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Meet the Author: Gaëlle Fisher

Dr. Gaëlle Fisher’s recent monograph, Resettlers and Survivors: Bukovina and the Politics of Belonging in West Germany and Israel, 1945–1989, explores some of the more complex reverberations of World War II. It is the third volume in Berghahn’s growing Worlds of Memory series, published in collaboration with the Memory Studies Association.

Located on the border of present-day Romania and Ukraine, the historical region of Bukovina was the site of widespread displacement and violence as it passed from Romanian to Soviet hands and back again during World War II. This study focuses on two groups of “Bukovinians”—ethnic Germans and German-speaking Jews—as they navigated dramatically changed political and social circumstances in and after 1945. Through comparisons of the narratives and self-conceptions of these groups, Resettlers and Survivors gives a nuanced account of how they dealt with the difficult legacies of World War II, while exploring Bukovina’s significance for them as both a geographical location and a “place of memory.”


Why Bukovina – what is Bukovina?

Today, Bukovina can be regarded as a defunct political entity. I am therefore well aware that most people do not know where Bukovina is or even what it might be. But the fact that it once was a source of political identification, is precisely why it is such an interesting place to study. As a region that appeared and later disappeared from the map of Europe, Bukovina showcases the contingency of political structures we tend to believe are fixed and the fluidity and fragility of the world we live in, in a uniquely tangible way.

The crossroad of Buchenländer Straße (Bukovinians’ Street) and Radautzer Straße (Radautz Street) in the housing settlement of Büsnau near Stuttgart in Germany. The streets were named in the early 1950s, after a significant number of Germans from Bukovina settled in the area. © 2020 Gaëlle Fisher

Bukovina was a province of the Habsburg Empire that existed for nearly 150 years, from 1775 to 1918. This easternmost crownland of the Monarchy, a relatively small territory of around 10,000 km² (about the size of Cyprus), was carved out and claimed by the Habsburgs because of its strategic position connecting two of the empire’s other provinces, Galicia and Transylvania. It was therefore, from the outset, very much a Habsburg creation and later continued to develop in the empire’s own image, as a small Austria of sortsdiverse, cosmopolitan and under the influence of “German” culture.

The outbreak of World War I marked the onset of a phase of considerable upheaval for the region’s inhabitants. In 1918, following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Bukovina became part of Romania. Integration into a nationalizing state brought with it significant changes to the situation of the region’s multiethnic population. Then, within just over two decades and as a result of World War II, Bukovina was divided in two, between Romania and the Soviet Union. Though that part of the former Soviet Union is now independent Ukraine, this is still the case today, and the border cutting across the middle of the historical region is now even a boundary of the European Union.

In fact, when I started doing my research, I myself did not intend to have such a narrow regional focus. Yet the more I looked into the issue of historical memory and the reverberations of World War II in Europe, the more this area came to look like a fascinating prism to reflect on a broader range of questions: the legacies of wartime violence, but also, more generally, the legacies of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called “The Age of Extremes” and the turbulent “short twentieth century.” Beyond this, Bukovina offered a unique chance to reflect on the often taken-for-granted notions of nationalism, belonging and ethnic identity, that still structure our beliefs to this day. I wondered: What did it mean to be Bukovinian once Bukovina was no more? Or rather: Why did it still mean something to so many long after the region had disappeared from the map of Europe?

What was the context of this research?

The initial context for this research was an interdisciplinary collaborative project entitled Reverberations of War in Germany and Europe and based at University College London in the United Kingdom. The aim of this project was to explore the diverse legacies of World War II among different “communities of experience” and “communities of identification” in Germany and Europe. My own researcha doctoral projectwas to focus on the experience of “displacement” among two different such “communities” of my choice and understanding.

Having previously written about the German minority in Romania for my MA thesis, I was interested in exploring further the subject of German culture in this region and the topic of “Germanness” in Central and Eastern Europe in general. In this context, Bukovina soon emerged as an especially interesting case study due to both the exceptional ethnic and cultural diversity of its prewar population and the particularly contested nature of Germanness in this borderland province.

By 1918, descendants of Germans settlers to the region representing around 9% of the Christian population, claimed German ethnicity. But in Habsburg Bukovina, German was the language of administration and of upward mobility and many others identified with German culture too. In particular, by 1918, Bukovina had developed into not only “the most diverse” but also “the most Jewish” province of the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Representing around 10% of the population overall, but often over 30% of the population in the region’s towns and cities, Jews were in fact the main key carriers of the region’s “German” culture.

After World War I and after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Bukovina remained a highly heterogeneous areathe most diverse region of the newly enlarged “Greater Romania”. The two largest groups among the populationaccording to the notoriously problematic ethnic censuseswere Romanians and Ukrainians, but the region was also home to significant minorities of Jews and Germans as well as smaller groups of Poles, Hungarians, Armenians, Greeks, Lipovans and Roma people.

