Romania and Moldova, ca. 2000.

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Spread over 237,500 square kilometers and counting 22 million inhabitants, modern Romania (Rom., România) neighbors the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine to the northeast, Bulgaria to the south, the Black Sea to the east, Serbia to the southwest, and Hungary to the west. This is broadly the area in which the Romanian people developed, after Dacia—as the region was known in antiquity—was conquered by the Romans in 101–106 CE. Several Judaic cult items and inscriptions date to the Roman period (first to third centuries), indicating the presence of Jews in the Roman legions camped there.

Located at the intersection of three great empires—Habsburg, tsarist Russian (later the Soviet Union), and Ottoman—Romania depended in its political history and the configuration of its borders on relations with and among these powerful neighbors. Romania emerged with the union of two traditional principalities, Walachia and Moldavia, acknowledged by the European powers in 1862. When Turkish suzerainty ended, Romania became an independent state as a result of the war in 1877–1878 involving Russia and Turkey. After World War I, pursuant to the Peace Treaty of Paris (1919), Romania acquired the provinces of Bessarabia (previously part of tsarist Russia), Bucovina (previously part of Austria-Hungary), the Banat and Transylvania (previously part of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and Dobrudja. After World War II, Bessarabia (currently the Republic of Moldova) and northern Bucovina (currently a part of Ukraine) were annexed by the Soviet Union.

Jews in the Old Kingdom (Regat)

La Naturalisation des Israélites en Roumanie (Naturalization of the Jews in Romania). Lithograph by Kaufmann. The print depicts Jews registering for citizenship in the police station in Iaşi, ca. 1880s. (Moldovan Family Collection)

The establishment, development, and features of Jewish communities in Walachia and Moldavia were decisively influenced by border shifts before and after World Wars I and II, as well as by the migrations of Jews from the three neighboring empires to Romanian territory. Jewish merchants from the Kingdom of Poland and Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire (referred to in documents from the second half of the sixteenth century) laid the foundations for Jewish communities in the Romanian principalities. A significant growth of the Jewish population was recorded in Moldavia when refugees fled to this province as a result of the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising of 1648 in Ukraine. Over the following century, existing communities expanded, including Iaşi, Suceava, Botoşani, Siret, Bacău, and Focşani, and new ones were established.

Whereas approximately 6,500 Jews were living in Moldavia in 1774, their numbers had reached almost 19,000 by 1820—about 8 percent of the total population. By 1859, the Jewish population had risen to nearly 125,000 in Moldavia and 9,300 in Walachia. This increase was partly due to natural growth, but mainly to continuous immigration from Russia and Galicia. In 1878, a total of 218,304 Jews were recorded, and in 1899 there were 269,015—4.5 percent of the population. This percentage dropped a decade later, especially because of massive emigration to America, starting with the fusgayers (emigrants on foot) of 1900 and numbering almost 70,000 Jews by the eve of World War I.

A paradoxical and typical feature of the Jews’ situation in nineteenth-century Romania lay in the fact that though it was relatively easy for Russian and other Jews to settle there, it was impossible for them, or for their descendants born on Romanian land, to be granted civil rights. Jews were left at the mercy of corrupt and abusive local authorities, and were subjected to administrative discrimination or targeted by antisemitic political groups. In its process of modernization, Romania maintained a conservative position toward Jews, although the state accepted a limited and extremely selective civil emancipation, mainly under the first ruler of both principalities, Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1859–1866).

"Rabbins juifs á la porte d'une synagogue, á Bucharest" (Jewish Rabbis at the Entrance to a Synagogue, Bucharest). Engraving, ca. 19th century. (Moldovan Family Collection)

From this period, the “Jewish question” in Romania was included in European and American political agendas, as well as in the agendas of several Jewish international organizations, particularly the Alliance Israélite Universelle and B’nai B’rith. The leaders of Jewish communities in Romania often called for the support of such organizations and of Western governments in their fight for emancipation and against administrative measures banishing “Jewish vagabonds,” mainly in Moldavia. International interventions in defense of Romanian Jews and the visits to Bucharest, for this purpose, by Adolphe Crémieux (1866) and Sir Moses Montefiore (1867) triggered hostile reactions in the Romanian press and parliament. Sometimes there were violence and local pogroms. When Romania joined Russia in the war against Turkey (1877), Jews had their first opportunity to show commitment and loyalty to the state as hundreds of Jews enlisted in the armed forces; moreover, Jewish organizations supported the military campaign. Nevertheless, except for 888 Jewish soldiers who had been mobilized and then granted citizenship pursuant to a special law, all applications for citizenship by native Jews were rejected.

Article 7 of the Constitution of 1866 excluding Jews from enjoying civil rights (rights were granted only to Christians) was at the heart of heated parliamentary debates in advance of the Berlin Treaty following the Russian–Turkish War. In the highly agitated antisemitic context generated by these discussions, the attempt to amend Article 7 was defeated, and despite the intervention of several European powers, Romanian Jews did not yet achieve legal equality. From 1880 to 1913, only 529 Jews succeeded in acquiring this status. Even though 25,000 Jewish soldiers participated in the Romanian war effort during World War I, neither the number of those killed in battle (882 soldiers), nor that of Jewish soldiers awarded medals for bravery (825) changed the political leaders’ attitude toward the Jews’ claims, and antisemitic propaganda in the army and in the nationalistic press was not eased either. Not until 1919 did the National Minorities Treaties, which was included in the Peace Treaty of Paris, force Romania to grant civil rights to Jews, including to those from territories annexed to Romania. These rights were enshrined in the new constitution adopted in 1923. 

