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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Bukovynian “ship” under the sail of tolerance

14 October, 2008 - 00:00

The city of Chernivtsi deserves to have a special anniversary celebration because of its history, which is full of suffering, its tolerance, untouched original character, refined Europeanness, and aristocratic spirit. The earliest written reference to Chernivtsi dates back 600 years ago to Oct. 8, 1408, when it was mentioned in a letter written by the Moldavian Prince Alexandru cel Bun (Alexander the Kind). Since then, the capital of the Bukovyna has experienced many changes of governments, states, and neighbors as Chernivtsi has gone on with its life, joys, and sorrows.

On Oct. 4-5, 2008, Chernivtsi celebrated its 600th anniversary. The local authorities began preparing for this event a long time in advance, and the Cabinet of Ministers issued an order to mark the event on the national level. The residents of Chernivtsi had been looking forward to it because, apart from the mass festivities, these kinds of landmark anniversaries instill hope that the authorities will start paying attention to the city’s old, unresolved problems, beautifying the city, and repairing its infrastructure. The following article is the first in a series devoted to the past, present, and future of Chernivtsi and its residents.

Today Chernivtsi is one of Ukraine’s oblast centers, a small city located on the banks of the Prut River in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. However, for historians and culture specialists it is a virtual Klondike, full of inexhaustible examples demonstrating positive interethnic contacts. For centuries, many different nationalities, cultures, and religious denominations have peacefully coexisted on this relatively small territory, serving as an example of tolerance, which is sometimes lacking in Old Europe today. For the current residents of this city the phenomenon of Old Chernivtsi is a stunning revelation – a discovery of a completely unknown world, as attractive and mythical as the one that was hiding behind the Berlin Wall for four and a half decades after the Second World War.

The cultural phenomenon of Chernivtsi deserves more attention from researchers. One Ukrainian scholar who studies the cultural, ethnic, and religious pluralism in this western Ukrainian city is the historian Ihor Cher­khovsky, who recently published a book entitled Chernivtsi, kov­cheh pid vitrylamy tolerantnosti (Chernivtsi: An Ark under the Sails of Tolerance).

The elusive concept of “Chernivtsi’s tolerance” is literally in the air: above the cupolas of Orthodox churches, the steeples of Roman Catholic churches, the Stars of David above Jewish synagogues, and the crypts of the faithful from all denominations and those who worshipped secular idols; above the roofs of civic centers; and the heads of local intellectuals and politicians. This aura envelops the city and protects its inhabitants from the thunderbolts and hailstorms that often loom on the political horizon.


A special aura exudes even from the names of the streets in the Old City. One street goes around the former residence of the Bukovynian metropolitans, which now houses Chernivtsi National University. It bears the name of Josef Glavka, the creator of architectural masterpieces in Chernivsti, Prague, and many other cities. As we walk along Universytetska Street, we pass Akademik Vavilov Street, named after the prominent Russian scholar who worked in Bukovyna and was arrested by the NKVD. From there we continue along a street named after the Chernivtsi native Mihai Eminescu, the greatest poet of Romania, and reach Ivan Franko Street, named in honor of the titan of the Ukrainian revival, who visited Chernivtsi on numerous occasions and attended university here.

Around the city center street signs bear other distinguished names: the Germans Johann Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, who have always been highly regarded in Chernivtsi, the Poles Adam Mickiewicz (his name has graced one of the main streets for nearly a century) and Anton Kochanowski, one of the most respected mayors of the city, and the popular Jewish writers Eliezer Steinberg and Sholem Aleichem, as well as Sidi Tal, who was a well-known Jewish actress in her time.

Wandering through the Old City, we reach Turetska (Turkish) Street. Together with Turetsky Bridge and Turetska Well, which still serve the needs of Chernivsti residents, this toponymic landmark is a reminder of the brief sojourn of the Turks here in the early 18th century. Virmenska (Armenian) Street and the former Armenian Catholic Cathedral are reminders of the small but active Armenian community that produced several important figures, in particular the musician Karol Mikuli and Yakub Petrovych, the first independent mayor of Chernivtsi.

The key to this phenomenon of multiculturalism lies in the stormy history of the region and its main city. In Chernivtsi, flags and symbols replaced one another faster than the changing generations. Living in this kind of transition space and sailing across the sea of life on a ship without a home port, at some point every citizen in this region of intersecting cultures faces his or her own borderland situation. Which nation, language, faith, flag, or symbol should they stake on?

In the conditions of periodic instability in this part of the world people inadvertently develop permanent values that cannot be unconditionally expropriated or privatized by any party, nation, or culture. This is what gave rise to the Chernivtsi (or Bukovynian) phenomenon of multiculturalism, the phenomenon of coexistence and mutual tolerance among various cultures that still sparks admiration in all those who are experiencing it for the first time.

