The History of Romanian Jewry: An Understudied Topic


Photo from Wikimedia Commons

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to many that very few actually know the history of the Jewish communities as they came to evolve in Romania, and the historic lands know to make up Romania today. After all Jassy, once a famous harbour of yiddish culture, was also the place where Imber first took it upon himself to scribble down the lines of the poem “Hatikvah” which make up the words and lyrics of the famous anthem of the state of Israel.

Interestingly, although Romania was initially the home and birthplace of famous Jews such as Ellie Wiesel, Ana Pauker, Tristan Tzara and many others, the Jewish community itself in all of itse complexity rarely receives the attention it deserves outside of the country, especially in North America.


Some claim that the first instances of Jewry in Romania date from the times of the Dacians - the people that inhabited the land before the Romans conquered and colonized them, which led to the creation of what some historians refer to as the Daco-Roman people.


The evidence in this respect albeit lacking, seems to have caused quite a bit of contention amid historians, many which believe Jews had been present prior to the arrival of the Romans, and others believe they did not make an appearance until after the destruction of the Second Temple.


It was not until the 14th century that the first real recorded instances of Jews show up in the documentary and archeological record. The heavy presence of the Sephardim and also Karaite Jews especially in places such as Wallachia and Moldova was something that came up in the letters of Kings, voidoids, and rulers of the Principalities.


Many moved into Transylvania, which then was not part of what is known today as Romania, escaping the persecutions in the Kingdom of Hungary. The same had occurred during the 17th century, particularly with many Ashkenazim fleeing Poland from the north settling in Jassy.


During the 19th century, while the Romanian nation was still not fully formed and was struggling against Ottoman hegemony, Jews still faced a great deal of persecution at the hands of the population but also the state.


It was after all in Jassy where the largest community resided, that served as a harbour of anti semitism especially in the famous university in the city which in fact produced those such as Codreanu who would later lead the Iron Guard - the fascist right wing movement to take over the country in the 1930’s.


At its height in 1919, Romania’s Jewish population reached around 750,000 after the annexation of Transylvania from the Kingdom of Hungary. There are currently around 3000 to 4000 Jews living in Romania today.


Albeit today that largest population of Romanian Jews resides in Israel after the diaspora which took place after the Second World War, and during Ceausescu's regime there is still a small community in places such as Bucharest and Jassy.


It was only recently that the Romanian state opened up an official Holocaust museum, while the community in Bucharest had been in charge of setting up such museums in order to educate the public of what happened under Antonescu’s reign.


It is still important to study the rich history of the Jewish communities of Romania, as they can offer a different understanding of Jewry stuck in an ‘island’ between Eastern Europe and the Balkans.


Milad Doroudian is a graduate student in history at Simon Fraser University.