Last summer, when I was planning a trip to the Bucovina painted monasteries, I decided to spend the night at Gura Humorului, a town with little touristic interest, but situated at a crossroads, and thus a perfect operations center. I was also interested in the information I read about Gura Humorului in Wikipedia: it was, in origin, a Jewish peasant settlement, a shtetl whose Jewish population was mostly deported during Second World War (3.000 people), while the rest (500 people) left for Israel in late 1940s, early 1950s. No matter that the current population of Gura Humorului (16.000 people) is non-Jewish, I was curious to see if there was something of the old shtetl left, like in Toledo or Girona historical centres, where some narrow streets reminds still of medieval Jewish communities, five centuries after Jewish were expelled from Spain in 1492.
But I noticed nothing special there. It may be not so strange, in any case, as it's logical that in small rural spots, where both streets and non-wooden buildings are relatively recent phenomena, the history doesn't make such a permanent imprint as medieval towns that Jewish helped to build and get relevance in Spain. Jewish peasant communities, inexistent in Western Europe (where most of kingdoms forbade land ownership by Jews) were frequent in Eastern Europe until Second World War, but their memory is probably disappearing, as there are little descendants to keep memories alive on the spot (those who weren't killed have fled) and there is no buildings, no "stones" to be cherished by history-of-art lovers.
Cities should be different. History is more intensely felt in urban landscapes, and, besides, most of the Jewish community that survived Shoah (Holocaust) and decided not to leave Europe stayed in urban areas, having children, telling stories, keeping record of past events and both lost and surviving customs. But no. I was very surprised when I commented with some Romanian friends of mine that I wanted to visit the Jewish museum at Mamulari Street, located in an old Sinagogue, one of the few buildings left of the old Jewish quartier that was completely destroyed by razzia/progroms that took place in Bucharest during Second World War. Not only they knew little of the Jewish prosecution during Second World War, but even less of the role of the Jewish community in Romanian history. In 1904, 50.000 Jewish lived in Bucharest, more than one sixth of total population; Jewish quartier started at the back of Unirii Square (wher Carrefour is) and continued up to Muncii Square (Boulevard Decebal, Calarasilor Street...). 750.000 Jews lived in Romania in 1930 (4% of total 13 million Romanian population): 430.000 were left by 1947, and nowadays there's less than 10.000, many of them of old age, according to the Centre for Jewish Studies of Bucharest University.
I come from a country, Spain, that, certainly, cannot boast about having a historical trackrecord of religious tolerance; I always say that is very easy to say that we Spaniards are not anti-Semitic at all, considering that we had none left by Catholic Kings. However, 5 centuries have passed in our case: it is eerie to see how the memory of Jewish influence in Romanian history has already faded so much in just three-generations time, and that even the local Holocaust is so little known here. What I know of Romanian Jewish community life and downfall (Holocaust) come mainly of external sources. On 27th January, The International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I attended a quite interesting conference on Jewish community in Romania before Second World War... organized by the Italian Institute of Culture. The Romanian content was provided by the Romanian collaborators of a historical memory project with its origin and main drive in Austria and Hungaria, Centropa. Not existing big museums or memorials dedicated to this issue, and if Lonely Planet tourist guide (whose Romanian volume is quite disappointing as a whole, by the way) makes some mentions and reference is, in fact, due only to its buyers: Lonely Planet Guides always include references to Jewish history or Gay life, amongst other issues, being Jews or Gays two kind of tourists that editors consider to have, let's say, specific interests and needs while traveling.
I first knew of Romanian Holocaust while reading "Balkan Ghosts, A Journey Through History", by Robert D. Kaplan. This book, first published in early 1990s, focus in the most violent elements Balkan history, considering Romania, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Based on the personal experience of this journalist, that travelled around that area in late 80s and early 90s, it was writen just when Yugoslavian war had started, and its focus reflects the wish of seeking an explanation of that violent outburst in a region that was considered civilized and peaceful. A one-sided account, but a very interesting one, though to be added up to other equally one-sided ones in order to build a comprehensive idea of this region.
I remember very well the chapters dedicated to Romania. A country that, after Ceauşescu, opened to the world again as if waking up of a bad dream. A peaceful and quite cultivated society able to sudden outbursts of rage, showing to the world its most terrible and cruel side: the way the Ceaucescu couple was killed and their corpses desecrated in 1989, the brutal repression of demonstrators in Bucharest by misled miners (the Mineriad)... the killing of Jewish during Second World War: the Pogroms in Iasi (10.000 deaths) and Bucharest (where Jewish quartier was destroyed and a brutal slaughter took place at the municipal slaughterhouse), the death trains that deported thousands of Jews in such conditions that many of them didn't arrive to the camps.
Museums are not, as one could think, cold places with no feelings. A museum is organised in order to tell us certain story the way their curators intend it to be told. Museums have a soul; they must have a soul. And, despite this recent and terrible history of hate and the thousand of deaths, what I liked best of the Jewish museum at Bucharest it was that the collection, organised chronologically, focused in life, more specifically in proving how the Jewish community developed in Romania and how, above all, it was a part of Romania. How the first Jews settled following the invitation of local kings and princes. How they gained Romanian citizenship. How they collaborated in creating XIXth-Century industrial Romania. How they involucrated in Romanian society and state not as a detached group but as Romanian citizens, participating in political life, and defending their country as soldiers in the First World War. How the Holocaust didn't destroy a community living in Romania, but a part of Romania. The Museum is called, as a matter of fact, "History Museum of Jews from Romania".
It is a modest museum, maintained by the aging local Jewish community, when they are able to and how they are able to. That's why it has, I suppose, such strange opening hours: from 10 to 13 every dat but Saturday (sabbath). When I asked about a pretty new Hasidic sinagogue that I had seen near my house (far from old Jewish quartier in Bucharest), the old lady that surveilled the museum the day I visited it told me: "oh, it's new, it's not from our people, we don't attend there".
So I left the museum wondering if they will be capable to keep it open. This small Jewish community of Romania, guardian of memories, surrounded by a Romanian society is forgetting its communist past as fast as it seems to have forgotten the Jewish heritage and the Holocaust shame. This local Jewish community with a support from Jewish international lobbies that I suspect to be quite feeble, as this "we the Jewish Romanians" spirit is not the kind of Jewish memory they are more interested to preserve.