Social Structure and Domestic Politics

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, most Jews were engaged in commerce, land leasing, moneylending, and crafts. In the larger cities, they usually lived in a Jewish quarter; wealthy shop owners lived on the main street. Although most Jews were deprived of civil rights, they nevertheless enjoyed relative freedom of economic activity and there was a tendency to acculturate within the middle class. The proportion of entrepreneurs, industrialists, bankers, physicians, lawyers, and engineers increased at the beginning of the twentieth century, and a Jewish proletariat also emerged in small industry.

Shops on the town's main street, Constantinescu Street, Moineşti, Romania, ca. 1890s. (YIVO)

In 1904, a total of 21.1 percent of Romania’s merchants were Jewish, and they formed a majority in such towns as Iaşi, Botoşani, and Dorohoi; the same proportion worked in crafts. Jews even formed a majority in several fields (working as engravers, platers, watchmakers, hatters, typographers, and bookbinders), as well as in industry (glassware, timber, furniture, and textiles). In medicine, Jews made up 38 percent of the country’s physicians. An industrial survey in 1912 revealed significant Jewish participation in the professions and small trading, forming approximately 20 percent within each category. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Jews established several extremely successful banks, among them the Marmorosch-Blank Bank, the Moldova Bank, and the Craiova Commercial Bank. Some bankers, including Davicion Bally and Hillel Manoah, were also active in public affairs.

Emerging from distinct waves, the two communities—the larger one of Moldavia, which had East European origins and configurations, and the smaller Walachian one, closer in nature to West European Jewish communities—had difficulties finding common ground even after the union of the two principalities into one kingdom. Moldavian Jewry was concentrated mainly in market towns and villages, and had a high percentage of Yiddish speakers (greater than 50%) who were tied to a religious and cultural heritage and had a significant Hasidic influence. Jews in Walachia, by contrast, were concentrated in the large cities, and were more inclined to assimilate.

Outdoor portrait of a group of fusgeyers, Jewish emigrants who made their way on foot across Romania to their port of departure, and who were aided along their route by various Jewish communities, ca. 1900. (YIVO)

Sephardic Jews had a presence in Walachia as well; they arrived in considerable numbers at the beginning of the nineteenth century and totaled nearly 12,000 people between 1925 and 1930, concentrated particularly in Bucharest, Craiova, Turnu Severin, and Constanța. For many years the Sephardim remained isolated from the Ashkenazim, maintaining their own ritual traditions and synagogues. They had separate schools and implemented different forms of mutual support systems. Their elite tended to integrate into Romanian high society. Wealthy Jews of Sephardic origin were involved in Romanian political life, beginning with Bally, a supporter of the 1848 revolutionaries in Walachia; others, including Manoah and Jacques Elias, made sizable donations to the Romanian Academy and to other cultural foundations. Among religious leaders, a prominent figure was Rabbi Ḥayim Bejerano (1830–1930), who corresponded with Herzl and Nordau; and Sabetai Djaen (1883–1940). In cultural terms, their presence was remarkable in publishing and in music—both traditional Sephardic (Alberto della Pergola) and composition (Mauriciu Cohen Lânaru, Avram Levi Ivella, Miriam Marbé, and Laurențiu Profeta).

While only a very small proportion of Jews living in Moldavia and Walachia (the Old Kingdom) identified solely in confessional terms, acculturation (stronger in Walachia), did not lead to full assimilation, nor to abandonment of Jewish identity. Though Yiddish lost ground in Walachia, it was preserved in the poor population of Moldavia, in villages and market towns, as well as in several intellectual circles in Bessarabia, Bucovina, and northern Transylvania. The persistence of traditional forms of community life, which varied from province to province, as well as the lack of civil emancipation, significantly delayed the modern organization of the community, which only acquired legal status after World War I.

The first signs of the modernization and secularization of community life emerged after 1850, under the influence of the Haskalah movement, which was disseminated by young intellectuals coming from Galicia, among whom the most prominent was Iuliu (Yehuda) Barasch. The movement first saw the reform of Jewish schools (1852) and the establishment of a choral synagogue (1856). Eventually a Jewish press developed, mainly in the Romanian language. The strongest resistance to reforms came from the Ashkenazic majority among native Jews. Jews from the Habsburg Empire, by contrast, were more open to modernization, many of them enjoying the status of “Austrian,” and so was the Sephardic community of Walachia.

Members of the Torah mi-Tsiyon (Torah from Zion) Literary Circle, Târgu Neamt, 1904. Two men hold up placards with the organization’s bylaws. (YIVO)

The influence of maskilim, particularly with regard to modernizing the education system, led to the banishment of Rabbi Me’ir Leib Malbim in 1864, as he was a fierce opponent of reform. The modernization process accelerated and the Jews’ legal status improved somewhat due to the remarkable contribution of Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, the American consul in Bucharest in 1870. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, groups supporting the fight for emancipation became increasingly active; one such group was the Asociația Generală a Israeliților Pământeni (The General Association of Native Israelites, 1890). Among early community leaders were the military physician Marcu Brociner, a hero of the 1877 war; politician Adolphe Stern; and Moses Gaster, an expert in folklore and Jewish studies.

