Author tries to preserve Yiddish tradition

March 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

CHERNOVTSY, Ukraine -- "I'm the last of the Mohicans of the great Yiddish tradition in Czernowitz," Josef Burg said.

The shine in his eyes under a shock of white hair and the vigor of his gestures seemed to contradict the calendar, which says that this year Mr. Burg, the author of many books and tales, will celebrate his 80th birthday.

Mr. Burg, who speaks all the local languages, past and present -- Yiddish, German, Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian -- calls this city by its Austrian name. Only an undertone of melancholy that resonated through hours of conversation in his home and on walks through the slushy, icy streets of Chernovtsy reflected his sense that all that he recalls so vividly is gone forever.

What he must do, now that the end of Soviet rule has made it possible, Mr. Burg said, is to keep it from sinking into oblivion. As a sign of recognition, he said, he has just received word from Israel that he was awarded the Segal Prize for Yiddish writing.

When the Bukovina region was one -- under Austria until 1918, under Romania until 1940 -- Chernovtsy, its capital, was a vital center of German and Yiddish culture.

In German, as well as Yiddish, in literature, theater, higher education and journalism, Jews, who made up more than one-third of the population of 120,000 until 1941, were a vital force.

Czernowitz became a landmark in the history of Yiddish in 1908, when the first international congress on the language, maligned by many as a mere dialect, proclaimed it a national language of the Jews, along with Hebrew.

At the end of World War II, northern Bukovina, including Chernovtsky, was annexed by the Soviet Union. Chernovtsy, which Mr. Burg calls a "little mirror of classical Austrian culture" even under Romanian rule, became a backwater, a provincial Ukrainian industrial city of 260,000, few of whom shared Mr. Burg's memories of glory and sorrow.

Writers and readers of Yiddish came to live in Chernovtsy after World War II, most of them survivors from the old shtetls, the seats of famous Hasidic communities, of the surrounding Carpathian Mountains. There were about 40,000 until Jewish emigration began in 1970, Mr. Burg said; there are 10,000 now.

"They emigrated or left for eternity," he said. The writer spent the war and postwar years in many regions of the Soviet Union, teaching German literature, and did not return to the city of his youth until the 1960s. Only memories linked him to it; memories of hatred of Jews that have marred this region since the Austrian days, which appear golden in Mr. Burg's look back.

"Anti-Semitism began with the Romanians," he said. "My father was fortunate to die before the Germans arrived. My brother was killed in the Spanish Civil War. My mother was murdered by the Germans, buried alive. I thought the stones would cry under my feet when I returned -- and they really did."

Mr. Burg recalled the Soviet anti-Semitism that followed the Nazi years. "All that was Jewish or Yiddish was persecuted," he said. "Parents no longer spoke Yiddish to their children. The chain between grandfathers and grandchildren was broken by the fathers."

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