Comment: Back in Cernăuți, a city that feels like 1953 England

Guest writer Paul Wood takes us on a walk through Cernăuți, a peaceful city in Northern Bucovina, and through its interesting history.

An unmistakable sense of freedom as soon as we arrive in Ukraine. A sense of normal people who think like human beings. A civilized place where people believe in God and love their country. Romania is like that too but is becoming EU-ised.

It took eleven hours to drive from Bucharest to Cernăuți instead of the eight we’d planned on. As happens every summer in Romania there were floods, a road was closed. At the border we waited over an hour. An argument for the European Union. All Romanian borders took half an hour to cross before she joined the EU.

This is my third visit to the Northern Bucovina and Cernăuți or Czernowitz. Cernăuți was its name when it was in Romania from 1919 to 1940. Chernivtsi is its Ukrainian name. Czernowitz was its name in the period of its prosperity, when it was the third city of the Austrian empire, in Austria’s equivalent of the Wild West, and Yiddish and German speaking Jews made up much the largest and most influential ethnic group in the city.

The city was at the same time a center for Ukrainian, Romanian and Jewish nationalism. Now the streets are named after Ukrainian heroes, the Jews and Romanians are mostly gone and the great synagogue is a cinema – called by wags the Cine-gogue.

The Jews were mostly relocated and then killed by Romanian soldiers during the war, though the Romanian mayor persuaded the Romanian dictator, Marshal Antonescu, to spare twenty thousand. The surviving Jews mostly left for Israel or, recently, Germany. About a thousand remain. That is a small number but a Jew from Cernăuți, Volodymyr Groysman, became Ukrainian Prime Minister in April, belying American suspicions that Ukraine is a very anti-Semitic country (though I suspect that it is).

Ten or fifteen thousand Romanians remain. I met a couple in my short time in the city. One told me there was a school in the town where instruction was in Romanian and both said they faced no discrimination. The Germans were “repatriated” when Stalin invaded in 1940.

Most of the cities of Central and Eastern Europe were built by and for Germans, Jews and a cosmopolitan mix of businessmen, but are now inhabited by descendants of the local peasants. In Western Europe the cities built by the British, French, Dutch and Scandinavians will one day belong to other races, with other religions, from overseas.

I like Cernăuți. It has no sights, which makes it relaxing. Somewhere there is a sixteenth century church but we didn’t find it. Other than that it’s late nineteenth century architecture, charming but undistinguished, and some very good art nouveau and art deco buildings. (Nothing built after 1837 counts as a sight for me.) It’s very pretty and pastel shaded. It resembles Satu Mare and Baia Mare two Hungarian towns built at the same time that, somewhat unfairly, ended up in Romania.

It is almost a dead city because of the unfriendly slow border and this means it is very quiet. Very boring if you are teenager, very calm if you are travelling through. It’s full of clean cut good-looking young people who look decent. It feels like I imagine England did in 1953, when men were men, women women, most people smoked and people got married young.

They marry young but, like everywhere else in Europe, they have few children. The county had 1.6 live births per mother in 2013, compared with six in 1913. And very many emigrate. Almost all people in the Northern Bucovina had Romanian grandparents and therefore qualify for Romanian (and thereby EU) citizenship.

I wouldn’t recommend spending nine hours each way on the road unless you spend at least two full days in the place and see nearby sights like Kamenets Podolsky. I would recommend Ukraine for an absolutely wonderful and exceptionally cheap holiday. And a refreshing tonic after increasingly globalized and shopping center-ized Bucharest.

by Paul Wood, guest writer

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