Antagonism between traditional and modernizing Jews was muted in Moldavian communities and, to a lesser extent, to those from Walachia. Hasidic rabbis were among the supporters of the Zionist movement; an example includes Yisra’el Teller (1836–1921). Iacob Isac Niemirower (1872–1939), an adept and historian of Hasidism who became the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Romania in 1921, was also involved in the Zionist movement. Except for Abraham Leib Zissu, a staunch Jewish nationalist, there were no unbreakable barriers between Jewish nationalists and assimilationists. Zionist leaders treasured the values of the Hasidic world; from the second half of the nineteenth century, several rabbis wrote for the Romanian-language Jewish press, and some even pursued secular studies at Western universities.

The coexistence of divergent trends also explains the surprisingly calm oscillation between attachment to tradition—stronger in Moldavia, more superficial in Walachia—and the tendency to assimilate. Partly because these regions lacked centers with longstanding traditions of Orthodox religious education, there was an absence of dogmatic intransigence. The dominant mentality inclined toward moderation and a preference for humor and self-irony as revealed in the poems of Jewish troubadours and Jewish popular songs. Feelings of “self-hatred” were almost unknown in this environment. The proportion of Jews who converted to Christianity was also relatively low (in Moldavia, just a few dozen people in the first half of the nineteenth century). Popular and political antisemitism tempered enthusiasm for assimilation, but it did not prevent the dominant feeling of attachment to the Romanian environment that was also revealed in the nostalgia of those whom poverty forced to emigrate around the year 1900.

Culture and Education

Lumina Israelită (Dos likht), Bucharest, 14 September 1901. The headline reads, “Congress about Jewish School Program.” (YIVO)

After settling in Romanian principalities, Jews from Ukraine or Galicia attempted to recreate, sometimes in rudimentary form, the traditional life of their native lands. Periods of relative effervescence within the religious lives of the communities were due to the longer or shorter presence of Hasidic leaders or erudite rabbis who developed various works on biblical or Talmudic exegesis that were published in Iaşi or in renowned printing houses (Lemberg, Vienna). Beside the Ruzhin Hasidic center of Sadagora, several centers of Talmudic study emerged in Moldavia, in Ştefăneşti, Vaslui, Dorohoi, Fălticeni, Buhuşi, and Podul Turcului. Eventually centers expanded to Walachia, in Bucharest and Craiova.

Under the influence of the Haskalah, a secular Hebrew literature developed, best represented by Iuliu Barasch and Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz, though anticipated by Mordekhai Strelisker, Menaḥem Pineles, Matityahu Ravener, and others. Substantial pedagogical activity disseminated the Hebrew language through schoolbooks and various publications; major contributors were Moshe Orenştein, Hilel Kahana (in Botoşani), and Menaḥem Braunstein-Mebaşan. Eli‘ezer Rokeaḥ came from Jerusalem to promote Hebrew and Yiddish culture and to encourage Romanian Jews to move to the Land of Israel, even before the establishment of the Zionist movement.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, intellectuals and scholars, mainly from Galicia or Bessarabia, laid foundations for Jewish communal and cultural institutions in Romania. Many were also prominent in the broader Romanian cultural and scientific environment, including Barasch, Beniamin Schwarzfeld and his sons (Elias, Moses, and Wilhelm), Gaster, and philologists such as Heinrich (Heiman) Tiktin. These intellectuals, who had been educated in European universities or rabbinic seminaries, helped to modernize Jewish culture and education. Some of them (Moses Schwarzfeld above all) researched and wrote the history of Romanian Jews, as well as edited Judaic history reviews (including Anuar pentru israeliți [Yearbook for Israelites]; 1877–1899, and Analele Societății Istorice Iuliu Barasch [Annals of the Iuliu Barasch Historical Society]; 1887–1889). Restrictions included in legislation in 1893 on Jewish children’s access to Romanian schools encouraged the establishment and modernization of a network of Romanian-Israelite schools.

Attempts to develop a press in Hebrew and Yiddish, beginning in Bucharest and Iaşi in the 1850s, were short-lived. Hayoets, in Yiddish, appeared in Bucharest between 1874 and 1896. The first high-quality Yiddish literary review, Likht, though short-lived, was issued in 1914. After Barasch’s first Romanian-language effort with Israelitul român (The Romanian Israelite; 1857), only the brothers Elias and Moses Schwarzfeld succeeded in maintaining a Jewish journal, Fraternitatea (The Brotherhood; 1874–1896), as well as Egalitatea (Equality; 1890–1916, 1919–1940). Later examples, however, include Revista israelită (The Israelite Review; 1886–1897, 1908–1910), Lumea israelită (The Israelite World; 1902–1903, 1905), Curierul israelit (The Israelite Courier; 1906–1948; editor: M. Schweig). Historians of Romanian Jewry were Iacob Psantir, the Schwarzfeld brothers, and Meyer Abraham Halevy. It was mainly after 1900 that Jewish journalists became prominent in the major Romanian dailies (B. Brănişteanu, Constantin Graur, Emil Fagure, and Adolf Hefter).

Jignitsa Garden, Bucharest, where some of the earliest Yiddish plays were staged, 1930s. Photo by Jean Feldmann. (YIVO)

The Jewish cultural core in the Old Kingdom turned out to be the Yiddish theater. A standing drama troupe from Iaşi, Pomul Verde (The Green Tree; 1876) was set up by the Odessa-born founder of the Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfadn, in 1876. Even as Yiddish educational and cultural features declined as a result of acculturation, Yiddish theater continued to enjoy a numerous and enthusiastic audience, culminating with the unexpected success of the Vilner Trupe, which performed in Bucharest in 1924–1927. The success was partly a consequence of a strengthened Jewish national consciousness among young intellectuals, as well as the result of an effort to resume the development of the Yiddish language and literary heritage, although this tendency was limited to a circle of intellectuals and artists. 

