In 1876, the playwright Avram Goldfaden founded the first Yiddish-language Jewish theater in the world in Iasi, and in 1878 the lyrics of the Israeli anthem were composed in Iasi. In the 1930’s there were over 100 Jewish houses of worship, and over a third of the population was of Jewish origin. Against the background of anti-Semitism promoted as a state policy, the Pogrom of Iași on June 28-30, 1941 led to a real massacre, and the war and the communist regime made most of the built heritage disappear. Today’s traveler can delve into the old images of shopping streets, places steeped in history, the two surviving synagogues, or the ritual restaurant with kosher food.
There are many places in Iași which carry the stories of the Jewish people. Amongst them, the Merarilor Synagogue was reinaugurated in 2015. It has an imposing shape, and the exterior has some stylized Doric pillars. During the communist period it escaped the demolition, but it was used as a storehouse, being masked by a row of white cedar trees, in order not to be seen from the street.
The Grand Synagogue is the oldest preserved synagogue in Romania. The architecture has eclectic influences and shows a contrast between the Baroque interior and the sober exterior. The building is remarkable through the size of the dome (10m in diameter), built in 1914 on the eastern side, with the Star of David on top. In 1976, in the park in front of the Grand Synagogue, an obelisk commemorating the victims of the Pogrom was placed, and in 2015, the square received the name of “The Romanian-Israeli Friendship Square”.
You can also visit the Jewish Community Centre that is very much active. Since 2002, the Center hosts a club which coordinates the Ritual restaurant, with kosher foods, according to the kashrut norms, the choir and a traditional music band. It is actively involved in the cultural life of the city, it organizes shows, conferences, commemorations and film watching. Today, the Jewish community of Iași consists of only 300 people, most of them coming from mixt families.
The Alexandru Lăpușneanu Street, the Cuza Vodă Street and the Târgu Cucului Neighbourhood were all areas in which Hewish life and culture thrived. Read more about the places and stories in the list below, but don’t miss visiting The Braunstein Palace, an architectural marvel in the heart of Iași. The imposing building with a dome in the Union Square was built by the Jewish entrepreneur Adolf Braunstein in 1914, on the place of his former shops on the beginning of Cuza Vodă Street. The legend says that he wanted to own a more grand building than the Cuza Palace, today the Museum of Union. The building was initially a luxury hotel, afterwards a bank and then it hosted various shops.
A few steps away from the Braunstein Palace you will find the former Police Station (quaestorship) where the most tragic event took place in June of 1941. The military authorities acted violently against the Jewish population. Thousands of people, mostly men, were imprisoned and executed afterwards in the building’s yard or tortured in the cellar, the action taking place under the pretext of eliminating the Jews, presumed to be Soviet agents. The survivors were forced to clean the blood from the Police Station’s courtyard. Along with six locals who received the title “Righteous among Nations”, other tens of inhabitants opposed the violent actions against the Jews or helped the in any way possible, some of them being beaten or even killed, such as the priest Grigore Răzmeriță from St. Ilie Church from across the street (demolished in 1953).
You can end your tour at the Iași North Railway Station, an impressive building inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The station also saw the horror scenes of the June 1941 pogrom. Brought here in a row from the Chestura to the Yellow Rape, over 4,400 Jews were crammed into freight cars. The unbearable heat and the blocking of the windows and doors led to the suffocation of many people. The first train took six days to Călărași, the second, eight hours to Podu Iloaiei. Trains were stopped at various stations to remove the dead from the carriages. More than 2,700 Jews were tortured to death in “death trains” and their bodies were dumped in mass graves.