Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Last Days in Romania * Shabbat, July 14th and Departure on the 15th

Shabbat in Cluj promised to be a respite from the constant pace of our car trip, and perhaps we would even come face to face with Jewish residents of Romania on our visit to the synagogue in Cluj.  On short forays into a distant land, it is far easier to move over the surface of the foreign society: to visit the tourist sites, sample the cuisine, take note of the ridiculous in the externals and in one’s own management of the challenges of the journey.  In fact, we didn’t arrange in advance to have meaningful interactions with Jewish community members.  Because there are so few of them and those few have chosen to obscure their presence to outsiders, we didn’t come across any – or, if we did, we were unaware of them.
This used to be a Cluj synagogue.
Notice the windows.
The one functioning synagogue in Cluj actually appeared on our city map and in the guidebook.  It goes by two names, the first representing the synagogue’s ideals before the Holocaust.  Built in 1887, it was called the Neolog Temple, since the congregation regarded itself part of the larger Neolog – “new law,” that is, Reform – type of Judaism that first made its appearance in these parts at the 1868 Hungarian Jewish Congress.  In this decidedly ethnic Romanian territory, the Neologs would have emphasized the Romanian nationality of the Jewish members and fostered the Romanian language over Yiddish.  

The Markovits family, from pre-WWII Cluj
from the photo archives of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum
Andre, back right, survived.
The patriotism of the Neolog Temple’s Jews, however, was no match for the ultra-nationalism of the extremists who were becoming more numerous.  While there were liberal political parties and leaders in Romania during the 1920s, they competed for control with home-grown Romanian fascists.  In 1927 a political party was founded named the Legion of the Archangel Michael – its members were called Legionnaires.  The Legion was unique among the fascist parties, historians tell us, for its overtly religious ideology.

symbol of the Iron Guard as found
 on a North American “New Right”
 (White Power) website
 Its leaders and followers embraced the Romanian Orthodox Church, religious language and symbolism permeated its speeches, poetry, and songs; and the youth movement was organized out of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Bucharest.  The paramilitary arm of the Legion was known as the Iron Guard.  The party regarded Jews and Romanian’s presiding, moderate political leaders as insidious enemies of the Romanian people, and one of the initial acts of the Iron Guard was to vandalize the Neolog Temple.  The more temperate Romanian government repaired the damage shortly thereafter.  But Romania’s liberal constitutional monarchy gave way to a dictatorship in 1938, and two years later Romania’s leader, General Ion Antonescu, officially joined the Axis powers.  In Cluj, many Jews were deported and murdered.  Antonescu and his fellow Romanians, without any Nazi officials or soldiers calling the shots, murdered between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews in the areas under their control.  The Neologue Temple fell into ruins when Romania was bombed by the Allies.  I don’t know why, but in the peace treaties at the end of World War II the Allies did not acknowledge Romania as a co-belligerent nation.  After the war, it became a communist state, part of the Eastern Bloc.
Apologies don't bring anyone
back to life.
dedicated in memory of the
tens of thousands
How do you reconstruct Jewish life in such a place?  As I have pointed out earlier, the vast majority of Romania’s surviving Jews immigrated to Israel.  I’m not sure what type of community life was established.  The post-war communist government restored the synagogue in 1951, and the remnant of the pre-war Jewish community renamed it the Synagogue in Memory of the Deported.  Here is an awesome photo from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum collection, showing 6 Hungarian members of the Romanian Parliament apologizing in 1991 to the Cluj rabbi at the doorway of the Synagogue in Memory of the Deported.

photo from the web

There was no missing the synagogue, its Moorish style and silver cupolas towering alongside a main street just across the river on the edge of the downtown appearing quite exotic.  We had planned on going inside and staying for about 15 minutes, and I had thought it might be possible to chat with some congregants.  That was not to be.  The place was locked up, and the worker plastering the inside of the next door school building couldn't tell us anything.   More helpful was a man who was beating a dusty rug hung over the adjoining chain-linked fence, a resident of the apartment on the other side.  He explained that in the summer the Jews often pray in a room in the Jewish community building about a quarter mile away.  It was not marked on our map, and we set out to find it by following his vague and confused directions.  Did I mention that the day was scorching hot?  Still, we were determined.  We wandered around those streets for about a half hour and only succeeded in alarming the residents of the building courtyards we entered.  Back in Los Angeles I discovered the Jewish community building’s address (Str. Tipografiei 25), and I’m sure we walked right by it in our fruitless quest. 