With the modernization of Romanian society, the last part of the nineteenth century also marked the appearance of Jewish intellectuals in the elite of Romanian cultural and scientific life; this phenomenon expanded after World War I. The Romanian language also clearly became the language of secular forms of culture, both in the Jewish press and in literature, historiography, and Judaic studies. Among the first Romanian philologists and linguists, significant contributions were made by Gaster, Tiktin, and Lazăr Şăineanu. Moise Ronetti-Roman was among the first of many writers of Jewish origin.

Activists of Keren Hayesod, the international Zionist organization that raised funds for Jewish settlement in Palestine, Noua Suliţă, Romania (now Novoselytsia, Ukr.), 1920. Against the wall of the house is a portrait of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl framed by a wooden Star of David. Hebrew on the flag at left reads: "If I am not for myself, who am I?" (Rabbi Hillel, Avot 1:14) (YIVO)

Active proto-Zionist associations were organized at congresses in Focşani in 1881 and 1882. A Ḥoveve Tsiyon group was established in 1890. In 1882, some 228 Romanian Jews embarked from Galați and set up farming settlements in northern Palestine at Zikhron Ya‘akov and Rosh Pinah. The leaders of the first Zionist groups in Romania were the physician Karpel Lippe (of Iaşi) and Samuel Pineles (of Galați). They also represented the Zionist movement of Romania at the First Zionist World Congress in Basel (1897).

The main ideologist of the Romanian socialist movement, Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea, was Jewish. Although he was conscious of the Jews’ situation in Romania and of growing political antisemitism, Dobrogeanu-Gherea rejected the idea of a separate organization for Jewish socialists. Another socialist leader was the physician Ştefan Stâncă (Stein; 1865–1897), who also issued the newspaper Lumina (The Light; 1887). The Jewish socialist circle, also named Lumina, was set up in Iaşi in 1895, led by Max Wexler, Litman Ghelerter, and Leon Gheller. The Bund organization had influence only in Bessarabia. Still, Jewish leaders of the socialist party of Romania were aware of the issues faced by the impoverished Jewish population; consequently, the party played a significant role in the emancipation struggle. Jewish socialists reached the Jewish proletarian community by means of the Yiddish newspaper Der veker (1896).

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, community leaders included secular intellectuals. The most active leader was Adolphe Stern. Other prominent figures included Gaster, the Schwarzfeld brothers, Joseph B. Brociner, the philologist scholar Tiktin (who eventually converted), A. Steuerman-Rodion, and Sephardic leader Salomon Halfon. On their initiative, the first attempts were made to achieve a modern reorganization of the community—the earliest conference, held in Galați in 1896 on Brociner’s initiative, was followed by others in Iaşi and Focşani. In 1910, the Union of the Native Jews (UEP) was set up, led by Stern, who provided the organization’s agenda for many years, stressing the fight for emancipation, defense against abuse by authorities, an ideology of moderate assimilation, and collaboration with B’nai B’rith and the Alliance Israélite Universelle. In its relations with Romanian political leaders, the UEP resorted consistently to individual interventions and relations.

View of the Lumina Jewish children's home, Poiana Ţapului, Romania, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

After 1900, the Zionists’ role in community leadership became more significant. In 1912, the Renaşterea (Rebirth) Circle was established, led by Samuel Stern-Kochavi, who published the Renaşterea noastră (Our Rebirth) review in 1924, with Mauriciu Singer and Leon Mizrahi. An extremely active group formed around Hatikva magazine (Galați; 1915), led by Rabbi Iacob Nacht, Leon Gold (Ariel), and Lascăr Şaraga. The Zionist students’ organization Hasmonaea, set up in 1914, was also quite influential. Jewish national and Zionist orientations were represented by the Mântuirea (The Redemption) newspaper (1919–1922), issued by Abraham Leib Zissu, and followed by Ştiri din lumea evreiască (News from the Jewish World), as of 1922, with Isac Ludo, Theodor Lavi, and Idov Cohen. There was also the children’s magazine Copilul evreu (The Jewish Child; 1922–1939).

Relations with the Romanian Population

Romanians generally held an attitude toward Jews of “hostile tolerance” (as historian Şerban Papacostea called it). Accusations of ritual murder (beginning in the eighteenth century) were sporadic, but a general belief that Jews practiced such rituals was deeply rooted. Subject to restrictions that varied from one ruler to the next, Jews, both the native and the sudiți—those under the protection of foreign countries—were able to develop in the economic field. However, the lack of civil rights aggravated tensions and deepened hostility toward Jews who were considered foreign, dangerous, and parasitical. This tension was sometimes manifested in widespread violence, such as in the pogrom of Galați in 1859. Incidents of violence against Jewish landowners or lessees were also recorded during the peasant uprisings of 1907.

A group of Jews who tried to emigrate from Iaşi to a Turkish-controlled area in Galați and were expelled, with the corpse of a man drowned when Romanian soldiers refused the group reentry to Romania and threw them in the Danube, 1866. Postcard printed in Germany, captioned with a quote by Romanian Prime Minister Petre P. Carp (1900–1901; 1911–1912): “We no longer live in times when it is permissible to throw Jews in the water.” (YIVO)

Romanian national ideology, after 1870, was characterized by political and economic xenophobia and antisemitism, which became increasingly virulent after World War I. The Jew, considered to be a domestic foreigner who had penetrated Romanian economic and social life, became a constant topic in Romanian political ideology. Several political personalities (Gheorghe Costa-Foru, Petre Carp, Titu Maiorescu) who favored a positive solution of the “Jewish question” were unable to influence the general trend, which remained hostile to Jewish emancipation.

