August 2012. I’ve been wanting for a long time to visit Vizhnitz – Vyzhnytsia in Ukrainian. Maybe because it was the equivalent of the middle-class and assimilated Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) Jewery once. Vizhnitz was a stronghold of Hasidism, of Jewish mysticism and Judaism for the poor. Can you still feel some of it today? Yes, if you manage to find the Jewish cemetery.
It’s an adventure when you travel in a country whose language you do not speak and whose inhabitants do not speak any foreign language in rural areas. In the hotel in Chernivtsi they described the way to the bus station to my traveling companion Tanja and me. There, we shall ask for the bus to Vyzhnytsia. Easy said. But we are lucky, a nice Ukrainian couple takes us under their wings. The “marshrutka” – the minibus – rocks us through the sunny Bukovina towards the Carpathians. Just arrived, we are a little perplexed at the bus station, but still make it to ask our friendly helpers for the Jewish cemetery before they hurry away. The cemetery? Yes, just up there on the hill. When we get there, we’re disappointed. The Christian cemetery is interesting with its old Polish grave stones, but our target was different.
In hope the Christian and Jewish cemetery could be next to each other, we ask a couple of elder women sitting in the garden of their house and cut vegetables. “A Jewish cemetery? No, that does not exist here” they tell us. Well, locals may know more in the center of town. We make our way back and ask passers-by from time to time. The answer remains the same: there is no Jewish cemetery in Vyzhnytsia. About a dozen people, we ask – without success. There are also more detailed answers: “Yes, in the neighboring Vashkivtsi there is a Jewish cemetery and in Chernivtsi also. Here is none.”
After nearly two hours wandering and asking we are shortly before giving up, until we pass the local militia station. Three uniformed persons hang around at the front door and are a bit bored – no wonder, Vyzhnytsia does not really look like the center of organized crime.
The militia has never heard of a Jewish cemetery as well. But they are ambitious, they call to someone who should know. Finally a portly policeman with impressive mustache waves the key of the patrol car and gives us a sign to follow him. Barely five minutes later, he puts us in front of the Jewish cemetery. About the militia of Vyzhnytsia one can not complain.
The Jewish cemetery of Vizhnitz is in front of us. Quite large and surprisingly even cared. The graves of the famous Vizhnitzer rabbis are close to the entrance – protected in an ohel. The typical decorations of the 19th century, that we already know from the cemetery in Chernivtsi, are here too, but the cemetery is dominated by traditional head stones without additions of classicism and historicism. We see deers, lions, candlesticks, vines and birds, with which the stones are decorated – all part of a conservative but diverse Jewish imagery. Ahead of us is something that is older than this stone carvings.
An old lady comes over and asks where we are from. Perhaps from Israel? She is happy to see visitors. A cat disappears silently in the grass. It’s very quiet.
Why nobody of the many that we asked in Vyzhnytsia knows about the Jewish cemetery? Although the cemetery is a little off on the eastern edge of town, we are talking about a town of 4,500 inhabitants, not about a big city. At least the children should have once explored the place from one end to the other and all who live here, were once children. Anyway Hasidim from America or Israel should have attracted attention when they make a pilgrimage to the graves of their rabbis. No, not even that. The Jewish cemetery is located in front of everyone, but it is invisible.
Josef Burg, who died in 2009, the last Bukovinian Yiddish writer said in an interview:
I was born in a small town at the beginning of the Carpathians, called Vizhnitz. I was raised in this town. Before the war there were 6,800 inhabitants, of whom 6,300 were Jews, religious Jews, over 90 percent of the population. And the majority, the majority spoke Yiddish. Just a small elite, like the mayor, spoke other languages. My mother cradled me with Yiddish songs, with Jewish lullabies. My father told me stories, legends, from different countries, there were wonderful stories. Today not a single Jew is left in Vizhnitz. They have perished or emigrated.
In July 1941, immediately after the outbreak of war, when the Soviet army was on retreat, they did not wait in Vizhnitz for the arrival of the Romanians. On their own the locals organized a pogrom, attacked their Jewish neighbours and took over their property. A Jewish butcher was sawed into pieces alive publicly. 12 persons lost their lives. The rest was done by the Romanian occupiers.
In today’s Vyzhnytsia no monument reminds the fact that Jews have lived here. There is no plaque at the Music Hall – once the Great Synagogue – or at the court of the Hasidic rabbis. Nothing commemorates Josef Burg or Hollywood director Otto Preminger (Porgy and Bess, Exodus, Rosebud), who were born here. No sign helps a stranger to find the most important historical and still existing monument of the town, the Jewish cemetery,
Who lives in Vyzhnytsia today lives in a foreign house. And many of those who live in Vyzhnytsia today, therefore can not see the Jewish cemetery.
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