Roumania, Roumania: Jewish Life in Romania

Romania has an early history of Jewish populations, but as with many European countries, the most significant period of upheaval were the years surrounding the World Wars. Jewish migration to Romania had risen leading up to World War I, largely as a result of the Kishinev Pogrom in Imperial Russia. This wave of in-migration brought a stirring of anti-Jewish sentiment which soon merged with the appeal of fascism in the 1920s and gave way to policies such as Jewish quotas in higher education establishments.

In 1940, Romania’s government adopted an equivalent to the Nuremburg Laws, forbidding practises such as intermarriage and sought to define Jews through racial criteria. The rest of the decade saw atrocities against Romanian Jews; starting as looting of shops, homes and synagogues, gradually building up to wide-scale oppression and massacre. According to the Wiesel Commission, of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania was responsible for the deaths of more Jews than any other country other than Germany itself.

Despite this, around 300,000 Romanian Jews are thought to have survived, largely because of mass emigration to Israel, a trend which continued into the 1950s and 1960s. The group often faced opposition from the Romanian government, especially because of Stalinist charges of ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ and rising fears about Zionism. Eventually, however many were granted exit visas in exchange for economic aid from Israel in an attempt to enhance Romania’s economic independence from the Soviet Union.

Eventually the Jewish population of Romania dwindled to around 23,000 by 1987 (compared to 250,000 in 1900). Romanian Jews in Israel, however, continue to hold strong connections to Romanian culture. This is notable through the Association of Israeli Writers of Romanian Language; the Romanian cultural institute in Tel Aviv and various Romanian-language publications. Despite the turmoil Romanian Jews had faced, they have not divorced from the culture they had once adopted in the country.

Roumania Roumania is a popular Klezmer song which really emphasises the Jewish link to Romania. It does not tell a story of growing oppression in the inter-war period, but instead suggests a nostalgia for these golden years. This Yiddish song aimed to pass on memories of the beautiful Carpathian country on to generations of Romanian Jews who would now grow up in Israel, potentially separated from the culture of their parents and grandparents. The song focusses on the delights of food and wine in Romania, ‘a land, sweet and lovely’; it tells a story of enjoyable years for a group that had faced, and were yet to face huge upheavals and unforgettable tragedies.

Tara Sarangi