The contemporary German journalist Georg Heinzen has compared Chernivtsi under Austria’s rule to a pleasure boat with a Ukrainian crew, German officers, and Jewish passengers. This was a ship steering a course between the East and West under the Austrians. It is impossible to come up with something more chimerical and volatile for Eastern and Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century than Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews together in one boat under the sails of tolerance. Nevertheless, this was the reality of Old Chernivtsi.

In the dialect that is peculiar to Chernivtsi a ship was called shifa, from the German das Schiff. In the city’s historic urbanonymy Shifa is the name of a residential district located at the intersection of Holovna Street and Sholem Aleichem Street in the Old City. It is also a faint echo of a famous local inn called “Zum Goldenen Schiff,” which was once located there. In the late 19th century, one of the notable architectural sites of the Old City, a ship-house, was built there and old timers started calling it shifa. Amid the noisy streets and heavy traffic, this house and the entire district are like a ship in the ever-flowing current of life.

However, at least two generations and several eras separate contemporary Chernivtsi residents from this nearly idyllic picture of multiculturalism and tolerance under Austrian rule. In the intervening time, being tolerant meant almost the same thing as being politically suspect. The Soviet era in particular left deep scars on the people’s psyche.

From the point of view of cultural pluralism, what did Chernivtsi become at the turn of the century? Three-fourths of contemporary Chernivtsi residents were born in the city, and for them the word shifa sounds strange, just like the surnames that are once again reappearing on street signs dedicated to the Pole Kochanowski, the Ukrainian Smal-Stotsky, the Jew Steinberg, the Romanian Onciul, and others. The entire street-renaming campaign was initially perceived by the majority as an obscure whim of the “democrats.”


Be that as it may, the old Chernivtsi ship, creaking and squeaking, is slowly jettisoning the barnacles it has accumulated over the years and setting a course for European integration. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the somewhat ostentatious game of perestroika ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev was being replaced in Ukraine by a powerful national revival, local intellectuals carried out distinctive cultural and historical campaigns.

One of the first civic organizations in the region to represent this movement was the Oberih Cultural Society, which initiated the praiseworthy cause of reviving many undeservedly forgotten names of prominent and ethnically different residents of Chernivtsi. The society also organized the first-ever film festival in the city and Ukraine in general, dedicating it to the memory of the outstanding Ukrainian film actor and director Ivan Mykolaichuk, who was born in Bukovyna, as well as an event to honor Volodymyr Ivasiuk, the composer and poet who embarked on his creative career in Chernivtsi, achieved popular acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s, and was later murdered.

Oberih filed a request to the Chernivtsi city executive committee, asking to name streets in the city after prominent natives who had been repressed by the Soviet authorities, including the poet Dmytro Zahul, Volodymyr Ivasiuk, and Ivan Mykolaichuk.

Ukrainian national-cultural organizations did not limit their educational activities to Ukrainian cultural figures. One of Oberih’s first public actions was to organize a poetry evening dedicated to Bukovyna’s German-language poets of the interwar period. This event took place in January 1989 and featured poems recited in the original German and in Ukrainian translation, which were written by Paul Celan, Rosa Auslander, and other prominent poets who were known in the German-speaking world. At the time, most of these names were unfamiliar to Chernivtsi audiences.

Following the national and political awakening of Ukrainians, the idea of national revival began to capture the imagination of other ethnic communities that had put down deep roots in the city and region-Romanians, Moldovans, Poles, Jews, and Germans. This led to the creation of their respective national-cultural organizations: the Mihai Eminescu Romanian Cultural Society, the Adam Mickiewicz Polish Cultural Society, the Eliezer Steinberg Yiddish Cultural Society, the Chernivtsi Jewish Civic and Cultural Fund, and the Vidrodzhennia Austro-German Cultural Society.

Communities that were formed after the war-Russians and Be­larusians (nearly 3,000 members) – followed suit. In January 1991 the Andrei Sakharov Russian Cultural Society was founded in the building of the Ukrainian People’s House. In June 1991 the founding assembly of the Frantzisk Skaryna Society “Belaruska Hromada” was held.

Surprisingly, in contrast to other regions of the Soviet Union, where Russian civic organizations often became opponents of local national-democratic forces, both of the above-mentioned societies immediately joined the democratic movement in Bukovyna, which is why local representatives of Na­rod­nyi Rukh (People’s Movement) and other Ukrainian national organizations welcomed the creation of these societies.