The anti-Jewish spirit tended to be more widely spread within the middle and upper classes and among intellectuals. The Jews’ presence in villages as lessees, innkeepers, and tavern owners was considered responsible for the degradation and poverty of Romania. Jews—as “village leeches” and the “plague” of peasantry—were cited as the main reason to deny emancipation; such words became the most widely spread slogan in traditional antisemitic propaganda. Whereas until 1880 a fundamental antisemitic argument noted Jews’ reluctance to be assimilated, after 1900 this statement tended to be replaced by a completely opposite slogan, reflecting a new reality: antisemites claimed that the Jews’ integration into the Romanian social structure jeopardized the country’s national spirit.

Their uncertain civil status exposed Jews to regular banishments and to abusive measures that gradually led to the loss of the rights they had acquired after 1877. Antisemitic press campaigns in 1910 were led by the National Democrat Party, founded by Alexandru C. Cuza and by the historian Nicolae Iorga. Intellectuals opposed this trend; among them were journalists of socialist orientation (Paul Bujor, N. D. Cocea) and writers and scholars (Tudor Arghezi, Gala Galaction, Ovid Densusianu, Constantin Rădulescu-Motru). Massive participation of Jews in the Romanian army during World War I did not diminish antisemitic hostility; there were numerous trials against Jewish soldiers, leading to 150 death condemnations for “treason,” “espionage,” or for using Yiddish on the war front.

Romanian Jews after World War I

The new borders of Greater Romania added three distinct Jewish communities: statistics of 1930 recorded 206,958 Jews in Bessarabia, 92,988 in Bucovina, and 193,000 in Transylvania; there were 263,192 in the Old Kingdom. Of the total 756,930 Jews in Romania (4.2% of the general population), most (68%) lived in urban areas (accounting for 14.4% of the urban population), especially in Moldavia and in the large cities: in Iaşi—35,465 (34.5% of the town’s population), Galați—19,915 (19.8%), and Botoşani—11,840 (36%). Still, the highest Jewish urban concentrations were in Bucharest—76,480 (12%), Cernăuți—42,932 (38.2%), and Chişinău—41,405 (36%).

Jewish soldiers in the Romanian army during World War I, 1917. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ion & Jeanine Gutman Butnaru)

Communities in Bucovina, Transylvania, and Bessarabia were radically different from those of the Old Kingdom in terms of Jewish identity, internal organization, civil status, social composition, and economic importance. To a greater extent, Jews in the Old Kingdom were acquainted with Romanian language and culture. Those in Bessarabia were mainly Yiddish-speaking, an intellectual stratum educated in Russian schools. The Jews of Bucovina had developed an elite affiliated to German culture, especially in Cernăuți (Czernowitz), while in the villages and market towns traditional, often Hasidic, Jewish communities spoke Yiddish. Jewish society in Transylvania was also not homogeneous, but was divided between an Orthodox community and a Neolog one, as in Hungary before World War I. In the northern Crişana and Maramureş regions, traditional communities were maintained. The rest of Transylvania and the region of Banat had Neolog communities concentrated in the large cities and tied to Hungarian culture in terms of language and identity. When Transylvania became part of Romania, the process of Hungarian assimilation slowed in favor of a strengthening Jewish identity expressed within Zionist organizations.

Jewish Politics after World War I

Bundist and Zionist groups were dominant in the newly integrated provinces. In Bucovina, Beno Straucher led a national Jewish party whose ideology was oriented toward Jewish cultural autonomy. There, too, an extremely influential political personality was Mayer Ebner, president of the Zionist organization of Bucovina. In Bessarabia, the Orthodox environment was dominated by Agudas Yisroel, led by Yehudah Leib Zirelson. Well organized in political terms, the Jews in the new provinces elected four deputies to the parliament in 1928; they laid the foundations of the Jewish parliamentary club; and two years later were among the founders of the Jewish Party. They were joined by the elderly Adolphe Stern, who was drawn to the new national Jewish and Zionist agenda of the leaders of the annexed provinces.

Young men and women reading newspapers at the Labor Zionist Eliezer Shteynbarg Reading Room, Lipcani-Târg, Romania (now Lipcani, Moldova), 1930s. Pictures on the wall include portraits of Yiddish authors Sholem Aleichem, Eliezer Steinbarg, and Yitskhok Leybush Peretz and Zionist ideologue Ber Borokhov. (YIVO)

In 1928, Romania’s parliament officially acknowledged Judaism as a religion with “historical” rights, and the community acquired legal status. In 1931, the Jewish Party won four seats in the parliament, adding another seat in the following year. However, the party failed in 1933. Its electorate came almost exclusively from the new provinces. In Transylvania, Zionist leaders Joseph Fischer and Theodor Fischer were deputies in the parliament for short periods of time.

