Community in Romania - World Jewish Congress

Romania

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Romania is home to between 9,300 and 17,000 Jews. One of the largest Jewish communities in the world before the Holocaust, Romanian Jewry today contributes to all aspects of Romanian society and is heavily involved in the political and diplomatic development of the country. The Romanian Jewish community is represented by the Federaţia Comunităţilor Evreieşti Din România (Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania) – the Romanian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress. 

WJC Affiliate

Federaţia Comunităţilor Evreieşti Din România (Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania)

Telephone: 021-315.50.90
Fax: 021-313.10.28

Website: www.jewishfed.ro

President: Mr. Silviu Vexler
Executive Director: Eduard Kupferberg


Community News


History

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.

The Years of the Holocaust

At the outbreak of World War II, Romania originally tried to remain neutral, but under pressure from Germany found itself deprived of northern Transylvania (to Hungary), northern Bukovina and Bessarabia (to the Soviet Union), and southern Dobruja (to Bulgaria) following the fall of France in 1940. Later that year, King Carol II was forced to abdicate the throne, and Romania established close relations with the Nazis and officially joined the Axis alliance.

Under the dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, the already harsh anti-Semitic measures in Romania were exacerbated, and the Iron Guard played a great role in escalating the sufferings of Romanian Jewry. Among other things, they robbed and seized Jewish businesses, and also assaulted and murdered Jews in the streets. Tensions between Antonescu and the Iron Guard saw a brief civil war erupt in the early months of 1941. During the struggle, the Iron Guard incited a pogrom against Jews in Bucharest and several Jews were gruesomely murdered in the ensuing flare of violence.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Romania re-annexed Bessarabia and northern Bukovina and seized territories – such as Transnistria – following the joint invasion of the country by Romanian and German troops. Almost immediately, SS units and members of the Romanian army and police massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews in the newly acquired territories, most notably Odessa which was the scene of one of the bloodiest massacres of the Shoah One of the worst took place in Iasi in June 1941 which claimed thousands of lives. In Moldova, thousands more lost their loves from starvation and thirst in cattle wagons on so-called death trains.

The Antonescu regime quickly set up ghettos and concentration camps throughout Transnistria. Those who survived the initial massacres by German and Romanian forces were deported to these ghettos and made to work under brutal conditions. While some Jews in the region were being deported to these camps and ghettos, others were killed locally, in addition to spontaneous atrocities committed by the invading Romanian army. Conditions in the camps were extremely brutal and many victims died due to malnourishment or disease.

In 1944, the Soviet army retook most of Transnistria and Bessarabia while slowly making their way towards the province of Moldavia. It was during this time, with the Soviets on the border, that opposition leaders, with the support of King Michael I, overthrew the Antonescu regime and signed an armistice with the Soviet Union, joining the side of the Allies. By the end of the Holocaust in Romania, the Germans, and their Hungarian and Romanian collaborators had murdered approximately 300,000 Romanian Jews, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. Such numbers make Romania directly responsible for more Jewish deaths in the Shoah than any other country, after Germany. Shortly after the collapse of Communism the exiled King Mihai implored his countrymen not to forget the Jews of Romania who perished in the Holocaust. “They will be forever our countrymen, our brothers and sisters - I urge you: Remember them.” His mother, Queen Elena, was recognized by Yad Vashem for her efforts to relieve the plight of Romanian Jews.

Over the years, Romanian society has eschewed any real confrontation with its own role in the Holocaust and have generally worked to whitewash that history.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Romanian Jewish population to be between 9,100 and 17,000 people as of 2002. The majority of Romanian Jews live in Bucharest, the capital. Other significant communities include those in Timisoara, Iasi, Cluj and Oradea. There are also Jews living in the main cities of the regions of Moldova and Transylvania. 

Community Life

The Federaţia Comunităţilor Evreieşti Din România (Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania) acts as the Romanian Jewish communal representative organization, working to organize Jewish life in Romania and represent Romanian Jewry in governmental and national matters. Since the introduction of democracy into Romania, the Federation has maintained its representative structure, but the offices of the president of the community and of the chief rabbi have been separated.

