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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