Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hava Nagila in Czernowitz

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

On Sept. 6, during my trip to Romania to work on my (Candle)sticks on Stone project, I made a day trip to Chernivtsi, Ukraine -- A.K.A. Czernowitz or Cernauti -- just across the border. The city has changed, at least in outward appearance, since my last visit three years ago: 2008 marked the 600th anniversary of the town, and there was considerable investment expended in clean-up, paint-up and fix-up.

We strolled down the lovely main pedestrian street, admiring the fine buildings along it, newly painted in pastel candy colors. Suddenly, we heard the familiar strains of Jewish music -- first a Yiddish folk song, and then Hava Nagila.

The music was coming from up ahead, it wasn't exactly clear from where. I thought it might be something connected to the European Day of Jewish Culture, which was being celebrated that day. But no -- it was just a wedding (or, rather, an apparent series of weddings). Not Jewish, though. The couples and their friends exited the church and came to dance on the pedestrian way, near a little park. Here a band was set up under a red, white and blue tent. And, we were told, face-paced klezmer and Israeli songs were a big hit.

I had come to Czernowitz, in fact, to take part in a European Day of Jewish Culture event -- the presentation of Simon Geissbuehler's new book on Jewish cemeteries in the Bucovina.

Local Rabbi Kofmansky at the book presentation. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

There had been a presentation event in Radauti the day before, hosted at the new Gerald's Hotel, which had contributed some sponsorship to the book, but in Czernowitz it took place at the Jewish culture building (Jewish National House) and was organized by Jewish institutions. I was gratified that in his talk Simon quoted from the Introduction of my "Jewish Heritage Travel" to describe his own feelings:
When I first researched this book, I became absolutely mesmerized, even a little obsessed with what I was seeing. I wanted to visit, touch, see, feel as many places as I could. I almost felt it a duty. As I entered broken gates or climbed over broken walls into cemeteries where a Jew may not have set foot in years, I wanted to spread my arms and embrace them all, embrace all the tombstones, all the people buried there, all the memories.

Jewish National House. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The building is where the historic international Yiddish congress took place in 1908. The meeting drew 70 delegates representing many political and religious factions -- they included luminaries such as the authors I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch. There were heated debates over when Hebrew, which was then being revived, or Yiddish, whch was spoken by millions of Jews, could be considered the Jewish national language. In the end, a resolution was adopted that declared Yiddish "a" national language of the Jewish people, along with Hebrew. Click RIGHT HERE for a web site that includes papers, photographs and other material from that congress.

The Jewish National House was built at a time when all major minorities in the city erected imposing cultural headquarters. On our walk through the city, we passed the German National House and the Romanian National House.

Today it houses a number of Jewish organizations as well as new new little Jewish museum, opened in 2008. It's just a two-room exhibit, and there are not a lot of artifacts on display (many of them, though are quite interesting every-day objects, including advertisements, houseold items and even a fur streiml), but the story of Czernowitz Jews is told in photographs and narrative panels that are -- amazingly -- translated into English.

Streiml under glass. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Monday, September 21, 2009

Romania -- Jewish cemetery in Gura Humorului

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've begun to post some YouTube videos of Jewish cemeteries in northern Romania that I am documenting for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project, which examines the way that women are represented in Jewish tombstone art.

The first video is of the cemetery in Gura Humorului, a little town in the heart of the painted monastery country -- two wonderful medieval monasteries, Humor and Voronets, are nearby. To me, the beautiful Jewish tombstones are in perfect harmony with the wonderful paintings on the monastery walls: touriststs visit the monasteries, however, and few people set foot in the cemetery.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Romania -- Jewish heritage

A disused synagogue in Radauti. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My trip to Romania the first week of September coincided with the annual European Day of Jewish Culture -- and I was able to take place in Culture Day events both in Radauti, Romania and in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) Ukraine. Both events were presentations of the new book by the Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler on Jewish cemeteries in Bucovina -- both sides of the border.

Here is video of my talk in Radauti -- I discuss my own connection to the region but also note the importance of recognizing Jewish heritage and Jewish history, culture and heritage as part of national and local history culture and heritage in general. It's a theme that I have written about frequently and have tried to stress over the years.

