Multiculturalism, interethnic dialogue and the preservation of the cultural heritage – between theory and practice

By Felicia Waldman

Romania remains a fascinating place. This is proven- once again – by the competition that has been taking place of late between the ascent of an overt nationalism (visible in the latest polls, but also by mere sight), and the growing number of events dedicated to interethnic dialogue.

Given these circumstances, a sensible question arises: what difference can another seminar make? The answer is to be found in the international conference entitled “Minorities, cultural heritage, contemporary Romanian civilization”, organized by the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with B’nai B’rith International and the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Romania (FJCR).

The event took place on October 21 and 22, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bucharest, and was financially supported by the US Government (through USAID and World Learning), the Romanian Government, the Civic Education Project Romania Organization and the “Goldstein Goren” Center for Hebrew Studies of the University of Bucharest.

Far from being a singular event, the conference is actually a part of a larger program that focuses on the Romanian Jewish Heritage. Initiated at the beginning of the millennium, the project was officially launched at the end of 2002, thanks to a generous allocation granted to B’nai B’rith International by the US Government, within the framework of the Program for Durable Romanian-American Partnerships of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The funds were administered by the World Learning.

The project, which enjoys the partnership of the FJCR, has some extremely generous objectives. These include: the creation of a digital community archive on the Internet (with both general data- history, religion, literature-, and information about individuals, families, communities that will allow the visitors to trace their genealogy and roots), a thorough documentation on the so-called Jewish trails in Romania (potential tourist circuits encompassing places that concern the history of the Romanian Jews and destined to those who want to know more about the Jewish heritage), improving the interethnic communication and the mutual knowledge among the minority groups, and raising awareness on the role played by the minorities in a multiethnic, democratic and diversified civil society.

Dedicated to the promotion of the cultural values of the ethnic minority groups in contemporary Romania, the conference was a good opportunity for an exchange of ideas concerning the ways of preserving, sharing and perceiving one’s own culture in relation to the culture of the others. Reflecting on the dynamics of the minority-majority relationship, but also on the relations between minority groups and even amid the same group, the reports presented by the 21 speakers brought useful information on the successes and failures, the support and the obstacles encountered in preserving the cultural heritage of various minority groups.

The conference was composed of three sections: “Multiculturalism and interethnic dialogue”, “Successful projects for the preservation of the cultural heritage” and “The Jewish heritage: lessons lived, lessons learned”. The intention was to give the participants the opportunity to learn form the experience (both positive and negative) of others. Thus, apart from the presentation of some patterns of action, emphasis was also laid on debating the reasons why there is a current need for projects concerning the preservation of the cultural heritage of some communities which disappeared (obviously, we are referring to the Jews and the Gypsies that were deported under Antonescu’s regime).

The conference was honored by the presence of the ambassador of the State of Israel to Bucharest, Mrs. Rodica Radian-Gordon, and by a series of other diplomats representing the US and various European countries (Austria, the Slovak Republic, the Russian Federation) and even the European Commission.

The event was greeted by: the minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mircea Geoana, who spoke about the importance of the interethnic dialogue in general and of the Romanian Jewish Heritage Project in particular, which he is familiar with and has continually supported; the US ambassador, Mr. Michael Guest, who underlined the importance of confronting one’s past and of preserving the cultural heritage of the minorities; Mr. Dan Mariaschin, vice-president of B’nai B’rith International; Mr. Sorin Iulian, representative of the FJCR, speaking on behalf of Academy member Nicolae Cajal (unable to attend the proceedings himself, unfortunately); the last two underlined the relevance of the project and of the conference for Romania.

The speeches had various topics, thus proving the multitude of points of view that can be applied when talking about interethnic relationships. Historian Jeremy Cohen, manager of the “Goldstein Goren” Diaspora Research Institute of the University of Tel Aviv, spoke about “Jews, their Diaspora and the minority experience”, providing an overall vision of the phenomenon. George Voicu brought the topic down to the Romanian scale in his interesting lecture on “Gala Galaction and the Jewish heritage”. Andrei Oisteanu analyzed, with his well-known preoccupation for imagery, “The Romanians’ tolerance to minorities- between myth and reality”, showing how this was reflected in literature and press in the recent history.

