Coffers Empty, Romania’s Synagogues Languish

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 26, 2007, issue of January 26, 2007.

Fagaras, Romania - M. Emenescu Street is a well-kept blacktop with a natural-food store and a Generali Insurance office, but this tidy scene is interrupted by a forlorn plot of real estate that houses Fagaras’s lone synagogue.

Built in 1848, the synagogue today is a relic — a two-story gray structure surrounded by weeds, its windows all broken, identified only by its Star of David iron grills. Inside, the wood floor and prayer benches have been clumsily torn up. The pulpit has been overtaken by vagrants who have left piles of sodden blankets, trash and ash. The only signs of the building’s earlier life are Arabesque stenciling on the wall, and the wooden cabinet that used to hold the Torah scroll.

Claudiu Sucea, 14, who has lived across the street his whole life, said he has never seen anyone enter the building legally.

“I feel sorry for it — I think it used to be nice,” Sucea said.

The forgotten building in Fagaras is one of some 90 synagogues in Romania that outlived Hitler and Ceausescu, and one of dozens that lacks anyone to care for it. Most are in severe disrepair; some, like the one in Fagaras, are said to be used at night as illegal Gypsy encampments.

Romania was home to 800,000 Jews before World War II; today it has closer to 8,000 — most of whom are elderly and live in the capital city, Bucharest.

The surplus of synagogues and cemeteries, and the shortage of caretakers, has recently been a cause for scandal in Romania. During the fall, two separate articles appeared in Romanian publications alleging that the Jewish federation in Romania had begun quietly selling off synagogues, raising ire both inside and outside the Jewish community. The federation is in a tough spot, with barely enough money to take care of the synagogues that are in use — much less the living Jews who need its help. But the president of the federation, Aurel Vainer, insists he is doing all he can to take care of all the country’s synagogues.

“I give an SOS, like when a storm is coming,” said Vainer, who is also a Romanian senator. “My message is, ‘SOS: Help us!’”

The problem facing Vainer is not entirely unique. Many Eastern European countries have more synagogues and cemeteries than the surviving Jewish community can handle. But Romania’s dilemma is more acute than that of Poland or Ukraine, because of the quirks of history. Due to Romania’s unique collaboration with the Nazis, more Jews and Jewish sites were able to survive World War II than in almost any other Eastern Bloc country. And for years afterward, the communist government had unusually good relations with its Jews.

Samuel Gruber, director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y., said that while Poland had many more synagogues than Romania before World War II, today it has only a dozen or so that still look like synagogues, compared with the 90 or so in Romania.

“In a sense, most countries’ problem with Jewish heritage is that they don’t have enough to preserve, or it’s in a fragmentary state,” Gruber said. “Romania’s situation is the reverse: It has an incredibly rich heritage, so dealing with the volume is a difficult task.”

Among the cultural riches is the wooden synagogue in Piatra Neamt, where the founder of the Hasidic movement, Baal Shem Tov, is said to have worshipped. Gruber, for his part, is particularly fond of the funerary art in the cemeteries of Bucovina, which he believes are the finest in Europe.

In Western European countries, the care for such Jewish sites has fallen largely to the government or to Jewish communities, funded by tourism. Romania recently joined the European Union, but it is still one of the poorest economies in Europe, with a per capita GDP behind Kazakhstan or Botswana. Vainer said the Romanian government gave money last year to help restore only three synagogues.

Until now, the lucky synagogues have been those that have found local caretakers willing to take some time out of their day to do minor repairs. In Shighisoara, a town in the Transylvanian mountains, the yellow stucco synagogue — just outside the medieval old town — is tended to by its next-door neighbor, Vasile Balas, 55, a former cook who now lives off his pension.

Balas is not Jewish himself, but he became friends with the last remaining Jew in Shighisoara, a 94-year-old man who used to care for the synagogue. When the old man moved into a nursing home four years ago, he asked Balas to look after the building. Balas was happy to oblige after their years of friendship.

“He told me everything I know about life and history — about their history, too,” Balas told the Forward while tending to the garden next to the synagogue.

“A very good man,” Balas added. “We have been friends for 20 years. That’s why I keep doing this.”

