A History of Ukrainian Literature in Berlin

Andrei Kiselev traces the history of Ukrainian literati in Berlin…

In 2010, a plaque commemorating Lesya Ukrainka was unveiled at Johannisstraße 11, a ten-minute walk from the Embassy of Ukraine in Berlin. One of Ukraine’s most famous writers, and an activist to the core, she lived at the address for several months in 1899. Other Ukrainian literati kept coming and going—to study, for medical treatment, fleeing into exile—but most of their movements and traces of their lives remain unmarked. 

Lesya Ukrainka plaque. Image via Wikimedia.

Although the University of Kharkiv was founded six years before Berlin’s Humboldt University, its academic staff consisted mostly of foreigners. The Kharkiv authorities soon realised their university needed some new vigour and inspiration and started to send young teachers and prominent graduates to Europe for more advanced studies. Among them was linguist and philosopher Alexander Potebnja, who set off to Berlin in 1862 after publishing his renowned work Thought and Language

Potebnja’s address in Berlin was Dorotheenstraße 76, a stone’s throw from Humboldt University, where he attended lectures and studied Sanskrit with Albrecht Weber. In his letters from Berlin, Potebnja reflected on the concept of a future university and recommended certain western educational practices be set up in his homeland.

He cheered Berlin’s low prices and affordable public libraries, but later complained about a kind of “depressing loneliness” that he’d never experienced at home, “the loneliness neither promenades under the linden trees nor theatres could heal.” After a year in Berlin, Potebnja’s depression was “exhausting” and he decided on an unauthorised return to Kharkiv in August 1863, where he later became a professor at the university there and presided over the Kharkiv Historical-Philological Society.

Alexander Potebnja in 1892

Another Berlin attraction for foreigners was medical care. It was to undergo TB-related surgery that drew Lesya Ukrainka to the city in 1899;  she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child and suffered from it for the rest of her life. After spending a night at Ernst von Bergmann’s clinic, and another overnight stay at a hotel on Friedrichstraße, Ukrainka checked in at Johannisstraße 11. Forced to enjoy the city mostly through hotel windows and from a horse-drawn carriage, she recounted in her letters that “Berlin is a very interesting city, but I didn’t see much as I couldn’t walk when we arrived… It’s all so new and unusual here, from comfortable trifles to grandeur of constructions.”

She was impressed by the Berlin S-Bahn right away – “elevated tracks are built over the streets and low-rises, with trains running non-stop” – and also found “beer wagons and cyclists in the streets” very amusing. Under the circumstances reading was an obvious pastime—Ukrainka accessed books banned back home, discovering authors such as Gerhart Hauptmann whose play The Weavers she later translated into Ukrainian.

Encouraged to walk more after surgery, Ukrainka visited the Altes Museum and art galleries, strolled through the Tiergarten, watched Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell at the Deutsches Theater, and even enjoyed some shopping at Wertheim. But after several months away from home she missed her native land badly. “From this stony and increasingly noisy Berlin our green Ukrainian landscapes seem lovelier than paradise.” She returned to Ukraine and continued writing poetry, drama, and prose, but her deteriorating health forced her to spend more time in softer climates. She died at a health resort in Georgia in 1913.

Volodymyr Vynnychenko in the 1910s

Volodymyr Vynnychenko, a famous writer and the first Prime Minister of Ukraine, arrived in Berlin in 1921 as a political émigré. For a while he remained politically active, but finally retired and settled at Cecilienstraße 6 in Zehlendorf, one of Berlin’s greenest and wealthiest boroughs. Vynnychenko led a secluded life without unnecessary contacts. His Morse-code-style diaries cover cloudy weather, Ukrainian political squabbling, his revived interest in painting, Berlin Kneipes and Dieles, his ordeals with the Finanzamt, worker strikes in Berlin, the falling Mark, and long walks around Wannsee and Krumme Lanke

During these walks he was thinking through The Solar Machine, the first Ukrainian utopia published in 1928. Vynnychenko was also in demand as a playwright—in 1921 his play The Lie premiered at the Volksbühne and ran for more than 60 performances, while The Black Panther was adapted for a Decla-Bioscop silent film production. Vynnychenko was relatively well-off for an émigré—in 1923 when Germany was hit hard by hyperinflation he bought a tiny villa in Rauen. This didn’t keep him from toying with the idea of moving to France, though. 

