The Forgotten Jewish Neighborhood of Bucharest

The charming, light-filled Mil Pesos Penthouse Hostel which I called home while in Bucharest, was located on the top floor of a communist-era block building in the middle of what was the flourishing Jewish community of Bucharest prior to WWII. For centuries thousands of Jewish people lived in this area among a maze of lively, narrow streets.

A wide boulevard in front of the hostel cut through the old Jewish neighborhood like a knife. A large, modern underground passageway facilitated safe passage for me to explore what little was left of Bucharest’s rich Jewish heritage.

Fortunately several beautiful old synagogues survived the holocaust and the massive destruction of the Jewish neighborhood during the subsequent communist era. From the balcony of my room at the hostel, Carmen, one of the hostel owners, pointed out two spires of the historic Choral Temple that peaked out above the nearby rooftops. It is the city’s main working synagogue for many of the more than 10,000 Jews who currently live in Bucharest.

One morning I invited Simon, a hostel guest from Hong Kong, to explore the surrounding neighborhood with me. We planned to visit three historic synagogues, two of which have been preserved as museums – the Great Synagogue, and the Jewish History Museum of Bucharest.

All of the three synagogues were built in the mid 1800’s, desecrated during WWII, and subsequently beautifully restored.

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Jews and WWII in Romania

In 1930, there were 757,000 Jewish inhabitants in Romania. It was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world before WWII and the Holocaust. Romania allied with Nazi Germany starting in 1940 until Aug. 23, 1944, at which time the Romanian government was overthrown and the country switched sides and became allied with Russia. As a result of the German alliance, 200,000 Romanian Jews and 40,000 Roma (Gypsies) were killed in Auschwitz.

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The Choral Temple was just around the corner from my accommodations. A dramatic memorial to the victims to the Holocaust, in form of a large menorah, dominated the front courtyard, almost dwarfing the synagogue behind it. Built in 1865, the Temple is considered to be one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world with its Moorish arches and beautifully decorated walls and ceiling. Synagogue guide Noemi related passionately many details of the building and its history.

The Great Synagogue was built in 1845 by the Polish-Jewish community.  Original paintings, some of which were done by famous Jewish painters, were displayed on the walls throughout. 

One painting on a wall of the ornate first balcony was of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family, probably from an Eastern European country. In close proximity was a circular window with the Star of David embedded in it. The combination of this painting, next to the Star of David in the window, along with the stunning Moorish interior of the synagogue, made me stop in my tracks. I suddenly felt like I had been transported to a 19th century *shetyl in Poland.

The Bucharest Jewish History Museum, formerly the United Holy Temple synagogue, was almost completely hidden by long, multi-story block buildings. We were lost for a while in a labyrinth of buildings that all looked similar.

Eventually we found a memorial to 125 Jews who were martyrs during a pogrom in 1941. I then surmised that a synagogue was nearby. And it was.

The beautiful, three-tiered, galleried synagogue was built in Moorish style in 1836. The focus of the museum was on how the once vibrant Jewish community of Bucharest used to live.

After visiting the these historic synagogues, both Simon and I felt like we had just had a fascinating history lesson in relatively recent Jewish history of Romania.

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Every time I passed by the Choral Temple, the Moorish architecture and the huge menorah always moved me. I couldn’t help feeling some the the passion that must have been behind the creation of the two structures which were built over a century apart, yet were inextricably intertwined in history.

The last time I passed by this Temple was on my way out of Romania several weeks later. There was a sign on the gate to the property saying the synagogue was closed due to the Corona virus. I was grateful I hadn’t missed the opportunity a few weeks earlier to visit such a profound historical site relating to the legacy of Jewish life in Bucharest.

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*Shetyl – a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

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Old Town, Bucharest – A Delight Amid Communist-era Industrialization

One day I joined a few independent travelers on a walking tour of the Historic Center which started in the nearby lovely park in the city’s main square, Piata Unirii. Our knowledgeable guide, Alicia, informed us that in the ‘80’s until his death in 1989, Romania’s president Nicolae Ceausescu displaced over 40,000 people by bulldozing the inner historic city to create Piata Unirii and make way for the adjacent, broad boulevard.

Nicolae Ceausescu was a brutal dictator of Romania during the communist era. He was a Romanian communist politician, and President of the Republic of Romania from 1974 -1989. His excesses as a dictator lead to his overthrow and execution in the Romanian Revolution in December, 1989.

In the middle of Old Town is the small Orthodox Stavropolous Monastery which dates from 1724. Its picturesque courtyard, which is filled with old tombstones, brings to thought that during the middle ages there once was a thriving community in this area. The church’s ornate, beautifullyrestored wooden exterior was in stark contrast to the generally unrestored buildings around it.