Michael Shafir’s “From the goy-Jew to the Jew-goy” was an unusual and exciting lecture, a real autobiography, analytical and exemplary, which was warmly and vividly welcomed by the participants (around 100).
Slightly changing the perspective, William Totok set the background for a comparison with the situation of other nationalities, speaking about “The Germans of Romania between Nazism and Stalinism”. Miklos Bakk, lecturer at the “Babes-Bolyai” University in Cluj, carried on this comparison from a multicultural point of view, tackling “Political strategies of the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania and the multicultural model in Romania”.

The section “Successful projects for the preservation of the cultural heritage” took the step from theory to practice. Peter Eckstein Kovacs opened the way with some necessary clarifications regarding “Governmental structures involved in the issues of national minorities. Past and present.” In the latter half of the day, Magdalena Andreescu described the “Together” project of the Romanian Peasant’s Museum, a project which is, by definition, multicultural and interethnic. Speaking about “The Armenians’ presence in Romania for a thousand years- a model of ethnic co-existence”, Varujan Vosganian amazed the audience pointing out the less known (or utterly unknown) Armenian origins of some Romanian personalities of the last two centuries. Speaking about “Regenerative and mimetic actions in preserving the identity of national minorities”, with specific reference to the Slovaks, Andrei Ioan Stefanco proved how a literary talent stands out in any circumstance. “The digital photo of a burning candle”, presented by Stefan Maier, project manager for the Romanian Jewish Heritage, and Delia Grigore’s touching lecture on “Roma people of Romania: the emergence of a stigmatized identity” closed the day, not before the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions and to debate the things they had heard.

The last section of the conference was dedicated to the Jewish cultural heritage from the perspective of the lessons lived and learned. The day was opened by Lya Benjamin and Harry Kuller from the Center for the Study of the History of the Jews, belonging to FJCR; the former spoke about “The significance of the Coral Temple in the Jewish cultural heritage” and the latter about “The Jewish cultural heritage, essence and form”, also describing briefly the information that will soon be available in the afore-mentioned digital archive.

Two exceptional interventions followed. Under the title “The Holocaust in Romania and its consequences through photographic images”, Radu Ioanid impressed the audience with a series of photographs from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, each of them telling a whole story- the orphans in Transnistria, the destroyed communities in Bessarabia and Bucovina and more. Paul Shapiro, from the same museum, proved that one needn’t be of Romanian origin and needn’t live here in order to understand (and to present in the local language!) the evolution of the intellectual and cultural anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible in Romania.

Ruth Glasberg Gold, a miraculous survivor of a long train of unimaginable experiences that culminated in Transnistria (where she became an orphan at the age of 11), told her story, that was edited in an internationally renowned book, now available in Romanian (“The Time of Dried Tears”, Hasefer, 2003).
In the last part of the conference, deputy Dorel Dorian made some pertinent considerations on “The Jewish cultural heritage between preservation, reevaluation and re-launching”, while Liviu Rotman, from the University of Tel Aviv, spoke about “Managing historical memory”. A new illustrated reminder of the events of the Holocaust in Bessarabia was presented by Victor Eskenasy (Radio “Free Europe”). In the end, Alexandru Florian, manager for Romania of the Romanian Jewish Heritage Project, underlined the cross-field character of this enterprise, reiterating its objectives.

The conference ended with a stormy debate between the speakers and the numerous audience. The proceedings were recorded and will be published, probably at the beginning of next year.
Apart from the novelty of some pieces of information, images and approaches, this new international conference was special because it managed to bring “together” and to facilitate the sharing of totally different minority experiences, from which we can all learn, imitating the successes and avoiding the mistakes.