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Uncovering and Documenting Jewish Art and
Architecture in Western Romania

The Jewish presence in Romania has largely disappeared as a result of successive pogroms, the Holocaust and Soviet oppression. However its rich legacy remains in the form of ritual objects, Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and books, synagogues, former Jewish homes, and cemeteries. Such remnants can be found in cities and villages alike, in local museums and libraries. But whether from neglect, lack of maintenance funds, or sales to collectors abroad, many of these artifacts are in danger of being lost. This situation adds urgency to the Center's mission to find and catalogue the material vestiges of Romanian Jewry.

Fully adorned Torah scroll from the synagogue in Resita, Romania.
Fully adorned Torah scroll
from 
the synagogue in
Resita, Romania.

In the summer of 1996 the Center for Jewish Art sent its first expedition team to Romania. In addition to documenting synagogues and ritual objects in Bucharest, which lies in the province of Walachia, they extensively documented synagogues, ritual objects and cemeteries in Moldavia and Bukovina, which spans the border of the Ukraine. The findings which were very exciting, included an eighteenth century wooden synagogue, beautiful wooden Torah arks, wall paintings, and impressive collections of ritual objects.
In the summer of 1997, a research team set out to further explore Romania. Traveling to Walachia and Transylvania, which includes the areas of Maramures and Banat, they documented fifteen synagogues, two hundred ritual objects, Torah arks, and tombstones. Participating in this expedition were Boris Chaimovitch, Binyamin Lukin and Bianca Stube from Israel, three researchers from St. Petersburg Jewish University and an architect, Alla Sokolova.

Most of the original Jewish population of Walachia arrived from Turkey and the Balkans and was Sephardi. However, by the nineteenth century the majority of the Jewish population of Romania was Ashkenazi, the result of waves of Yiddish speaking immigrants from Galicia and Russia.

In the region of Walachia, researchers documented collections of ritual objects in Ploiesti and Craiova and much of the large collection of ritual objects in the Jewish Museum in Bucharest. This collection, which researchers partially documented in 1996, contains pieces collected by Rabbi Moshe Rosen, Chief Rabbi of Romania from 1948 until his death in 1994. Researchers documented sixty-five objects in the museum including Torah crowns, finials, shields, pointers, candlesticks, spice boxes, Hanukkah lamps and Torah curtains.

The largest area to be covered by the expedition team was Transylvania, which lies in central-western Romania. Its very central location placed Transylvania on trade routes between the orient and the west, and northern and southern Europe. As in the area of Walachia, the first Jews arrived on trade routes to Transylvania from Turkey and the Balkans. The first Jewish community was in Alba Julia, which has records of Jewish residency as early as 1591. At one time an independent state, Transylvania was later incorporated as part of Hungary, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jews continued to migrate to Transylvania in small numbers throughout the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, even though there were residency restrictions until 1848. The number of Jews in historic Transylvania jumped from two thousand in 1766, to thirty thousand in 1880.

Many different cultural influences converged in Transylvania, which was divided between Austria-Hungary, and Romania. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Hasidim from the north were the predominant culture. A strong Hungarian influence prevailed in the western centers of Transylvania, Oradea and Arad, which became an important center of the Neolog (Reform) community in the early nineteenth century. In Brasov, the southeastern center, German was the dominant culture.

The researchers' first stop in Transylvania was Brasov, where there are one hundred thirty Jewish families today. The Temple Synagogue, which the researchers documented, was built in the neo-Roman/Moorish style by architect Leopold Baumhorn in 1901. Its style is very typical of the large Neolog  synagogues, which were built throughout Austro-Hungary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 Interior of early 20th C. Temple Synagogue in Medias, Romania.Interior of early 20th century Temple  Synagogue in Medias, Romania.

In the town of Medias, researchers documented the elaborate neo-Romanesque Temple Synagogue built at the beginning of the twentienth century, as well as a small collection of ritual objects. In Alba Julia, once regarded as the Jewish capital of Transylvania, an Orthodox synagogue built in 1840 still stands.