Diverta retail store was striking along one of Old Town’s main pedestrian streets with its two level, stark glass storefront and artistic, colorfully-painted exterior. It sold an eclectic collection of books, toys, stationery, and gadgets.

This store, along with the plethora of bistros, international restaurants and trendy cafes, have helped Old Town take a few significant steps on the long road to restoration.

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Our guide had highly recommended eating at Caru cu bere (“The Beer Wagon”), Bucharest’s oldest beer house. The business originally opened as a brewery in 1879. Several of us decided to dine there that evening.

Classic Romanian dishes were promoted in a colorful sign outside. The restaurant was filled with an interesting mix of locals and tourists. It was here that I was introduced to mamaliga (polenta), a traditional dish made from coarsely ground cornmeal with cream or cheese on the top or side. It became my favorite dish in Romania. Martin, a pastry chef from southern France, feasted on a traditional dessert called papanasi, two donut-shaped pastries served with a dollop of sour cream.

Eating great traditional food, the Belle-Epoque interior of Caru cu bere, and traditional Romanian dancing among the tables with the guests, all contributed to a memorable evening shared with new friends.

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On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I made myself comfortable at the Grand Cafe Van Gogh in Old Town, with my computer in tow. Colorful copies of Van Gogh paintings of various sizes covered the walls. Red hearts were hanging in front of the windows and dangling from the ceiling. In between sipping tea and enjoying ice cream laden with colorful candy, I sent a Valentine’s Day greeting with a couple of photos of my surroundings to a few friends stateside.

A small group of people from an international company who were in town on business, were honing in on their painting skills opposite me at a long table in the corner. Each person had been given painting supplies and canvas. Each was attempting to copy a Van Gogh painting while enjoying food, drink, and conversation. They were delighted when I came over to their table at one point and complimented them on their artistic abilities. They eventually left, proudly carrying their creations with them which had been framed by the cafe.

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Bucharest, Romania – An Orthodox Church, a Medieval Court, & a Turkish Caravaransarai

It was early in February, 2020. My one and a half hour flight from Vienna crossed over Hungary, and then over Transylvania in the Carpathian mountainous area of central Romania, before landing in Romania’s capital city of Bucharest in an area known as Wallachia. Bucharest is situated in the southeastern part of Romania on the banks of the Dambovita River, which eventually flows into a tributary of the Danube.

Transylvania is known for its medieval towns and fortresses, and mountainous borders. The neighboring county of Wallachia was where Vlad Tepes (known as Vlad the Impaler) was born.  He was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  He is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history, fighting ruthlessly against Ottoman Turkish aggression.

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I alighted from the airport bus in downtown Bucharest on the outskirts of Old Town where my accommodations were located.

Communist-era block buildings lined the busy streets. These buildings belied the fact that Old Town, Bucharest’s oldest neighborhood, which was full of picturesque streets, unrestored old houses, and lively restaurants, cafes, and bars, was nearby. Old Town was formed in the 15th and 16th centuries when Bucharest was emerging as a capital of Wallachia.

The air was brisk. I maneuvered around small piles of snow on my way to my hostel. The streets were humming with activity. The pandemic, which was starting to halt activity around Europe at that time, didn’t appear to affect activity in Romania until about a month later as I was leaving the country.

St. Anton Square, Old Town

One Tuesday as I walked down one of the narrow walking streets in the southern edge of the Old Town. I soon found myself in historic St. Anton Square. The lovely Romanian Orthodox Princely Court Church, dating from 1559, loomed up in front of me. A long line of women of all ages were waiting to get in. Along side it, many were lighting candles and praying. The ornate, dark, interior of the church was packed with even more women.

I returned to this square a few days later on one of Bucharest’s free walking tours. The church and grounds were nearly deserted. I asked our guide why was there such a dramatic difference in number of people from Tuesday. She explained that women who are looking for a husband flock to this church to pay homage to St. Anthony on Tuesdays. One person in our group asked, with a chuckle, if the men of Bucharest who were looking for a wife figured they might find one here on a Tuesday, and hang around accordingly. Our guide smiled knowingly.

I found the historic structures around the church in St. Anton Square intriguing. One was the archaeological site of the medieval Old Princely Court. It served as the early seat of the Wallachian princes, including Vlad Tepes in 1459, one of Romania’s most notorious leaders. The other intriguing structure was a former Turkish *caravansarai. This massive complex was built in the 1800’s, and now hosts a restaurant, several bars, a cafe, and an inn (currently under restoration).

Unfortunately the ruins of the medieval court were off limits. But the presence of this archaeological site whetted my appetite to learn more about the history of Bucharest and the nearby province of Transylvania, where the life and adventures of Vlad Tepes took place.

The extensive outer walls of the oriental caravansarai, Manuc’s Inn, spanned one side of St. Anton Square. One of Europe’s last remaining caravansarais, the two story structure surrounded a central yard where horses, carts, and cattle used to be hosted.

