Going back in Jewish history to look at the way we were

by Alan Rothenberg

Copyright (c) 2003.Jewish Bulletin of Northern California

A few weeks ago, I found myself shuttling back into time as we drove through
the Transylvania countryside in northwestern Romania. Once part of Hungary,
forever the birthplace of Count Dracula, this former part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire is a region to which many American Jews trace their
roots. Today its once-significant Jewish population is now but a memory.

Following a major highway, our driver careens from side to side as he attempts
to out-maneuver the potholes. And while it may sound like a car race for
weekend sports car lovers, it’s really the beginning of a Jewish-roots tour,
sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

This trip had three objectives — to observe the remains of places with
once-grand Jewish histories, experience Jewish life in Romania today and visit
the aging recipients of assistance from the American Jewish community. Dollars
raised by local federations are converted into food, medicine and social
services by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Packages are then
delivered by volunteers and professionals throughout Eastern Europe, the former
Soviet Union and areas of Jewish pain, including economically depressed

This time, we’re in Romania, touring cities large and small, tracing the
remnants of a once-large (800,000 strong) Jewish community. Today 1 percent of
that remains. Here, tourists are still an oddity, so we’re greeted with smiles
(perhaps of delight, perhaps of amazement) throughout the countryside. And
wherever we go, we look for the Jewish sites — synagogues, cemeteries, senior
centers — that still dot the landscape.

In the country, one feels frozen in time. Farmers still plow their fields with
ancient iron implements, a man standing on the plow, another leading a horse.
Behind them are the women of the family, young and old, weeding the fields bent
over at the waist. Often, the elderly women are in black dresses, while the
younger women wear bikinis to better cope with the intense heat.

Almost every village, and certainly every town, holds striking reminders of
hundreds of years of Jewish settlement and prosperity. In Carei, a small town
near the Hungarian border, there is a proud synagogue, largely restored, that
once held hundreds of Jews at prayer. Today, there are three Jews left. The
“president” of the community is 80. The other two members are 78 and 79.

The grounds of this synagogue are immaculate. The building is watched over by a
family of non-Jewish caretakers, who evidence great pride in their
responsibility. In the winter, it’s too expensive to heat, but in the summer,
the building gets occasional use for concerts by traveling Jewish choruses,
whose performances remind Carei’s residents about a missing segment of their
town’s history.

And then there’s Oradea, a stunning city of 200,000, once largely Jewish.
Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, attempting to preserve and restore
scores of elegant older buildings that were built at the height of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire to house successful Jewish families and businesses.
World War II saw a majority of Romanian Jews sent to their deaths by the Nazis
and their Romanian allies, and the early 1960s witnessed a large immigration to
Israel that further reduced the community, but Oradea still has a core Jewish
community desperately trying to renew its growth.

We sit in their small community center, used mainly to provide hot meals to
elders once a day, listening to the Oradea Jewish Chorus. Perhaps 50 or 60
strong, the members range in age from 3 to 83. Led by a local resident with an
accordion, backed up by two local symphony members playing the violin and bass,
the faces of the choir members are highly animated as they welcome us with
songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and Hungarian. Sitting in this warm and humid room, no
one in our group moves. After seeing so many abandoned Jewish places, this one
defies gravity. This is renewal if we ever seen it, and it gives us the first
bit of hope that there may be a future for the Jewish community in Romania.

Seventy-five percent of the Jews remaining in Romania are elderly. They are
kept alive by monthly food and medicine packages from the JDC, which have
extended the average elderly Jews’ life by eight years compared to his
non-Jewish neighbor. The rooms of the elders we visited all contain time
suspended in photographs from happier days. While looking back is common to all
cultures, among Romanian Jews the dramatic loss of whole generations during
World War II, and the hard years that followed, intensify the need for these
survivors to preserve their memories. These elders rarely leave their rooms. So
occasional visitors, like ourselves, becomes a beam of sunshine, bringing fresh
air into these closed, tired spaces with peeling paint.

As we step back into time, visiting ancestors we never knew, it helps remind us
of the importance of working to ensure that future generations of Bay Area Jews
continue to know a vibrant and exciting community, rather than some day simply
visiting empty spaces that once reverberated with the sounds of Jewish life.

The writer, a San Francisco resident and a past president of the Jewish
Community Federation, serves on the board of the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee.