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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Jewish Romanians

Romania’s Jewish community has dwindled dramatically over the past decades: while in 1930 more than 4% of the country’s population was Jewish, ranking third among the country’s minority ethnicities, only 0.02% of Romania’s population is Jewish at present, according to the 2011 census. The main causes for this loss were, on the one hand, the Holocaust of the 1940s, in which 340,000 people perished [1], including the 1941 pogrom organised by the far-right Iron Guard legionari, and, on the other hand, the successive waves of aliyah (immigration of the Jewish diaspora to the state of Israel) that took place starting with the 1950s, and which resulted in the fact that today most of the Romanian Jews live in Israel.

Despite the disheartening current figures, however, the role of the Jewish ethnics in modern Romania’s history was exceptionally important. As historians confirm, Romania’s Jews were very well integrated into the social fabric, and their input especially in urban civilisation and lifestyle enriched and upgraded the Romanian mindset and living standard organically and naturally, rather than as a “foreign” influence – or, as historian Lucian Boia put it, the Jews were the “foreigner from within” [2], the most Romanian non-Romanian ethnicity of the country.

Historically speaking, Jewish people settled on what’s today Romanian territory as early as the 2nd century AD,

their arrival here occurring during the Roman colonisation of Dacia; inscriptions and coins which confirm that fact were found at old Dacian locations like Sarmizegetusa and Orşova. Later on, Jewish migration into Moldavia and Wallachia occurred as a result of persecution in the Kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, with first attestations of Jewish inhabitants in Moldavia in 1330 and in Wallachia in the 1550s [3]. While a ruler like Ştefan cel Mare (1457-1504) appointed a Jew as stolnic (seneschal) at his court, the general situation of the Jews in the two provinces was not so favourable, though. They were deprived of basic civil rights and they could not attain Romanian citizenship up until the late 1880s. Despite all those centuries of continued existence in Moldavia and Wallachia, the 1848 Revolution had to demand specifically the naturalisation of the Jews [4], the latter had to prove their loyalty to the Principalities by fighting in the Independence War (1887-1878), and only after all that were the Jews allowed to apply for Romanian citizenship, which even then was not granted collectively, but only individually [5], by special decision of the Romanian Parliament and solely for exceptional merits.

This for so long stateless community of Romania has yielded some of the country’s most brilliant minds in quite a few fields, as we shall see shortly, but the probably most representative period for its contribution to the development of modern Romania were the 1930s. That was when the Jews of Romania were the most integrated, as illustrated by part of the Romanian business elite (with representatives like Max Auschnit) and of the Romanian intelligentsia (with major cultural initiatives such as Dadaism). The input of Romania’s Jewish community in the 1930s consisted mostly of cosmopolitanism in urban life in Romania [6] – with the cultural, business and general educational advantages that cosmopolitanism usually brings.

The first significant Jewish ethnic who contributed to Romania’s modern culture was Moses Gaster (1856-1939), whose family settled in Wallachia in the early 19th century and whose father was the consul of the Netherlands in Bucharest. A rabbi, philologist, literary historian and Zionist leader, Gaster completed his primary and secondary education at schools in Bucharest and with private tutors. In 1876 he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and at the same time studied linguistics and Romance languages at the universities of Breslau and Leipzig, after which he obtained his PhD at the University of Halle, with a thesis on the phonetic history of the Romanian language. Having returned to Bucharest, he published articles on Romanian linguistics in the seminal Junimea magazine, taught old Romanian literature and comparative mythology at the University of Bucharest, and joined a circle of prominent Romanian humanists like Titu Maiorescu, Mihai Eminescu and Lazăr Şăineanu, his home on Sticlari street in Bucharest becoming a place where the intellectual elite of the time congregated and socialised.

In 1885, despite being elected a member in the Romanian Athenaeum society, Gaster was expelled from Romania by Ion Brătianu’s government, and he went to England, where he taught Slavonic literature at the University of Oxford and co-founded the English Zionist Federation. In 1891 the Romanian government changed its mind, decorated Gaster with the National Oder for Merit and asked him to return. The scholar declined. By that time, however, he had already made his major contribution to Romanian culture: his Folk Romanian Literature (1883) and Romanian Chrestomathy (1891), which had taken 10 years of his life to write.

