Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Jews of Bucharest

The history of the Jews of Europe is a narrative of highs, when communities flourished, and terrible lows, when anti-Semitism turned life into a harrowing nightmare. Each region has its own unique history. Today, Jewish Treats presents a history of the Jews of Bucharest, the capital of Romania (originally the capital of Walachia). 

As the Balkan Peninsula is a crossroad between Europe and Turkey, the members of Bucharest’s original Jewish community were of Turkish/Sephardic origin. These Jews, however, suffered greatly in 1593, when Prince Michael the Brave revolted against the suzerainty of Turkey and murdered his Jewish creditors as well.

By the 18th century, there was a recognizable Ashkenazic community in Bucharest alongside the small Sephardic community. During the 18th and 19th centuries, between outbursts of anti-Semitism, the community grew. Their autonomous rule within the larger populace was guided by the Breasla Ovreilor (Jewish Corporation) and their religious life was guided by a Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi). By the mid 19th century there were eleven synagogues in the city. In 1857, when there was a proposal to charter a new synagogue inspired by the progressive movement among German Jewry, a rift formed in the Ashkenazic community. The Choral Temple, as this new synagogue was called,  was permitted, but the unity of the city’s Jewish community dissolved. 

The Bucharest community continued to grow. By 1930, there were nearly 75,000 Jews (over 10% of the city’s population), with 40 synagogues, 19 schools and several other communal institutions.

The Romanian government became an early ally of the Nazis. On January 21, 1941, when the far-right Legionnaires/Iron Guard rebelled against their leader Ion Antonescu, a three day pogrom took place during which 125 Jews were butchered (literally) and hundreds were injured. Once order was restored, the Jews lived under tense conditions and many of the men were taken to perform forced labor. However, enough Jews survived the Holocaust that the city’s Jewish community could still maintain two Jewish newspapers during the early Communist era that followed World War II.

Under Communist rule, the Romanian state created a Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania to oversee Jewish communal organizations. But, as in most Communist nations, the state maintained strict control of all activities. In 1969, there were approximately 50,000 Jews in the city. Twenty years later, when the communist regime collapsed, Jews were able to live an open Jewish life . Today, there are approximately 7,000 Jews in Romania, most of whom live in Bucharest, where there are three active synagogues.

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