The Community of Chernovitz
Background – from its Start until after World War I
Located at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, Chernovitz today is part of the independent Ukraine. It has passed in its history quite often from hand to hand; originally it constituted part of the Romanian Principality of Moldavia, later, however it has been ruled by a variety of successive powers: Poland, Turkey, Austria, Independent Romania, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union once more and currently the independent Ukraine. Jews are mentioned there as of the 15th century, when the Turks ruled the area. Later on in the century, their number increased by both Ashkenazi and Sephardi settlers. In the 17th century, following the 1648-1649 pogroms, numerous refugees from Poland and the Ukraine were added, including many of those disgruntled by the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi.
We first hear about conferring autonomy to the Jewish Community, although partial, as of the 17th century. Education was mandatory and managed by the community. The internal organization of the community was similar to the one prevailing among the Jews of Turkey. It was headed by a Rabbi (Khkham Bashi) and the community leaders (called Straosti) each responsible for his respective obligations.
Two significant transformations took place in the Bukovina Region during the 18th century. The first was the Hassidism Movement, which became deeply rooted there; the second was the conquest of the region by the Austrians towards the end of the century (1774).
These two facts of life had opposite implications. The Austrian Authorities inclined towards Germanization of the Bukovina population; Emperor Joseph II favored an integration of the Jews; changing the national, social and professional aspects of their life structure or else – their emigration. For achieving this he encouraged governmental German-language schools, the Haskalah Movement (Enlightenment) and vocational retraining. Simultaneously he tried to reduce the number of Jews, especially those who had immigrated to Bukovina from Poland and the Ukraine. Contradictory to these tendencies, however, the said Jews remained loyal Hassidim.
Chernovitz and its environments became centers of various Hassidic movements, which became widespread throughout the Jewish World - Ruzhin, Sadegura, Boyan, Vizhnitz. At the beginning of the 19th century The Av Bet Din (Hebrew: President of the Rabbinical Court) in Chernovitz was Rabbi Cha’yim Thirer; during the tenure of his successor, Rabbi Isaac Shimshon Meislish-Horovitz, the Shass (the 6 volumrs of the Mishna) was printed in Chernovitz. The controversies between the Hassidim and the followers of the Haskalah Movement became more acute in the 19th century and as a protest, Rabbi Meislish-Horovitz resigned his post as Av Bet Din. Towards the end of the century peace was regained between both communities with two respective rabbis on behalf of the Orthodox and the Enlightened (followers of the Haskalah). This arrangement continued right until the Holocaust. Along with the just mentioned internal struggles, developments with reference to Jews’ rights took place. In 1867 full civil rights and cultural autonomy on behalf of the Austrian Authorities were granted to the Jews. Chernovitz’s Rabbi was regarded as the Rabbi of the District of Bukovina. At the beginning of the 20th century Jews played an active role in the public and economic life of Chernovitz.
The Bukovinian Jews were recognized as a separate national group and were represented as such in the House of Representatives. Some of them were active in several socialist movements as well as the Zionist movement. In addition, there was an active Yiddishist movement in Chernovitz. In 1908 a Yiddishist Writers Conference headed by Dr. Nathan Birenbaum took place in Chernovitz, in which Yiddish was declared the national language of the Jews. As stated above, as of 1774 until the First World War - Chernovitz and the whole region were subject to Austrian rule. This situation changed as a result of the war. The city was occupied by the Russians. The Jewish Community was almost destroyed and its leaders were deported to Siberia. Yet this picture was short-lived too. At the end of the war, 1918, Bukovina was occupied by the Romanians. Their rule continued until June 1940, when Northern Bukovina including Chernovitz was annexed by Soviet Russia. A year later, June 1941, the area was occupied by Nazi Germany with the cooperation of its Romanian accomplices.
Between the Two World Wars until after the Hokocaust
The transition to Romanian rule in Bukovina in general and in Chernovitz in particular was not an easy process. The ruling Romanians constituted only a minority of the population. According to the 1919 census there were in Chernovitz 9,566 Romanians (10.4% of the population) and 43,555 Jews (47.4%). The high numbers/percentages of Jews should be partially attributed to Jews who had returned to Chernovitz after the First World War. In order to enhance its status as ruler, although ethnic Romanians were just a minority, the Government of the New Romania displayed tolerance regarding the Jews and confirmed their autonomic status (which they had enjoyed since the mid 19th century until the First World War and lost completely along with the war and the occupation of Bukovina by the Russians).