Neither the government nor the Jewish federation gives Balas anything for his work. He uses soap and mops from his house. The synagogue is amazingly intact. On the floor of the balcony are wicker baskets filled with old ledgers from the 1950s with lists, in line after line of cursive script, of members and the dues they paid. Balas says the last service was in 1974.

The continuing existence of a Jewish community into the 1970s is one of the more intriguing subplots of Eastern European Jewish history, as is the mass exodus since then. Romanian territory was part of the swath of the traditional Jewish settlements that stretched from Lithuania in the north to Bulgaria in the south, traversing the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. A few regions, notably Moldavia and Transylvania, hosted flourishing Jewish communities for centuries. During World War II, the collaborationist government killed nearly half of Romania’s Jews, shipping them off to camps near the Ukrainian border, but 400,000 Jews remained when the war ended.

“Certain German forms of systematic destruction were not carried out in Romania,” said the Syracuse research center’s Gruber.

The postwar government of Nicolae Ceausescu was the only communist regime in Europe to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel after the rest of the Eastern Bloc broke ties in 1967. The canny, longtime chief rabbi, Moshe Rosen, who was close to Ceausescu, largely facilitated their relationship. The most famous element of their relationship was the program whereby Israel paid Romania a fee for each Jew allowed to migrate — a vital source of hard currency for Romania, according to historians.

In addition to these departures, Ceausescu allowed the Jewish federation under Rosen to keep all Jewish property that survived the war. Vainer, the current federation head, estimates that the group controls 802 cemeteries and 98 synagogues. Vainer says his priority has been to restore the few synagogues that are still used, such as the Grand Choral Synagogue in Bucharest, which has crumbling stone walls.

Into this situation has come the scandal of the past few months. Last August, the newspaper called Cotidianul wrote that the federation was looking to sell off its synagogues to owners who would promise to keep out businesses that rely on alcohol, or churches that would worship non-Jewish idols. Then, in December, the daily newspaper Gandul reported that one such sale had been made, in Turnu Severin, for 57,000 euros. Earlier, in the spring, there had been articles about two cemetery plots being sold.

Marco Katz, head of Romania’s antisemitism monitoring organization, said these transactions are “giving satisfaction to those who do not miss any opportunity to put on the wall the Jews who are making business over the bodies of their own dead.”

Katz said that when he wrote to Vainer in December to complain, he was told: “What could we do? The place fell apart, and the authorities said they will knock it down. It would be better to let the synagogue fall apart?”

Even before the scandal, there were efforts to find at least small-scale solutions. Felicia Waldman, head of the Jewish studies center at Bucharest’s main university, created a program in the past year that enlists outlying provincial schools to care for local cemeteries. This year, Waldman began with two plots near Ukraine. She spent $1,000 doing basic repairs; neither cemetery had been touched in decades. Now, the local schools will mend fences and cut weeds three or four times a year.

The federation has turned over one synagogue to the university in Cluj, which is using the building to house the Jewish studies program. In Simleu Silvanei, an American man who used to live in the area has adopted a synagogue that no longer has a Jew anywhere near it. Adam Wapniak, the young American architect overseeing this, said the family has spent $250,000 so far and is opening up the building as the country’s first Holocaust museum.

Since the scandalous newspaper articles, Vainer and the federation have looked for their own solutions — thus far, fundraising campaigns targeting Americans and Israelis who do business in Romania.

“Unfortunately the answer is very modest,” Vainer said. “No one helps us.”

Gruber said that Romania faces a great deal of competition among Jewish preservation projects and has an unfortunately low place on the totem pole. “We seem to be obsessed with Poland and Ukraine,” Gruber said. “Romania has kind of gotten short shrift.”

In Bucharest, the Credinta, or Faith Synagogue, has stayed intact only because of a group of old men who come from around the city for services each Saturday. The men say the last minyan of 10 men was in January 2006, and one Saturday this fall they were down to seven men.

“We want terribly for the synagogue to be open; we are always looking for one more man,” said Clarius Hersku, 77.

In the main sanctuary, which was last used for a wedding 20 years ago, many of the fingers on the grand candelabra are broken sideways and the intricately painted walls are falling off in chunks. The men say they have decided that after this winter, it will be too difficult to continue coming back.

Nathaniel Popper traveled to Romania on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The Fellowship is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.



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