My imagination soared when I stepped into the massive courtyard and surveyed the wooden balconies that overlooked it. I felt like I was on the old Silk Road in Turkey where I had occasionally stumbled onto an old caravansarai during my travels many years ago.

Tables and chairs of cafes and bars were set up in the large courtyard, ready for customers. The restaurant on the upper level was reputed to have a great four-course lunch special of traditional Romanian food for under US$10. I never dined there, but enjoyed a similar afternoon special at several inviting, nearby restaurants in Old Town.

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*Historic roadside inns dating back to the time of the old Silk Road between the 2nd century BC to the 18th century

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Bratislava’s Communist Era Still Reigns at the Old Train Station

After three days in Bratislava of soaking up the sights, sounds, food, and centuries of history, it was time to return to Vienna, then on to the enigmatic Balkan country of Romania for a few weeks of exploring.

I bid a fond farewell to the staff at the hostel, then hopped on a trolley and headed for the train station.

Buying a train ticket back to Vienna at the old station turned out to be a linguistic challenge. I looked around for a young person with cell phone in hand, figuring they likely knew some English and might be able to help translate.

I found such a young man who helped me quickly acquire a ticket. When I complimented him on his English, he thanked me with a smile, and said he watches lots of online movies in English. He politely excused himself and rushed for his train.

While waiting to board my train, I pondered a massive communist-era mural on a wall of the main hall above the entrance to the platforms. It had many hallmarks of socialist thought, including a proud steel mill worker holding tools, and the red banner of socialism with doves flying above.

As the sun lowered in the sky, I boarded my train for a relaxing one hour journey back to Vienna. Vienna – a place where glaring vestiges of the Cold War communist era are non-existent, and communication is easier for me because of German being rooted in Latin as is my native tongue of English.

As my train rumbled over the tracks on the way back to Vienna, small villages nestled among individual plots of well-tended farmland gradually gave way to large stretches of barren land, and eventually, city lights.

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Exploring Old Bratislava by Foot

I met Patrick, our free walking tour guide, in Old Town’s main square near the elegant Primate’s Palace which was built in 1781. It is now City Hall.  Patrick was a native of Bratislava and spoke with a slight British accent at a speed so fast I often missed what he was saying.

It was a brisk, clear day. I wore several layers of clothing, and needed all of them. The seven international, independent travelers who showed up for this tour were bundled, charming, and upbeat.

We followed the main pedestrian streets from the central square of Old Town to St. Martin’s Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Bratislava, built in 1273.  This was the old coronation route of Hungarian kings and Queen Maria Theresa. The small brass plates in the form of a crown, evidence we were on the right track, were embedded in the cobblestones.

The area around the coronation church was seeped in history at every fascinating turn.

At one time the church had been part of the fortified walls of the old city. A significant part of the walls were still standing opposite the cathedral.

Just behind the cathedral was an open piece of land with the remains of the foundation of the historic *Nealog Synagogue which was built in 1895. It had been raised during the communist era to make way for a bridge over the Danube. In the middle of its old foundation rose a tall, dark, twisted, Holocaust memorial with a Star of David perched on top at a seemingly precarious angle. As I slowly circled the monument in contemplation, the sun’s rays pierced through the opening in the Star of David at various angles, creating an unnerving feeling of drama.

The monument seemed to rise from the ashes of the old Jewish neighborhood which had been outside the old city walls for centuries. It stood next to an overhead bridge and four-lane highway, which cut through the former neighborhood like a knife, leaving a couple of historic buildings and a few narrow streets on the hillside on the other side of the highway.

The Bratislava Jewish Community was once the largest and most influential in Slovakia, and one of the major centers of Jewish learning. In 1930 approximately 15,000 Jews lived in the city, the majority of whom perished in the Holocaust. The memorial is to the 105,000 Jewish citizens exterminated by the Nazis during their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1943.

We walked through a passageway under the highway and up to Bratislava Castle. The Castle dates from the 9th century and was the seat of the Hapsburg Monarchy for centuries. It commands attention overlooking Old Town and the Danube.

High rise apartment complexes that could be seen on the other side of the Danube from the castle grounds were going up alongside communist era, concrete, bloc buildings. Patrick said the prices of the new apartments were “Viennese” prices, adding that only Slovaks working in Vienna could afford them.

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* Neolog – a reform movement within Judaism unique to Central Europe

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Bratislava – An Afternoon at the Old Trznica Market

Each day I try to spend a few minutes with someone on the staff at the hostel where I am staying, discussing how to best spend my limited amount of time exploring it using public transportation. One day a staff member directed me to a trolley stop near the hostel where I would find public transportation to Trznica Market, a historic farmer’s market which I had found on the Internet.