There was a clear distinction between the national Jewish policy of the Jews from the newly annexed provinces and the one promoted by the Union of Native Jews, which had become the Union of Romanian Jews (UER) after the Congress of 1923. Wilhelm Filderman, the successor of Adolphe Stern, illustrates the dominant trend within the Old Kingdom that sought integration in Romanian social and political life while maintaining a Jewish identity defined in the Western, rationalist, and secular spirit. This orientation better suited the Jewish middle class in the towns of the Old Kingdom. After the adoption of the constitution in 1923, the UER tried to supervise the implementation of its provisions, and oversaw the organization of the internal community and religious life, as well as of the Jewish school network. Jewish schools were supported by the community, including the Tarbut network of Hebrew-language schools in Bessarabia.

Filderman insisted on legal militancy, frequently resorting to petitions, interventions in parliament, and press campaigns in defense of the Jews’ rights. He rejected the idea of a Jewish party, favoring electoral alliances with Romanian parties that were willing to also support the claims of the UER. In more serious circumstances, Filderman in the 1930s successfully resorted to the support of international Jewish organizations, and appealed to the League of Nations, European political leaders, and the Western press. The UER attempted to provide an organizational framework also for Jews in the annexed provinces; however, this objective was accomplished only to a limited extent and only in the critical time at the eve of World War II.

Delegates to a conference of Jewish peasants of Bucovina, in Cernăuţi, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukr.), 18 June 1928. (YIVO)

Under the influence of communities outside the Old Kingdom, a new, strong Jewish nationalist orientation emerged. Jews opposed to assimilation pursued ethnic minority status and Jewish cultural autonomy. They were encouraged by Abraham Leib Zissu, who for several decades advocated “integral” Jewish nationalism and a right-wing Zionist ideology. He was a fierce ideological opponent of Filderman and the UER. By means of numerous publications and leaflets, Zissu propounded his radical program advocating a spiritual return to Judaism and the foundation of a Jewish party.

This battle of ideas in Jewish politics and intellectual life between “assimilationists” (tempered by the preservation of the Jewish identity supported by the UER) and Zionists continued in the interwar period. The same two poles grouped and regrouped the Jewish intellectuals in debates on the situation of the Jewish intellectual, on defining Jewish identity, and on confronting antisemitism. In these disputes, which appeared on the pages of the Jewish periodicals, especially in Curierul Israelit, which represented the orientation of the UER, and the Adam review issued by Zissu’s disciple, Isac Ludo, active roles were played by Horia Carp, Gabriel Schaeffer, and the writer and journalist Felix Aderca.

In the second half of the 1930s, the Nazi threat and the dismantling of Romanian democracy led to the attenuation of the ideological antagonism and favored the cooperation between the UER and the Zionist leaders. In 1936, the Central Council of Romanian Jews was established, led by Filderman and supported by Iacob Niemirower, aiming to join forces against the imminent danger.

Political Antisemitism in Greater Romania

“Come Visit the ‘ION’ Caricature Exhibition.” Romanian poster. Printed by Lumina Moldovei, Iaşi, Romania, 1923. Advertisement for an antisemitic exhibition held in the hall of the newspaper Nationalistul (The Nationalist). “Every good Romanian must visit this exhibition, which includes kosher things . . . such as epileptic rabbis, Talmudic criminal scenes, as well as diverse types of kikes. . . . Entrance for dogs and kikes, 1 leu.” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

After 1922, antisemitic sentiment intensified and Jews, particularly in the annexed provinces, were identified as hostile strangers to Romanians and were constantly accused of having pro-Hungarian or “Bolshevik” inclinations. Particularly antisemitic was the university professor A. C. Cuza, whose actions spanned a period of more than half a century (beginning in 1888). After the Jews’ emancipation, Cuza’s movement, Liga pentru Apărarea Național Creştină (the League of National Christian Defense; LANC), advocated quotas (numerus clausus) on the admission of Jews to schools and universities. In 1927, the fascist group Archangel Michael’s Legion (which became the Iron Guard in 1930) separated from Cuza’s organization; it was led by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and had an antisemitic, extremist agenda. One of its first actions was to organize a pogrom in Oradea, in 1927.

In December 1937, Octavian Goga, the leader of the antisemitic National Christian Party, supported by Cuza, was asked to form a government. Discriminatory laws against the Jewish population were issued, and violence against Jews and Jewish property became a daily reality. Popular political slogans in 1935–1937 advocated retracting the citizenship granted to the Jews in 1923. Antisemitic policies also aimed to “Romanianize” the economy, universities, and the liberal professions. Decrees issued by Goga’s government (December 1937–January 1938) accomplished some of those changes, as did the government under Carol’s II dictatorship (1938–1940).

Holocaust Period

In June 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia and northern Bucovina. Two months later and resulting from the Vienna agreement between Hitler and Mussolini, Romania was forced to transfer northern Transylvania to Hungary. The 11 counties that were transferred had a population of 164,000 Jews. After King Carol II abdicated, General Ion Antonescu, who now ruled, proclaimed a “national legionary state” on 14 September 1940, sharing power with the Iron Guard under Horia Sima’s leadership. In the Bucharest pogrom associated with the Iron Guard rebellion of 21–23 January 1941 against Antonescu, members of the Iron Guard killed 121 Jews, destroyed synagogues, and vandalized the Jewish districts.

Chief Rabbi Alexandru-Iehuda Şafran (standing, in hat) at a Ha-Po‘el ha-Mizraḥi demonstration, Bucharest, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

Romania, as Germany’s ally, joined the war against the Soviet Union. The country’s declared reason for doing so was to recover the territories of Bucovina and Bessarabia. Individual Jews’ fates in Romania critically depended on the region in which they lived at the beginning of the war. In Antonescu’s plan for “cleaning up the land,” the Jewish population of Bessarabia and Bucovina was considered hostile and was destined for “elimination.” Intense antisemitic propaganda was spread especially within the army, but also at all levels of the state hierarchy. This particular population, and by extension all Jews, was depicted as the embodiment of the “Bolshevik threat.”

