30 July 2012

Saving art

The port city of Burgas, the ancient Greek town of Pyrgos, where it was perpetrated, on the 18th of July, a bloody terrorist attack aimed at Israeli tourists, was an important and cosmopolitan commercial center a century ago, which brought together Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians and Gypsies, and which also had a significant Jewish community.

Witness of the presence of Jews in Burgas is an imposing synagogue in downtown, built in 1909 by Italian architect Ricardo Toscani.

Unlike the fate of other synagogues in Bulgarian territory, which turned into ruins, Burgas was fortunate enough to host, in 1966, an art gallery. This unusual fact, that has been ensuring its proper maintenance until today, was naturally favored by the massive emigration of Bulgarian Jewry to Palestine soon after the end of World War II.

On July 7, when visiting the city during the Balkan summer heat, I hesitated to enter the gallery. I crossed the threshold and went to the cashier, decorated with cards that reproduced works of Christian Orthodox art belonging to the collection, in order to buy the entrance ticket. Dominated by a strange sensation, a kind of stupid nausea, I gave up and decided to leave the building, not before looking at the ground floor lounge, where a grand piano was waiting for a concert, and the winding stairs that gave access to the floor above.

It was as if I had been stricken with shame in front of all those who, in the past, attended the synagogue as a synagogue, and now I would tarnish their memory. However, shouldn't I rejoice over the fact that the building has been preserved? But something prevented me from entering there.

28 June 2011

Brick phantoms

In early March 2011 I returned to Czernowitz. The Cyrillic alphabet, the marks of the Soviet Union in everyday life, visible in cars and intercoms, the concerns of the people regarding their harsh daily life - all of this contrasts with the architecture of the city center - Austrian and Romanian heritage - as if that setting had absolutely nothing to do with the theater play that is now being represented.

Except the Romanian minority, which deplores even today, but silently, the loss of northern Bukovina and its capital Czernowitz to the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine at the end of World War II, the rest of the population seems unaware - and why should it be otherwise? - of inhabiting places that once shaped perhaps the most cosmopolitan city within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its unique cultural effervescence.

I saw the Great Synagogue [picture above], built in the first half of the 19th century in a typical Galitian style, in the center of the old Jewish quarter, on Henry Barbusse street, now hosting a shop of doors and windows and other small businesses inside the backyard, such as a trade in crosses for cemeteries. The current owner seems to be treating well his property, even keeping a Hebrew inscription found above the main entrance. Since 1865, when the Jewish quarter was destroyed by fire, the synagogue has generated many legends about its miraculous power to come out unscathed amid the flames.

Behind it lie the ruins of a Jewish hospital [photo] built in the 1930s thanks to the donation of the famous German-Jewish tenor Joseph Schmidt, born in Bukovina in 1904.

18 March 2011

Mayn shtetele Soroke

Soroca (Сороки in Russian, Сороки in Ukrainian, Soroki in Polish, םאָראָקע in Yiddish) is the district capital and namesake port on the Dniester River in present-day Republic of Moldova. The first documentary reference to the town dates from 1499. It was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities of Moldavia. The most ancient Jewish tombs are from the 16th century. The main synagogue was built in 1775. In 1772, a dozen Jewish families (of a total of 170 families) lived in Soroca, which belonged to the Principality of Moldavia till 1812.

Situated in one of the most fertile areas of the world, Soroca - which from 1812 belongs to Russia as part of Bessarabia - became a center of rapid growth of Jewish settlements since the creation of the first Jewish agricultural colonies in 1836. In 1817, 157 Jewish families lived in Soroca, in 1847 there were 343; in 1864 they were 4135 and, in 1897, 8783 (representing 57% of the population). In 1861, already considered a major center of Jewish farming in Russia, Soroca and its peripheral agricultural settlements produced tobacco, grapes and various fruits.

