Sunday, August 17, 2008

Exhibit: Synagogues in Southern Transylvania (Romania) & Updates on Romanian Jewish Heritage Preservation Projects

Exhibit: Synagogues in Southern Transylvania (Romania) & Updates on Romanian Jewish Heritage Preservation Projects

by Samuel D. Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber reports that on the weekend of Aug. 22-23, the "Proetnica" interethnic festival in Sighisoara, Romania will feature a exhibit of photographs of synagogues in southern Transylvania, taken by Christian Binder. The exhibit will beheld in the synagogue in Sighisoara, at Str. Tache Ionescu 13.

According to the press release, the exhibit "attempts to capture the interesting transitional stage in which Romania now finds itself – with the entrance of outside, foreign investors and NGOs, some synagogues have been or are being restored and turned into cultural centres or finding other alternative uses. Others remain abandoned, often assuming a central location in the town's centre, an evocative, stubborn reminder of recent past – and of today's reluctance to address Romania's troubled relationship with this history. The questions are numerous – what will become of these buildings now that they can be used again? Will their respective towns take responsibility for their upkeep, how can they be integrated into a long-term plan for urban or rural renewal? And how can the countless still decrepit synagogues, many of significant historical and architectural value, be incorporated into a systematic and far-reaching plan for commemorating and celebrating a culture formerly a vibrant part of Romania's multi-cultural existence?"

I have recently reviewed the status of Jewish monuments in a draft report for the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. As the report is further edited, I welcome more news about developments concerning Jewish Heritage sites in Romania, especially updates about on-going projects. I also especially refer readers to the latest edition of Ruth’s Jewish Heritage Travel – still the best guidebook to Jewish sites in Romania (and elsewhere).

From the report, here is information about recent care for synagogues:

“For the most part those Romanian synagogues that survived World War II, have subsequently survived in relatively good condition. Since 1990, however, several synagogues have been sold by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania since the buildings were no longer needed for worship, and they were too costly to maintain. Long years of use during the Ceacescu regime also were years of deferred maintenance. Now many of the synagogue buildings, especially those large structures built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cost tens of thousands of dollars annually to maintain, and millions of dollars to fully restore.

The Government of Romania and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FedRom) developed the “Action Plan for the Protection of the Jewish Heritage,” which was adopted by the Romanian Government. Through this initiative, there will be some government involvement in the protection and restoration of Jewish historic sites, particularly those that have been listed as national historic monuments. Several synagogues fall into this category.

In Cluj, the Moshe Carmilly Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History, a department of Babes-Bolyai University, is housed in the former ‘Shas-Hevrah’ Synagogue. The building, erected in 1922, was in use as a synagogue into the early 1990s. It then closed, was used as a furniture warehouse, and now houses the Institute.

In a few cases in the 1990s, before the adoption of the “Action Plan,” synagogues were purchased and then demolished by the buyers. The synagogue in Reghin was bought and demolished, and in Bucharest, the "Vointa" Temple on Dacia Avenue was also demolished, even though it was a listed national monument.[1]

The most visible projects for synagogue restoration include the initiative of the Jewish Architectural Heritage Foundation, founded by American Adam Wapniak, which has joined with local organizations in Simleu Silvaniei in Transylvania to restore the former synagogue and to create a permanent museum and educational center.[2] The Northern Transylvania Holocaust Memorial Museum, housed in the former synagogue, was opened in July 2006.

In Arad, there a project has been presented by the Jewish Community of Arad and building conservator Matuz Andrei to restore the 1834 synagogue in that city. Other projects have been sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Oradea and Piatra Neamt.

According to FedRom, unused synagogues can be rented or sold under certain conditions, and approximately half the countries synagogue buildings are now in this category. An essential condition of all rental or sale agreements is that the new owner does not use the synagogue for worship by another religion. Icons, crosses or Bibles cannot be sold or manufactured in a Jewish place of cult. This policy sets Romania apart from the situation in other countries where synagogue buildings survived the Holocaust, but Jewish communities did not, and where former synagogues now serve as churches or mosques. According to FedRom, “a synagogue can be demolished, but a Christian church cannot be erected in its place."

"A synagogue is compatible with a furniture warehouse as long as it is not turned into a Christian church or into a brothel", says Aristide Streja, custodian at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest. "First of all, the Christians wouldn't accept it; second of all, the Jews wouldn't agree. Even with furniture inside the synagogue, the religious signs are kept. The Christians would take the place, but they would not keep it the way it is", claims Aristide Streja. Quoted in “Synagogues for Sale: The Romanian Jewish Community has found a new use for the places of prayer,”.

The Jewish Community also enters into contracts where the beneficiary does not pay rent, but is committed to renovate the building. This is the situation in Tarnaveni where the synagogue has been rented to the "Tarnava Mica" Cultural Foundation, and in Timisoara where since 2005 the synagogue has been rented to the Philharmonic Society. The Society has received some funding for the restoration of the building, including an initial grant from the World Monuments Fund to develop the restoration plan.

According to FedRom: “In Oradea, all three synagogues are rented: one serves as a carpentry workshop and the other two - as warehouses. In Bucharest, one synagogue out of six functions as a liquor and bread warehouse for the Jewish community. Some places of cult reach the final solution: they are sold or demolished.”

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