Under Antonescu’s rule, Jews were subjected to discriminatory regulations, but there were quite a few fluctuations in their status, depending on the war front situation and on the political interests of the regime. Jewish real estate was nationalized on 28 March 1941, except for a few categories (exemptions included decorated Jewish war veterans; war orphans who had been baptized as Christians 20 years earlier; Jews married to Romanian nationals; Jews baptized as Christians at least 30 years before). Jewish men aged 18 to 50 had to perform forced labor.

Children at a meal in an orphanage, Cluj, Romania, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

One week after the beginning of the war, on 29–30 June 1941, the Jewish community of Iaşi was the victim of a pogrom in which more than 14,000 Jews were killed in massacres supervised by the army and the local police, with the support of Nazi troops. With the German–Romanian invasion, on Antonescu’s order 45,000–60,000 Jews in Bessarabia and Bucovina were massacred. The remaining 157,079 Jews were deported to Transnistria: 91,845 from Bucovina, 55,867 from Bessarabia, and 9,367 from Dorohoi. Between 105,000 and 120,000 of the deported Romanian Jews died. More than 21,000 Jews from southern Bucovina (the counties of Dorohoi, Câmpulung Moldovenesc, Suceava, and Rădăuți), which was still a part of the Old Kingdom, were also deported before 1942.

From the very beginning of the war, in Bucharest, community leaders (namely Filderman, leader of the Federal Union of Jewish Communities [FUCE]; with the assistance of Alexandru Şafran, the chief rabbi), succeeded in organizing an institutional network to provide religious services, education, and social support. In December 1941, FUCE was dissolved and replaced by the Jewish Central, following the model of the Judenrat. Remaining the true leader of the community, Filderman led the fight against resuming deportations and other anti-Jewish measures. In some communities, permission was granted to set up schools for Jewish children who had been excluded from the Romanian education system. Ways were found to send aid, financed substantially by international Jewish organizations, to Jews who had been deported to Transnistria. 

Jews at a celebration or demonstration during World War II after the toppling of Ion Antonescu and Romania’s entry into an alliance with the Soviet Union, 1944 or later. (The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum/Israel)

In the summer of 1942, Jews in the Old Kingdom confronted the most critical times, as Romania accepted the Nazi plan to deport all Jews living in Romania to the Bełżec extermination camp. However, by November 1942 it became clear that the Romanian authorities were deferring the enforcement of this action and eventually gave it up completely. They did so as a result of pressure from the Allied forces, but also because of internal opposition mobilized especially by Filderman. Policies concerning Jews began to change in October 1942, and the deportations finally ended in March–April 1943. Approximately 340,000 Romanian Jews survived. Partial repatriation began in the second half of December 1943. On 20 December, the 6,053 inhabitants of Dorohoi who had survived deportation were sent back to their hometown. On 6 March 1944, a total of 1,846 of the more than 5,000 orphans were repatriated.

Approximately 135,000 Jews living under Hungarian rule in northern Transylvania were murdered after deportation to Auschwitz, beginning in the spring of 1944. The territory of Romania, thanks to the change in attitude of authorities toward Jews, became a refuge for those who succeeded in crossing the border from Hungary.

The Communist Period

“Communist Ana Pauker.” Ana Pauker featured on the cover of Time Magazine, 20 September 1948. (TIME Magazine © 2008, Time Inc. Reprinted by permission)

World War II reduced the Jewish population by half (the estimated figure within the new borders was 430,000). In 1965, as a result of massive though intermittent emigration, there were approximately 100,000 Jews left in Romania, and later, toward the end of the Communist period, their numbers had dropped to 19,000 (as measured in 1989). With the population’s generalized poverty as a result of the war, drought, and the enormous war damages claimed by the Soviets, the situation of the Jewish population had clearly worsened, aggravated by the ravages of the Holocaust, as well as by Romania’s state policy to delay restitution of houses and property belonging to Jews. A considerable number of Jewish craft and trade workers were left in the street because of Communist policy to nationalize enterprises. The periods of time when emigration was stopped (April 1952 until 1956) were marked by violent anti-Zionist campaigns, supported by the new pro-Communist Jewish organization known as the Jewish Democratic Committee (CDE). Zionist organizations were banned as of 1949; hundreds of Zionist activists were arrested. Yet the new Communist regime brought about a radical change, unprecedented in the history of Jews in Romania: a significant number of Jews became prominent in the political and administrative hierarchy of the new regime, among them the long-time Communist militant Ana Pauker, and hard-line Stalinists such as Iosif Chişinevki and Leonte Răutu. From the same category, Silviu Brucan, a leading party figure, became a well-known opponent to Ceauşescu’s regime in the late 1980s, and was involved in the postcommunist political transition to democracy.

To the extent allowed by the government, Jewish religious institutions were able to pursue their activity. In 1960 there were officially 153 Jewish communities with 841 synagogues, 67 ritual baths, 86 slaughterhouses, and a matzo factory. A small number of Yiddish schools remained open in Bucharest and Iaşi until 1960, as well as 54 Talmud Torah schools. The Jewish press of the 1950s came under the ideological control of the regime, mainly through the Unirea (The Union) newspaper, which was used as a tool for anti-Zionist campaigns. Intellectuals, writers, and artists who followed Communist ideology were promoted and granted privileges by the regime. A Yiddish-language theater was open in Bucharest in 1948; one in Iaşi thrived until 1968.