Increasingly, the Romanian Jewish community is geared toward meeting the needs of its aging population, most of whom have children or grandchildren living abroad. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is especially active in Romania and ensures that all Jews receive at least basic food and heat in the winter. There are a number of Jewish old-age homes, which provide dignified accommodation to Jewish seniors.

Additionally, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania helps run, in conjunction with JDC, a number of Jewish Community Centers in major cities across Romania. They also organize national meetings, every few months, such as Bereshit (a shabaton type event) and Keshet (one-day events). Moreover, Bucharest and Oradea maintain Jewish choirs and klezmer bands (Timisoara has a choir as well) and there is a small, yet famed, Jewish/Yiddish Theater that receives funding from the Bucharest municipality.

Religious and Cultural Life

Despite the dwindling number of Jews in Romania, synagogues and a religious infrastructure are maintained in many localities, including those in which only a handful of Jews are present. Nearly all Romanian Jews are Ashkenazi and the small Sephardic community that once existed has assimilated and lost its distinct identity. Moreover, the number of operating synagogues in the provinces is in constant decline. There is also a Chabad in Bucharest.

Kosher food is available in Romania, in the Jewish Communities of Bucharest, Timisoara, Iasi, Oradea, and Brasov.

Jewish Education

There is a Jewish day school in Bucharest, including The Magna Cum Laude - Reut Educational Complex, which was established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1997 (and is now an independent institution). It is regarded as one of the best schools in Romania and in 2006, a high school was also opened. For the most part, however, Most of Romania's few Jewish children receive at least the rudiments of a Jewish education in the community's Talmud Torah courses.

In terms of secondary education related to Judaic studies, the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj is the seat of the Dr. Moses Carmilly Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History. The institute offers a range of courses and fosters research on Jewish topics. There is also the Goldstein-Goren Center for Jewish Studies at the State University of Bucharest. Significantly, most of the students and researchers at both institutions are non-Jews.

The Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania was opened in 2005 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs and is charged with researching Romania's role in the Holocaust, as well as gathering, archiving and publishing documents relating to this event.

youth

There has been a recent revival in Jewish youth programs in Romania, with a number of Jewish-relation activities and organizes operated through the assistance and funding of the JDC. This includes Jewish educational activities and those aimed at fostering a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Israel. Moreover, there has been a recent push to operate international Jewish youth programs in Romania, including the Machol Hungaria annual Israeli dance festival and the March of the Living.

jewish media

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania publishes a monthly newspaper, Realitatea Evreiasca, in Romanian, Hebrew and English. There is also a Jewish publishing house run by the Federation called Hasefer.

Information for Visitors

There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Romania, including monumental synagogues - notably the Choral Temple in Bucharest – in a number of Romanian cities, including Arad, Brasov, Iasi, Oradea, Timisoara, Târgu Mures Significantly, Romania is one of the few countries in Eastern Europe in which remnants of shtetl life can still be observed (primarily in towns such as Radauti and Dorohoi in Moldavia). In Iasi there is a monument in the Jewish cemetery dedicated to the 10,000 Jews massacred there in 1941.

The Jewish Museum in Bucharest is housed in the former United-Holy Temple, once one of the most impressive synagogues in the city, and includes material devoted to the history of Romanian Jewry, including its fate during the Holocaust as well as the Jewish contribution to Romanian culture. Elie Wiesel's childhood home in Sighet is also maintained as a Jewish museum and a monument to the writer.

In 2005, a Holocaust museum was established in the synagogue of Simleu Silvaniei that is dedicated to the Jews of northern Transylvania who perished in the Holocaust.

Israel

Israel and Romania maintain full diplomatic relations and have done so uninterrupted since 1948 (Romania was the only communist country to maintain relations after 1967). In 2018, Romania announced that it would be moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Embassy of Israel in Romania

1, Dimitrie Cantemir, B. 2
Fifth Floor, Unirii Square
Bucharest
Telephone: +4021 302 8 555
Email: info@bucharest.mfa.gov.il

updated


April 2021

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