It was easier to find the remnants of the ancient, pre-Roman residents of Cluj.  After abandoning our search for the synagogue, we wandered into a part of the city called museum square, home of an awesome archeological site.  The oldest strata consisted of “remnants prior to the Roman conquest of Dacia,” and the lower walls of a house were evident.

It had been the abode of people that the Greeks called Dacians, whom the Greek historian Herodotus identified as possessing the area in and around the Carpathanian Mountains and east of there to the Black Sea.  From this plot of dirt, archeologists had extracted all sorts of stuff now on display in museums.  A bit boring, less painful to contemplate.

And nearby we managed to meet some Jews!  I heard them from a distance, women gabbing away in Hebrew.  They were doing what many Israelis do on a Shabbat summer morning, sip iced coffee and iced mint tea in the shade of the cafe umbrellas.  I walked over to say hello.  They looked at me like I was a bit deranged when I told them I had been trying to find the Jewish prayers, but since I spoke Hebrew they didn’t shoo me away.  One of them, now a teacher in Safed, had earned a Ph.D. in sociology at University of Cluj and came back with her friend to visit her old school chums.  Lucyna walked over to us and I introduced her, but they didn’t warm to her either, so we left them and went back to our own table.  Lucyna got a glimpse of normal Jewish life: Three Jews = two synagogues.

sound stage
On the way back to our hotel to change out of our nice clothes, we ran into a demonstration – hundreds, thousands of Romanians were wearing Shabbat whites and walking through the streets carrying placards.  Even to our illiterate eyes they sounded noble and righteous: their signs proclaimed that they were defenders of the constitution, pro-democracy, and opposed to returning to the political illiberalism of the pre-EU era.  Yet, the very erudite and hip young friend of the Central Hotel desk clerk was irritated by the whole thing, explaining that it was a silly rally on behalf of the suspended president who was clashing with the prime minister over a matter of no great significance.  Later I went online to research for myself and I decided he was correct.  I was amazed, though, that a political party was able to roust people out from under their shade trees and convince them to walk through the city in the heat of the day.

A significant minority of Cluj Romanians stayed away and attended weddings.  We spent the afternoon exploring the sites along the remains of the old city walls, and alongside every picturesque stone facing was a bride, groom, and photographer.  Saturday is wedding day, Lucyna told me, because then you have Sunday to get over your hangover before you return to work.  How romantic.  We walked through the neighborhoods, wall after wall draped with brides and grooms, until we reached the other corner of the city where there was a tower and large, high, barricade.  This had been beautifully restored by the municipality and developed into a conference space.  Brides and grooms were coming and going under the archways.  I asked the woman at the reception desk how many brides she had seen that day.  “Too many,” she said, sighing wearily.  She had been part of the reconstruction team and was chagrined that her work was regarded as little more than a portrait backdrop.
Outside again, we walked down the street to see the magnificent orange and yellow national theater building.  Across this was a huge square with a Romanian Orthodox church on one end and a statue honoring Avram Iancu at the other.  His statue is really interesting: he seems to be wearing modern clothing although he's wielding a sword, standing on a vertical pile of squared stones, and he's surrounded by heralding angels blowing horns.  Turns out he was a Romanian nationalist who burst onto the scene during the 1848-1849 revolutionary movements that threatened to dissolve the Habsburg Austrian Empire into autonomous or independent separate national states.  Neither he nor they were successful back then, and he was harassed and publically humiliated until he suffered a nervous breakdown and died.  Why the prominence in this square?  We couldn’t find a single plaque describing his accomplishments.  My guess, based on the tooting angels and the nearby Orthodox Church, is that the liberal Avram Iancu was resuscitated and transformed by the Legionnaires into an early nationalist hero.

