We are in the Jewish Museum in Bucharest, which is also known as the Museum of the History of the Jewish Community in Romania.
“The story of the Jews of Romania is only beginning to be told,” says Elena Maxim, a non-Jewish historian.
The museum in Romania is a repository of a rich culture and history. It’s housed in the ornate three-storey Tailor’s Synagogue.
On the ground floor are displays of ritual objects – candlesticks, Torah crowns, spice boxes and seder plates. Some of the Torah ornaments were created in the Viennese style; others reflect the skill of Jewish silversmiths and the influence of Romanian folk art.
On the second floor (the first balcony) is a section displaying paintings by 19th- and 20th-century Jewish artists.
The museum has walls of photos as well as a section devoted to the Yiddish Theatre, which was founded by Abraham Goldfaden in the town of Iasi in 1876 and soon moved to Bucharest. Amazingly, the State Jewish Theatre continues today, although the plays are not always in Yiddish. There are posters, costumes and photos of actors, directors and playwrights.
One thing missing is a section on music: no other country had such an influence on klezmer music as Romania. The word “horah” comes from Romanian.
Photos of noted rabbis and cantors are featured. And there are small models of synagogues across Romania.
Bucharest once had dozens of synagogues, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and a thriving Jewish community, urbane and well suited to this city that used to be called “litte Paris.” Writers Paul Celan and Tristan Tsara were two of Bucharest’s literary luminaries.
Today, only three synagogues remain. Most were razed, along with churches, by the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausecsu, to make room for his megalomanic projects, including the People’s Palace, the second-largest building in the world, now a tourist attraction.
“There were 800,000 Jews in Romania and now there are 8,000,” Maxim says, pointing to a statement printed on the wall of the museum.
The Romanian state’s responsibility for the deaths of 280,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews was not officially acknowledged before 2004, when a presidential commission of international historians issued a report. For decades, most of the blame had been attributed to the Hungarian collaboration with the Germans in what had been Romanian territory.
Among the 135,000 Romanian Jews in northern Transylvania who were deported to Auschwitz was writer and activist Elie Wiesel. The presidential commission was named after him.
More than half of Romanian Jews survived, mainly because the antisemitic dictator, Ion Antonescu, ordered the killing stopped, mostly due to pressure from Jewish communities and Allied powers. Romania switched over to the Allied side toward the end of the war, and this deterred Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, from coming to Bucharest to murder Romanian Jews.
The 8,000 Jews that Maxim cites (the number has been cited elsewhere as 12,000, but nobody knows for sure) numbered more than 400,000 after World War II. Many Jews left when the western border was opened for a time at the end of the war. Others immigrated to Israel during the decades that followed.
Outside of Bucharest, there are 98 synagogues, mostly intact, if not in use. Their architecture ranges from late baroque and Moorish to a painted wooden synagogue that looks as if it was inspired by Romanian folk art.
There are more than 800 Jewish cemeteries in Romania. Ruth Ellen Gruber has studied the artful carvings on the gravestones, particularly the depictions of candlesticks on the women’s stones. She wrote an article called Sticks and Stones, about representations of women in Romania’s Jewish cemeteries, which was published in the Sept. 30, 2009, edition of the online magazine Tablet (www.tabletmag.com).
Israeli Meyer Phaina is the mashgiach at the café attached to the synagogue. He said that before the war 1,500 Jews lived in Brasov. Afterward that number doubled. “This was one of the places where people hid Jews and made false papers from them,” he added. Today, though, there are only about 150 Jews there.
And while so many Jews have left Romania for Israel, Hebrew can be heard in hotel lobbies, as Israelis do business in Romania. For them, as for many North Americans, the Romanian specialties of pastrami and mamaliga (polenta) are familiar foods.