Unable to hide from political and economic turmoil, by early 1925 Vynnychenko sold his Rauen villa, finished The Solar Machine, and moved to Paris. The day before departure, he wrote in his diary: “I already miss Berlin. Imagination takes me to the future to start longing for the past. And Berlin is already longed for, as it is the past, so sweet and attractive.” Vynnychenko died in France in 1951.

The Ukrainian War of Independence (1917–1921) brought many political figures to Berlin West. Even in exile most were politically engaged—the last Hetman of Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadsky (Alsenstraße 17) founded the Ukrainian Scientific Institute in Berlin (Breite Straße 36) headed by historian Dmytro Doroshenko (Bleibtreustraße 44). Bohdan Lepky, Ukrainian scholar and writer famous for his historical novels, who lived in Spandau and later Wannsee, gave lectures on literature, and was involved in several Ukrainian relief organisations. 

Lepky found literature more important than politics and was anxious to help Ukrainian publishers in Germany. Yakiv Orenshtain’s Ukrainska Nakladnja (Kurfürstenstraße 83) and more politically-driven Ukrainske Slowo (Hauptstraße 11) published Ukrainian classics, textbooks, translations, non-fiction, sheet music, and maps.

In the ensuing years medical treatment was one of the few grounds to get permission to travel abroad. In 1927–28, Ukrainian writer and poet Mykola Khvylovy came to Berlin and Vienna “to undergo a course of treatment,” a trip that could well be regarded as voluntary exile. Khvylovy, a leading voice of the Executed Renaissance in Ukraine, opposed the Sovietisation of Ukrainian culture and saw Europe as an obvious benchmark, all the while realising the importance of retaining a pure Ukrainian agenda. 

In Berlin he promoted Ukrainian culture and urged his countrymen and women to do the same. “How’s it going with translations into German? We’ve got to bring our literature to a wider European scene at all costs.” Khvylovy’s orientation towards Europe implied not blind imitation but rather inspiration for the path Ukraine could take. On his return Khvylovy was isolated from official literature and committed suicide in 1933.

Ostap Vyshnia, 1925

In 1928 Ostap Vyshnia, a Ukrainian best-selling author of the twenties, stayed at a health resort near the Scharmützelsee and observed Berlin while “moving between clinics and medical offices.” We know Vyshnia’s Berlin not from his letters or diaries but through the short stories he collected in two books: Berlin Day and How to Make Berlin out of Kharkiv. Playfully written and accessible, Vyshnia’s satire spans his struggle with the German language, Berlin street fashion, and the tough choice between visiting museums and shops. 

Upset over horse-drawn carriages being ousted by cars, Vyshnia paid tribute to Berlin’s famous cab driver Iron Gustav in a feuilleton called Berlin’s Horses. All Ukrainian writers abroad were supposed to criticise the bourgeois West, a task that often backfired after their encounter with western realities. “We  are keen to see the final moments, the last agonies, the death throes of the class enemy,” wrote Vyshnia in 1928. Instead of a socially alien capital, their Berlin was full of bright street lamps and automobiles, crowded beer halls and nocturnal jazz bars. In 1933, Vyshnia got ten years hard labour and was only rehabilitated in 1955.

Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s greatest poet and national hero, never set foot in Berlin, but in 2014 a willow tree appeared in the German capital in commemoration of his 200th anniversary. The initiative can be traced to a tree Shevchenko planted while in exile on the Mangyshlak Peninsula in 1850–57. A hundred years later its shoot was brought to Lviv, and in 2014 a branch was delivered to the Spreebogenpark. In 2016 vandals destroyed the tree and its fence, but soon a new willow was planted to become a place of annual tributes to the great Kobzar.

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