After the cold war period, relations between Israel and Romania evolved favorably. A significant moment saw the upgrading of diplomatic representations to the embassy level (1969), marking an obvious contrast to the deterioration of Israel’s relations with the Soviet bloc after the Israeli-Arab war of 1967. Rabbi Mozes Rosen, who had become chief rabbi in 1948, and the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FCER) in 1964, was instrumental in organizing massive Jewish emigration from Romania, as well as in establishing a satisfactory community life even within the Communist regime and the threat of fast diminution of Jewish communities.

The Great Synagogue, Câmpulung Moldovenesc, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)

Especially in Nicolae Ceauşescu’s era (1965–1989), Rosen managed, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), to maintain functioning religious and community institutions, such as kosher restaurants, homes for the elderly, a network of TalmudTorah schools, youth choirs with a Hebrew and Yiddish repertoire, and the organization of conferences on Judaic topics. Beginning in 1956, Rosen began to issue Revista cultului mozaic (The Periodical of the Mosaic Religion). A museum for the history of the Jews in Romania was established in 1977, along with a center for documentation and research. Several significant historical papers and collections of documents were published, edited by experienced historians (Itzik Şvarț-Kara, Lya Benjamin, Victor Eskenasy). Annual celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover, organized in communities throughout the country and with the participation of delegations from the Western European and American Jewish communities, were important occasions to strengthen the Jewish identity, but also served the propagandistic interests of the regime.

From the 1960s, an increasingly accelerated process was set off to “nationalize” party and state bodies by removing Jews from positions of leadership, as well as from the military hierarchy and the Securitate (political police). At the same time, a significant number of Jewish intellectuals were able to pursue their work, some of them becoming prominent in the fields of science and culture. In the humanities, the linguists Alexandru Graur, Jacques Byck, Iancu Fischer, Henri Wald, and Solomon Marcus, and the literary historian Paul Cornea acquired a remarkable renown. The most successful Romanian athletes in the 1960s included the multiple table tennis world champion Angelica Rozeanu (who eventually emigrated to Israel) and the rowing Olympic champion Leon Rotman.

Postcommunist Period

After the fall of Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, Jewish life continued without new difficulties for the aging and small community. There were approximately 9,000 Jews living in Romania in 2005, with a constant annual rate of 120 emigrants. The considerable concessions that Rabbi Rosen had obtained from Ceauşescu became, after the fall of communism, charges against his strategy to accommodate the Communist dictator. Rosen faced numerous antisemitic attacks from the nationalist press. After his death in 1994, the scholar Nicolae Cajal, a member of the Romanian Academy, was elected leader of the community. In April 1995 former chief rabbi Alexandru Şafran returned to Romania for a visit, and was welcomed as an anticommunist Jewish religious leader, in contrast to Rosen. Realitatea evreiască (The Jewish Reality) became the community publication, and the Hasefer publishing house issued volumes devoted to Judaism and topics of Jewish interest. Rabbis who regularly came from Israel were now in charge of the religious institutions. For the first time in the history of Romania, the most important universities (Bucharest, Cluj, Iaşi, Craiova) set up special departments and centers for the study of Judaism, Jewish history, and for teaching Hebrew. However, public discourse was constantly marked by numerous antisemitic publications, which placed a special emphasis on denying crimes committed by the Antonescu regime against the Jewish population. An international commission of historians to study the Holocaust in Romania was set up in 2003 and chaired by Elie Wiesel. The report issued by the commission was accepted by president Ion Iliescu and by his successor, Traian Băsescu.

Suggested Reading

Emanuel Aczél, Publicațiile periodice evreieşti din România, vol. 1 (Bucharest, 2004); Jean Ancel, Toldot ha-sho’ah: Romanyah, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 2002); Lya Benjamin, Evreii din România în texte istoriografice (Bucharest, 2002); Isaac Bercovici, Pirke Romanyah (Tel Aviv, 1975); Shlomo Bickel, Yahadut Romanyah: Historyah, bikoret sifrutit, zikhronot (Tel Aviv, 1978); Nicolae Cajal and Hary Kuller, eds., Contribuția evreilor din România la cultură şi civilizație (Bucharest, 1996); Paul Cernovodeanu, Liviu Rotman, and Raphael Vago, eds., Toldot ha-yehudim be-Romanyah, vols. 1–4 (Tel Aviv, 1996–2003); Wilhelm Filderman, Memoirs and Diaries, ed. Jean Ancel (Jerusalem, 2004/05); Carol Iancu, Jews in Romania, 1866–1919, trans. Carvel de Bussy (Boulder and New York, 1996); Carol Iancu, Les juifs en Roumanie, 1919–1938 (Paris, 1996); Radu Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940–1944 (Chicago, 2000); Theodor Lavi, ed., Pinkas ha-kehilot: Romanyah, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1969); Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars (Bloomington, Ind., 1983); Adolphe Stern, Din viața unui evreu-român, vols. 1–3 (Bucharest, 2001); Baruch Tercatin and Lucian-Zeev Herşcovici, Prezenţe rabinici în perimetrul românesc: Secolele XVI–XXI (Bucharest, 2008); Leon Volovici, Nationalist Ideology & Antisemitism: The Case of Romanian Intellectuals in the 1930s (Oxford, 1991).



Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea