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


  1. I visited Vatra Dornei in the 1980s and I saw the synagogue! It is very interesting, indeed. Once the prefered vacation destination for many Jewish famillies from Iasi and Cernauti, Vatra Dornei hosted a substantial Jewish community. However, in the 1980s, there was only one Jew living in Vatra Dornei. I suspect that the people you saw in synagogue were bussed in, something the former Rabbi Moses Rosen used to do during his "Hanukiada", for the benefit of the American guests (and donors!). Anyway, the Jewish communities of Bukovina - German-speaking (with names such as Gruber or Gross!) and liberal - created a unique and beautifull culture in Northern Moldova, and now only their synagogues are left. The last I've heart, there were plans to turn the synagogue from Vatra Dornei into a Jewish Museum. Dan Grosu - the grandson of Solomon Gross, born in a village near Radauti.

  2. Well, I was there first in 1978, and there definitely was a small Jewish community at that time, using the synagogue at least on festive occasions. There were certainly no donors in our group! -- just me and my brother and a couple of guys from Israeli radio, who did not seem to be doing any reporting. Three years ago, I was told that there were about 20 people in the community; there's a small shul elsewhere in town that they were using, if sporadically.

    What village near Radauti was Solomon Gross from?

  3. I am not sure about the name of the village. The story goes like this. My great-great-grandfather, Avrum Gross, lived all his life in Botosani. My great-grandfather got a great job as a tenant of a boiard's estate. While in the village, one of his children died in a domestic accident, because the doctor did not arrive quickly enaugh. So, he decided to move to Iasi, and leave his job. During the short period of time he and his familly had spent in that village, my grandfather was born.

  4. My husband and I went to Vatra Dornei three years ago. The synagogue was in bad shape--some grafitti, broken windows, damage to the walls. The door was locked. At that time, I don't think the municipality had any intentions of renovating the building. Everything was deserted. The synagogue was a landmark of the city--beautiful architecture. It's so unfortunate that the people of Vatra Dornei seemed so forgetful and indiferent of their common history. We may go back sometimes--I don't know when, however. We don't live in Romania anymore.

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