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Returning to my Romanian roots

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It all started with a Marshall Memorial Fellowship dinner in Phoenix last October, an event that always inspires me. But this year proved to be especially auspicious.

Phoenix has historically been a host city for the German Marshall Fund’s leadership development program that selects up-and-coming European and U.S. leaders for six months of study, followed by a 24-day transatlantic policy immersion trip. The fellows are typically intelligent, engaging, and eager to learn as much as possible about our institutions and culture.

“And what do you do?” I asked the fellow seated to my left.

My dinner companion, Ovidiu Portariuc, affably replied, “I am the mayor of a city in Romania called Botosani.” Something familiar clicked in the recesses of my brain, confirmed by a quick call to my 84-year-old mother: Botosani was the city where my grandmother and the rest of her family lived before they emigrated to New York City in the early 1900s. Ovidiu and I talked about the small Jewish community that still lives there and ended our conversation with the vague promise that I’d love to visit “someday.” He, in turn, promised a warm welcome.

“Someday” turned out to be less than a year later, when we decided to include Romania in our Eastern European travels in August. Like so many American Jews, I had a rather tenuous connection to my ancestry, not going back much further than when my grandmother, her parents, sister and brothers arrived on the Lower East Side to confirm whether, indeed, America’s streets were paved in gold.

Accompanied by my husband, Mike, and our 24-year-old daughter, Simone, we arrived in Bucharest, capital of Romania, a place best described as “in transition.” There were beautiful buildings, like the Stavropoleos Church, verdant spaces such as Herastrau Park, as well as questionable public art, and intriguing and often unpleasant historical reminders, such as the statue of Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Count Dracula) – a title well-earned based on the untimely deaths of his dissidents.

Several days later, we were on an eight-hour train ride to Botosani. We passed through an endless yellow haze of sunflower fields to get to the northeast reaches of Romania in Moldavia, not far from the Ukraine. Although we had told Ovidiu we were coming, we were not sure how much time we would have to spend with him given his political obligations. He was no longer the mayor, but was under consideration for a seat in Parliament.

 Our sole request was that he connect us with someone in the Jewish community there. We were on the lookout for members of the Smilovici (my grandmother’s maiden name) and Goldenberg (my great-grandmother’s maiden name) families.

Once we arrived in Botosani, we checked into the lovely, four-star Hotel Maria (approximately $100 for three nights!) and visited the nearby Parcul Mihai Eminescu, a lively park that had everything from children rolling around in large plastic balls – that was a new one for us – to older men engrossed in a long-standing game of chess. There were young children sprinting everywhere, giving us the distinct impression that this was a great place to raise a family.

The next morning Ovidiu, who was able to postpone his meetings, arrived at our hotel for what turned out to a day-long immersion in Jewish Botosani. As luck would have it, the president of the Jewish Community of Botosani, David Iosef, was available and met us at the entrance of the small, unassuming synagogue, known as the Great Synagogue (Oiche Shul). We were also joined by Gustavo Frankel, a man who looked like he had just stepped out of one of Sholom Aleichem’s novels. He had extensive knowledge of Botosani’s Jewish community, spending his free hours researching genealogy in the city’s archives and generously offered to help us in our quest.

The first thing we saw as we walked into the synagogue was a marble plaque written all in Hebrew except for two distinguishable names: Lupo Smilovici and Hers Leib Smilovici. Because we have such limited documentation, it was impossible to know if they was any connection to our family. But I chose to see it as a sign – a warm welcome from the past.

While the outside of the synagogue, which dates back to 1834, was modest, the inside was simply breathtaking: elaborate chandeliers, intricately painted ceilings and walls, with scenes of Jerusalem and representations of the Tribes of Israel and, at the front, an ornately carved, gold-accented, Aron haKodesh.

David proceeded to tell us a little about the history of the Botosani Jews in Romanian, with Ovidiu translating for us into English. Today there are only 70 Jews left in the city, all of advanced age. But they are a proud and determined group, taking care of each other, keeping up the remaining Jewish institutions, and maintaining strong relations with the city government as evidenced by the support the city has shown the community and the good relationship between David and our guide, the former mayor.

It is a sobering realization considering that according to the Jewish Yearbook, (London, 1902-03) the Jewish population, which was 25,000 in 1901-02, was 72 percent of the city’s total count. That was reportedly the highest percentage of any large city in the world. At that time, there were more than 70 synagogues.

What was extraordinary to me in David’s recount was that the Jews fared relatively well during the Holocaust, even compared to neighboring Romanian cities. According to him, it was “business as usual” for them, maintaining their jobs, continuing their education, and dealing with little or no anti-Semitism per se. It wasn’t until the Russians took over that conditions became so bad that large groups of Botosani Jews fled to Israel and the United States.

Marcel Raul Goldenberg, who was the youngest member of the Botosani Jewish community until he recently moved for a job in Bucharest (and may or may not be a relative), tells a story that has circulated in the Jewish community over the years. Apparently, when the Russians came to “liberate” Botosani , all the Romanians, fearing reprisals, fled with the Germans. When the head of the Russian army asked, “Who’s in charge here?” the Jewish community representative stepped forward. For a very brief time, Botosani was known as the “Soviet Jewish Republic of Romania.”

David sincerely thanked us for coming, noting while they do get tourists from time to time, most of them only stay for a few minutes eager to move on to their next stop. He was clearly touched that we spent more than an hour learning about the community.

After saying Kaddish in the synagogue, our next stop was the Jewish cemetery. While the cemetery was not in great shape, it has fared considerably better than the older Jewish cemetery which was not accessible and could barely be located in an overgrown field. Since the deaths of those buried in the “Cimitirul Israelit” took place post-World War II, it is doubtful that any members of my immediate family were here.

It didn’t matter. I spent several hours wandering among the graves, placing rocks on the headstones and paying homage to the Smilovicis and Goldenbergs in their final resting place. Since there was little upkeep, the cemetery was overrun with weeds and debris, which saddened me. My predominant thought: if I was still a youth group adviser and, of course, happened to live in Botosani, tending to this cemetery would be our community service project.

Our last stop was the “Centrul Cultural Intercomunitar,” or the Community Center. While it was a meeting space for the entire community, there were Jewish stars and photos of the Jewish past throughout. It struck me as very fitting considering the Jews were always part of the fabric of Botosani’s day-to-day life. And I was saddened to realize that once these 70 Jews passed on, the beautiful synagogue – assuming it is maintained – and other Jewish institutions will just be one more tourist stop rather than a vibrant hub of Jewish life.

As for me, I am now forever connected to this beautiful little city. As Simone, our daughter, explained, “I loved having the opportunity to explore my family’s roots and feel more connected to my ancestors.” Multumesc (thank you), Botosani!

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