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Discovery in Romania

Julie Dawson
Fr., 1. Nov. 2013

Over the past six months, LBI has conducted a survey of Jewish-related archives in Bukovina and Transylvania, two formerly German-speaking regions of Romania. Julie Dawson, the LBI archivist who spearheaded the project, explains how a chance finding in an abandoned synagogue led to a project that will radically expand access to Jewish records in a little-studied area by cataloging long-hidden resources online.

In 2008 I volunteered for the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), an NGO in southern Transylvania that works to preserve the cultural heritage of the region’s Saxon towns and villages. The region is dotted with fortified churches and medieval architecture, but numerous abandoned synagogues also testify to the area’s rich Jewish past.

Asked whether there was a synagogue I thought particularly worthy of restoration, I thought immediately of the shul in Mediaș, a small town between Sighișoara and Sibiu. Behind the long-shuttered doors of this spacious building are walls adorned with bright blue and gold paintings, and the women’s balcony is surrounded with intricate wooden lattice. I also knew from exploring the ground floor that prayer books, shawls, and embroidered phylactery bags haunted the cabinets and floors. What I did not know was that the women’s balcony, blocked by a massive metal cabinet, had been used as a genizah and also held the crumbling community archives.

Eventually I climbed over that cabinet and realized we had a far greater task on our hands than a building restoration. Over the next few years the balcony was cleaned by a team of Peace Corps volunteers, and the archives were moved to a secure location in the building adjacent to the shul. They were safer there than in the crumbling synagogue, but remained hidden to researchers.

Meanwhile, the restoration project sputtered when funding was exhausted, and I moved to New York and began working as an archivist at the LBI, where the importance of not only preserving, but also expanding access to these archives was well understood. Fortunately, we learned that the Mediaș archives were eligible for funding from the Yerusha Project, a Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) program that supports Jewish archival surveys. There was just one caveat: the project should be bigger than one city; entire regions were desirable.

German-Jewish history of southern Transylvania and Bukovina

Jews in Mediaș and the surrounding Saxon towns of Sighișoara, Brașov, and Sibiu spoke primarily German. Like many inhabitants of multi-ethnic Habsburg Transylvania, they were multilingual, and Hungarian was also widely spoken. In southern Transylvania, however, nearly all records were kept in German. In Bukovina, also once part of the Habsburg Empire and today split between Romania and Ukraine, the situation was similar.

These towns arguably represented the farthest flung German-Jewish communities in continental Europe and yet, with the exception of the Bukovina capital of Czernowitz, their history remains largely unexplored. Were there other shuls with dusty archives locked away? What did the National Archives hold?

A fractured archival landscape

What we encountered in Romania was an archival landscape as complicated as the piece of history that it documented. Each regime, from the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire to the monarchy of the interwar period to the Fascist and Communist dictatorships, had left its imprint on the organization of Jewish archives, leaving them fractured and displaced.

The Mediaș situation turned out to be unusual. Most synagogues had long since been emptied of their archives, which were thrown out or transferred to Bucharest. This had much to do with the upheavals in Jewish life in Romania.

In many areas of Romania, especially Southern Transylvania and the Old Kingdom regions of Wallachia and southern Moldova, a relatively large proportion of the Jewish population survived World War II and the Holocaust, leaving a sizable post-war Jewish community. However, small town communities had nearly disappeared by the 1980s due to mass emigration to Israel. After the fall of Communism, the numbers sank even lower. Today, Romania’s Jewish population comprises about 3,300 mostly elderly people, a third of whom live in Bucharest. There are simply far too few Jews in Romania to oversee the country’s almost 100 synagogues and hundreds of Jewish cemeteries.

Accordingly, much of the information we sought is now housed in local branches of the National Archives. This includes materials created by Jewish communities themselves, such as birth, death, and marriage record books. However, particularly in Bukovina, where the Jewish population was high, countless civil and private collections also hold documents of interest to Jewish researchers or genealogists.

The wealth of information kept under lock and key in the National Archives branches was astonishing. From 18th-century decrees, permits, and contracts to 20th-century applications to the police and town hall by Jewish clubs to host literary nights, balls, picnics, and concerts, the vast array of documentation, much of which has never been accessed before by researchers, was thrilling.

From Sitzfleisch to instant gratification

These collections have been little used, however. Navigating the National Archives requires knowledge of Romanian (even when the documents are in German) and the fortitude to spend hours reading blurry, communist-era inventories created with carbon paper and typewriters. LBI’s survey project will allow researchers to circumvent this laborious process by putting descriptive data for individual files and larger collections in an online database that will launch later this year.

While the patience to spend hundreds of hours poring over inventories was the mark of a meticulous researcher in the past, for better or worse, new generations will expect increasingly rapid gratification. Our goal is to stimulate interest amongst young researchers, both in Romania and beyond, for the Jewish history of the region.