Jewish heritage in Romania

Calea Mosilor - Private tour of Bucharest | Tailor made holiday in RomaniaAccording to Greek inscriptions, Jewish communities exist since the 5th century BC, on the Pontus Euxinus shore (nowadays Black Sea).

Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the Jews became famous as tradesmen. Their route was Prague – Cracow – Lwow or Kiev – Black Sea harbors.
Thrown away from Western Europe, Poland and Romania, Jews number started to raise in the 11th century.

Old city center of Bucharest - Azzurytt private tours | What to see in RomaniaWallachian Jews came especially from:
* SE Europe, in the 15th century, Sephardic Jews thrown out of Spain and Portugal
* and Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, merchants and moneylenders.
In Romania, during the entire 19th century, their population increased by 15 times, reaching almost 450,000.
Thus, Romania was one of the European countries with the highest ratio of Jews per 1,000 inhabitants: 47.
Poland had also 47 while Bulgaria had 10 (Moldavia had 107 and Iasi 519).
Romanian Holocaust reduced the Jewish population to half.
About 140,000 Jews from Moldavia and Wallachia were deported to Transnistria, a variant of Poland’s concentration camps.

Former Jewish neighbourhood - Bucharest highlights | Romania sightseeingDuring the war, 47 ships with over 26,000 Jews left Romanian harbours of Galati, Braila and Constanta to Palestine.
At the end of the war over 130,000 of Transylvanian Jews were deported to Kosice – Csap and Auschwitz.
Affected by nationalization imposed by communists, Jews started to move to Israel after 1948 when the state was founded.
Romanian government saw an opportunity in this.
So it made a mutual agreement with the Israeli one to virtually sold its Jews for USD 10,000 per person.
Since 1956 the Jewish community from Romania decreased by 18 times.
Thus, nowadays there are only 8,000 Jews from which 70% are over 60 years old.
450,000 Jews originating from Romania are living in Israel.

 

BUCHAREST JEWS

Old Bucharest private tour - Calea Mosilor | Romania custom made journeyThe first document that mentions (Sephardic) Jews in Bucharest is a rabbinical correspondence from 1550 naming 8 Jews.

Ashkenazim (from Ukraine and Poland) and Sephardic Jews came to Bucharest at the end of the 17th century, during the rule of Voivode Constantin Brancoveanu.
They had their own praying settlements and their own guild, being involved mostly in trade, money lending and crafts.
Thus the Jews developed a strong community in Bucharest, becoming the largest minority of the city.

 

The 18th century

Razvan Church - Jewish neighbourhood private tour - Bucharest sightseeingIn the late 18th century Jews were tax exempt by Phanariote Prince of Wallachia Nicolae Mavrogheni.

This also granted them a plot of land to build a synagogue.
Significant Jewish population around synagogue in Nicolescu Inn, in front of Razvan Church, upset the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
So this closed the synagogue.
Jews’ / Zisu Inn appeared also in the 18th century on nowadays Calea Mosilor, across Razvan Church Street.
Greatly developed in the 19th century, Bucharest Jewish community had districts around today’s:
– Vacaresti and Dudesti Avenues,
– Mosilor Avenue – the areas nearby St. George Church (opposite to Old City Center), Fire Tower and the crossing with Dacia Avenue.

 

The 19th century

Bucharest Fire Tower - Firefighters National Museum | Private tour of RomaniaDuring the entire 19th century Bucharest's population of Jews increased by 27 times reaching 40,000.

And this happened to the synagogues and houses of prayer too.
From only 10 Ashkenazim and 1 Sephardic ones in 1832 their number reached 30 in 1860.
In 1848 they established the Orthodox Jews Society bearing the name of Rabbi Meir Malbim.
Came from Poland, Rabbi Meir Leibish Malbim (1809-1879) was one of the outstanding Jewish figures of his time.
Chief Rabbi of Bucharest and Romania (1858-1864), he preached in Bucharest.
His synagogue bore his name until the communists decided otherwise.

 

The 20th century

Walking on Calea Mosilor - Bucharest Jewish neighbourhood | Romania private car tourRomanian Jews' number considerably decreased due to:
- World War II and
- migration, especially towards Palestine and USA (after 1940s) and Israel (after 1948).

As a consequence, most of the colorful Jewish neighborhood of Bucharest disappeared.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were 44,000 Jews and 70 temples in Bucharest.
In the ’20s a little over 10% of Bucharest’s inhabitants were Jews (70,000).
In the late ’60s remained only 15,000 Jews and 23 temples.
And today there are only 4,000 Jews.
Two temples still hold services, two host museums, one is abandoned and a few others no longer serve the community.
Most of the synagogues we can still see today date from the 19th century.

