts, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever. Thanks to the efforts of Chernivtsi’s new generation of literary figures, in cooperation with the local city council, the city is moving toward the status of the Book Capital of Ukraine for 2022, awarded by the Ukrainian Cultural Fund and the Ukrainian Book Institute. How exactly this status will benefit the city remains uncertain for now, but there is talk of more literary festivals and events.

Literature has kept this city alive. With time, literature can help bring the city back to its former glory. Thanks to literature, Chernivtsi is eternal.

Chernivtsi University. Image: Max Kozmenko

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