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