A scholar in Gaster’s circle of Romanian intellectuals, philologist, linguist and folklorist Lazăr Şăineanu/Eliezer Schein (1859-1934) was born in Ploieşti to an impoverished family. His father had to go to the USA to work and make money for the family, and died shortly after his return to Romania, which left Lazăr the only provider of his mother and six siblings [7]. Even so, Şăineanu managed to enrol in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bucharest, where his performance as a student of etymology, stylistics and semantics made professor Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu take Şăineanu as his protégé. Thus, Şăineanu published his first

etymology study (1883) in Hasdeu’s magazine and at the same time became associated with the Jewish cause as a moderate assimilationist, i.e. supporting the integration of Jews into the Romanian society. In 1887 his Essay on Romanian Semasiology earned him the acclaim of the Education Minister and a Manoah Hillel scholarship which enabled him to continue his studies in Oriental languages at the University of Paris and the University of Leipzig, where he was awarded his PhD in Romanian folklore. Back in Romania, Şăineanu became a high school teacher of Latin and Romanian and worked as a volunteering lecturer with his old professor Hasdeu at the University of Bucharest, where his lectures on comparative philology demonstrated a highly impressive level of erudition.

However, because of his non-citizen status and anti-Semitic circumstances, Şăineanu was unable to get ahead in his career: he had invested 12 years of his life in the effort to acquire the “exceptional merits” required to obtain the Romanian citizenship, but the Romanian Senate voted a humiliating 79 to 2 against his request for naturalisation. As subsequent requests met with anti-Semitic responses from politicians as well as academics, and therefore failed, Şăineanu eventually left Romania for France, in 1901, to win the Volney Prize in 1908 for his work in comparative philology. He left behind in Romanian culture a few priceless works: his study on “Meşterul Manole”, one of the two foundational myths of the Romanians, a book on the Turkish influence on Romanian, a history of Romanian philology and a collection of Romanian fairy tales from a comparative perspective which integrated the latter with ancient traditions and other Romance cultures.

Still in the field of the humanities, artist Marcel Hermann Iancu (1895-1984) and poet Tristan Tzara/Samuel Rosenstock (1896-1963) gave Romania and the world one of the most innovative cultural movements of the 20th century: Dadaism. While Iancu was born to an upper middle class family in Bucharest, Tzara came from a Yiddish-speaking family who was in the forestry business in Moineşti, the county of Bacău. The two met as classmates at the “Gheorghe Şincai” High School in Bucharest and, influenced by Romanian Symbolism, set up a magazine titled Simbolul, jointly edited by Tzara, Ion Vinea and Iancu, who was also the main graphic designer of the publication, and funded by the latter two. Soon, prominent poets started publishing in Simbolul, like Alexandru Macedonski and Ion Minulescu, and even though the magazine ceased to appear in 1912, it helped consolidate the foundations of Romanian modernism in both literature and the visual arts.

At the outbreak of WWI, Tzara was affiliated to an anti-war, anti-nationalist movement, and so in autumn 1915 he left Romania for a neutral country, Switzerland. Marcel Iancu had already settled in Zurich, and the two shared accommodation and life there, gathering together a small Romanian circle. The latter became associated with an artistic nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire which, in 1916, generated the Dada movement. Over the next few years, Tzara was the movement’s main promoter and manager, ensured its expansion across Europe, and secured the collaboration of personalities as illustrious as Louis Aragon, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Alberto Savinio, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee or Oskar Kokoschka. By 1919 Iancu had moved away from Dada towards Constructivism, but the movement he had initiated with his friend continued to be highly prolific in generating further cultural trends like Surrealism and Absurdism.

Back in Romania, the next generation of Jewish ethnic Romanian littérateurs was less lucky than Iancu and Tzara. Politically, the circumstances of Mihail Sebastian/Iosif Mendel Hechter (1907-1945) and Nicolae Steinhardt (1912-1989) were markedly hostile. The former, born in Brăila and a student of law and philosophy in Bucharest, was talent-scouted by philosopher Nae Ionescu, who facilitated his collaboration at the Cuvântul magazine, where Sebastian was to meet and befriend Mircea Eliade, the future legend of the “golden” inter-war generation of Romanian intellectuals, along with Emil Cioran and Constantin Noica. The 1940s, however, brought about the radicalisation of Sebastian’s mentor and friends, their adherence to the far-right ideology of Legiunea Arhanghelului Mihail/the Legion of Archangel Michael, and his drastic marginalisation: he was banned from publishing and his license as a lawyer was retired, leaving Sebastian barely able to make ends meet. His novel For Two Thousand Years bears witness to the anti-Semitic micro- and macro-aggression inter-war Jews in Romania experienced, but it is his Journal in particular that unfolds as a heartbreaking confession about the betrayals and cruelty of his closest friends, including Eliade, on account of the author’s ethnicity – a unique work documenting the psychology and heartlessness of Romanian anti-Semitism.

