The presence of Jews in Romania dates back to Roman times, when the country was a province called Dacia. A small number of Jews settled along the Black Sea during successive decades and engaged in trading in a number of early Romanian port cities. It was not the end of the 14th century that a substantial number of Jews arrived in the country, having been expelled from the Kingdom of Hungary. The following century saw the establishment of organized Jewish communal life, with communities established in Iasi and several other towns in the region of Moldavia.
Romania’s location between Polish-Lithuanian and Ottoman trade routes saw many Jewish merchants pass through the principality of Moldavia and eventually settle there. Although the Orthodox Church bitterly opposed contacts with Jews, various local rulers encouraged Jews from Poland and elsewhere to settle in the country. This included Spanish Jews who arrived in the 16th century following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition. Some of these Jewish arrivals even served in the courts of sovereigns in the principality of Wallachia. There were, however, some tensions between Jews and non-Jews in the country, usually derived from economic competition. In 1579, the sovereign of Moldavia ordered Jews expelled on account of them “ruining” the merchants. Despite occurrences such as this, Jewish communities continued to be established in towns throughout Romania.
There was a further influx of Jewish immigration to the region towards the end of the 17th century following the Chmielnicki Massacres in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the following century, rulers in Moldavia sought to attract to the Jews to the principality in order to bolster and enlarge war-ravaged towns and contribute to the local economy. Special charters offering exemption from taxes, land for Jewish religious establishments, and political representation on a local level, brought a number of Jews from neighboring countries to Moldavia where they were able to prosper as craftsmen and other trades.
Despite the relative peaceful existence that Jews in Romania experienced, conflicts and anti-Jewish violence often spilled over into the region. A large number of Romanian Jews were massacred by the Cossacks, who invaded Romania in 1652 and 1653, and later Jews suffered horribly in the Russo–Turkish War from 1769 to 1774. The Romanian rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, which had gained authority over the Balkans over time, in 1821 saw further devastation reaped on Romanian Jewry, particularly when Greek volunteers headed north to the Danube River, robbing and murdering Romanian Jews on their way.
The principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia came under control of the Russian Empire shortly thereafter and were later made protectorates. Antisemitism was then promulgated by Russian authorities and became influential among non-Jewish Romanians, who viewed their Jewish counterparts as enriching themselves at the expense of Christian Romanians. Jews were subjected to restrictions, including being denied citizenship and prohibited from settling in villages or leasing land. Romanian officials were also given the right to expel Jews from the country if not found to be “useful.”
Jews participated in the 1848 revolt against the Russians, and some were executed as a result. In the aftermath of the Crimean War, the Romanian principalities were placed under the authority of the Ottoman Empire with a certain degree of autonomy but were required by the Treaty of Paris in 1856 (which brought about the war’s conclusion) to grant all inhabitants of the region civil and religious freedoms. However, Romanian political leaders were largely opposed to this and actively hindered the implementation of equality in Romania. Native Jew, but not foreign-born Jews, were granted suffrage in local councils in 1864. Jews in Romania continued to be excluded from political life in the country and none were considered naturalized citizens.
Romania finally achieved official independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and was once again required to grant Jews living in the country full civil rights as a condition of independence. This condition was largely ignored, and the Romanian authorities failed to comply with the terms of the treaty, even introducing further antisemitic measures after the conclusion of the Congress. In general, being Christian was a prerequisite for Romanian citizenship although a complex naturalization process was theoretically made available to Jews. Over the course of successive decades, nearly 2,000 Romanian Jews were naturalized, but this number was strikingly small, considering that there were hundreds of thousands of Jews eligible for Romanian citizenship during this period.
The situation for Jews in Romania worsened, as most Romanian Jews were considered foreigners and prohibited from many professions. Jewish students were expelled from public schools in 1893, and Jewish activists who led the struggle for Jewish emancipation were routinely arrested and expelled from the country. On a political level, both the Liberal and Conservative parties continued to be overtly antisemitic. Between 1898 and 1904, some 70,000 Jews left Romania for Palestine and other countries such as the United States of America.
