How does contemporary literature from Chernivtsi engage with the city’s Jewish literary history?
Interview with Oxana Matiychuk, literary scholar and cultural manager in Chernivtsi
What is your relationship to Jewish literature from Chernivtsi?
My name is Oxana Matiychuk. I'm from Chernivtsi and wear several hats: First, I'm a lecturer in literary history at the University of Chernivtsi. I also work at the university's International Office. I also run the cultural association in Chernivtsi officially named the German-Ukrainian Cultural Society, a partner of the Goethe Institute.
In both my profession and my cultural management work, I am inevitably very involved with literature. And I also wrote my dissertation about Jewish German-language literature from Bukovina.
Can you tell us about the contemporary literary scene in Chernivtsi?
The literary scene is truly very lively. A few of the authors are already international names. For example, Chrystja Wenhrynjuk has been translated, and Maxym Dupeschko has also been translated into several languages. And as a lecturer in literature I know a few current students, a few voices who doubtless will be famous in the future, or could become famous. Absolutely enormous talents.
What role does Jewish literary heritage play for the young writers?
I notice that particularly those who personally aspire to careers in literature or the arts, not necessarily literature, are now particularly interested in the literature that was written before 1940. In other words, in the literature of Bukovina that has entered literary history in the West or in some cases the canon.
There are several contributing factors including the Meridian Czernowitz literary festival. The name makes a very clear allusion to Paul Celan, to one of his speeches. And because, thankfully, there are so many translations, foremost thanks to the translator and professor Peter Rychlo, non-German-speakers are also able to receive this work. In order to reflect on it, obviously you need to be able to receive it. And the complete works of Paul Celan are available. There are many translations of Rose Ausländer. There are translations of the work of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger. It's really quite a lot, thanks to the tireless Peter Rychlo.
And there are allusions to these authors and texts in the writings of young authors. Beyond that, there are very many art projetcs that draw on this rich literary heritage. And because, at least before the big war, we did a lot of cultural management work, we notice the huge potential of Bukovina's multinational, multilingual literature. Our NGO has many projects related to the work of either Rose Ausländer or Paul Celan, or Selma as well. It's truly a limitless source of ideas, stimuli, and inspiration.
Does literature in Yiddish and Hebrew play a role as well?
Unfortunately less so. Because there are virtually no translations from the Yiddish. Yiddish is sadly dying out in Bukovina. Until a few years ago, there was even a broadcast in Yiddish: Dos Yidishe Vort. But by now, the last Yiddish-speakers in Chernivtsi are no longer with us. Which is why Yiddish literature, the truly magnificent literature by Itzik Manger, Eliezer Steinbarg, is waiting for its translators. There is just too little that could be received.
From the Hebrew, Aharon Appelfeld has been translated very well, for example. And his works that are available in Ukrainian and German are well-received.
How has Chernivtsi as a literary topos changed compared to the pre-1940 period?
I've noticed efforts in recent years to examine Chernivtsi's history not just from one perspective, as before. For example, from the Ukrainian, Romanian, or Jewish perspective. But, for example Maxym Dupeshko's novel, with its long title, in Ukrainian, “A Story Worthy of a Whole Apple Orchard,” makes the first attempt in recent history to portray Chernivtsi's history from multiple perspectives. Truly a very exciting attempt.
But I also notice it in poems... Many short forms, lots of poetry is being written. With the youngest generation there are also references, attempts to talk about the past, about the authors, about the art. But that's really the latest development. I think it really required time to approach this history, before it was possible to talk about it.
What do you find notable about current Ukrainian literature?
In light of the war here, there are many different processes underway, also in the art sector. For example, many Russian-language authors feel conflicted about their native language, Russian. And there are also very exciting – setting aside the tragedy for a moment – interesting debates about Russian as a native language. For example, the cases of Volodymyr Rafeienko, Iya Kiva, and Lyubov Yakymchuk. All very well-known authors who are mostly from eastern Ukraine who suddenly find themselves in the situation that their mother tongue has become the language of the murderors.
You can't get around seeing the parallels to how it was for the Jewish population, including Jewish writers, suddenly in 1941. Many Jews, many educated Jews in [then] Czernowitz naturally spoke German. They chose German-language literature and culture as their reference point. Obviously this resulted in linguistic traumas. The coping mechanisms they developed ranged widely, but it's also fascinating, from the perspective of time. I see some connections to the authors of today who are forced to grapple so painfully with this language issue.
It would certainly be an interesting subject for research, for someone outside the situation, not someone personally embroiled in it.
Why is your German-Jewish cultural organization called “Gedankendach”?
The name, the word “Gedankendach” [thought-roof], comes from Rose Ausländer. When we founded the association, we looked for an interesting name. There were a few conventional ones that we were very against adopting. Then our DAAD editor at the time found the word in the poem “Architects.” We were extremely excited and enthusiastic because it captured the essence, our idea for how we wanted to shape our work. It also fit the aspect that, of course, the starting point for our work was the word, the idea, the thought. So we adopted this word, this coinage for ourselves.
The interview was conducted by Mirjam Bitter; Jewish Museum Berlin, Nov 2022
You can find a recording of the event with Oxana Matiychuk, Peter Rychlo, and Mykola Kushnir on our website.