Meanwhile, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania has issued a statement addressing criticism from some Haredi (strictly orthodox) that they have failed to adequately care for the synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites in their care. FedRom, according to its statement, owns 88 synagogues and 821 Jewish cemeteries. Of these, 34 synagogues and 14 cemeteries are classed as national monuments and thus are acknowledged as part and parcel of the Romanian National Patrimony." Some 638 cemeteries exist in places where no Jews have lived for many years.

The statement outlines the issues and problems. Many of these -- including lack of resources and lack of personnel to take care of numerous sites, and difficulty in finding uses for synagogue buildings in towns were not Jews live -- are common across the region. They were addressed at the Jewish heritage seminar in Bratislava in March, which Romania representatives also attended and which released a statement including recommended good practices and principles in the care and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites.

Here is the text of the Romanian statement:

Lately, some media in Romania and abroad, expressed critical opinions (sometimes, even containing accusations) towards the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM), regarding the status of the Jewish Sacred Assets in Romania.

Regarding this complex and difficult issue, the leadership of the Federation would like to inform the public opinion about the following:

1.According to the Romanian legislation (Law no. 598 / 2002), the synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and ritual baths (mikvehs) are the rightful property of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania. These sacred assets were created with the financial resources of the Jewish population from Romania, who lived for centuries in this area. As such, any private claim is groundless. We would like to emphasize that even the totalitarian regimes of the past recognized this property right of the Jewish communities upon their sacred assets.

2.Currently, according to the FEDROM, we own and take care of 88 synagogues and 821 Jewish cemeteries (13 of which were identified during the last 3 years). From the total number of synagogues, many are located in areas were Jews have not been living anymore for decades. Similarly, 638 cemeteries are located in areas where Jews have not been living for a long time. The majority of the existing synagogues are heavily affected by physical degradation. A number of 34 synagogues and 14 cemeteries are legally classified as historical monuments, thus being acknowledged as part and parcel of the Romanian National Patrimony.

3.The current condition of the cemeteries cannot make us happy, even though, due to all the efforts of FEDROM and of the communities, 119 cemeteries are well-kept and in a good condition, while another 224 are in an acceptable condition. The major issues we face, regarding the cemeteries, are:

» Repairing and replacing fences, including after deterioration and theft;

» Keeping the existing vegetation within normal parameters (weeds, small trees, etc.) This permanently involves land clearing, transporting the cut vegetation out of the area, the use of herbicides and cutting branches – leading to a total expense of approximately 2,432,000 lei (608,000 €) every year;

» The need to repair approximately 73,000 monuments which are broken, tipped over, destroyed by vandals and natural phenomena;

» Guarding the cemeteries, in compliance with the law.

4.The activity of preserving the Jewish Religious Assets requires important financial resources, greatly surpassing the actual means of the Jewish communities of Romania. A few numbers are testifying to this fact:

» In 2007, the Romanian Government allotted 400,000 lei from their budget, for a special program of preservation of the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Romania. Between 2005 and 2009, restoration works at the synagogues in Orastie, Piatra Neamt and Iasi (currently in progress) have been carried out, with financing from the Ministry of Culture and Religion.

» Important repair and restoration works for the Choral Temple in Bucharest are undergoing, with a substantial financial contribution of the Bucharest City Hall for the renovation of the façade.

» FEDROM itself has allotted and spent, between 2006 and 2008, over 3,300,000 lei (over 1.1 million dollars), for the preservation of the Jewish Sacred Assets, more specifically for the benefit of 131 synagogues and 145 cemeteries. Due to the current financial crisis, the work volume and resources have dramatically decreased in 2009, a few works already in progress being continued at the Choral Temple in Bucharest, the „Templul Meseriasilor” in Galati and the „Great Synagogue” in Oradea.

The financial resources of FEDROM are, by enlarge, made up of the amounts received from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (USA), the „Caritatea” Foundation and some contribution made by Romanian born Jews.

Unfortunately, due to the current global financial crisis, we received this year less and less contributions from the above mentioned sources, which has a negative impact on our efforts to preserve the Jewish Sacred Assets. Nonetheless, this in by no means due to neglect on behalf of FEDROM and the communities.

5.It is unjust and immoral to expect – in such an absolute way – from the small number of Jews currently living in Romania, without an even remotely encouraging socio-demographic structure, to guard and ensure an impeccable look and functioning of the Jewish Sacred Assets.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of FEDROM


Aurel Vainer, Ph.D.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shana Tova -- Happy New Year!