Nicolae Steinhardt, on the other hand, was associated with Constantin Noica, a friendship for which he was made to endure the harsh, humiliating experience of political imprisonment during communism. Steinhardt was born near Bucharest; his father Oscar, a WWI veteran, was an architect and director of a furniture factory. Nicolae studied at the “Spiru Haret” High School, where he was classmates with a few people who were later to become leaders of the inter-war generation (Constantin Noica, Mircea Eliade, Arşavir Acterian and Dinu Pillat), graduated from the faculties of Law and Letters at the University of Bucharest, and got his PhD in Constitutional Law in 1936. He travelled abroad to Switzerland, Austria, France and England for a year, before taking up a position as editor at the Royal Foundations Review. During the ethnic cleansing of the early 1940s he lost his job, and after the establishment of the communist regime in 1948 he experienced another period of hardship. In 1959 the new regime’s Security Service asked him to be a witness in the court trial against his former schoolmate Constantin Noica, considered an intellectual enemy of the communist state. Steinhardt refused to incriminate his friend, was consequently trialled as an accomplice to "crimes of conspiracy against social order" and sentenced to 13 years of forced labour. He was released due to the general amnesty in 1964.

While before his imprisonment Nicolae Steinhardt published works such as In the Manner of Cioran, Noica, Eliade..., a parodic novel, after his years in prison, where he experienced a revelatory period which led to his christening and conversion to Orthodox Christianity, he wrote philosophical and theological works: the seminal Happiness Diary, which shaped a generation of young intellectuals after 1989, Giving You Will Receive, The Miracle of Communion, The Danger of Confessing, and so on – all published posthumously, as the communist censorship was, of course, wary of his (subversive) messages. Steinhardt is generally referred to as a writer, but a more suitable label would probably be that of thinker. Unpretentiously, he infused the Romanian culture with the ancient, humorous wisdom so characteristic of his ethnicity, and produced writings which appeal to the intellect and wit as much as they suggest a novel discipline: the discipline of teaching one’s heart wisdom and good judgement.

Changing fields to visual arts now, Jewish ethnics Iosif Iser/Iosif Isidor Rubinsohn (1881-1958) and Victor Brauner (1903-1966) stand out as important Romanian painters. Iser, at one point associated with Tzara’s work at Simbolul, was born in Bucharest, went to primary school in Piteşti and finished secondary school in 1899 in Ploieşti. Then he studied painting in Munich with professors Nikolaus Gysis and Johann Herterich, and at Académie Rancon in Paris (1908). Conscripted during the Balkan Wars, Iser discovered and fell in love with the picturesque countryside of Dobrudja, a region which later inspired much of his Expressionist work, including his beautiful Tartar ladies series of paintings [8]. After WWII Iser took up proletarian themes and was rewarded by the regime with membership in the Romanian Academy (1955).

A great deal less conformist than Iser, painter Victor Brauner was born in Piatra Neamţ to a timbermanufacturer, lived in Vienna with his family for a few years and, back in Romania, went to the Lutheran school in Brăila and then the National School of Fine Arts in Bucharest. He started painting in the manner of Paul Cézanne, experienced Dadaist, Abstractionist and Expressionist stages, with a first personal exhibition in Bucharest in 1924, and then gradually found his own way, as some of his published artistic manifestoes testify: “The Pictopoetry” and “The Surrationalism”. In 1930 Brauner settled in Paris, became associated with the Surrealists and had his first Parisian solo exhibition in 1934. After a failed attempt to live in Romania again, he returned to Paris for good and survived the German invasion of France by taking refuge in the Pyrenees and Marseille. According to a recent article, Brauner’s paintings are always on auction at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the French Romanian surrealist painter being the second best-selling artist after Constantin Brâncuşi [9].

Even more internationally renowned than Brauner, Romanian American activist and Holocaust survivor Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel (1928-2016) was born in Sighet, north-west Romania, at a time when around 38% of the town’s population was Jewish, to a family that owned a local grocery store. Young Wiesel did elementary religious studies in Yiddish and Hebrew and, after the 1940 Vienna Diktat which forced Romania to return northern Transylvania to Hungary, he went to secondary school in Debrecen and Oradea. Because of the anti-Semitic laws enforced in the 1940s, however, Wiesel was expelled and subsequently, during the German occupation of Hungary, he and his family were first confined to the Sighet ghetto and then deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where his mother and younger sister were killed. Wiesel, who was 15 at the time, was tattooed with number A-7713 on his arm and sent on to Buchenwald, from where, luckily, he was liberated in 1945 thanks to the arrival of the US Third Army.

