Reflecting on Jewish Heritage sites in Romania
Piatra Neamt, Romania is a breathtaking and beautiful city, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. It is also the city where my family lived for several generations, until the Second World War, when the Northeast region of the country became an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for Romania’s half million Jews.
I remember my first visit to the city on a clear and hot day in late August. My father took me to the cemetery where my family had been buried. Gravestones were stacked on top of each other, and grass grew so tall it covered their inscriptions. I remember my father’s hand scraping away dirt to reveal a portrait—extremely rare on Jewish gravestones—of my great-great-uncle. The cemetery was up on the mountain, overlooking the rest of the town, like an omnipotent reminder of the people who had once lived there. I was shaken by the grave keeper’s remark that they were lucky to be buried respectfully and with a grave marker.
When I visited Bucharest, Romania a few years later, I experienced a very different story of Jewish heritage. I attended a tour at the Choral Temple in Bucharest, where my father had his bar mitzvah. The building is a stunning Neo-Mudéjar structure. The interior is intricately painted in geometric patterns and is an exact replica of the Leopoldstadt-Tempelgasse Great Synagogue in Vienna, Austria, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938.
The synagogue was built in 1866, and it is one of three remaining temples in Romania’s capital, and the sole active synagogue. Sitting in its wooden rows and looking up at the majestic Bimah, I felt incredibly humbled and honored to sit in the same seat that perhaps my grandfather sat after the War. I can only imagine what it would be like to sit in these seats after the destruction of so many lives. My family must have held conflicting feelings of gratefulness but deep, deep sorrow. The fact the synagogue is still standing and in much better condition than it probably has ever been is nothing short of a miracle.
When I first applied to the Jewish Heritage Program, I looked up every site that World Monuments Fund (WMF) had worked on. I was delighted to find that the Cathedral Synagogue of Piatra Neamt was rededicated as a Romanian Historical Site of Importance due to WMF’s great conservation efforts. A picture of the synagogue rests on my desk, which I look at daily.
During my first few weeks of the fellowship, I also discovered that the Jewish Heritage Program had supported the restoration of the Choral Temple. It was so thrilling to know that I would contribute to a program that had contributed so much to my own familial history.
I know firsthand how much of a difference WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program can make. I hope that through my work, I can give at least one person the same moving experience that I had. From my travels in Romania, I knew how much heritage can empower the communities it supports, and I am reminded of this every day of my fellowship.
As a fellow, I hope to celebrate the diversity of Jewish life and culture through the preservation of the built environment. The Jewish people’s culture and heritage is so rich, and I wish to bring us together to celebrate its triumphs and commemorate its tragedies. I have been so moved by learning different stories about different Jewish sites all over the world, and I aspire to support these sites and share them with you during my time at WMF.
Major support for the Jewish Heritage Fellow is provided by the David Berg Foundation. World Monuments Fund gratefully acknowledges Mrs. Joyce Z. Greenberg and The Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder Foundation for their support of the Jewish Heritage Program's endowment. Thank you to all supporters of the Jewish Heritage Program at World Monuments Fund.