An extremely beautiful synagogue, today a historical monument, is reminiscent of the vibrant life of the Jewish community living in the Bistrita of yore, in the middle of a multi-ethnic town.
A town founded by ethnic Germans in the 13th century, Bistrita was one of the seven most important citadels of the ethnic Germans living in Romania, who also gave the German name to the region of Transylvania: Siebenburgen. Let’s visit together one of its landmarks: the synagogue
Along the centuries, Bistrita became a welcoming shelter for and home to several ethnic communities, including Romanians, Hungarians and Jews. An extremely beautiful synagogue, today a historical monument, is reminiscent of the vibrant life of the Jewish community living in the Bistrita of yore, in the middle of a multi-ethnic town. Fredi Deac, the President of the Jewish Community in Romania, takes us back in time, on a travel through the history of the Jews in Bistrita, with its good and bad moments, laying emphasis on the moment the foundations of the synagogue were laid.
Fredi Deac: “It was built in 1856, thanks to the financial contribution of the members of our community, the Jews in Bistrita, Ashkenazi Jews, who settled here following the pogrom in Northern Galitia (a historical region divided today between Ukraine and Poland). It is one of the seven synagogues in Romania which are over 100 years old. It has a unique architectural style, which is a blend of Neo-Gothic and Romanic styles. The only restoration works carried out before its refurbishment in 2000, were made in 1937. During the Hungarian occupation of 1940-1944, the Horthy troops kept their horses there. Even more painful for us, during the withdrawal of the Hungarian army, the whole archive of our community was burnt down. That is why there are not many documents left on the Jews who lived in these regions between the late 18th century and 1944.”
In spite of this, other documents have recorded the flourishing history of the Jewish community here, especially in the inter-war period.
Fredi Deac: “When the synagogue was erected, the community in Bistrita had between 1,000 and 1,200 members. We had a strong community, with its own rabbinical school. One of the rabbis who studied in Bistrita is the father of the current chief rabbi of Bucharest. Another prominent figure is Rabbi Spitz, the last rabbi of Bistrita and the only one of the 16 rabbis in the former Nasaud County deported to Birkenau and Auschwitz, who has been saved. The others got killed. Spitz was saved by the former dean of Bistrita, a friend of his, who hid him in a hole dug in a hill near Bistrita. The largest number of Jews living in the area was registered in the inter-war period. In 1944, the Jews were taken out of the town and moved into the ghetto on the Dumitra hill, the former Stamboli farm. At the time, there were some 3,500 Jews in the town. They represented the third largest community in the area, after the Romanian majority and the Germans.”
Unfortunately, the situation of the Jews in Romania worsened after the start of WW II. Many of the 7,000 Jews living across the county were deported and sent to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Only 10% of them returned home at the end of the war. Between 1947 and 1980, most of them emigrated to Israel and the US. The number of those who remained has also decreased, with only 20 Jews living now all across Bistrita-Nasaud County. Furthermore, because there are no longer at least 10 men in the community, the holy scrolls can no longer be opened, for the Jews to read out the Torah, according to the Jewish tradition. That’s why the synagogue has almost completely lost its religious function, and the community leaders had to find a solution for the preservation of the building.
Fredi Deac: “The only problem of the synagogue was its degradation in the post-war years, given that it had been restored only once, in 1937. That is why, in 2000, thanks to the collaboration between an American Jew with roots in the area of Bistrita, some 170,000 US dollars were donated to start restoration works. We also signed a bailment agreement with the “Bistrita Concert Society” Foundation, led by professor and musicologist Gavril Tarmure. We leased the synagogue, for a 40-year period, and agreed to have it turned into a cultural centre. They undertook to carry on the restoration works. Indeed, the restoration was completed in 2007, and in September that year we inaugurated the concert hall with an extraordinary performance of ‘Carmina Burana’.”
Turned into a cultural centre, the synagogue in Bistrita is hosting chamber concerts given by the “New Transylvanian Orchestra” or by the choirs of the high schools in the region.