Walking on Dacia Avenue - Bucharest private car tour | Tailor made holiday in RomaniaSome of the Romanian artists of Jewish descent found fame across the ocean.
Edward Goldenberg Robinson (Bucharest 1893 – Hollywood 1973), one of the greatest American actors of the last century, had Romanian origin.
Sergiu Comissiona (Bucharest 1928 – Oklahoma 2005), an Israeli violinist and musical director, became Director of ‘American Symphony’ orchestra in New York in 1977.

 

OLD BUCHAREST JEWISH NEIGHBORHOOD

Jews played an important role in the history and development of Bucharest.

So their legacy can still be seen here and there despite the not at all friendly period.
Skilled merchants and craftsmen, and innovative artists once developed a good share of the city.
This stretched from Dristor (the crossing of Camil Ressu and Mihai Bravu Streets) to Piata Unirii.
Given the once extensive Jewish population in Bucharest, their neighborhood used to be quite large.

Vitan, Dudesti, Nerva Traian and their whereabouts hosted many Jews.
Lots of them established in the neighbourhood of Dudesti, the very rich boyars of the 18th century.
These had big houses, a pond and a famous garden set on an English park pattern.
The picturesque Jewish houses set here opened to small patio-like inner courtyards.
The crafting and trading life of former Jewish District was thriving.
In 1940 Calea Dudesti – Calea Vacaresti area counted:

  • 47 delikatessen and spice shops, 33 haberdashers, 25 tailors,
  • 20 haircutters, 12 butchers, 8 grocers, 8 technical painters, 7 shoemakers,
  • 4 glassware shops, 4 hat makers, 4 tinsmiths and
  • 7 different other craftsmen.

During the 1980s systematization program of the communist regime an extensive part of the former Jewish district totally disappeared.
But the heritage of the Jewish community in Bucharest is still impressive.

 

Communist regime’s influence

Calea Dudesti used to stretch farther West, meeting Mircea Voda close to Calea Vacaresti, getting not far from Piata Unirii.

That old part of town, including the stretch of the old Calea Vacaresti would totally disappear in  the ’80s.
Part of Jewish heritage was demolished, together with churches, residences and other historic monuments during the aforementioned 1980s.
This happened because President Ceausescu wanted to develop his urban systematization project.
Area between Piata Unirii (W), Mircea Voda Avenue (E), present Unirea Avenue (S) and Calea Calarasilor once hosted 20 synagogues.
Of these, only 2 still exist today.

Communists did not like any religious or art monument.
So they demolished synagogues together with churches and all other material values of past centuries.
Among demolished Jewish settlements, there were also:

  • Cahal Grande Great Spanish Temple (built in 1814, plundered by Legionaries in 1941, demolished by Reds in 1955),
  • Malbim Synagogue (built by Orthodox Jews in 1848, repaired after 1977 earthquake, disappeared in 1986 when they demolished the neighbourhood),
  • Baron Moritz de Hirsch Temple (built in 1887, demolished at its centenary, in 1987 together with nearby early 19th century Bradu Staicu and St. Trinity-Dudesti Orthodox churches).

Some old Jewish neighborhood remains can still be seen in Unirii area.
Among city’s Jewish jewels still standing there are few synagogues (some hosting museums) and a theater.

First city’s synagogue, built during the 17th century, was demolished in 18th century at Voievode Stefan Cantacuzino’s order.
They replaced it with two new synagogues belonging to the Ashkenazim Jews.
Population increase arose the need for more prayer places.
Synagogues still standing nowadays bring to our days Sephardic and Ashkenazim architectural and decoration features bearing a local touch.
These are just another history lesson Bucharest is teaching its visitors.
A brief reminder of a glorious but nevertheless typically Romanian period of time.

 

JEWISH DISTRICT SIGHTSEEING

Choral Temple guided tour - Bucharest private car | Holiday in RomaniaOld Beyth Hornidrash Synagogue is off-the-beaten-track.
Due to nearby Saint George neighborhood, this is also known as Synagogue from Saint George.
Restored in 1947, the synagogue received a much simpler facade.
After the restoration from 1955, Jewish community used it for service until 1978 when it became a warehouse.

