SIBIU, Romania – You can almost hear the children clamoring, their voices filling the room with a melánge of Hungarian, Romanian,Yiddish and Hebrew. You can almost see them, clutching notebooks and climbing the staircase, with its Star of David and menorah motifs, on their way to class. You can almost imagine their Sibiu, their Austria-Hungary, their Romania, their Europe that once was.
But this former Jewish school, located next to the city’s sole remaining synagogue, has largely been lost to history. Romania’s communists nationalized this building in the 1960s, turning it into an apartment complex and stripping it of any meaningful religiosity. And now, with Sibiu’s Jewish children – and most of its Jewish adults – gone, the stairway’s unique design is nothing more than an architectural oddity. The same can be said for the rusting menorah that adorns the entrance of the former school; for the nearby Hasidic synagogue that is now a plastics warehouse and for the homes – now owned by Romanians, Hungarians or Germans, that belonged to Sibiu’s rabbis – their doorways still bearing mezuzah markings.
In fact, in one way or another, the same can be said for the synagogues and cemeteries across Central and Eastern Europe which, without communities to care for them, have declined into various stages of disrepair or taken on profane identities. As the few remaining Jews of this region age, their religious spaces are increasingly without caretakers, leaving the history of Central and Eastern Europe’s Jewish world at risk of being forgotten.
Jewish Sibiu once included merchants and professionals, along with athletic and other organizations. Jews here, like all those who lived for over two millennia in Europe, built synagogues to serve as houses of worship and other public spaces symbolically marking the land as their own. But Sibiu’s synagogue, a marvel in Hungarian-Italianesque architecture, has remained in solitary stasis for years, its pews long standing empty. Synagogues elsewhere are in demonstrably worse shape: Those in Belarus, Poland, Galicia, and Slovakia and beyond lie decrepit and abandoned. Others – either stolen years before, or simply lacking any Jews to frequent them – have become nightclubs, cafes, homes, funeral parlors, and libraries.
Some Romanian Jewish communities, like those in Sibiu and Cluj, rent out their synagogues for events, using the proceeds to fund repairs; others have sold their houses of worship. Centuries-old Jewish cemeteries, meanwhile, have, among other things, been dug up, bodies included, to make way for parking lots.
It is the region’s diminishing number of Jews that enables this degeneration. In 1930, over 750,000 Jews called Romania home; the 2011 Romanian census recorded only 3,200 living here. Sibiu’s Jewish community, which dates back centuries and grew steadily through the early 20th century, peaked at around 2,000 people in the late 1940s, despite Romania passing an array of anti-Semitic laws in the 1930s. (Still, for the most part, Romanian Jews were not deported to concentration camps, with Hungarian-occupied Transylvania and some parts of Moldova being the main exception.)
Today, however, Sibiu comprises only a few dozen elderly Jews. There are few children and no recent marriages; the last brit milah and bar mitzvah – both of 84-year-old community leader Otto Deutsch’s son – were in 1969 and 1982, respectively. Religious ceremonies of this sort were effectively illegal during Romania’s Leninist half-century.
“Nobody else did that for their children. I was the only one who took the chance,” Deutsch said. “I’m not a religious person, but it’s my duty to pass it on.”
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Deutsch, a Bucharest native, fled Romania’s capital in the early 1940s after a pogrom there, relocating with his family – his parents and younger brother – to his grandparents’ home in Kishinev, a Moldovan city now known as Chisinau and infamous for its 1903 anti-Jewish pogrom. German and Romanian forces took over Kishinev in 1941 and soon after deported Jews including Deutsch and his immediate family to Transnistria’s killing fields and concentration camps. These forces also sent Deutsch’s grandparents to their deaths at Auschwitz. Only Deutsch and his mother survived and returned to Bucharest, where he finished his studies before moving to Sibiu in 1961.
After working in a Romanian military factory, he assumed leadership of Sibiu’s Jewish community in 1995 upon retirement. He doesn’t recall when the city last had a rabbi or a minyan. The diminutive community celebrates holidays not in the grand synagogue, but in a small room adjacent to Deutsch’s office behind the building.
“We spend all the Jewish holidays together, here, in this room, as a family,” he explained. “The synagogue used to be full – now this room is full.”
Much of Deutsch’s own family – his children and grandchildren – now live in the United States. Only he and his wife have stayed in Sibiu.
While the Holocaust decimated much of Central and Eastern European Jewry, reducing a community of over eight million to fewer than 400,000, it was the combination of communism and Israel’s founding that depleted Romania’s Jews.
My own great-great-grandparents are buried here in Sibiu, having died in the early 1940s, when the city was “the citadel” for Romanian Nazism, as The New York Times reported. My great-grandfather fled forced Romanian conscription in 1921 for the U.S., but his siblings remained in parts of Austria-Hungary, including Sibiu, that would eventually become Romania. Those who survived Auschwitz and Hungarian Munkaszolgalat labor camps eventually emigrated to Israel.