In 1900, at the point of utmost prosperity of Jewish life in Soroca, the city had 17 synagogues [in the picture, the Tailors' Synagogue ca. 1920]. Emigration, however, mainly to the United States and Argentina, began with the adoption of restrictive laws in May 1882 by the Tsar Alexander III and the resulting economic hardship. With the end of II WW, Soroca and all of Bessarabia will make part of Romania. In 1930, the city had 5,462 Jews (36% of the population).

When German forces entered Romania and Soroca in July 1941, the systematic annihilation of the Jews began. A concentration camp was established in the vicinity, in Vertujeni, where 26,000 Jews were arrested. From September until late December 1941, the survivors were deported on foot to camps in Transnistria. Many were killed or died from hunger and exhaustion during the journey. Few survived the war.

It is estimated that, after the war, perhaps there were 1000 Jews in Soroca. About 200 Jews lived there in 2004.

In the 1990s, Arkady Gendler, a native of Soroca, wrote the song Mayn shtetele Soroke.

Source: Soroca article, written by Wolf Moskovich, published in YIVO.

18 January 2011

Old Russia in color

The Boston Globe invites you to look back in time with this extraordinary collection of color photographs taken between 1909 and 1912 in Russia. In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images. The high quality of the images, combined with the bright colors, make it difficult for viewers to believe that they are looking 100 years back in time. Look at the photo collection here, made available by the Library of Congress, which purchased the original glass plates back in 1948. There are also some images connected to local Jewish heritage.

14 January 2011

Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews

Print shows an aged man labeled Russian Jew carrying a large bundle labeled Oppression on his back; hanging from the bundle are weights labeled Autocracy, Robbery, Cruelty, Assassination, Deception, and Murder.

In the background, on the right, a Jewish community burns, and in the upper left corner, Theodore Roosevelt speaks to the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II, "Now that you have peace without, why not remove his burden and have peace within your borders?"

Ca. 1904. Source: Library of Congress

10 January 2011


In June 2009, US President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Mark Gitenstein as the U.S. ambassador to Romania.

I am really flattered to be asked by President Obama to take on this assignment, Gitenstein said. It’s not only an important national security assignment to undertake, as Romania is an important ally to the U.S., but also if I am confirmed, I will be in a sense returning to the home of my forefathers.

Gitenstein explained that his paternal grandfather, Israel Gitenstein or “Mr. G” as he was known to Florala residents, emigrated to the U.S. from today's Moldova Republic, which was at one time part of Romania, also known as Bessarabia. His grandmother’s parents were from Romania, making him the first U.S. Ambassador to Romania with Romanian heritage.

In September, 2009, he presented his credentials to Romanian President Traian Basescu.

Source: Andalusia Starnews and US Embassy in Bucharest

31 December 2010

Komor & Dezsö

The most pleasant discovery of Târgu Mures is what I dare to call the Magyar version of the Palau de la Música Catalana (1908): it is the Palace of Culture (Palatul Culturii, Kultúrpalota), built between 1911 and 1913 - ordered by the mayor Bernády György (1864-1938), who has marked the history of the city with his entrepreneurship.

The fabulous palace was designed by two of the greatest Hungarian architects of that time: Marcell Komor (1868-1944) and Jakab Dezső (1864-1932), disciples of the so-called Hungarian Gaudí, the renowned architect Ödön Lechner (1845-1914), one of the first representatives of the Szecesszió, which, although clearly linked to Art Nouveau and Jugendstil in vogue throughout Europe, allowed the inclusion of local Hungarian folk elements.
Another interesting discovery was that both architects - who also conceived, at the behest of Bernády, the not least fantastic Town Hall of Targu Mures (1907), besides having signed several projects of homes, synagogues and public buildings built in Budapest, Vienna, Oradea, Timisoara, Bratislava, Szeged and Суботица - were born within Hungarian Jewish families. Marcell Komor, son of Rabbi Salamon Kohn (1828-1886), was a victim of the Holocaust.