Jewish Romania

Feature by Willard Manus

Central Europe meets Eastern Europe in Romania, mixing two Jewish worlds with it--that of the reform-minded Austro-Hungarian empire and that of more-traditional Moldavia.
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 Romanian Jews.
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 and Timisoara.
For further information pick up a copy of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe by Ben G. Frank (Pelican Publishing Co.)