Chernivtsi: meaningchaseplace

by Khrystia Vengryniuk
Translated by Nina Murray & Kate Tsurkan from Ukrainian

It is simpler not to know Chernivtsi. It is much easier to live in Chernivtsi as if it were just any small town in Western Ukraine, with a long history and a beautiful university. But if you have come to feel the city in your heart, even a little, you will never break free of it. You get stuck, like me.

I dreamed of my first kiss with a woman while reading Valse mélancolique on the steps of the drama theater. I knew that I also wanted to lose myself in the countless anterooms of some old building with huge ceilings and tiled stoves, lean into the arms of a friend who would be wearing her painter’s apron, splattered with oils, and inhale her smell—of solvent and Japan drier. She would sense I’d come to her in great need. Her bangs would brush my chest.

I studied the photo of Lesya Ukrainka and Olha Kobylyanska,[1] taken in Chernivtsi on one of the few occasions they were able to meet in person. I imagined these two tall, slender ladies in their rustling skirts and lace gloves promenading gracefully along the cobblestones.  Perhaps their fingers touched, just barely. So innocently. So naively.

While I was a student, I madly wanted to live “back then”—and refused to learn to live “now”. This is all because of Chernivtsi: The city is to blame. It is too full of temptation: cinematic moments that could have come from one of Muratova’s[2] films. Like the one when you stand on June 28th Street and listen, because her window is open, to an old Polish woman with glasses thicker than her pinkies play Chopin, and you just stay there, for hours, until it starts to rain, that way it rains for the first time in Chernivtsi in April, when it’s more like a summer downpour. The piano goes silent as if the old woman knows she should stop so that you can leave and not get soaked to the bone and catch a cold…

And then, like a scream in the middle of the night, Paul Celan’s Death Fugue arrived in my life and I no longer felt like time passed in Chernivtsi at all. For me, the only thing that mattered were the postwar years with the deadly pain of the Holocaust (Chernivtsi, of course, also had its ghetto) and with his poems on my lips.

“Celan lived here,” I tell myself, looking at his house, and hot tears stream down my cheeks. I still can’t believe it. Him! The genius of poetry and love lived here! In this Chernivtsi, my Chernivtsi! Where people eke out a living in dirty markets, where all wedding dresses are made from the same pattern, and the powers that be are so corrupt and heartless that all this simply does not make sense, it cannot be the same Chernivtsi…

I hold the hand of Father Stanislaw, who came from Poland and has been working for years to revive the Church of the Sacred Heart, where a hundred years ago services were held in Polish, German, Romanian, and Ukrainian and which the Soviets used to house an archive. The building—an extraordinary beauty of history and topos—simply began to rot and crumble. Recently, though, Father Stanislaw and his parish have been restoring and reviving the monument. You watch the reverence with which the Polish Father treats the church, hear how well he has learned to speak Ukrainian, witness how sincerely he gives himself to the call of the Lord, but yet three minutes from the Heart of Jesus, as you cross the street, you hear the bells of the city’s preeminent Russian church with all its horrors and curses.

Sometimes I wonder what the architect Josef Hlávka[3] would say today about his project, the Residence of Bukovynian and Dalmatian Metropolitans? It is now a university. You stand in front of it and feel certain you could give everything for the opportunity to be one of those who sit at the old benches and study there. So you do become one of them, one of the best, and it is then that you most clearly see the dissonance between the external beauty of the building and its internal poverty.

The university is just like the city: on the one hand, it is fantastic, and on the other hand, ugly. Especially when it’s been the plaything of the political Philistines who pretended to do something for it while seeking only to enrich themselves. Because Chernivtsi is not about the roses that were used to sweep the pavement, and not about the Atlanteans holding up the roofs, nor about the houses that look like ships. Chernivtsi is about the way the city touches one’s heart—once and forever.

It is very difficult for me to leave the city, but sometimes I can’t help but run away. It is like running away from one’s only great love, which was once flawless, but has become worn and weathered in everyday routines. Such a dwelling in the past is nothing more than an obsession with a dream. The Chernivtsi as it had once been cannot be restored to us—I know that. There will never again be eight nationalities living peacefully with each other in the same city, there will be no sophisticated literature scene, no matter how lively things may seem in Bukovina, nor will there be another Traian Popovici, and not only because the history of the world, Ukraine and Chernivtsi does not repeat itself, but because of many, many other human metamorphoses and realities.

My personal connection with the city is sacred and powerful: I consider having been born here a deeply meaningful sign.  It is a provincial place, with incredible roots, springs, and oases; a Bermuda triangle, where you can neither die nor live, but which you cannot escape. And only in this way, in Celan’s words, “the dismantled taboos / and the bordercrisscrossing between them / worldwet, on a / meaning chase, on a / meaning / flight”* does one travel through the city, living at once now and a hundred years before.

*English translation of Paul Celan’s poem taken from Pierre Joris’ Breathturn into Timestead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014)

[1] Lesya Ukrainka and Olha Kobylianska are two of Ukraine’s most renowned writers of the 19th century, the latter a native of Chernivtsi.

[2] Kira Muratova was an award-winning Soviet filmmaker from Odesa.

[3] Josef Hlávka was a Czech and Austro-Hungarian architect who designed Chernivtsi University, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage site

Enjoy an interview with author Khrystia Vengryniuk, including a bi-lingual reading of this essay (Ukrainian-English) as the September 26, 2021 episode of The Middle Ground on Trafika Europe Radio (54-minute audio)

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