A little further from the synagogue, along Calea Mosilor, a Bulgarian merchant raised in 1867 Hristo Georgiev House.
Right after it, jeweler Haim Ioines raised also in the 19th century the Jewish Inn with arched patterns above windows.
This burnt down during the fire that desolated Bucharest on an Easter Sunday in the same century.

The highlights include:
– Choral Temple – the best known monument of Jewish heritage in Bucharest.
– State Jewish Theater
– Holy Union Synagogue – museum within and fine cluster of old houses
– Great Synagogue – museum within

 

State Jewish Theater

The first Jewish theater worldwide was founded in Iasi in 1876 by Avram Goldfaden.

The foremost Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu, signed one of his first stage plays chronicles, appreciating the performance as “very good”.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Doctor Iuliu Barasch built the theater in Bucharest.
Initially meant as a clinic, this became a  cultural house for the community.
During WW2 Jewish actors were not allowed to act in Yiddish nor in Romanian theaters.
So they founded Barascheum Theater where they acted, in Romanian, mostly revue performances.
Nationalized in 1948, the theater was restored in 1954-1955.
It is still interesting to attend one of their excellent performances, featuring Maia Morgenstern or Rudy Rosenfeld.
Performances held in Yiddish are translated in Romanian through earphones.
During the last 25 years, they had several international tours.
In 1991 and 1996 they organized and hosted International Festival of Yiddish Theater.
And in 2003 they were the co-organizer and host of the first Festival of Yiddish Culture in Europe.

 

Holly Union Temple

Also known as Ahdut Kodesh, this is the former Tailors' Synagogue.

Bucharest’s Jewish Tailors’ Guild, a Lech (Polish) Jews Community raised it in the middle of the 19th century as worship place for local tailors’ craft union.
Steel columns sustain the structure and alternative layers of bricks and white plaster decorate the facade.
Whole composition gathers Moorish, Romanesque and Byzantine elements, with obvious influences from religious and laic Wallachian architecture.
It functioned as place of worship until 1968.

Romanian Jews History Museum

In 1978 it became the Romanian Jewish History Museum at the initiative of Chief Rabbi Dr. Moses Rosen.
Back then, this was Chief Rabbi of Jewish community in Romania.
Moses Rosen was the only rabbi in the world member of a National Great Assembly of a socialist country.
He was 46 years in charge ? until 1994 ?
A visit here teaches you about:
– history of Jewish communities in Romania,
– its origins and growth,
– contribution and influence to Romanian culture, economy and political life.
The name has several variants, including History Museum of Romanian Jewish Community.
It presents Jews history on Romanian territory since 2nd century until nowadays.
It contains:
– religious objects,
– paintings by Jewish painters,
– replicas of synagogues in the country,
– collections representative for Romanian Jewish history,
– items representative for Romanian Jews creation and culture,
– Yiddish theater history.

Exhibits proof of the once large Jewish community existence, as well as a memorial for the deportation and extermination years.
The museum broadly covers the Jews history in Romania.
Displays include an enormous collection of books written, published, illustrated or translated by Romanian Jews; a serious archive of Romania history and collection of paintings of and by Romanian Jews.
Interested in studying Jewish community even further ?
You can go to Jewish History Institute nearby.
Currently under repair the museum is temporarily located within Holocaust Museum, at Great Synagogue.

 

Great Synagogue

The inscription in Hebrew on the building reads: My home is a home of pray and requests for all religions.

It is the same inscription as that on Choral Temple.
This temporarily hosts Jewish History Museum reorganized in September 2018 when it reopened for tourists.
Founded in 1850 by a community of Polish (Lech) Jews, the synagogue was first restored in 1865 and adapted to electric lighting in 1915.
Over years, it suffered multiple changes and restorations, being repaired in 1865, redesigned in 1903 and rebuilt in 1908.
In 1936, Ghershon Horowitz (coming from a painters’ family of Focsani) repainted it in Rococo style.
It survived both World War II and Nicolae Ceausescu unscathed.

Extreme right Legionaries devastated it, so they had to restore it again in 1945.
This is one of the largest synagogues in the country and possibly the one with the most beautiful interior.
For all these, in 2004, Romanian Academy included it on the list of historical monuments.
This probably saved it from demolition of most of the surrounding area in the late ’80s.
In order to hide it from public sight, communists virtually fenced off the synagogue with concrete buildings.

 

Holocaust Museum

Ever since 1992 it has been hosting the exhibition Memorial of Jewish Martyrs “Chief Rabbi Dr. Mozes Rosen”.

 

Bucharest ~ the City of Joy

 

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Warm regards,
Kryss

 

 

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