We walked into the Orthodox church to find a wedding in process: a bride and groom were getting talked to by a priest, and about 15 friends and family in nice outfits and sundry tourists like us were looking on.  When he finally stopped talking, everybody filed out but the bride and groom, who were standing around looking a bit bored.  This was strange, I thought: Shouldn't they be smooching?  Dancing for joy?  Smiling at each other??   Lucyna and I walked outside and realized that the wedding party was assembling for a ritual in which the bride and groom would soon play a role.  Family and friends were arranged in two rows, and finally the bride and groom walked through and were hailed.  Then everyone rearranged themselves on the staircase and were handed placid and beautiful white doves with perky tail feathers. 
On cue, they all tossed up the birds, which soared aloft (and returned to the dove keeper, out of photographic range).  Love makes the world fly?  Marriage spreads peace?  I’m not sure about the message.  I am certain, though, that this picturesque scene would be followed by a ceremonial stroll of the bride and groom and photographer to an ancient city wall.  Then they’d go party. 
We walked into town and found a place for a late lunch.  Another day, another Greek salad for me, and Lucyna once again lapsed into meat eating.  Then we went to explore the town’s botanical garden.  This took some effort because it meant climbing up a hill in the burning heat.  Inside it was unkempt but pretty and cool, with a small river running through the length of the arboretum, much lower than the hill surface, surrounded by overhanging trees and vines. 
He'd show those weeds
a thing or two.
Lots of the plants were growing wild, and I could tell that the initial variety had been lost by overgrown aggressive plants.  The display of annuals was colorful, but the cactus garden was a sorry group of 20 Sagauro cacti and prickly pear.  I longed for my flowers, vegetables, succulents, and compost heaps back on Hi Point Street.   

That evening was uneventful, consisting of a desultory restaurant dinner and preparation for our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and drive to the airport. 
The return to Poland went more pleasantly than expected.  I snoozed through the short flight from Cluj to Bucharest, and the Bucharest airport terminal was (to our great surprise) clean, cool, and comfortable.  We settled ourselves down on chairs next to a full grocery store, and I recorded several days' worth of events into my journal.  Eager for a change, Lucyna found us a nice restaurant with couches and tables, and we sipped on tea and spread our legs.  We covered a number of topics thoroughly: Lucyna’s research into American Jewish attitudes toward Poles and Poland, possible sites for next summer’s trip in chilly places – Iceland?  Norway?  Finland?   “Did you feel that your time in Romania shed light on your grandparents and your ancestry?” Lucyna asked me.  I don’t recall having a clear answer, but I think I told her no.  We eventually checked in for our flight to Warsaw, flew there (more snoozing) and took a taxi into downtown Warsaw.  I bade farewell to Lucyna and embarked on the next phase of my trip.

Romanian-born bride and groom,
Grandma Rosie and Grandpa Isadore

But now that I am back in L.A. and it is months later, I can say, definitely, no, this trip didn’t shed much light on my Romanian Jewish heritage.  Okay, so I understand better why my Polish ancestors ridiculed Romanian Jews.  I also understand better why my Romanian ancestors scorned Polish Jews.  None of the European Jewish national groups respected each other – that is the European way, says this American Jew.  But there is not enough preserved from the lives of my grandparents, even had I actually visited their home towns, to get a sense of the Romania of their childhood.  Their Romania had already vanished before I was born. 
They were among the lucky ones: they left Romania for the U.S. prior to World War I when they were teenagers, and while I thought of them as indelibly marked by “the Old Country,” their characters were probably shaped more by their experiences as Jewish American immigrants than they were by their Romanian origins.  And me, their grandchild, I am thoroughly American and Jewish and fortunate, and grateful for my chance to travel with a friend through distant lands.