Synagogue, Suceava, Romania. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

To my readers -- I wish you all the best for a sweet, stimulating and satisfying new year (and beyond).... I look forward to hearing from you in 5770!

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Amsterdam -- Jewish Music Festival Coming Up

Just got sent the link for another upcoming Jewish culture festival -- the 15th International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam, to be held Oct. 23-25.

From the web site:

The 15th edition of the International Jewish Music Festival will be held in Amsterdam October 23-25, 2009 the brand new concert halls of the Amsterdam Conservatory. Last year, 24 ensembles from 15 countries battled it out for prize money, concert engagements and a chance at a recording contract with Universal Records. This year we welcome back the winners for a weekend full of concerts, workshops, an open podium and much more...

The ensembles will give concerts and workshops in the most diverse Jewish music sub-genres: hip-hop and reggae for kids, Yiddish song, Sephardic music, klezmer and Balkan music, close harmony and classical.

The free Open Podium gives starting ensembles and soloists a chance to take the stage and show what they've got. The bustling Jewish Cultural Market will feature booksellers, CDłs, sheet music and various Jewish cultural organisations. And our grand prize winner from last year, She'Koyokh, will host a swinging jam session open to everyone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bulgaria -- pictures of the restored Sofia Synagogue

Sofia, Sept. 9 , 2009. Photo courtesy Robert Djerassi

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My last post included news about the restoration of the Great Synagogue in Sofia, with ceremonies marking the synagogue's 100th anniversary.

Robert Djerassi, whom I quoted and who was one of the organizers of the celebrations, has sent a couple of pictures of the event -- he and everyone else in Sofia I've talked to say they can't believe how beautiful it is.

Sofia, Sept. 9, 2009. Photo courtesy of Robert Djerassi

Romania -- Botosani

Botosani. Entrance to old Jewish cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A few months ago, I posted on the desecration of tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Botosani, Romania. I visited the cemetery last week as part of my (Candle)sticks on Stone project to document the representation of women in Jewish tombstone art in northern Romania's Bucovina region.

The cemetery is vast, and though the newest section is well maintained (and still used by the small Jewish community) the rest of the cemetery is almost inpenetrable.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

It is in the newer section of the cemetery, just on the edge of the overgrown part, that the vandalism took place: a number of smashed and toppled stones still lie there.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I had wanted to go back to Botosani because I had been so impressed by the distinctive carvings on the (men's) tombstones I had seen three years ago -- vigorous lions, stags and other animals carved in a style that was almost reminiscent of art deco! I had seen a number of these stones in a clearing, down a path from the newer section, and I wanted to see if the same artist/stone mason had also carved candlesticks on women's stones.

This time I found the path, but in three years, weeds, brush, bushes and even saplings have grown up, once again hiding many of the stones that had so impressed me and making it very difficult to take pictures!

Botosani. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I did discover some extremely beautiful and evocative candlesticks -- quite different from those in other towns. But it was so dark and so overgrown that I didn't manage to get the images I had hoped for...Still...

Botosani. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Budapest/Sofia -- a Tale of Two synagogues

Dohany St. Synagogue, 150 years (young). Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My latest Ruthless Cosmopolitan column is about the big birthdays of the great synagogues in Budapest and Sofia. JTA ran a brief story with details of the Dohany St. synagogue anniversary events on Sept. 6, which were attended by VIPs and included the opening of an exhibition.

Dohany synagogue ceremony: bringing in the Torahs. Photo (c) Rudolf Klein

The ceremony marked the start of a yearlong program of cultural events celebrating the synagogue, including a major exhibition of the history of building. The National Bank of Hungary has issued a commemorative coin. [...]

“The synagogue has never ceased to serve the Jewish community despite the events of two world wars,” Hungarian Chief Rabbi Robert Frolich declared at the ceremony.

Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai said the consistent contribution of the Jews has hugely enriched and strengthened Hungarian society. He expressed regret over the need to station policemen permanently before the building to protect it from attack.

Hungary must "quarantine" the political ideas of neo-Nazism and "socially isolate" its advocates who would like to bring back the horrors of the Holocaust today, Bajnai said.
Rudi Klein -- the author of a new book about the synagogue -- was there and sent some nice photos.

Before the Dohany synagogue ceremony. Photo (c) Rudolf Klein


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sept. 7, 2009

BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) -- This year marks a number of momentous anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II; the 40th anniversary of Woodstock; the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism.