The synagogue complex includes a school, religious courtroom and attached prison. This neo-Baroque synagogue, featuring corner towers and pilasters segmenting the heavy exterior, was similar to those found in Poland, but unlike any other the researchers documented in Transylvania.

The researchers documented a number of Moorish style synagogues in various towns in Transylvania—in Dej, Carei and Cluj. Cluj was an important intellectual Jewish center throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although the Orthodox community prevailed there throughout most of the nineteenth century, by the end of the century, the Neolog community was gaining ground.

The Jewish community in Satu-Mare, formally established in the mid-nineteenth century, once numbered twenty-two thousand people. At one time there were sixteen synagogues in this Orthodox community which had a prominent Hasidic element. Researchers documented the three synagogues which remain in Satu-Mare today. The one still active synagogue, built in the late nineteenth century, houses a large collection of about one thousand religious books. The synagogue features a wooden Torah ark, more than ten meters in height, and ornate wall and ceiling paintings. A second smaller synagogue built in 1923, is a beautiful structure with a large neo-Baroque wooden Torah ark and Baroque style windows, decorated with stained-glass.

In the two cemeteries in Carei, one Neolog and one Orthodox, researchers documented highly ornate tombstones. One, dated 1831, was one of the oldest tombstones found in Transylvania and reminiscent of tombstones found in Galicia. There were over one hundred tombstones from the end of the nineteenth century, some very decorative with various animal and flower motifs.

The Oradea Jewish community was once the most active  both comercially and culturally in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1944, twenty-five thousand Oradean Jews were deported to concentration camps, thus decimating this vital community. Three hundred Jews reside in Oradea today. In the center of the city, towering over other buildings in the area, is the large Neolog Temple Synagogue built in 1878. The unusual cube-shaped synagogue with its large cupola is one of the largest in Romania. Inside there is a large organ and stucco decorations. In 1891, the Orthodox community also built a complex of buildings including two synagogues and a community center.

Arad was also a very important center of Neolog Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Aaron Chorin who officiated from 1789 to 1844. The community's synagogue built in 1828, is a large building in the center of the Jewish ghetto, but indiscernible from the outside except for a decorative door. The door leads into a huge five story synagogue, with a large, twenty-two meter diameter cupola. The Torah ark resembles a neo-classical church altar, very typical of the period. An enormous organ, known to be one of the best in Europe, covers an entire wall.

Timosoara, a city bordering the Balkan states in the Banat region of Transylvania, was first settled by Turkish Sephardi Jews. In later centuries, German culture became predominant. In 1762, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues were built. In 1865 the imposing Citadel Synagogue was built by the Ashkenazi Jews, who soon after declared themselves as Neologs.

Center researchers documenting a collection of ritual objects in Timosoara, Romania.
Center researchers documenting
a collection of ritual objects in Timosoara.

An Orthodox community was established soon after and in 1906 they built the Moorish style Josefin Synagogue. Center researchers documented both synagogues together with a few collections of ritual objects. Approximately 1,000 Jews remain of this still active Jewish community, most of whom are middle-aged or elderly; all are Orthodox.

The region of Maramures lies in the northwestern corner of Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains. The home of a largely Hasidic community, the prominent language of this region was Yiddish. The Jews in Maramures came to Romania from Bukovina and Galicia and were very different culturally from the Jews of the central and southern areas of Romania. No Jews remain in this region and there are few material remnants of this once large Jewish community, as researchers discovered when they visited the towns of Baia-Mare, Moisei, Viseul-de-Sus, Ruskova and Rozavlea. Villagers, however, were able to recall some details of the former Jewish community. A mikveh in Moisei built near the river still remains and is used today as a public bath. A very ornate synagogue in Viseul-de-Sus was destroyed in the 1970s, as was the synagogue in Rozavlea. In Ruskova, a stone synagogue has been converted into a store, and there are no visible signs of its previous function.

The researchers' various findings reflect the cultural diversity of the Jews of these regions of Romania. During the three week expedition the researchers gathered important material which will add to our knowledge of the development of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions in Europe.

This expedition was made possible with the generous support of the Fanny and Leo Koerner Charitable Trust, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


 

 

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