In search of the ghetto

How we have been discovering

unknown chapters of Chernivtsi’s history

Authors of the project: Oleksii Fysiuk, Sergii Podgornyi, Marharyta Yukhymenko

In early October 2020, participating in the international digital educational project «Measuring Ghettos: Grodno – Chernivtsi – Chișinău», we, two high school students from Taras Shevchenko Chernivtsi Gymnasium No. 1 and a student at the Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University, were tasked with telling our peers from two other project partner cities – Grodno in Belarus and Chișinău, the capital of the Republic of Moldova – about the history of the Chernivtsi ghetto of 1941.

None of us knew any significant historical facts. First, we had to discover this history for ourselves. We divided the tasks between us: analysis of available information on the topic on the internet and in school textbooks, search for materials in local libraries and archives, and surveys of local experts who could advise us. We had only a month for everything and no idea how to implement it.

The search for the necessary information in the school textbook for the 10th grade did not produce the desired results. The only place it mentioned the events of the years we needed was in the paragraph on «Ukraine during the Second World War». On page 205, we found a mention of the Holocaust in Ukraine, but there was not a word about the events in our city, especially in the ghetto.

The search on the internet was more successful. First, using the keywords «Holocaust in Ukraine», we reached the official websites of two museums – the Jewish Memory and the Holocaust in Ukraine in Dnipro and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv. However, none of these websites had information on the Chernivtsi ghetto. After changing the search criteria (first of all, the language), we finally found some captivating websites:

  1. The official page of Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
  2. The official page of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  3. The internet platform of the international virtual community of former Chernivtsi Jews, the Czernowitz-L Discussion Group.

On these websites, we found a lot of fascinating information about Bukovyna and Chernivtsi during World War II, including historical photographs, documents from the personal collections of former city residents, memories, and a city map with the boundaries of the Jewish ghetto in Chernivtsi marked.

The next stage of our work on the project involved searching for materials about the Chernivtsi ghetto in local libraries and archives. First of all, we were interested in whether local periodicals from 1941 had survived and, if so, whether they covered the problem of the ghetto. After a long search, we found a file of the newspaper Bukovyna from 1941 in the archives of the Scientific Library of Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. The newspaper was in Romanian, since at that time Chernivtsi was under the control of the Romanian authorities. In the issue of 27 August 1941, we found an article and our attention was caught by the word «Ghettoul» in its title. The search for a translator from Romanian, as well as the translation of the article, took some time, but we eventually became acquainted with its content.

In the holdings of the Anatoliy Dobrianskyy Municipal Library, we were attracted by several issues of Vestnik, a collection of testimonies of former prisoners of fascist camps and ghettos, published in Chernivtsi in the early 1990s. Our task was to read these testimonies and select those which were related to the ghetto in Chernivtsi. This work turned out to be very interesting. While we were working on the materials, the library staff advised us to read another collection of memories, which was published in 1998 under the title Once Chernivtsi Was a Jewish City ... Evidence from Eyewitnesses. In this book, we found some more exciting memories of the events that took place in our city in the summer and autumn of 1941.

The next location for our research within the project was the State Archives of the Chernivtsi Region, where we hoped to find a wealth of information. We were overwhelmed with excitement because we had no experience of working with archival documents. It is quite a demanding process to search for the information you need in the archives, but the archivist kindly agreed to give us a short master class and helped make the order.

A few days later, we were turning over the yellowed pages of archival documents that made up a small piece of a vast array of Holocaust archives in Bukovyna and Chernivtsi. Most of the documents were in Romanian, but the archive staff helped us with the translation. As a result, we worked on some very important documents which were directly related to the ghetto.

The next institution we visited during our work on the micro-project was the Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews located on the Teatralna Square in the building of the former Jewish National House (today’s Central Palace of Culture in Chernivtsi). Our museum guide was its director, who became an expert in our project. He gave us a fascinating tour of the permanent exhibition. Here we learned about all the main stages of the history of Bukovinian Jewry, and also understood why the theme of the Holocaust and the ghetto is presented in the exhibition with a relatively small amount of material. In order to satisfy our interest in this topic and help us complete the task, Mr. Mykola Kushnir offered to tell this history in detail on camera. We gladly availed ourselves of this offer.

On the peculiarities of the Chernivtsi Ghetto

On the conditions faced by Jews in the Chernivtsi Ghetto

While having a conversation with the director of the museum, we also found out that there are video memories of direct witnesses of the Holocaust in Chernivtsi who were forced to experience what a ghetto is. Special permission is required to use these memories, the collections of which are owned by several international research centers. Hence we suggest as an example a small fragment, which will only give an idea of this historical source.

In order to understand the events of the genocide against the Jews in Chernivtsi, as well as the role of the ghetto in this process, with the assistance of modern computer technology and experienced specialists we created a timeline reproducing the chronology of the Holocaust in our city.

An interesting part of our work on the micro-project was a visit to the area of our city where a ghetto for Jews was established in the fall of 1941. For a few days, we walked through the small streets and alleys of the old city and explored exactly where the ghetto boundaries were marked and where the main elements of its infrastructure were located. We had a special map which had been prepared by Chernivtsi students as part of a school project led by a history teacher at Chernivtsi School No. 41, Nataliia Herasym.

In modern Chernivtsi, it is difficult to find traces of the former ghetto. Only commemorative plaques on old houses and monuments built in different years and in different places where the ghetto once stood remind us of its existence. Today, they act as guardians of memory. Standing next to them, we realized just how valuable the time spent searching had been. Since for those armed with the necessary knowledge, these houses, streets, and monuments are no longer just silent witnesses of history. Now they are thought-provoking interlocutors. Try and talk to them too.