There were attempts to frustrate the new democratic movement, which was still spontaneous and politically inexperienced, by playing on interethnic tensions that had led to bloody conflicts in a number of regions in the former USSR. When a local branch of Rukh was set up in Chernivtsi and began winning the approval and support of a significant proportion of the city residents, especially Ukrainians, rumors began to circulate that “Banderites” and “Rukhivites” were planning to carry out anti-Jewish pogroms, and primitive, handwritten leaflets with Black Hundreds-type appeals appeared on advertising poles. However, the instigators failed in their calculations: clearly, during a 50-year time span Communist Party functionaries and propagandists ultimately failed to eradicate the Bukovynians’ immunity to interethnic hostility.

In response to these provocations, the democratic forces organized a campaign that was unprecedented in the Soviet Union-the so-called “Unity Chain.” Dozens of activists from Rukh and other democratic organizations formed a human chain in Chernivtsi’s central square by holding hands and carrying the national flags of all the main ethnic communities in the region. Local civic groups organized a series of joint cultural and educational events and campaigns aimed at demonstrating the unity of all democratic forces.

On Sept. 16, 1990, in the traditional Jewish district in old Chernivtsi, which was the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation, the Eliezer Steinberg Society organized a rally under Jewish and Ukrainian national flags, dedicating it to the memory of Holocaust victims.

On Oct. 19-20, 1990, in cooperation with Chernivtsi University, local Ukrainian, Jewish, and Romanian organizations held a scholarly-practical conference on “Sociolinguistic Problems in Chernivtsi Oblast.” The conference participants drafted a joint program of practical actions aimed at the spiritual revival of all ethnic communities in the oblast. They also called for street names to be changed in order to reflect the city’s historic uniqueness and remind people about the outstanding figures of the multicultural environment of Bukovyna.

In particular, they proposed restoring the historical names of several streets: Virmenska (Armenian), Turetska (Turkish), Yevhenii Hakman, and Anton Kochanowski; the Ukrainians Iryna Vilde, Mykhailo Ivasiuk, Yustyn Pihuliak, Hnat Khotkevych, Yev­he­nia Yaroshynska, and the Rusnak brothers; the Romanians Cip­rian Porumbescu and Aurel Onciul; the Jew Eliezer Steinberg, the German Reimund Keindl, the Armenian Karol Mikuli, the Russian Nikolai Vavilov, the Czech Josef Glavka, and other figures.

The abortive August 1991 coup in Moscow sowed the seeds of uncertainty among the local party cadres and government officials, and the national democratic opposition seized the initiative in the political life of the region. One of the most challenging tasks for the new democratic city authorities was to reach accord in the sphere of interethnic relations and undo the harm that the Soviet regime had inflicted on various ethnic groups.

In a number of multiethnic regions in the former Soviet empire national democrats who came into power often failed to find a common language with ethnic minorities. This led to acute, and sometimes even armed, conflicts like the ones in Nagorny Karabakh and Transdnistria. The national democratic forces in Chernivtsi can therefore take pride in the fact that they have been able to achieve an understanding with the main ethnic communities of the city.


Among the sensitive issues that were raised by the newly created national cultural societies, the primary one was a demand for the government to return the former buildings of the so-called People’s Homes (narodni domy) that had been funded and built by the ethnic communities of the region and subsequently expropriated by the Soviets in the 1940s. On Oct. 23, 1991, the municipal authorities ruled to restore historical justice by adopting a decision transferring these properties to the city and making them available to various national cultural organizations. After a period of enforced interruption that had lasted nearly 50 years, the civic centers of the Polish, Romanian, German, and Jewish communities started coming back to life.

The new municipal authorities also agreed to install in one of the centrally located public gardens a bust to Paul Celan, an internationally recognized Jewish poet. The project was financed by Austrians, and the bust was unveiled in June 1992. In addition, streets were given new-Jewish, Romanian, Polish, and other non-Ukrainian-names, and plaques bearing portraits of non-Slavic individuals were unveiled. All these non-Ukrainian names and faces that started appearing alongside our own cultural representatives began to make their way into the consciousness of the youngest generation of Chernivtsi residents, becoming indispensable features of the historical-cultural landscape of the city.

On June 2, 1992, the municipal executive committee decided to reinstate the city’s historical coat of arms dating to the Austrian era. A description of it was discovered by historians working in the State Archive of Chernivtsi Oblast. The restored coat of arms was designed to resemble its historic predecessor, but the imperial two-headed eagle was replaced by the golden trident, the symbol of the new Ukraine, and the ribbons were painted blue and yellow.

On July 17 the city council approved the description and sketches of Chernivtsi’s new coat of arms and flag, thereby giving a new lease on life to the old city tradition that was interrupted in 1918. On Oct. 9, a solemn ceremony was held in front of the entrance to the city council, during which the coat of arms and the flag were blessed by clergymen representing the Ukrainian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic, and Roman Catholic churches.

