I’ve never been one to really believe anything is bashert – meant-to-be – but I found a strange little book about an obscure Romanian shtetl, Stefaneshti where my grandparents lived, that I thought no one outside my family knew of.
Then, through a series of circumstances, including an invitation from a teacher at the school I teach at, and a surprise gift to make it possible, everything aligned and it seemed the universe itself was conspiring to make us go on an ancestral trekking adventure. And so, my children, Beth and Adam, and I found ourselves Europe bound.
After a few days spent in Busteni, a Carpathian mountain town, we arrived in Bucharest, not to be confused with Budapest in Hungary. One of the first Western artists to arrive in Bucharest, after the fall of Communism was Michael Jackson. The people showed up in great throngs to see him, and then he spoiled it all by shouting, “Hello Budapest!”
We went on a Jewish walking tour with a tour guide, Christina. She showed us some buildings designed and built by Jewish architects from before the Second World War. One architect had the last name Zimmerman, who died on the Struma boat bound for Palestine which was sunk in the Black Sea by the Soviet Union in 1942. Over 791 people, including 100 children, were on that boat.
Unlike the Germans, the Romanians, disappointingly, have not taken responsibility for their role in the Holocaust. There are no plaques, no monuments in memory of the victims of the Holocaust except for on the property of the two synagogues currently being restored in Bucharest.
One is the Choral Synagogue, which now has about 600 congregants and is beautifully decorated with geometric tiled patterns everywhere. This is probably the biggest congregation in Romania, since only just over 3,000 Romanians identify themselves as Jewish. Before the war, there were around half a million Jews in Romania.
The gabbai, Gilbert, can recite the history of the Jews in Romania and of the synagogue, in English at a speed that could make your head spin. He is literally the fastest talker we have ever heard and we had to pay very careful attention in order not to miss any details. “That’s nothing,” said Christina, our tour guide. “He’s much faster in French and Hebrew, and even faster in Romanian.” English is his fourth language. I’m so envious.
The second synagogue is The Polish Synagogue, and this is now being turned into a Holocaust museum. Unfortunately, the displays are all labeled in Romanian only and we would have needed to go back with an interpreter. But this was the synagogue that had the memorial to the victims of the Pogrom of Bucharest, 1941. It is blamed on a group of fascist hooligans. The monument says, “perpetrated by legionnaires.”
After departing Bucharest, we made our way to Iasi (pronounced Yash), which is a university town about an hour -and-a-half from Stefaneshti. Another of the crazy coincidences that convinced us to take this trip is that I have a teacher friend, Crina, I work with who was also planning to travel to Romania.
Crina met us in Iasi to act as our interpreter. That was so fortunate for us, because outside of Bucharest, no one spoke English.
We began the day in Iasi at the Jewish community centre. There are two synagogues there being restored.
One is the oldest synagogue in Romania, the Synagoga Mare -(The Great Synagogue). Then we went into the smaller Sinagoga Merele – Synagogue of the Apple Sellers. Once, the apple sellers would come to shul for Shacharit, then go across the road to where there was a market, and sell their apples. Finally, they had a little museum with some artifacts from the shtetls like 150-year-old marriage documents, a book of Kabbalah, old siddurim, and pictures of the Iasi pogrom, also in 1941.
Once in Stefaneshti, we began by trying to find the Jewish cemetery. We came upon two men at a crossroads, if you can call the dirt roads that. One of the two men, Lucien, said he was going part of the way toward the cemetery and he would walk with us. He teaches at the local school, which has about 1,000 students from primary to high school grades. So Lucien ended up walking with us, ostensibly to the cemetery, but he ended up spending the entire day with us.
The cemetery is very overgrown, weedy and with some trees and brambles that have grown up around the stones. A cow was tied up to graze there but I think she had gotten herself caught in the thicket and couldn’t get out. A very old lady lived there and showed us around. We were looking for any Ornsteins and Halevys. Most of the gravestones were engraved on one side in Romanian and the other side in Hebrew and we were able to find a Halevy. The stones ended abruptly in 1941, with the exception of one stone dated 1946. There was also a little building that once housed the grave of the famous Hasidic Rabbi Nachum Friedman, but after the war, his body was moved to Israel.
The tiny museum on the cemetery grounds has mementoes of school classes, pictures, letters from the Romanian directors of education and budgets. There were some chilling things too, in particular a piece of propaganda from 1941 that warned of the seditious behaviour that was being fomented in Stefaneshti. It said that if anything happened to a single soldier of the Romanian or German armies, 50 boys would be shot in retaliation.
As we left the cemetery, we found that the old woman’s husband had built a new and clean little pavilion for a washroom for visitors. Since Lucien had told us that he brought his students here for a class trip, and with the presence of this washroom, it made me feel hope that this place will be restored and this will be a piece of Jewish history that will not be forgotten.
Rather than going home, as he had meant to do, Lucien now decided that there were places in the village that he wanted to show us. He took us back toward the town on a street called Stefan Cel Mare, and showed us about five or six homes still in use that predated the First World War. He called them Jewish architecture, because the typical Jewish homes of the period were built close to the street and the front room was for conducting business. We talked to one woman who still lived in the home and her father-in- law had told her that before him, the home had belonged to a tailor, a schneider.
In Iasi, our last night in Romania, we went to a restaurant that played live music. There, Crina asked if they knew any Jewish music, and they started playing Havah Nagilah. The next thing we knew, three women came running over from another table across the courtyard and dancing a hora. They turned out to be from Israel and had come to Romania on the same mission as us, to find their shtetl. It’s both funny and wonderful how being Jewish can make the world a much smaller place.