A walk through Jewish history
Photo by muzeulliteraturiiiasi.ro

A walk through Jewish history

The Jewish community in Iasi developed massively after 1830, when waves of immigrants began to arrive in Iasi from the north. Their presence has fostered a significant boom in trade and culture.

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.

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Photo by Cezar Suceveanu

The Iași Train Station was built in 1870 in a swampy area in the Bahlui River plain. The Venetian–Gothic aspect, with the sculpted loggia on the first floor, is inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Initially it was painted in pink, with the red loggia, thus coming into chromatic contrast with the front park and the green hills of Galata.

In December 1869, the first Moldavian section of the Romanian railways was inaugurated. Ițcani (Suceava North) – Roman was linked to the Vienna – Krakow – Lvov – Chernivtsi – Ițcani section. The extension from Pașcani to Iași was completed in May 1870. For two years Iași didn’t have a direct connection to the capital, Bucharest, due to faulty works on the Roman – Bucharest section. It is said that the link between Iași and Bucharest, on the railway, was made at first through Vienna and Budapest. From there, the people of Iași went on the Danube by boat, to Giurgiu, then continued the journey on the Giurgiu – Bucharest railway (finished in October 1869). This journey lasted for two days and two nights and was more comfortable than the five days trip by horse-drawn carriage. The direct railway route to Bucharest was opened in 1872.

In 1877, after the construction of the railway bridge over the Prut River by Gustave Eiffel’s company, the imperial Russian train arrived in Iași, with the tsar Alexander II, along with many ministers, generals and aristocrats. It was the start of the anti–Ottoman war (called the “Russian–Turkish War”), in which Romania also took part, and after which our country proclaimed its independence.

During the First World War, when Iași became Romania’s War-time Capital, the train station was the main access gate to the city for the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving from the southern part of the country, along with the royal family, the government and all the state institutions. During the Second World War, dozens of trains with refugees from Bessarabia arrived in the Iași train station, and other dozens were leaving with soldiers going to the eastern front.

The train station also witnessed the horror scenes of the June 1941 Pogrom. Brought here in line from the police Station, through the Yellow Ravine, over 4400 Jews were packed into freight wagons, without water or air. The unbearable heat and the blocking of the windows and doors led to the asphyxiation of many people. The first train took six days to reach Călărași, the second one, eight hours to Podu Iloaiei. The trains were stopped in various stations to get rid of the dead people from the wagons. Over 2700 Jews died in agony in the “death trains”, the corpses being dumped in common graves.

Damaged during the Second World War, the train station was rebuilt in 1945, a clock tower of Soviet inspiration being added. Since 1988 rehabilitation works, led by architect N. Munteanu, took place. In 2000 the main building was brought back to its initial shape, but on the side parts, two modern bodies covered in glass appeared.

The movie “Gruber’s Voyage”

The movie “Gruber’s Voyage”, by Romanian director Radu Gabrea, was launched in 2009. The action takes place in 1941 in Iași, when the armies of Germany and Romania began the attack against the Soviet Union. The main character is the Italian war correspondent Curzio Malaparte, interpreted by Florin Piersic Jr. He comes to Iași to be closer to the front, but gets an annoying allergy. The journalist starts looking for Josef Gruber, a famous Jewish allergologist in Iași. By gathering information from the authorities, he discovers the horrors of the Pogrom and ends up looking for the doctor in the death trains or in the common burial sites. Other roles are played by the actors Claudiu Bleonț, Răzvan Vasilescu and Marcel Iureș, and a big part of the scenes are filmed in the old center of Iași.

700090, Piața Gării 2, Iași 700259
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The street got its name from Voivode Alexandru Lăpușneanu, the one who moved Moldavia’s capital form Suceava to Iași in 1564.

Until 1873, it was called “The Serbian Street”, when it became an alley of summer gardens, of romantic walks and of tradesmen, also being known as “the happiness street” among the locals. The crowdedness was due to the presence of pastry-cook’s shops (such as Swiss Tuffli), antiques and elegant shops, with quality products, most often brought from Lvov (Lemberg) or Leipzig (Lipsca). The fame of the area determined jewelers, tailors with luxury shops, brewers (Bragadiru) or perfumers to come and sell their products in “downtown”. Among the most expressive buildings of the street, was the one of the Walter family, built at the end of Lăpușneanu Street, on what is nowadays the Eminescu Square. The workshop of the French tailor Carol Walter was located on the first floor of the building, the ground floor being the mirror decorated bookshop of Haifler, a Jewish bookkeeper, who bound books for free. Later on, the place hosted the “Moldova” bookstore of Mina Ornștein, a Jewish woman who was selling drawing, writing and studying instruments, the main attractions being the typing machines. Nearby, the photo shops of Zaharia Weiss, Solo Rosenthal, Hartwig Chaland, L. Flachner have immortalized great personalities, along with the famous Hungarian photographer Nestor Heck who took Mihai Eminescu’s most famous picture. Towards 1860 the wine storehouse of David Bercu Finkelstein was very popular, being called “Papa Berl“ amongst friends, where the rooms smelled of muscadine and basil. On the ground floor of the Istrati House (today, the UAPR Art Galleries) a famous fashion shop of the Zilberstein sisters was open in the ‘30s. The Weinstein shop brought to Iași the famous music boxes and gramophones which delighted the locals. Between 1933 and 1939, across the street from the Corso garden, Cinema Roxi was opened by Moritz Marcovici. From the famous Jewish painter Jean Ackerman, who owned a famous antique shop in the 1940s, the tradition is passed on nowadays to Dumitru Grumăzescu, the most famous antiquarian of Iași. He knows the secrets of a city where Jews used to live and sends his guests into the romantic mood of the past.

Romanians who saved Jews

During the Pogrom, six locals have risked everything they had to save their Jewish friends, neighbors or colleagues. For their actions, the Yad Vashem institute in Israel offered them the title “Righteous among the Nations”.

Dr. Dumitru Beceanu – pharmacist, hid 20 people in the attic, while the army had occupied one of his rooms. Dr. Beceanu helped the Jewish hospital with food, money and medicine.

Elisabeta Nicopoi-Ștrul – textile worker, sheltered over 20 Jews in a storehouse. She was arrested and beaten while she was taking clothes and food to the Jews sent to forced labor.

Nora Pântea – jurist, hid six persons in her room. She stopped the patrols from entering her house, saying that the place had already been verified.

Grigore Profir – engineer, chief of Dacia mill. Hearing about the arresting and killing of Jews, he asked for more Jews at the mill. Beaten and threatened for protesting against their imprisonment, Profir still managed to save over 100 persons.

Constantin Simionescu – dean of the Iași Bar, refused firing Jewish lawyers. He rented an apartment in Iași and then in Bucharest for ten expelled Jews.

Mircea Petru G. Sion – lawyer, became a legal counsellor for the Jewish community in 1941, reducing or annulling anti-Semite sentences. He hid 18 Jews and freed more elders and ill people from forced labor.

On the route from the Train Station to the Yellow Ravine, two crossroads received the names “Righteous among Nations” Square and “Jewish Martyrs of the June 1941 Pogrom” Square.

Strada Alexandru Lăpușneanu, Iași
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Photo by iasi.travel

The first Jewish theatre in the world was founded in Iași, in the summer of 1876.

The national poet Mihai Eminescu, back then a journalist at the “Jassy Courier”, attended, on the 19th of August, four plays in Yiddish of which he wrote that they weren’t of much dramatic interest, but the actors’ play was excellent. This review represents the birth certificate of the first professional Yiddish theatre in the world.

The founder of this theatre is Avram (Abraham) Goldfaden, poet, writer and playwright from Ukraine, who arrived in Iași to start a gazette. The legend says that the wife of a friend told him that there was already an Yiddish gazette in Bucharest, whose editor “starves” due to very little success. She also gave him the idea to establish an authentic Yiddish theatre, based on his own writings. Initially, Avram Goldfaden presented his poems in a summer garden, where comedians and interpreters used to come. Israel Grodner from Lithuania, who sang lyrics written by Goldfaden, met with the poet and became afterwards the first actor of the Yiddish Theatre of Iași. Sokher Goldstein was next, the three playing eight roles in total. The band moved in October 1876 in the new “Green Tree” Garden, across the street from the current National Theatre.

At the end of autumn, Goldfaden tried to rent a place, in order to also play theatre inside. The successive denials made them go on tour to Botoșani, Galați, Brăila, and then to Bucharest, where they settled for two years. Although he didn’t manage to persuade the actors to remain after they became famous, Goldfaden’s band worked as a nursery for the worldwide stage of the Yiddish theatre. In 1878, Joseph Lateiner, born in Iași, became the new playwright of the “Green Tree” theatre, but he also emigrated to the USA, where, in 1902, be founded “The Grand Theatre” New York, the first construction especially built as a Yiddish theatre. Goldfaden went on tours in Eastern Europe, Paris and New York, returning to Iași in 1895. After a few years he immigrated to America, where he also composed plays in Hebrew, along with those written in Yiddish, thus becoming the father of the Hebrew theatre as well. In 1908, The New York Times wrote that over 75.000 people took part at the funerary ceremonies of the “Shakespeare of the Jews”.

The “Green Tree” Garden was destroyed by a fire, rebuilt in 1911 by the director of a new Jewish theatre band and was then closed during the Second World War. Afterwards it worked sporadically, along with two other Jewish theatres in the city. In 1956, it received the name of Avram Goldfaden, but in 1971 the city decided the demolition of the entire area, in order to create the National Theatre Park. In the memory of this cultural initiative which began in Iași, on the place of the former summer garden, a monument was placed. Also, on the right side of the National Theatre, the bust of the great Avram Goldfaden was placed.