In the aftermath of World War I, the greatly enlarged Romania incorporated territories with considerable Jewish populations. that had been under Austro-Hungarian and Russian rule. The struggle for Jewish emancipation continued during peace negotiations, as Romania attempted to resist the Allied power’s insistence that Jewish emancipation in Romania be included in the peace treaty. Romanian authorities continued to circumnavigate this insistence, largely ignoring the provisions in the Treaty of Versailles pertaining to Jewish rights in Romania and granting citizenship to Jews in the territory in an often disingenuous manner. Though the naturalization of Romanian Jews was added to the Romanian constitution in 1923, there remained a striking discrepancy between the language of the law and its application. Many professions remained closed to Jews, and Romanian officials continued to persecute Jews legislatively.
Despite their unfavorable situation, Jews played an important role in the transformation of Romania from a feudal system into a modern economy. Many Romanian Jews lived in the cities and helped contribute to the industrialization of the country in the interwar years through their involvement in a number of industries – including trade, craftsmanship, and artisanry. In the late 1920s, the first national Jewish deputies and senators were elected to Parliament as members of the “Jewish Party.” However, they faced severe discrimination in Parliament, and were even physically assaulted, by some of the more antisemitic members.
By 1933, there were no more Jewish members of parliament and Romania began to embrace its own brand of fascism. After the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, efforts to completely “Romanize” the country saw Jews facing widespread discrimination, and anti-Semitic measures were enacted by Parliament. Limitations based on ethnic origin were introduced in a number of industries and Romanian universities to limit, and in some instances outright ban, Jews from sectors of Romanian society. Heavy taxes were imposed on a number of Jewish enterprises and banks in an effort to ruin them and remove Jews from parts of the country’s economy.
Romanian Jewry was devastated by the Holocaust Over half of the prewar Jewish population perished. In 1940 the country lost northern Transylvania and under Hungarian role almost the entire Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz. Allied with Nazi Germany, Romania played an active role in the destruction of the Jewish population of its borderlands and also parts of Ukraine that its army overran in 1941. Although subjected to pogroms and other forms of antisemitism, most Jews in the Regat (“Old Romania”) survived intact. A mass emigration of Jews for Western Europe and Palestine in the late 1940s further decreased the Jewish population in Romania, and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 saw hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews make Aliyah throughout the course of the latter portion of the twentieth century.
Following World War II, the Romanian monarchy was abolished and like the king, the country’s chief rabbi, Aleksandru Safran, was also compelled to flee. Under Communist rule, all Zionist activity was prohibited and Romanian Jewry was isolated from the international Jewish community. Moreover, most Jewish communal organizations were disbanded and the affairs of the Jewish community came under the direct control of the Romanian government. Romania slowly began to exert policy independent of Soviet directions at the end of the 1950s, and by the following decade, Romania largely followed its own path in terms of political direction.
The active Jewish religious life in Romania during this period constituted an anomaly in Communist Eastern Europe, although the Jewish community was closely monitored and infiltrated by the Romanian authorities. Under the leadership of its flamboyant Chief Rabbi, Dr. Moses Rosen, Jewish religious and cultural life remained active in the country, as a great majority of Jewish youth received a Jewish education and synagogues continued to function. Ties between Israel and Romanian Jewry also developed, and Romanian Jews were eventually allowed to immigrate to Israel, provided that the Romanian government received what it considered appropriate remuneration for this "brain drain." Still, emigration continued to diminish the Jewish population in Romania throughout successive decades.
Following the overthrow of the Communist regime, Romanian Jews continued to practice Jewish religious and cultural life freely and openly, but antisemitism remains a problem. In 2015, President Klaus Iohannis signed legislation that made Holocaust denial illegal and a punishable offense. Jewish communal property has been returned to the Jewish community and is managed by the community and the Caritatea Foundation, which is a permanent institution for the conservation, maintenance and administration of the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jews in Romania, It also aims to support and improve the living conditions of the socially disadvantaged, ill and elderly Jews living in Romania or in other countries, to support studying and to promote educational programs for Jewish children.