Pragmatically-minded young and middle-aged residents of Chernivtsi viewed the myth of the “small Vienna” – as their city was known – primarily as a bridge that could take them to the great city of Vienna and the rest of the Western world. The Austrian city of Klagenfurt, a representative of the former parent state, became one of Chernivtsi’s twin cities.

In the fall of 1992 Chernivtsi and the rest of Bukovyna welcomed one of the most distinguished natives of the region – the Right Honorable Ramon John Hnatyshyn, the Governor General of Canada. His family came from the Bukovynian village of Vashkivtsi, part of which is still called Hnatyshyn’s Corner. Hnatyshyn was born in Saskatoon, another twin city of Chernivtsi, where he graduated with a degree in law. He then taught at the University of Saskatchewan, the first foreign university with which Chernivtsi University launched an exchange program in 1977.

At the turn of the century and the millennium the city’s ethnic communities stepped up their cultural and educational activities, and the general public celebrated the anniversaries of prominent representatives of different cultures and various historical events in the city’s cultural life.

In early July 1998 the Eliezer Steinberg Yiddish Cultural Society and the World Council for Yiddish Culture organized an international forum that was attended by scholars and writers from Ukraine, Austria, Israel, and the US. The forum was dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the First International Conference on the Yiddish Language held in Chernivtsi in 1908.

When the 70th anniversary of the Yiddish newspaper Tscherno­wi­zer Bleter was celebrated in January 1999, the local press dubbed it “a holiday of Chernivtsi-style multiculturalism.” The urban community extended its warmest congratulations to Josif Burg, the patriarch of Yiddish literature and the long-standing editor of this periodical after it was given a second life in independent Ukraine.

On June 11, 2001, Chernivtsi hosted festivities marking the 100th anniversary of Rosa Auslander, one of the most vivid personalities in the German-language Jewish literature of Chernivtsi in the 1920s and 1930s. A memorial plaque was installed on a wall of the building where she had one lived and which is located in the historic Jewish district on Nyzhnia Yevreiska Street (now Petra Sahaidachnoho Street).

In the fall of 2001 an extraordinary event took place in Chernivtsi, which galvanized one of the oldest and smallest ethnic communities in Chernivtsi-the Bukovynian Armenians. On Nov. 2 Nerses-Petros XIX, the patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church, arrived in Chernivtsi. His visit was dedicated to the 1,700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by the Armenians. This historic visit was a big family celebration for the several dozen Armenians in Chernivtsi, who represent different emigration waves.

Chernivtsi has shown its tolerance not just during concerts and masses. At the end of the last century the city was given a unique opportunity to make its character known on the highest level of international negotiations. On May 28, 1999, Chernivtsi hosted a meeting between President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and President Emil Constantinescu of Romania. This event coincided with an escalation of the Kosovo conflict, and some politicians, who perpetually think in terms of the past, tried to cast a shadow of the international confrontation on Bukovyna.

Therefore, it was no accident that Chernivtsi, the main city of the region in which interethnic accord and understanding have long been the standard of coexistence among various ethnic groups, was chosen as the venue for the two leaders’ meeting. In an interview at Chernivtsi Airport Romania’s president said that he had come to Ukraine in order to avert Kosovo-like international problems. However, after learning about the situation of the ethnic minorities living in the city and oblast, above all the Romanians, and discussing this question with local and national Ukrainian officials, Romania’s head of state declared that there are no grounds for drawing “parallels to Kosovo” in Bukovyna.

Looking back from the new millennium on the uneasy course that the Chernivtsi shifa has completed, we repeatedly return again and again to the phenomenon of this multicultural region. This is not the standard way for a civilization to exist. A quirk of history placed in one boat fair-haired and dark-haired people; people with mustaches, beards, sidecurls, and shaved heads; the blue-eyed and the almond-eyed; the baptized and the circumcised; those who pronounce certain sounds in a “funny” way and those who cannot say other sounds; some who relish borshch and salo (pork lard), while others prefer Russian cabbage soup, Romanian mamaliga (cornmeal mush), Jewish maina, or Pepsi.

All of us who are so different were destined to sail together in one small boat, each group calling it in its own manner: Chernivtsi, Chernovitsy, Cernauti, Czernowitz, and Czerniowce. There is no point in arguing that some of them distort the city’s name because they all invest it with one and the same meaning – “our small homeland.”

The Chernivtsi shifa has confidently entered the third millennium under the sails of tolerance. It is a Ukrainian ship now, and those on board are getting used to being on one team-the Ukrainian political nation, which has set course on joining the European community. However, this does not prevent us from remembering the wise advice of the Polish writer Stanislav Vintsenz: after traveling around the world, return to your “small Ithaca,” to the finest traditions of human coexistence in this small part of the globe.