Zionism here was not motivated by biblical promises of milk and honey, say Deutsch and others. But religion granted Jews access to an Israeli passport – and escape from Nicolae Ceauescu’s vicious totalitarianism.
Beginning in 1952, Romania allowed 300,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel, demanding $100 per soul. Following additional 1960s diplomacy, 120,000 more Romanian Jews of the remaining 150,000 made aliyah. Israel, in return, lined Ceauescu’s pocketbook. Fewer than 3,000 Jews remain in Romania today.
Nadia Batrus, a 70-year-old retired sociologist made aliyah only six weeks before the 1989 fall of Ceauescu’s regime. Israel fell short of her expectations. She recalls “veteran” Israelis, who had arrived only a generation earlier, taunting her with the slur “Romani ganavim” – “Romanian thieves. ” She returned to post-Ceauescu Romania in 1990.
“I left Romania for an imaginary Israel, which didn’t exist,” she recalled. “I came back to an imaginary Romania.”
The 1989 revolution left Romania economically in tatters, while decades of communism left it with few Jews.
“One family decided to go, and then other people joined,” Deutsch said. “It became a wave.”
Deutsch’s military knowledge of state secrets prevented him from emigrating – Romania wouldn’t let him leave. In any case, he says that “Jews should also be somewhere else besides Israel.”
800 neglected cemeteries
But the Romanian Jewish exodus to Israel left behind some 80 increasingly empty synagogues and 800 neglected cemeteries. The main Jewish cemetery in Sibiu, where my family is buried, is without a full-time caretaker; graves have collapsed on visitors, even causing one serious injury, according to the non-Jewish pro-bono custodian. The chapel, its cheerful peeling pink hues contrasting disturbingly with the building’s state of disrepair, has not been restored since at least the 1960s.
“People who visit the cemetery and have somebody buried there [are often] unhappy that it’s unkempt,” Batrus said with near indignation. “But who should maintain it?”
“The Christians have relatives around to maintain the graves,” Deutsch noted. “For the Jews, it’s a job for the few who are left behind.”
Sibiu’s tiny Jewish community comprises part of the minority who stayed behind – and the minority of Eastern and Central Europe’s Jews who remained in their countries of birth. And as this region’s community ages, increasingly filling their crumbling cemeteries, they are more than ever in need of Jews to recite Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer. Even that is a luxury.
“There’s a gentleman in Blaj,” Deutsch said, referring to a city some 60 kilometers away. “He’s the only one … who knows how to say Kaddish. So he’s goes everywhere.”
Romania’s Jewish decline, like that of Central and Eastern Europe generally, is undeniable and inevitable. The synagogue in nearby Medias is dilapidated, according to Anda Reuben, a 41-year-old Romanian Jew who teaches Hebrew and leads Jewish tours in Sibiu. The Ashkenazic Great Synagogue in Constanta is abandoned, without a roof, and with trees growing inside – and was recently the site of a lingerie photoshoot. The Communists razed Constanta’s Sephardic synagogue in the late 1980s.
“We want to save these vulnerable synagogues and adapt them to serve contemporary purposes,” said Michael Mail, the director of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, a London-based non-profit dedicated to preserving Jewish cultural sites in Europe and beyond. “We want to make buildings that had become meaningless meaningful again.”
The foundation has identified 3,300 of the 17,000 European synagogues that were in operation before the Holocaust. Only 718 are still used for religious purposes.
“When people are gone, what’s left are the walls they leave behind,” said Reuben. “When those walls also crumble, only the stories are keeping the memory alive.”
But now, with these walls falling and the Holocaust receding from memory and anti-Semitism rising, some are concerned that the loss of these physical testaments to Jewish life will result in ignorance of Jewish history in the future. “One of the Jewish responsibilities is to know the stories,” Batrus said. Indeed, without knowing the past, communities are prone to find themselves drifting towards the future rudderless.
Many Jewish communities in this part of the world are, however, aware of their decline –– and of Judaism’s clustering in the United States and Israel –– and are readying for the demise of Central and Eastern Europe’s Jewish world.
Deutsch, Batrus, and Sibiu’s Jews may be alive and active, celebrating holidays, working to preserve Jewish heritage, and engaging in Jewish politics – “part of my Jewish identity is to be concerned about what Netanyahu does,” she proclaims, smiling mischievously – but the two of them offer what amount to eulogies for Romanian, and ultimately Central and Eastern European, Jewish life.
For her part, Batrus doesn’t believe there’s a reason to mourn the loss of Jewish communal life here since, she notes, Jews are not native to Europe. “It’s nothing to cry about,” she said. “What’s alive sometimes dies.”
“It’s sad, but that’s just how it is,” echoed Deutsch, a slight smile forcing its way across his well-worn face. “We have an expression in Romania, the result of people leaving for so many years: The last person left turns off the light.”
Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Twitter: @CharlesDunst