Michael and I recently traveled throughout Transylvania in Romania. I will do a separate blog post on some of the sites we saw including castles and pretty medieval towns. However, this one will focus on one of the unexpected surprises we found throughout Romania – surviving synagogues in each small town we visited.
Usually when we travel throughout Central and Eastern Europe there are a few synagogues maximum that have survived World War II and Communism in a large city, but once you travel to smaller cities the synagogues are usually no longer there. However, in Romania, we found synagogues in each town. I have tried to do some research to figure out why this is, but have not found a good answer. Unlike in many countries in this part of the world, the majority of Romanian Jews survived the Holocaust.
We spent very little time in the capital of Romania, Bucharest, so we did not have a chance to find the synagogues there. The first small city we visited was Brasov. As you can see from the pictures, the synagogue is a beautiful Neoclassical building originally built in 1899. I was shocked to find out that they operate a kosher restaurant next door to the synagogue. Sadly, it is only open for lunch and we did not get to eat there. The restaurant functions almost solely to provide hot, kosher meals to the elderly Jews in Brasov. The synagogue still functions and serves a very small, mostly elderly community. The inside is in terrific condition and has been beautifully restored. One more interesting thing inside the synagogue was a memorial to Jewish veterans of World War I from Brasov. It was the first time I have ever seen a World War I memorial inside a synagogue.
Our next stop on our Transylvanian adventure took us to the town of Sibiu with a population of 130,000. Today there are only 32 Jews left in town, but the main synagogue is still in great condition and open a few hours a day for visitors. An elderly woman opened the doors for us and allowed us inside to take pictures. The intricate wood carvings throughout the synagogue were spectacular.
Last, we were in the town of Sighisoara where Vlad Tepes, Dracula’s historical prototype, was born. There was no synagogue listed in our guidebooks or maps; however, we were wandering on the outskirts of the city and saw a sign for a synagogue so we followed the sign and found it. We were not able to go inside. There was a sign on the door that said to ring the doorbell of the building to the left to visit. On the left was a convenience store where the woman working knew nothing about the synagogue. There was a kind, albeit drunk man, who showed us what doorbell to ring as we were going in circles. Sadly, no one answered so we could not go inside. I did some research on the synagogue and there are no Jews left in town. The last Jew, the synagogue caretaker, died and one of his non-Jewish friends who lives next door opens the buildings for visitors and cleans it. There is no money so he uses soap and mops from his home to clean it. A very touching story and hopefully it will be continued to look after.
Overall, it was remarkable to get to see synagogues in these smaller cities and a peak at the vibrant Jewish life that must have existed there. Based on the size of the synagogues the communities must have been large and flourishing. However, it was also depressing to see these synagogues that were built to show the life of the Jewish community and be a central gathering place almost completely empty and unused.
From Russia with Love,