Earlier this month at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Romanian President Traian Basescu met a group of Romanian Israelis. For some exiles, the past is a safe territory, grist for warm nostalgia. But for the finely turned-out men and women in the hotel that day, the joys of reunion - and of unlocking that compendium of meanings that only a mother tongue can hold - overlaid a deeper ambivalence.
As I discovered on a trip to Bucharest last month, the best place to begin to understand that ambivalence is at the museum of Romanian Jewry, housed in the double-balconied former Great Synagogue on Mamulari Street. The pews have been replaced by dusty showcases, which tell the story of a once-flourishing life.
One glass case introduces the Jewish financiers - like Hillel Manoach and Solomon Halfon - who founded Bucharest's first banks in the 1830s. A second display features copies of some of the 500 Jewish newspapers, magazines and books - in Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German and Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) - from more than a dozen Jewish publishing houses maintained by the community in its heyday, between the 1850s and World War II. Serene faces of Romanian Jewish writers peer at visitors: the surrealist Tristan Tzara (born Samuel Rosenstock in 1896); novelist and playwright Mihail Sebastian; and Michel Aziel, editor of a weekly called Ha'yoetz. Yet another exhibit lists the 825 Jewish soldiers decorated for valor for defending Romania during World War I.
Then you turn the corner, and face a long wall dedicated to World War II: photographs of pogroms in Bucharest and Dorohoi, deportations to concentration camps in Romanian-controlled Transnistria, and victims of the massacre in Iasi, where 12,000 Jews were killed in the summer of 1941 on the orders of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu. As if this weren't overwhelming enough, you learn that during the war, more than 1,100 Romanian Jews drowned in the Black Sea when the two ships they hoped would take them to Palestine - the Struma and the Mefkure - were torpedoed. The final numbers are staggering: Between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust in Romania, not counting the 135,000 Romanian Jews living under Hungarian control in northern Transylvania. As historian Raul Hilberg put it, "no country, besides Germany, was involved in massacres of Jews on such a scale."
When you turn the second corner, photos of postwar Jewish-Romanian writers await - like those of poet Paul Celan, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and novelist Norman Manea. But theirs are haunted countenances.
A 1930 census found there were 750,000 Jews in Romania. Today, only 6,000 remain, a tiny drop in a country of 22 million. Another measure of the grim reality: Before the war there were 127 synagogues in Iasi; now there is only one. And all that remains of the Jewish community of Brasov, the Transylvanian town that gave Ariel Sharon both of his wives, is a clutch of some 250 Jews, most of them elderly.
And yet, although they cannot help but regard themselves as the last remnant of a much-diminished community, many Jews in Romania today are determined to carry on.
At the Teatrul Evreiesc de Stat (the State Jewish Theater), the first state-run Yiddish theater in the world (in operation since 1948), Jewish Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern, who played Mary in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," took time from teaching a drama class to show me around. Above the voices of actors rehearsing a Yiddish play, she described how in 1867, producer and playwright Avrom Goldfaden put on the world's first Yiddish theater performance in Iasi. For Morgenstern, Romania is the birthplace of Yiddish theater, a heritage one doesn't easily abandon.
Earlier in the day, I had met Aurel Storin, a cultured and dedicated man who served as literary secretary of the theater, who now edits Realitatea Evreiasca (Jewish Reality). This monthly paper, which sells 3,500 copies, is the latest incarnation of a Jewish review founded in 1956 by Moses Rosen, chief rabbi of Romania from 1948 until his death in 1994. Storin explains that those who did not perish in the Holocaust fled.
Storin also speaks rather wistfully of the Jews who, unlike him, chose not to stay behind. Some 400,000 Romanian Jews left for Israel, he says, a wave of emigres that included the painter - and Israel's first diplomatic envoy to Romania - Reuven Rubin (born Reuven Zelicovici); former MK Colette Avital, who arrived here with her family in 1950; Prof. Moshe Idel, the brilliant scholar of Jewish mysticism; and eminent scientists like Dr. Jean J. Askenasy, a leading Israeli neurologist who recently published a book in Hebrew about the file kept on him by the Securitate, Romania's former secret police.
This brings us back to the currents of ambivalence at the King David the other day among those who are in one sense exiles, and in another, are not. For perhaps it is these "transplants" - who are ultimately more grateful to their adopted home than to the country that bore them - who most faithfully bear the true spirit of Romanian Jewry.
Almost exactly 40 years before President Basescu's visit, Paul Celan was in Israel. In a talk to the Hebrew Writers Association, the poet born in Bukovina spoke of "a thankful pride in every green thing planted here, which stands ready to refresh anyone who comes by." He wasn't the only emigre from a country that was unkind to its Jews, who feels this way.
Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now