The events of World War II destroyed this diversity and the region’s territorial integrity: In the context of the division of Europe following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Ukrainian dominated north became part of the Soviet Union and the Romanian dominated south became part of Romania. The region’s Germans were collectively resettled to the Reich in 1940 and later “deployed” to Germanized newly conquered areas. Many of the region’s Jews, in turn, were killed in what has come to be known as the Holocaust in Romania between 1941 and 1944; only 50,000 people are believed to have survived.

German “resettlers” from Bukovina, as they were called, mostly ended up in West Germany after the war. By the early 1950s, most of the Jewish survivors from Bukovina had left their native region, too – mostly for Israel, their putative national home. For several decades during the Cold War, the region was dismissed by Bukovinian exiles as “sunken”, “forgotten” and “vanished.” Located behind the Iron Curtain, the region allegedly no longer existed. Yet by the time I started my research in the early 2010s, Bukovina had been rediscovered and, in some sense, resurrected. In fact, it was often cast as the ultimate multicultural – and therefore the ultimate Europeanregion, standing for “unity in diversity”a slogan also used to describe the European Union.

A widespread narrative about historical Bukovina was that of an exceptional region characterized by a unique kind of harmony and peaceful coexistence among different peoples. This discourse was often carried or supported by the region’s former inhabitants – German “resettlers” and Jewish survivors – themselves. I became especially fascinated by the tension between the experiences they had made, characterized by violence and shaped by more or less extreme forms of nationalism, and the idealization of this allegedly multicultural and supranational region. They also constituted paradigmatically distinct communities of experience and identification having experienced displacement.

In many ways, therefore, my research worked its way backwards, trying to explain a post-Cold War phenomenon relating to wartime and prewar experiences by looking at what happened in the meantime – during the war and its aftermath. The questions guiding me were: How did people reconcile experiences of ethicized violence with the longing for the past? How did they reconcile their strong identification with supposed national homes after 1945 with the longing for earlier experiences of plurality and the memory of peaceful coexistence in a multilingual, multifaith and multiethnic society? What could their experiences tell us about the reverberations of World War II in general?

Why West Germany and Israel? Why Germans and Jews?

It was while studying for my MA thesis on ethnic migration from Romania during the Cold War that I realized there had been two parallel developments of “return migration” from Eastern Europe to West Germany and Israel respectively. As a student of German history, I was most acutely aware of the difficulty of comparing or even just juxtaposing the experiences of people simplistically identified as “Germans” and as “Jews” after World War II. But the similarities were overwhelming and exploring them, as someone with neither Jewish nor German roots but a binational heritage, was intellectually stimulating.

Both Israel and West Germany, founded around the same time (1948 and 1949 respectively) encouraged co-ethnics to join their polities with preferential immigration regimes and integration policies. These ethnic migrants were granted citizenship and a range of ethnically coded social benefits. The national narratives themselves were shaped by these movements of population interpreted as “returns” to ancestral homes. These two states and societies were also fundamentally and undeniable shaped, albeit in their own and very different ways, by the experiences of the war and genocide.

The formal aspects of these processes, which many scholars have already analyzed in depth, are not the topic of my book but rather its backdrop. In my study, I look at how two specific groups of migrants or “displaced persons” negotiated these circumstances – how they adapted their narratives to the conditions but also how these conditions, in turn, evolved in response to their experiences, claims and actions. Interestingly, these people did not think of themselves as migrants or even necessarily as displaced. While it started out as a study about displacement, therefore, it very much became a study of emplacement, and this process is what I have called the politics of belonging.

What is especially interesting about the case studies of German and Jewish Bukovinians and West Germany and Israel, however, is not just the parallelism of their situations but also their entanglements. Insofar as German and Jewish Bukovinians were relating to the same area of origin and also often using the same languageGermanand reference points, they unavoidably came into contact and interacted with each other over the course of the postwar period.

This book’s most significant contribution, therefore, is to debates about Germanness, Jewishness and the legacies of the violent past in Israel, Germany and Europe as a whole. In particular, this study demonstrates the intrinsically transnational character of these developments by showing that one cannot fully understand what happened in one national context without taking into account what happened abroad.

What are your intentions with the book?

On the one hand, of course, the book tells the story of what happened to many displaced “Bukovinians” after World War II. In this sense, it fills the gap left by what I have called the “blind spot of the Cold War” in existing cultural and social histories of the region. But on the other hand, the case of Bukovina and Bukovinians illustrates a much broader discussion. From an academic perspective, my intention is to contribute to deconstructing, by exposing the mechanisms of the construction, the notion of ethnonational identification and belonging as something that seems so intractable and static but is in fact always imagined, enacted and contingent. What is more, the book underscores the significance in this process of narratives about the pastor what many call memoryand their intrinsic fluidity. There is not one vision or version of the past, but something that changes over time and depending on whom one listens to or who has voicevisibility and power. The past is always put to the service of the present. Realizing this should encourage us to be all the more skeptical and especially careful about the narratives we promote. But it should also make us all the more curious about the past and the effects of its interpretation on our beliefs and our world.

Gaëlle Fisher is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, Germany. She holds a doctorate in history from University College London and has published articles in a range of journals, including German HistoryThe Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, and East European Politics and Societies.