In turn-of-the-century Czernowitz, the easternmost city of the Monarchy, the “little Vienna”, or, from another perspective, “Jerusalem on the Prut”, forty-two nationalities coexisted, thereby modeling on a small scale the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The paralel is even more fitting, because the city’s residents proudly declared, regardless of nationality: in all the Empire, the most beautiful German is spoken here. Indeed, after the disintegration of the Monarchy, those poets of the city who did not choose to write in the languages of the successor states, from Paul Celan through Rose Ausländer and Karl Emil Franzos to Gregor von Rezzorii, became great figures of German literature, before they also disappeared, and the city became Stadt der toten Dichter.
In turn-of-the-century Czernowitz, however, the individual nationalities aspired to develop not against each other, but side by side. The smaller ones – the Serbs, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians – traditionally had their cultural centers in their churches, merchant’s and boyar’s houses. The larger ones, however, after the turn of the century built their own Nationalhäuser, national houses of culture. First the Romanians, then the Poles, the Ruthenians, the Germans, and finally, in 1908, the Jews.
The Jüdisches Nationalhaus was built not far from the Town Hall, along the long promenade which first was called Fischplatz, and later, when all the squares of Czernowitz were named after the members of the Hapsburg dynasty, this one also was baptized Elisabethplatz. In 1904-1905, in the focus of the square was built the new pride of the city, the city theater, a work of the Viennese office Fellner and Helmer, who designed the fifty most representative theater buildings of contemporary Europe. The Jewish “national house”, standing in a highlighted place, next to the theater, was designed by an architect invited from Lemberg, T. Lewandowski, by repeating the acclaimed motif of the Fellner-Helmer theaters, the monumental column-arch-frame embracing several stores. But while the arch of the theater is only two stories high, that of the Jewish national house unites four stores, thereby actually stealing the show from the theater, and although it pulls aside, nevertheless it becomes the most spectacular building of the square.
Since the late 19th century, this area became the center of Reform Judaism, whose followers tried to assimilate and move upward into the city’s elite, by breaking with the traditional Orthodox center established much lower, in the Synagogengasse along the Prut river. The following postcard displays, to the right of the Nationalhaus, the large green dome of the Reform synagogue, the “Tempel”, and below it, the condition when the Fischmarkt was not yet reformed into a representative urban square. The Tempel is still standing today. Although in 1942 the Germans blew up its dome, they could not overcome its massive walls, so they left it to its fate. In Soviet times it was transformed into a movie theater, which is still functioning, so the Czernowitz slang refers to it as “the cinegoga”.
The Soviets also took over the Jewish national ouse, and they established here the textile workers union center. In order nothing should remind of the former builders, they removed all the six-pointed stars from the rich interior decoration of the building. Among other things, they sawed this central motif out of the iron railing of the stairs, whereby the stairs became dangerous. Only after 1990, when the building was returned to the three-thousand-strong Jewish community of Czernowitz, were the stars of David welded back into the railing, so now you can safely climb the stairs. But we do not need to do so, as on the higher stories there are only offices closed to us. The museum commemorating the Jewry of Czernowitz and Bukovina is on the ground floor, to the right of the entrance.
In the two rooms of the museum we mainly find photographs about the former synagogues, cemeteries, and prominent members of the Jewish community. The few original objects include, in a glass case, this painted tin label, which appears to the untrained eye as an inn’s shop sign, as if the memory of an old fish restaurant returned here, to the former Fischmarkt.
However, Két Sheng gives a more accurate report on it:
No shop label, but a so-called Purim table or Adar table. Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, and, as a joyful expectation to it, a table is usually hung in the Jewish houses on the eve of the first day of Adar, with this Hebrew inscription: “Adar is coming, joy is multiplying” (Talmud Bab., Tractate Taanit 29a.) This is what the upper, red-letter line says in the Czernowitz table (“Mi-she-nichnas adar marbin be-simha”). Traditionally, one or two fishes are also displayed on the table, because Adar stands in the sign of Pisces in the zodiac. This is written in the black-letter text of the table: “Adar, sign of Pisces” (“Adar mazal dagim”). The wine bottle to the right is an alternative complement to the composition, for at Purim it is a mitzvah [a meritorious deed] to drink so much that at the end one is unable to tell Haman from Mordecai. The Yiddish text on the bottle is especially gemütlich: “Lechaim, brider!”
“Reb Burech Bendit drinks lechaim”, not far from here, on the stage of the Yiddish theater of Czernowitz. See here
In the lower right corner of the table, there is a date: (5)687, which corresponds to the civil year of 1927. The lower left corner commemorates the artist’ name: Yitzhak Eisikowicz.
The table has two unusual features. First, that it was made of enameled metal, not paper, and second, that the appeal to drinking is particularly stressed in it. On this basis, and the emphasized date and signature, I suspect hat it might have been pending in a restaurant or wine shop.
Jewish restaurants and wine shops were plentiful in the hundred-thousand-strong Czernowitz, the Jerusalem on the Prut. To provide so many places with Purim tables at the beginning of Adar, and to refresh their shop signs during the year, might have given enough bread for a small painting company.
And the small company did exist. If we descend to the shore of the Prut, the old Synagogengasse, from where the Nationalhaus and the Tempel climbed up to the main square, we see a small house, in one row with the big Orthodox synagogue, the Jewish hospital, the mikveh and the Hassidic synagogue, which shows its importance. And on the facade of the house, you can read a ghost text which has survived the adversities of the century, with the same name as on the Purim table in the museum: “J. Eisikowicz signboard painter. Established in 1910”.
The fate has mysteriously selected what to preserve from the old Jewish Czernowitz.
Elmer Bernstein: Trinkt Le Chaim! (4'23") (From the film Thoroughly Modern Millie)