meets Eastern Europe in Romania, mixing two Jewish worlds with it--that
of the reform-minded Austro-Hungarian empire and that of more-traditional
The history of the Jews in Romania is, like the country itself, complex,
fascinating, bloody and contradictory. At certain times, especially under
the Ottoman Empire, the Jews flourished and enjoyed peace and prosperity.
But when the Russians replaced the Turks as rulers, anti-semitic pogroms
occurred all across the nation. Things got worse when the rightwing nationalist
leader Codreanu took over in 1930 and unleashed his Iron Guard on the
A Nazi-style government headed by General Ion Antonescu followed in 1940,
resulting in even more pogroms and bloodshed. Antonescu refused, however,
to allow the mass deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps in eastern
Europe. For a time Romania was the only place in occupied Europe where
Jews could escape via ship to Palestine.
In 1941, though, the deportations began. Most of the Jews sent to their
death were from Bucovina and Moldavia. Later, after the Nazis invaded
Hungary in 1944, the Jews of northern Transylvania (a part of Romania)
were rounded up and shipped to Auschwitz.
Romania surrendered in August 1944. Only half of the 800,000 Romanian
Jews survived the war, most of whom emigrated to Israel over the next
fifty years, leaving a current population estimated at fifteen thousand.
The post-war Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was a tyrant on a towering
scale, but his treatment of the Jews was unique for an Iron Curtain country.
He maintained relations with Israel, permitted emigration and allowed
foreign Jewish charitable organizations to operate within his country.
Romania's chief rabbi, Moses Rosen (1912-1994), gets credit for these
achievements, though some of his critics accused him of collaboration.
When they dubbed him the "Red Rabbi," Rabbi Rosen defended himself
by stating that he would have made a pact with the devil to preserve Jewish
life in Romania.
The bottom line is that some synagogues and other Jewish landmarks were
preserved--and that the Jews who remained in Stalinist Romania were able
to lead relatively safe lives.
There are about a dozen places of Jewish interest in post-communist Romania,
but most travelers will undoubtedly concentrate on Bucharest, a city once
known as the "Paris of the East." Though Ceausescu destroyed
many of the oldest, most pristine parts of the city, some bits of fin
de siecle architecture remain, along with the city's Arc de Triomphe and
History Museum. It's also possible to find a few shady boulevards lined
with elegant mansions.
Contact the Federation of Jewish Communities in Bucharest (9-11, Sfinta
Vineri Str.; tel. 312-25-38) before visiting Jewish heritage sites, if
only because some are hard to find. The Joint Distribution Committee has
an office at the above address.
You'll will have no trouble in locating the Choral Synagogue, however,
as it stands next to the Federation's offices. Built in 1860 as a reform
temple, it's a splendid-looking edifice with its Moorish turrets and high-vaulted
ceilings. Once a landmark in the old Jewish quarter of Vacaresti--a neighborhood
of narrow winding streets and picturesque houses and shops that was decimated
by "urban renewal"--the synagogue was the headquarters of the
Jewish community during the Communist era.
Bucharest has a second major synagogue--The Great Synagogue (9-11, Vasile
Adamache Str.), built by the Sephardic congregation in 1845. It's surrounded
by some of the ugliest new buildings in the world, but once inside you'll
be struck by its beauty--elaborate Moorish details, an Aron ha Kodesh
decorated with gilding and carved lions, and so on.
The Synagogue also houses a Holocaust Exhibition which documents the killing
machine put together by the Romanian authorities--army, police, civil
authorities, mayors, city councils and tribunals--to carry out the systematic
murder of hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews.
At 3, Mamoulari Str. (five minutes from the Choral Synagogue) is the Jewish
Museum, open Sunday mornings and Wednesdays, and housed in what used to
be called the Tailor's Synagogue. In addition to a Holocaust memorial
and exhibits, the museum has an impressive display of ritual objects,
plus the works of various Jewish artists and sculptors.
The Jewish Community and Cultural Center stands at 18, Poposoare Str.
On the first floor is a kosher restaurant which serves lunch from 12-3
pm, Monday-Sunday. On Friday nights an Oneg Shabbat is held at dinner.
The restaurant is open on Saturday. For reservations call 321-3940.
On the second floor are meeting rooms and a theatre; the basement is used
as a sports club.
The Jewish Theatre stands at Iuliu Barash Str. and still mounts occasional
productions such as The Dybbuk. Behind the theatre is a Jewish elementary
school and kindergarten.
Bucharest has two large Jewish cemeteries. The Philanthropic Cemetery,
in the north, is Ashkenazi; the one in the south, adjoining the main municipal
cemeteries, is Sephardic.
The Monument to the Struma Ship stands here, dedicated to the 750 souls
who boarded the cargo vessel in 1941, hoping to reach Palestine. The leaky
Struma only got as far as Istanbul, where the Turks refused to let the
passengers disembark. The British also refused to allow them to reach
Palestine by other means. In the end, the Turks towed the ship beyond
the three-mile limit and cut it loose, where it drifted for days with
no food or water aboard. A Russian submarine, for reasons unknown, torpedoed
it. When the passengers abandoned ship by diving overboard, the Turks
took two days to send out rescue boats. Only a single passenger survived.
There are a few more ancient Jewish cemeteries and synagogues scattered
across Romania, in towns like Iasi (site of an infamous WW II pogrom in
which 6,000 Jews perished in a single brutal day), Arad, Cluj, Sighet
For further information pick up a copy of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe
by Ben G. Frank (Pelican Publishing Co.)