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.

Târgu Mures

Visiting in November 2010 the Transylvanian city of Târgu Mures (Marosvásárhely, Neumarkt), I could not help admiring its ancient center, which still shows beautiful Art Nouveau elements - in vogue among Hungarian architects of the early 20th century - promoted in the years prior to World War I by its visionary mayor György Bernády.

Part of the important urban transformations that the city suffered, and which were to delete its rural features, is the Great Synagogue, considered by many the most beautiful Jewish temple in Transylvania. Opened in 1900, it was built according to the plans in eclectic style by the Viennese architect Jakob Gärtner (1861-1921). 

In 1944, under the dictatorial regime that ruled Hungary from 1940 until that year in Northern Transylvania, about 7000 Jews from the city - 15% of the population - were concentrated in ghettos and then deported to death in Auschwitz. In all, 150,000 Jews were deported from all over Northern Transylvania. Today, in the current province of Mures, Jews are not more than 200.

In 2003, Romanian local authorities inaugurated, in a central square, a memorial to those victims. The statue, representing an embraced family, was performed by one of the survivors of the tragedy: Martin Izsak.

Mein shtetele Belz

The city of Bălţi (Bielce, Бельцы, Бэлць, Бєльці, בעלץ) appears in documents of the 15th century as an important center of horse trade, it's no wonder that its first crest showed a horse's head. Gradually, the city also became a center for craftsmen - blacksmiths, saddlers, chariot-makers, furriers. The Russian Empire, which in 1812 incorporated the eastern part of Moldavia, which then was known as Bessarabia, increased the administrative autonomy of the town that, once connected to the rail network, became a collect center of grain that was transported to Odessa .

Due to the economic development, many Russians, Ukrainians and Jews joined the local population. The number of immigrants continued to grow, especially after the union of Bessarabia with Romania in 1918, because of the influx of refugees across the river Dniester fleeing the Soviet collectivization, the famine known as Holodomor (1932-33) or the secret police of the Soviet communist party (NKVD).

During the 2nd World War the city was severely destroyed and suffered major deportations. First (1940-41), the Soviets deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia priests and Moldavian civil servants working for the Romanian State and then (1941-44), Romanians and Germans deported Jews - who constituted at least half the local population and that were confined to a ghetto - and citizens suspected of supporting the Soviet system. Soviet deportations were resumed between 1945 and 1954.

During the communist regime, the city became the most important industrial center of northern Moldavia, with an almost entirely transplanted population, comprising Russian, Ukrainian and Moldavian peasants.

Bălţi, who was once wistfully evoked in the famous Yiddish song Mein shtetele Belz, in 1928, is today the "northern capital" of the Republic of Moldova, the second most important city in the country and boasting a population of nearly 150 000 people , of which about 400 make up the local Jewish community, currently led by Mr. Lev Bonder.

Photo: Jaime Serebrenic (São Paulo) in front of the only remaining synagogue in Bălţi, May 2010.

Warsaw ghetto

My wanderings in the Polish capital at the beginning of July 2010 ended up taking me to the former ghetto area. In a large square near Zamenhof street, surrounded by communist blocks erected on the rubble piles of the old Jewish houses, we can see the colossal monument dedicated to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, designed by the sculptor Nathan Rappaport and inaugurated in the 1980s by the communist authorities.
In the spring of 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was brutally suppressed by the Nazi army, who slaughtered more than 13,000 Jews during the successful operation of annihilation of that part of the town. Most of the 50,000 remaining Jews were captured and shipped to the unimaginable extermination camp of Treblinka.

Some say that, ironically, the material used by the sculptor has previously been commissioned by the Nazis in order to build a monument to the expected German victory.
A few meters from the tragic memorial, behind fences, we can see the ongoing construction of the ambitious Museum of the History of Polish Jews, due to open its doors in 2012.
In the square that houses
Rappaport's colossus, dotted by small black marble monuments around adjacent streets and celebrating, in Polish and Hebrew, different personalities, places and moments of this macabre story, older people sat quietly on benches under the weekend sunshine, while residents of the neighborhood  walked their dogs over the buried rubble, amidst ghosts whose piercing screams guided my steps.

Save the Jewish food

In a weekend of July 2010, I had the pleasure to guide through Bucharest and surroundings the Canadian journalist David Sax (author of Save the Deli, left) and the US photographer Landon Nordeman (right), who came to record Jewish Romania's gastronomic heritage.

Besides having visited Jewish sites in the Romanian capital, we went to restaurants and popular markets, seeking traditional culinary phenomena which gave birth to alimentary habits deeply rooted within Jewish emigrants communities in the Americas.

The main character of this gastronomic travel was the pastrami, a Romanian dish brought by Romanian Jews to the other shore of the Atlantic and transformed into a delicatessen that can be tasted in famous restaurants in New York.

The highest moment was the Romanian Jewish meal we have organized for our guests at Fernando's Hideaway in Fierbinti, 40km from Bucharest. Cooking was signed by Silvia Weiss, who offers catering services known as Silvita's Kitchen.

In the issue # 134 (December 2010) of the magazine Saveur it was published the article signed by David Sax, with photos by Landon Nordeman, under the title Roots of Deli - in which the author seeks in Budapest and Bucharest the authentic origins of today's Jewish food.