After the war Wiesel settled in Paris, studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne, worked as a correspondent for a number of French and Israeli newspapers, but for ten years he kept completely silent about his camp experience. It was writer François Mauriac who finally persuaded him to write about the horrific years at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and so his 900-page memoirs in Yiddish, And the World Remained Silent, were first published in Buenos Aires and then translated into English in 1960 as Night. The book gained increased popularity, was translated into 30 languages and sold 10,000,000 copies in the US alone [10]. More fiction and non-fiction survival stories followed, as well as the launch in 1986 of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and that same year the Romanian-born activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for acting as "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterize the world" [11].

Contemporary Jewish ethnics of Romania include also Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor (born 1934), Romanian American writer Norman Manea (1936) and Romanian American political scientist Vladimir Tismăneanu (1951).

Eva Mozes was born in the village of Porţ, the county of Sălaj, north-west Romania, to a family of farmers with

three children. Her family was the only Jewish one in the village, and in 1940, when Hungarian guards occupied the settlement, they were all sent to the ghetto in Şimleu Silvaniei and then on to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The family was murdered in the camp’s gas chambers, but Eva and her twin sister Miriam became human experimentation subjects of the infamous Josef Mengele. The two survived and in 1945, after the Soviet Army liberated the camp, they were sent to Poland, where a friend of their mother’s helped them return to Romania. Eva and Miriam settled in Cluj with an aunt, went to school there and tried to adapt to the communist regime, but in 1950, when Eva was 16, they were allowed to emigrate to Israel and did not miss that chance. Despite the fact that the camp torture endured in her childhood caused Eva to have several miscarriages as an adult, she became world-famous when she publicly stated that she forgave her Nazi torturers. Her life story was presented in a documentary titled Forgiving Dr Mengele, and she founded in 1984 the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Centre to warn the world about the perils of eugenics and to promote the power of forgiveness.

Unlike Mrs Mozes, Romanian American writer Norman Manea was born in Moldavia, near Suceava, but like her he was deported as a child together with his family to a concentration camp in Transnistria. In 1945 he was able to return to Romania and went to high school in Suceava, then on to the Construction Institute in Bucharest to study engineering, graduated in 1959 and in 1974 he took up professional writing. He made his debut in 1966 in an avant-garde magazine and, despite censorship problems with the authorities of that time, he managed to publish around ten volumes (short fiction and novels) before leaving the country in 1986 thanks to a DAAD-Berlin Grant. Having then settled in the US, Manea studied at the Catholic University in Washington DC and worked as a professor and writer in residence at Bard College in New York. After migrating, he published 12 more books which have been translated into 20 languages, which makes him arguably the most widely translated Romanian-language author [12]. Manea has also been a Nobel Literature Prize nominee for two decades now, his work being praised by famous fellow writers like Günter Grass, Octavio Paz, Orhan Pamuk or Philip Roth, and earning him important awards like the Prix Médicis Étranger (2006).

Vladimir Tismăneanu was born in Braşov to parents who were both communist activists and Spanish Civil War

veterans. He grew up as a nomenklatura offspring, enjoying the privileges of his class, graduated from the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Sociology in 1974, obtained his PhD in 1980, but he gradually became interested in the work of critics of Marxism-Leninism and sceptical of Ceauşescu’s nationalist leanings. So when he and his mother asked the regime to approve their trip to Spain, in 1981, Tismăneanu chose not to return to the country and headed for Venezuela, instead, only to migrate to the US the next year. During the remaining years of Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, Tismăneanu was a contributor to Radio Free Europe, which represented the Romanian resistance in exile, and after the Revolution he kept publishing seminal works criticising totalitarianism. Indeed, Tismăneanu’s paramount achievement occurred in 2006, when in his capacity as head of the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania he prepared a report which led to the official and unequivocal incrimination of the communist regime in Romania as an oppressive criminal regime. Issued at a crucial moment in the country’s history, the report’s conclusion paved Romania’s way towards integration in the EU. In short, Tismăneanu was, on that occasion, the right man for the job, doing the right thing at the right time for his native country.

So looking back at the Romanian destiny of this nowadays small ethnic minority of Romania, one wonders at the extraordinary resourcefulness and grit which enabled them not only to survive, not just to forgive, but also to help civilise, modernise and promote the country where they were born.

Notes & Sources

[2] Boia, Lucian. De ce este România altfel. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2012. Print. Page 57.

[3] “History of the Jews in Romania”. Wikipedia. Accessed 25 Nov 2018. <>

[4] Djuvara, Neagu. O scurtă istorie ilustrată a românilor. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2013. Print. Page 249.

[6] Boia, op.cit., pages 56-57.

[7] “Lazăr Şăineanu”. Wikipedia. Accessed 25 Nov 2018. <>

[10] “Elie Wiesel”. Wikipedia. Accessed 25 Nov 2018. <>

[11] Ibidem.

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