We use anniversaries like these to stop, step back and evaluate not just the event that's being commemorated, but also the passage of time since it happened and the changes wrought with that passage.

In this context, two significant Jewish anniversaries are taking place in September.

The Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest -- the largest synagogue in Europe -- turns 150 years old. And the Great Synagogue in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia turns 100.

OK, they are buildings, not earth-shaking events. But given the impact that some of the other "big" anniversaries had on these synagogues and on what they represent, it's only fitting to highlight their birthdays on the roster of celebrations.

For one, both are magnificent buildings that stand out architecturally as important city landmarks. Partly because of this, both have undergone recent renovations that restored them to opulent glory after decades of postwar neglect.

Both also are flagships of faith, or at least of Jewish identity, and are survivors, too. Witnesses to the pendulum swing of tragedy and triumph that has marked Jewish history in the region, they are potent physical symbols of a proud and enduring Jewish presence.

"The Dohany Synagogue is still the main synagogue of all the Jews of Hungary, the main identity place where we gather, whether we are religious or not," said architectural historian Rudolf Klein, author of the 2008 book about the synagogue, “The Great Synagogue of Budapest.”

As many as 90,000 Jews are believed to live in Budapest, but most are unaffiliated or totally secular.

With its red-and-yellow striped facade, sumptuous decor and two tall spires topped by gilded onion domes, the Dohany is, in fact, one of the most distinctive buildings in the city and was recognized as such from the outset.

Designed by the Viennese architect Ludwig von Forster, it was inaugurated on Sept. 6, 1859. Old engravings show dignitaries in shiny top hats gathered in front of its enormous ark, a domed and gilded structure that itself is the size of a small chapel.

At the time, Jews had not yet achieved full civil rights in Austro-Hungary. Yet the synagogue was the largest house of worship in Budapest and probably the biggest synagogue in the world. One local newspaper called it "a gorgeous piece of architecture."

"I like it as a Jew and as an architect," Klein told JTA. "In both areas it was a breakthrough."

The synagogue's Moorish style launched a genre and set the pattern for hundreds of synagogues built in later years throughout Central Europe and beyond.

The building's monumental scale, its prominent location and its opulent ornamentation, Klein said, epitomized "the optimism of 19th-century Jewry and the tolerant attitude of the gentile world which prevailed in the capital" at the time.

Things, of course, changed later. During World War II the synagogue was used as a concentration camp, where Jews were massed before their deportation to Auschwitz. The graves of Holocaust victims fill the courtyard.

After the war, under communism, the building languished for decades in a sorry state of disrepair. I vividly remember how its ceiling, held up by cables and plastic sheeting, sagged perilously over the congregation that would pack the sanctuary on Yom Kippur simply to make a statement of identity in the face of the regime’s religious suppression.

In 1996, it was officially reopened following a five-year restoration that was financed largely by the newly democratic Hungarian state.

"This building symbolizes the survival and the continuity of the Jewish people," Gusztav Zoltai, chairman of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities, declared at the time.

The Sofia synagogue was inaugurated in September 1909, nearly 50 years to the day after the Dohany, and fulfilled a similar role.

Czar Ferdinand himself cut a ribbon to formally inaugurate the building, whose huge dome, slim turrets and lavish, Byzantine-Moorish style fit in with many other grand buildings in downtown Sofia. The prime minister, other government VIPs and local bishops were in the crowd, too, and a procession of rabbis bore Torah scrolls into the sanctuary and placed them in the ark.

"This synagogue will connect us with the past generations and will tell of us to the future ones," the chief rabbi proudly told the congregation 100 years ago. "May God bless this land which we love dearly, for the good of all Bulgarians, in whose sufferings and joys we take an active part."

Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews were saved during World War II by the heroic action of some of the country's leaders, and most of them moved to Israel.

The Great Synagogue, damaged in 1944 by Allied bombing, stood neglected for decades, as Communist authorities unsuccessfully tried to turn it into a concert hall.

Still, recalled Robert Djerassi, one of the chairmen of the synagogue centenary celebrations, "It was an enormous domed building that awed me with its magnificence each time I stepped inside. Such a huge void: fearsome, lofty, dark and mysterious!"

Only a few thousand Jews live in Bulgaria today, but as in Budapest, restoration of the synagogue was a priority after the fall of communism as a public demonstration of both Jewish renewal and Jewish presence in the city.

