From my acquaintance with the life and work of Paul Celan – not to mention passing through on several occasions and seeing traces of its imperial past – I was aware that the former Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz was once home to a remarkable ethnic diversity, later erased as the surrounding province of Bucovina was ceded to Romania – whereupon it gained the name Cernăuți – and then the USSR and Ukraine for which it is now known as Chernivtsi. I was happy to discover Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (in English translation as The Snows of Yesteryear) which sheds much light on the changing demographics of the town. In reminiscing on his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians, Rezzori makes the following comment on the languages that he heard spoken in his childhood:
She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.
How much things have changed in a century. Yiddish disappeared from Czernowitz with the genocide of its Jewish population in World War II. As Rezzori observes, German was already on the wane right after Trianon. From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.