My family has no roots in Poland, but that is irrelevant when you touch the ground of Warsaw. I feel beneath the feet as the land is buzzing, echoing all those steps and tumbles of those who were victims and instruments of the horror of war.

For a moment I ask myself why I should remember this past which is not mine and has no direct connection to myself, whether it would not be better to focus energy towards a future in which such monstrosities should not happen anymore, but the question crumbles and I walk further, stunned by the former ghetto area [whose boundaries are marked today on the sidewalk, as the picture shows], not understanding what I seek, sure that I will never be able to understand the depth of suffering and the scale of carnage that the monuments evoke.

One of these monuments marks the place of Umschlagplatz where, especially during the summer of 1942, the Nazis gathered about 300,000 Polish Jews to be deported by train directly to the death chambers of Treblinka.

Erected in 1988, the marble monument, which suggests a rectangular wagon, has a long wall on which are inscribed various Jewish surnames from A to Z. In it, a slit large enough to attract attention, but narrow enough not to allow the passage of anyone. I watched through it with a fearful prudence of someone who watches the hell, and what you see is a large tree planted exactly in its direction - unexpected refreshment for a difficult hope.

25 December 2010

Warsaw ghosts

Walking in Warsaw is a strange exercise. I can only imagine to be walking over rubble, recalling the destruction wrought by the German army in 1944 after choking the Warsaw Uprising. At the behest of Hitler, the ruthless Verbrennungs-und Vernichtungskommando reduced almost the whole city to ruins.

Today, the picturesque old town of Warsaw is a formidable reconstruction made by the Polish Communist government in the 50s of the last century, mainly based on paintings by the Venetian Bernardo Bellotto, Polish court painter since 1764, who drew it rather for the sake of aesthetics than urban fidelity.

  Even if I wanted to dodge the ghosts of the city, they challenge me at every corner with a monument or a plaque, which leads the visitor to the recent and cruel past of World War II: the German invasion, the 1940 boundaries of the ghetto, the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the subsequent destruction brought by the Nazi and the Soviet invasion.

The city, however, floats at the lush sound of Chopin, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year as if nothing of that had happened. The silent granite and bronze monuments record the torturing memory of the past. The whole city, with all its circulating life, is a compelling symbol of the will of the Polish people. But walking through its streets and bypassing long lines to buy ice cream, I alternate between praising such a pride and collapsing in tears, because I know that I move in the space of a former slaughterhouse.

Warsaw: Jewish cemetery

In early July 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the Jewish cemetery at the Okopowa street in Warsaw. According to information available in the cemetery itself, it was at the end of the 14th century that Jews began coming to town. Not allowed to live there between 1527 and 1795, they began in mid-eighteenth century to settle in large numbers on the outskirts of Warsaw. The local Jewish community established their own cemetery in 1806. Until 1939, 150 000 burials had been performed in this cemetery, covering an area of 33.4 hectares.
In line with the torturous history of that city, the cemetery has, in addition to numerous monuments dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, a huge mass grave with those who perished in the Warsaw ghetto and an area full of symbolic tombs erected by relatives of Holocaust victims who have never been localized.

One of the most famous personalities buried there is Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof (1859-1917) - his tomb was the first to draw my attention with its impressive mosaic representing the green star, symbol of Esperanto. The cemetery still serves the small Jewish community.

Saint Petersburg

In late June 2010 I had the opportunity to visit the synagogue in St. Petersburg, built in Moorish and neo-Byzantine style between 1880 and 1888, after special a permit issued by the Tsar Alexander II, the first to allow Jews to settle in the city officially. Under renovation since 2000 thanks to a donation of $ 5 million by the Safra family, it was reopened five years ago to the public under the name of Great Coral Synagogue Edmond J. Safra.

I had the opportunity also to visit, at the cemetery Tikhvin, next to the Monastery of Alexander Nevski, the tomb of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) - pianist, composer, conductor and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In the excellent company of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Glinka, Borodin and Balakirev, I found his tomb covered with pebbles left by visitors who know of his Jewish origin.

Rubinstein was born in a village in the Russian province of Podolia, now part of Transnistria, the breakaway republic from Republic of Moldova. Before he was 5 years old, his grandfather ordered all family members to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Raised in a family that spoke Yiddish, German and Russian, Anton wrote later in his diary:
Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.

24 December 2010

Serebrenic & Bitelman

At the end of May 2010, I guided the couple Tatiana and Jaime Serebrenic (São Paulo) in a journey to their Bessarabian roots. After visiting Bucharest and southern Bukovina, with its impressive monasteries - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - we crossed the Romanian border near Iasi towards Chisinau. 
In the capital of the Republic of Moldova, besides being able to visit with her husband a Chabad synagogue and old buildings belonging in the past to the large Jewish community, Tatiana could find, in the local Jewish cemetery, the graves of several relatives, especially the uncle of his father, Michel Bitelman (photo).

Then we drove to northern Bessarabia, visiting Orhei, Balti, Edinet and Briceni. Jaime's father left Edinet in 1930 towards Brazil; visiting the city of his origins was an old dream that, as the photo shows, has come true.