The first stage of work was completed in 1996, the final one this year, just in time for September's five-day birthday bash.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov served as honorary chairman of the gala events, echoing the high-profile participation in the synagogue's original dedication a century ago. I'm not sure if I found this moving or ironic, but I'm rather glad he chose to do so.

Read Full Story at JTA

Romania -- Genealogy Research Resources

Dorin Fränkel at work in Radauti.

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The focus of my recent trip to the Bucovina region of northern Romania was to work on my (Candle)sticks on Stone project -- but I ended up, with the three cousins who came with me, doing some family history research (see previous posts on this blog).

Many people helped out on both focuses of the trip -- including two who carry out genealogical research for anyone interested in getting documents and other material to trace their roots in the region.

I am happy to note their names and provide their email contacts.

In Radauti, Dorin Fränkel took us to places and people past we didn't know existed. His email is:

In Botosani (where I did documentation of the wonderful but very overgrown Jewish cemetery) I was given much-needed help by Gustav Finkel, a leader of the small local Jewish community, and his English-speaking son Avi Marc. Gustav's email is: -- his son is at

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Romania -- More Family History Discovery Travel

At the tomb of my great-great grandmother (my Grandma Becky's grandmother) Chaya Dvoira Herer Halpern, in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. She died Feb. 22, 1905 at the age of 69)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My cousins all left, but I have stayed in Radauti for a couple more days, continuing my photo documentation for my (Candle)sticks on Stone project -- and also carrying out some more family history research -- and making discoveries, some of them even rather surprising: the grave of my great-great grandmother; the house where she lived; questions about my grandmother's birth date and circumstances; even the date of my great-grandfather Anschel's death.

I'm not obsessive about genealogy by any means, and in fact -- despite the fact that I have visited my great-grandmother Ettel's grave on several occasions over the year (click HERE to see the progression) -- I have never really looked into our family history in a serious way.

But our session at the town hall with Dorin Frankel last week, and our subsequent trip to Vicovu de Sus and discovery of what we believe was the house where our great-grandfather Anschel lived in 1880, left some loose ends that needed tidying, or at least some questions that I wanted to try to answer. I couldn't leave town without at least trying to resolve them.

One of these was a street address in Radauti -- strada Larionescu 20 -- that my second cousin, Rae Barent, who has made a serious effort a tracing family history, sent -- and which was confirmed by the records I looked at during a second session with Dorin at City Hall yesterday. This was the address where my great-great grandmother, Chaya Dvoira Herer Halpern, lived.

I also found out, by correlating the information found in the archives (and some sent by Rae) with info at the Radauti Jewish heritage web site (lots of cheers to the people who put together the amazing documentation material on the cemetery) that Chaya Dvoira, the daughter of Moshe (Moses) Mortko and Ruchel Hörer, died Feb. 22 1905 at the age of 69 -- the registry gave her cause of death as "old age" -- was buried in the Radauti Jewish cemetery. It also described her as single, not a widow (which probably means that her marriage, like that of her daugher Celia -- Zirl -- and David Rosenberg, my grandmother's parents, had not been formally registered with the city officials. From the registry, I could see that this was a fairly common practice.)

This morning, armed with the plot and row numbers I found on the Radauti cemetery web site for a "Chaya Dvoira daughter of Moshe Morko" who died in 1905, I returned to the Jewish cemetery. Mr. Popescu showed me the row -- and I entered the tilting forest of stones, again crunching through the undergrowth in my boots. I had to scrutinize the Hebrew epitaphs on each one, testing my basic Hebrew to its limits. After half an hour or so, there it was: I could read the name. The stone is smaller than some of the others, but it has the typical braided candlesticks and hands raised blessing the flames, beautifully carved. And there are still traces of red and green paint. I pulled away a strand of stray vines: not sure what, if anything, I actually felt. Glad to be there; cognizant of distance, time, realms; the passing of time and history. Wishing the others could have been there too. Wondering what she looked like!

Amid the forest of stones, a piece of my distant past. The small stone on the left. Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber

My cousins and I had tried to find Larionescu street, but in today's city there is no record of it. Dorin Frankel, however, knew where it was -- near the synagogue -- and he walked with me there after our session yesterday morning at City Hall. The street name has been changed, but the house is still there -- nicely maintained and modernized inside.