This generosity was superficial, as soon became obvious. Notwithstanding the autonomic framework given to the Jews, in de facto life the Romanian regime became obsessive in economic, political and cultural aspects. Jewish officials were removed from their posts. Anti-Semitic phenomena against university students became manifest; in 1926 a Jewish student called David Faluk was murdered. In the University of Chernovitz a numerus clausus system was introduced, which limited the number of its Jewish students. A combined effort by the Chernovitz Community and Jewish aid organizations such as Bnay Brith, The Joint, Ort, HIAS and AZA was made in order to face these kind of problems as well as the challenge of autonomy, however limited it might be.
At the end of the First World War it was decided to found a Jewish National Council, whose representatives reflected the opinions of the four political parties under its auspices. The representative of the Country’s Zionist Organization was Dr. Meir Ebner, who was elected as the President of the Council. Dr. Benni Straeucher and Dr. Kessner acted on behalf of the Country’s Jewish Party. The Po’a’lay Zion party was represented by Leib Steinmetz and Dr. Feibel Sternberg and the socialists – by Dr Pistiner. In addition to this kind of activity there were also cultural, educational and communal activities. There were also Zionist youth movements, the Maccabi Sport Organization, The KKL - The Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod – called today: United Israel Appeal and WIZO. There was also the Jewish Theater Society founded just before the outbreak of World War I by Dr. Max Diamant.
On top of that the Society for the History of the Jews was founded in Chernovitz in 1936; it was involved in researching the history of the Jews in Bukovina in particular and the whole of Romania in general. Several papers used to appear, mainly weekly magazines in either German or Yiddish, which reflected the opinions of the various factions within the community. Exceptional among them was Saffa Ivria (The Hebrew Language), published in Hebrew. There were controversies regarding the teaching language in Jewish schools; what should it be: Romanian, German, Yiddish or Hebrew? There was a Jewish elementary school in Chernovitz of which the teaching language was Romanian and learning Hebrew there was mandatory. There were two teaching nets which competed with each other regarding the teaching language: Yiddish versus Hebrew. The Yiddishist Society (Yiddisher Shulverein) maintained evening classes, training classes for school teachers and seminaries for Kindergarten teachers – influenced by Bund ideology. On the other hand, there was there the Saffa Ivria, founded already in 1905, which renewed its activity even more vigorously between the two world wars. It founded three kindergartens, Hebrew classes, Hebrew seminary for continuous education, a private Hebrew elementary school and a Hebrew teacher seminary of which the sole teaching language was Hebrew.
The struggle between the supporters of Hebrew and the Yiddishists terminated with the victory of the first; however, Yiddish was recognized as a pedagogical tool for teachers in order to introduce Hebrew as a teaching language. The language differences found their expression in the field of literature too. Eliezer Steinberg, one of Chernovitz’s main figures, around whom a great deal of the activity related to Jewish cultural life used to take place - wrote both in Yiddish and Hebrew. The educational and cultural activities mentioned here do not include the religious institutions, which functioned in separate frameworks. We have already mentioned the tremendous popularity of the Hassidic dynasties in the Bukovina Region. In addition, one should note the Talmud Torah (a religious elementary school), existing already prior to the First World War, as well as Yeshivat Be’er Ma’yim Kha’yim – a religious high school called after the name of the book Well of Fresh Running Water by the already mentioned Rabbi Kha’yim Thirer (Kha’yim Chernovitzer). The yeshiva was founded in 1923 and was headed then by Rabbi Kutay. Between 1936 and its closing down by the communists in 1940 it was headed by Rabbi Meshulam Rath.
Summing up the distribution of Jews and Judaism in Bukovina between the two world wars, it is worthwhile to note some statistic data related to Chernovitz per se and in comparison with the whole of Bukovina. The 1930 census showed that more than half of the Jewish population in the Region of Bukovina resided in Chernovitz. Jews constituted 10.9% of Bukovina’s general population, but 39.3% of the population of Chernovitz.
A tremendous blow against the Jews took place in 1937 with the rise to power of Goga-Cuza, whose government promoted an explicit anti-Semitic policy; however, due to international political pressure against Romania it ruled only six weeks. The next deterioration arrived in June 1940, when Northern Bukovina and its capital were occupied by the Red Army and annexed to the Republic of Western Ukraine. Properties were seized/nationalized without compensation. Ukrainians were preferred for jobs at the expense of Jews. Special identity cards were issued for the wealthy as well as for rabbis and Zionists. Bearers of such personal documents were arrested in 1941 and deported to Siberia.
The last blow was struck in June 1941, when a combined army of Nazis and Romanians occupied Chernovitz. The Community was destroyed and most of its members perished in the extermination camps. Only about 200 families survived the Holocaust.