Long Ago in Czernowitz

Today it is called Chernivtsy and is in the Ukraine. One hundred years ago it was better known as Czernowitz, capital of the Crown Land of Bukovina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Known as the Vienna of the East it had a thriving coffee house culture, public buildings in the familiar ochre known as ‘kaisergelb.’ It also had a large Jewish community, a large part of it German speaking, and it was here that the poet Paul Celan was born in 1920, by which time the Bukovina had been annexed by Rumania. The city I visited three years ago had a wonderfully restored centre despite the evident poverty elsewhere but, much as I enjoyed my visit, I felt I had come to the empty shell of faded glories. My Czernowitz is that of 1908, a Czernowitz in which I have set a crime novel I am currently working on, under yet another pseudonym. This is my passport to the past and the one with which I immerse myself in the world of its Jewish community at the time of the World Yiddish Congress.

The city I visit from my desk is superficially prosperous but close to the grinding rural poverty of Eastern Galicia.  Most people wanted to leave and many shipping companies had offices in the city.  The United States was the destination of choice for economic migrants. Indeed nearly a quarter of the population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire emigrated between 1870 and 1914. Many of them did so with the help of clandestine organisations willing to help the desperate and relieve them of much of their money.  One might describe these people as traffickers although the emigrants went willingly and were prepared to take significant risks in the hope of a better life.

Some of the traffickers were Jewish. Many were not. It was, however, to the Jews that the label stuck. Before long the tropes of sex trafficking and white slavery reared their ugly heads. It was alleged that young women, mostly from rural areas, were lured to Czernowitz with promises of exotic work in Constantinople, India and even further afield, and forced into prostitution. In 1892 there was a show trial of traffickers in Lemberg. The myth of the devious inbred Jewish trafficker spread throughout the Empire and fuelled anti-Semitism.

In fact the issue of trafficking was complex. Firstly, the trafficking of normal economic migrants is not easily disentangled from the issue of sex work. There is little in surviving records to tell us the motivations of the women involved but it seems that at least some travelled willingly, desperate to escape the poverty in which they lived, and that some knew what they were going to do. A number even went with the blessing of their families who were dependent on the money they sent home.  Indeed some of the young women who left Czernowitz didn’t go abroad at all but went to work in the legally tolerated brothels of Austria-Hungary.

In any event most of those involved in trafficking and arrested were not Jewish. This did not stop the development of a fully blown moral panic where cunning Jews tricked innocent Gentile girls into sexual slavery in exotic lands far away.

As in most moral panics a kernel of truth was blown up out of all proportion and a simple narrative woven from complex threads produced that, if nothing else, sold plenty of popular newspapers. As I said earlier this panic fuelled anti-Semitism. Indeed an internet search revealed that the popular myths of sex trafficking in Czernowitz and Galicia are still peddled today by far right organisations as part of the toxic narrative of the ‘eternal Jew’.  You can find them easily enough if you are interested. I will not be providing links to this poison.

The parallels with today are striking. These are: Some women sell sex to make money. There is an ideological position that maintains, despite the evidence, that no woman could possibly do this voluntarily. Therefore there must be networks of criminals trafficking and coercing women. These networks are of aliens, be it Jews, Albanians, Pakistanis or whatever. The popular press prints salacious stories and, then as now, there must be those who get off on the fantasies these stories generate. And what else is there in common? Two things I think , firstly that most women who sell sex do so to earn a living, no more, no less, and that there doubtless ARE women tricked and coerced into sex work. Sadly those behind the moral panics probably don’t care about them either.

I’m going back to Czernowitz tomorrow, at least in my imagination. It’s not always so hard – so long ago , so different, yet as the Bible says ‘there’s nothing new under the Sun,’ . There really isn’t!

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