I knew this adventure was going to put me out of my comfort zone because of the language barrier I was going to face, not knowing a word of Slovak, but I was up for the challenge. A half hour later a trolley dropped me off at a busy traffic circle which was dominated by a large sign on a building announcing the Trznica Market.

Foot traffic was light on both floors of the cavernous, old building. A few people were buying fruit from a vendor. A small, dark bar, flush with bottles of local wine, was tucked in a far corner. The tables and walls were covered with traditional weaving.  The place was packed with locals enjoying a glass of wine. 

I bought some fresh, local honey as a gift for a Servas Host whom I knew I would be visiting soon. The well-tended flower market was bursting with color and had a lovely aroma. Several small restaurants lined the market walls with seating in the center isle. A Vietnamese restaurant had the most customers.

On the upper level next to a small shop where a man was repairing umbrellas, was a small, cafeteria-style restaurant serving traditional food. In front of it were seated two young, chic Slovak ladies with whom I stuck up a conversation in English. They seemed out of place in this non-touristy market. They recommended I have Slovakia’s national dish of potato dumplings smothered with sheep cheese. I ordered it along with some home made soup. It was a delicious meal and it cost less than US$5.

I finished my afternoon in the market enjoying some tea and strudel at a cozy cafe surrounded by hundreds of books. A stand-up piano was in one corner. A gentleman seated near me was reading a book while sipping coffee. The cafe was perfect for peoplewatching given it was in the middle isle of the market’s main floor and the bookshelves that formed the cafe walls were only a few feet high.

I especially enjoyed watching the two charming, young ladies, who obviously ran the cafe, handle a steady stream of customers by phone and in person behind a counter. Periodically they each gave me a knowing smile with a twinkle in their eyes, aware that I was watching them and the surrounding scene with much interest.

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Bratislava, Slovakia – A Glance Behind the Former Iron Curtain

Huge, modern windmills surrounded by large tracts of land disappeared over the horizon as the train I was on rumbled over the tracks on its way to Bratislava, Slovakia, from Vienna.

My train was packed with well-healed people. Later I learned that many were probably commuters returning from a day’s work in Vienna, where the salaries are much higher than in Bratislava.

At Bratislava’s central train station I paused to study a welcome sign written in several languages, with one written in Cyrillic script. The language people were speaking around me was a Slavic tongue, which was strikingly different from the German I had become accustomed to hearing in Vienna. I had just passed through the former Iron Curtain, and it felt like it.

I threw my backpack over my shoulder and proceeded to find the trolley which I had been directed to take by the hostel which I had booked for three nights.

After a few stops I alighted from the trolley in a lovely neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and cafes. A large bookstore with an inviting cafe caught my attention. English-language books lined a shelf just inside.

At the hostel an elderly man was playing a traditional Slovakian/Hungarian instrument, which looked something like a piano, in the expansive, modern, common room. The lovely view from there included Michael’s Gate, the only gate still standing from the 14th century medieval fortification. Beyond Michael’s Gate was Old Town with its small, but well-preserved, medieval city center, Bratislava Castle, and other important landmarks. I chose this hostel, which was on the 2nd floor of an old, five-story building, mainly because of this location. I immediately set out to explore.

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Brief history of Bratislava

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the country’s largest city, has always had a strategic geographical location. It was an important European hub due to its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Orient as well as its link to the rest of Europe via the Danube River. The city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1526 to 1918. It was the coronation town for Hungarian kings and queens from 1536 to 1830. It became part of the East Bloc following WWII. After the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, Bratislava was declared the capital of independent Slovakia.

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I gingerly crossed numerous trolley tracks, which curved confusingly in several directions, to get to the pedestrian bridge at Michael’s Gate. A lovely, small park below the bridge occupied the old moat. Tourists were maneuvering for the best spot to get a selfie in front of the historic gate and Gothic tower.

I made my way along the delightful 18th century pedestrian streets to the main square of Old Town. It was dominated by the old Town Hall and Roland Fountain, one of the city’s most important landmarks. The fountain was ordered in 1572 by Maximilian II, the King of Royal Hungary, to provide a public water supply. The old Town Hall, a complex of buildings from the 14th century, was said to have wonderful views from atop its neo-gothic tower. It was getting late and I was hungry, so I put the climb off for another day.

Just outside Michael’s gate, adjacent to an old church, was the popular Flagship Restaurant. What attracted me was the sign, in English, saying it served traditional Slovak food at a great price, using ingredients from its own bio farm. The grounds of the expansive restaurant had no doubt had a colorful history. It advertised its “monastery cellars” and mentioned that the building had been an old theater.

The large open spaces, and a busy bar in the middle of the main floor, offered good people-watching while I dined. The Slovak national dish of potato dumplings smothered with creamy, locally-produced sheep cheese, was a winner! I returned the following day to try more traditional dishes.

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