Looking into courtyard of house at Larionescu 20.

At Chaya Dvoira's pump. Strada Larionescu 20.

Other information I came across in the City Hall registry books, during a couple of hours there with Dorin Frankel:

-- my great-grandfather Anschel Gruber (the one who lived in the house we found in Vicovu de Sus) died in 1914, possibly in September of that year. But his death wasn't recorded in the registry until 1920. The book says he is buried in the Radauti cemetery.

-- There is no birth record for my grandmother, Rebecca Rosenberg, who I thought was born in about 1895.... BUT there is a record of the birth to Rebecca's parents, Zirl (later Anglicized to Celia) Halpern and David Rosenberg (not officially registered as married at the time), in Oberwikow, or Vicovu de Sus of TWINS on Sept. 25, 1899 -- including a daughter Rifka (Rebecca in Yiddish) and a son, Jüdel, whose bris was on Oct. 2. The family left for the States in about 1906, but Jüdel's death is included in the Radauti City Hall registry (though added in 1920), indicating he must have died very young.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Romania -- Occupational Hazards

Siret -- new cemetery from middle cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sept. 6, 2009

I tromped around in the Jewish cemetery in Siret, Romania (on the border with Ukraine) this morning: as I already knew, but recognized yet again, this is not the best time of year to be trying to research and/or photograph neglected Jewish cemeteries....In Radauti, a few days ago, I got hot and sweaty clumping through the grass and weeds in a cemetery that is actually very well maintained (by the gold-toothed Mr. Popescu, who also provides water in a plastic bottle to wash hands with, according to tradition, when leaving the cemetery. He pours it three times over your fist. A woman who may or may not be Mrs. Popescu will open up the tall domed ceremonial hall and draw out slim candles, if you ask.)

At Radauti, I was bothered (so to speak) by the spider webs that looped across the spaces between the tombstones and also draped from the overhanging branches to the stone. More so than the webs, I was bothered by the big fat brown spiders that sat amid them, waiting, or occasionally scutting up the slim threads when they felt a human presence.

When I got back from photographing the stones in Radauti, actually, several hours later, I was perturbed to find, crawling on the brilliant white of my hotel bed linen, a little black tick....Shades of the fear of lime disease (from which a friend of mine in Hungary has been suffering.) Also memories of how I was bitten by a tick when visiting the old Jewish cemetery on the Lido of Venice, some years ago. I had to get a tetanus shot and take the dead tick to the health service for analysis. An interesting way to see untouristed parts of the city.

At Siret, there were no spiders. But there was plenty of tall grass that I swathed through -- thank goodness for my cowboy boots. They saved my legs 3 years ago, when I tripped and fell over a hidden stone in the cemetery of Sadagora, Ukraine.

This is the third time I've been to Siret, whose three cemeteries are among the most impressive. I also love the way you can discern the hand of individual artists -- there are "templates" of style, arrangements of elements as well as individualistic style of carving.

This has always been one of my favorite stones in Siret. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The tall grass and other undergrowth made it difficult to get to many if not most parts of the special "middle" cemetery; but it was Sunday, and standing there, swimming through the weeds, recording the physical reminders of so many Jews who once lived here -- the archetypical "Tribe of Stones" -- I could hear the Sunday service the one of the local churches, broadcast over a loudspeaker.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Romania -- Family history

Great Synagogue, Radauti. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm too tired to write much tonight. Suffice it to say that the Cousins and Candlesticks tour had its genealogical high spots.... We visited the tomb of our great-grandmother, Ettel Gruber, in the Jewish Cemetery in Radauti (where I have been three times before since 1978).

Photo: Doru Losneanu

Thanks to the good efforts (and contacts) of Doru Losneanu, Mr. Dorian Frankel helped us go through records at the Radauti Town Hall. We found the marriage registry for the parents of both our Grandfather, Ephraim/Frank (that is, Anschel Gruber, widower, aged 34 and Ettel Lecker, single, aged 19) in 1880 and our grandmother, Rebecca Rosenberg (David Rosenberg and Celia Halpern) in 1902.

This also gave us the address in the village of Vicovu de Sus where, it seems, Anschel Gruber lived at the time of his marriage.

