Ghosts from the Past: Exploring Romania’s Jewish History
In a synagogue in Romania that once served as the focal point of a vibrant Jewish community, where the voices of praying men, women and children once rung out, the air echoed with the ghosts of the past. Walls were peeling slightly, but just beneath the surface was a glimpse of the ornate beauty of a former era.
For a moment, the synagogue was full, alive again. We sat, listening to one of the few remaining community members, an elderly man who keeps the keys of the old synagogue and unlocks the doors for occasional visitors. Our children whispered and slipped outside to play in the courtyard, and while we began by sitting straight and listening attentively, we slowly shifted and slouched, exhausted from the long days and late nights of travel.
It’s amazing to realize that even though many of these places have been fully stripped of their Jewish populations
By behaving normally in this historic place, we made it real once again. It was no longer just another historic building, but rather a living place, where families could gather.
Traveling through Central Europe when one is interested in Jewish history means spending a lot of time visiting relics of a world that no longer exists. It’s sitting in majestic old synagogues, with cramped wooden benches and soaring women’s galleries that once overflowed with congregants. It’s wandering through old cemeteries, running your fingers over the names on the grey, weathered stones. And in every town and city, it’s the ubiquitous Holocaust memorial plaque or statue, a testament to what once was, and what no longer is.
In many of the villages, the Jewish cemetery lies on the outskirts of town.
It’s amazing to realize that even though many of these places have been fully stripped of their Jewish populations, with any remnants that came back eventually departing for Israel or the United States, the memorials remain, linking these communities to a world that was once vibrant, and now no longer exists. In many of the villages, the Jewish cemetery lies on the outskirts of town. It’s largely neglected, with grass growing tall and weeds overtaking the perimeter. The gravestones are faded, and many have slanted or fallen over completely.
Few visitors venture to these places, which also explains the fascination of the villagers when a giant busload of loud foreigners arrives.
Each time, the routine was similar: we would stop and tumble off the bus, and one of the few Romanian speakers in our group would start asking for directions to the Jewish cemetery. A few villagers would give puzzled looks or point vaguely, but eventually we’d be sent in the right direction and arrive at the cemetery. And as we searched through the stones for the names of ancestors, stepping carefully through the grass and stones, a figure would appear at the cemetery gate. This person would wait patiently with a basin of water, sitting silently as we softly prayed and shared family stories.
As we finished, and exited through the gates, the water would be offered to us, allowing us to wash our hands after our time in the cemetery.
This is a uniquely Jewish custom, to wash one’s hands upon exiting a cemetery. And each place we visited in Romania, places that have been fully stripped of their Jewish populations, had an individual who gave us the chance to honor this custom. These Romanian villagers, with no connection to Jewish customs and culture, honored our traditions, more than two generations after Jewish life became a relic of the past in most of these villages.
When taking a step into a world that no longer exists, the guardians of these cemeteries provide a link, showing that while the people are gone and the places have moved on, memories remain. As we traveled through, briefly restoring life and laughter to each place, these guardians reminded us that the lives that we were peeking into had not been forgotten.
These Romanian villagers, with no connection to Jewish customs and culture, honored our traditions
And as we moved on in our journey, and made our way back home, these guardians remained, waiting to be called upon to assist the next time a group of wanderers found their way to the villages.