Sunday, September 7, 2008

Romania: Discussions Begin to Save Synagogue in Gherla

Romania: Discussions Begin to Save Synagogue in Gherla
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The almost century-old synagogue in Gherla (built 1911?), Romania is empty and at great risk. Discussions have begun, however, between descendants of Jews from Gherla, local authorities, and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FedRom) to preserve the synagogue, possibly as a town library. As there is only one Jew left in Gherla, some new use needs to found for the building if it is to escape eventual collapse or demolition. The nearest active Jewish community is in Dej.

According to Washington, DC, resident Mike Klein, there is a loosely organized group of about 40 families that originated from Gherla who now live in Israel, USA, Canada and Australia and are coordinating an effort to save the building. The best hope for the former synagogue is that it be transformed into a municipal library. Gherla needs a local library and the impressive synagogue, if properly modified, could provide adequate space, as well as meeting, conference and exhibition space. At the urging of Mr. Klein and his group, municipal authorities have begun discussion with FedRom, which owns the building. The two sides seem to agree in principal about a transfer of the building based on a formula previously employed by FedRom for other redundant but architectural distinctive synagogues.

As in all such cases, initial success will depend money. Neither the municipality nor FedRom claim to have the minimum of $US 200,000 needed to conserve and adapt the building. Until a plan for preservation and adaptive reuse is prepared, the exact work needed (and costs) will be unknown. As I recently wrote, there have been some other projects in Romania where synagogues have been put to different use where synagogues have been put to different use. If you would like to learn more about this project, or to assist in conception and funding, please contact ISJM (

Any adaptive reuse at Gherla should also include a memorial to the Holocaust victims from the city. 1,600 people were sent to Auschwitz from the Gherla ghetto and most did not return. In the words of Mr. Klein, “All four of my grandparents, many aunts, uncles and cousins were sent to the gas chambers from here. I think that we have a duty to preserve the place where they prayed. When I visited the city with my sons they were very impressed to see the synagogue where both myself and my father had our Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies. I hope that I will be able to take my grand-children and they can take their grand children to our place of origin.”

Gherla itself is an interesting place. It appears to be the first city in Romania built based on an orthogonal grid-plan when Gherla was rebuilt by Armenians allowed to settle there in the 17th century. Jews were given rights to settle in the early part of the 19th century. By the early 20th century when the present building was erected, Jews represented about 12-15% of the city population. The street where the synagogue is located is part of a historical heritage district, but according to Mr. Klein the synagogue itself has not been designated a historic site.

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