We drove to Vicovu de Sus, about 1/2 an hour's drive, up at the border with Ukraine -- there is a border crossing there for local people. It's a village strung out for seeming miles along one road... with the help of a couple of very nice local policemen, we found what we believe was the house, an old wooden farmstead, set down a dirt track, amid cornfields, well of the road (apparently an elderly woman, as well as a barking dog, lives there -- and she does have a satellite dish...).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Romania -- On the Road

Interior, Bistrita synagogue, used as an art gallery/culture center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Day two of the Cousins and Candlesticks road show, combining my research with family history and cousinly camaraderie ...We've now reached Radauti, the ancestral town of our Gruber clan, after a slow, scenic drive (hills, forests, meadows, cows, horses, horse-carts, tin-roofed wooden houses, decorated wells, churches, etc etc etc) from Bistrita, where we spent the night at the modern Golden Crown (Coroana de Aur) Hotel, named after the fictional hotel in the city that featured in Bram Stoker's Dracula...

Located near the Borgo Pass that separates Transylvania from Bucovina, Bistrita as a town dates back nearly 1,000 years and was a Saxon stronghold and trading center in the middle ages. It has a charming old town center, whose main attractions include a 15th/16th century Evangelical church and a long row of arcaded houses from late medieval times. (There's also a very pleasant pedestrial street, with a tempting collection of sidewalk cafes.)

The town also has a fine synagogue, built in 1856. It has been restored -- with major funding from various Japanese sources -- and is now used as a concert hall and cultural center.

There didn't seem to be any signage, however, denoting it either as a synagogue or as a culture center/concert hall... Work was going on restoring the outer walls, and it didn't look open. A young woman, however, was sitting on a park bench across the street (near a Holocaust memorial located in in the park) and she came across with the key to open up when she saw us trying the door.

Bistrita synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Cousins in front of Holocaust memorial, Bistrita. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

From Bistrita, the road goes over the pass -- we pit-stopped at the kitschy Dracula's Castle Hotel, where I stayed 3 years ago; dipped into the tourist market, whose best wares seemed to be some retro-looking hand-painted garden gnomes. I was glad to find that the road over the pass is undergoing serious repair work...

Dracula Castle Hotel, with bust of Bram Stoker. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

No comment. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

At Vatra Dornei, we stopped to take a look at the derelict, Moorish-style great synagogue, built in 1902, which looms over the main street of this once-grand old spa town (and source of major brands of mineral water). Years ago I attended a Hanukkah celebration here, when I toured Romania during the festival with the then-chief rabbi, Moses Rosen... The sanctuary was brightly lit and crowded with people in winter coats and fur hats, and a Jewish children's choir performed. Most of the Jews who lived there have now either died or moved to Israel (or elsewhere). I have no idea what the fate of these once-magnificent building will be....It looks no better but no worse that it was when I saw it 3 years ago; but time will take its toll. What to do with buildings such as this, large, impressive structures that need much work and a fitting, dignified use, was the subject of the Jewish heritage seminar in Bratislava in March, which I reported on at that time.

Vatra Dornei synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Given my Candlesticks project, I paid attention to the candlesticks/menorah motif that edges the top of the building.

Candlesticks on synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Romania -- we're on our way

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

First day of the cousins and candlesticks trip.... my cousins Hugh Rogovy and Arthur Schankler and Hugh's son Asher are joining me on my research trip to Radauti, in northern Romania, to work on my (Candle)sticks on Stone project, about the representation of women in Jewish tombstone art. My project isn't a "roots" project, but Radauti is the town from which our grandparents emigrated to America and where Ettel Gruber, the great-grandmother of Hugh, Arthur and myself, is buried.

Ettel Gruber and two granddaughters, Radauti, 1936

Hugh, Asher and I picked up Arthur at the Budapest airport this morning, and we drove all day, winding up tonight in Bistrita, in Transylvania (a town known to readers of Dracula.... we are staying tonight in a modern hotel named after a fictional one in the novel).

I haven't been to Romania in three years, so I'm interested in seeing the changes, now that the country is in the EU. There certainly seem to be more roadside hotels, restaurants and advertising, and there has been some work on the roads themselves.... We've eaten wonderfully today. Ciorba at a gas station cafe, served with cups full of sour cream and hot pickled pepper... tonight in Bistrita, everything from mamaliga with Branza cheese to stuffed cabbage (sarmale) at a terrific traditional restaurant, Crama Veche....

On to Radauti (and the ancestral village, Vicovu de Sus) in the morning.