Jewish actors with connections to Iași

Molly Picon (1898-1992), an American theatre actress, played in Yiddish in Iași in the plays “Hapsasa” and “A moyd mit sekhel” (1922) and took her picture in the shop of the Jewish photographer Zaharia Weiss. Liliana Gold, mother of the famous actor Dustin Hoffman (1937- ), was born in Iași. The actor wanted the screening of the story of the mayor Traian Popovici from Cernăuți, who saved over 20.000 Jews. Humphrey Bogart’s wife, the diva Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), was the daughter of Natalia Weinstein, born in Iași in 1901 and cousin of the president of Israel, Shimon Peres. The actress Roxana Condurache from Iași recently starred in the film about the love story of the famous Hollywood couple – “Bogie and Bacall”.

Strada Agatha Bârsescu 18, Iași 700259
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Photo by Casa Muzeelor - Facebook

The most tragic event in the history of the Jewish community in Iasi was the June 1941 Pogrom, which took place in the Police courtyard.

The sumptuous building was built in 1921 as headquarters of the “Romanian Life” culture magazine. The chief editor was the writer Garabet Ibrăileanu, since its founding (1906) until the moving of the headquarters to Bucharest (1930). The magazine’s group of writers gathered many men of culture, such as Mihail Sadoveanu, George Topârceanu, Calistrat Hogaș or Ionel Teodoreanu.

The building’s architecture is Neo-Romanian and we can notice the arched windows on the first level, the higher floor and the roof which exceeds the cornice. In the yard, we can see an entrance to the cellar from the yard and four windows at the sidewalk level.

If the beginning was a good one for society, things would totally change near the Second World War, when the police station (quaestorship) moved into the building. This represented a police authority, superior to a commissariat, which functioned only in the big cities. A tragic event took place here in June 1941, a week after Romania’s entrance in war against the Soviet Union. On the 29th of June, on the last Sunday of the month, a series of events wreaked havoc in the city. 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).

The Iași Pogrom

In the 1930s, the Jewish population of Iași became as numerous as the Romanian one, and the city’s prosperity depended on this coexistence. Since 1938 and culminating with the military dictatorship of the marshal Ion Antonescu, the filo-Nazi governments of Romania began to apply anti-Semite laws to solve “the Jewish matter”. Marriages to Romanians were forbidden, Jews were excluded from public functions, expropriated and deprived of rights. When Romania entered the Second World War alongside Hitler’s Germany, the attack on the Soviet Union was launched, starting from Iași in June 1941. The occupation of Romanian territories by the USSR in 1940 was attributed to “Judeo- Bolsheviks”, which emphasized the local anti-Semitism. The deportation of Jews was desired, but the vague orders left room for abuse. Between the 28thand the 30th of June, the Jews were accused of hiding weapons and firing at the army, or of sending information to the Soviets. The soldiers searched their houses, beating, shooting or robbing the population. Thousands of Jews were brought in Police Station’s yard and shot in groups. The survivors were sent to the train station, where they were loaded into wagons for cattle, where the windows and doors were blocked. Due to the heat, the cramming and lack of water and air, thousands of people died in agony in the two “death trains”. The investigations showed that over 13.000 persons were killed in total, in Iasi, in those days.

Strada Vasile Alecsandri 6, Iași 700054
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Photo by Iulian Aruxandei

Architecture, Streets
From the Union Square, in the heart of the city, towards Târgu Cucu, once the soul of the Jewish community, our steps take us through the ancient “Golia Street”, today Cuza Vodă Street.

The imposing building with a dome in the Union Square, the Braunstein Palace, 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. The Palace was bombarded in 1944, shaken by earthquakes and damaged throughout time. In the communist period, the upper floors served as social residence for the poor, while on the ground floor, the “Cupola” Art Galleries were installed, alongside CEC Bank and a magazine headquarters. Nearby, the visitors are captivated by the beauty of the Select Hotel. In 1865, the Jewish-Austrian banker Iacob Neuschotz became famous in the city for his involvement in charitable acts. Thus, out of belief and generosity and through his financial contribution, he erected the only reformed Jewish temple in the city, “Beth-Jacob”, near his house. Two years after its inauguration, in 1867, the temple was visited by the Prince of Romania, Carol I. The temple was destroyed by a bomb in 1944, and afterwards, demolished. The Select Hotel, also called the Neuschotz Palace, is remarkable through the eclectic French style, specific for the 1900s, with an anthropomorphic statuary group in front of the dome and with a richly adorned balcony.

In the past, the adjacent area of Cuza Vodă Street was dominated by the properties and palaces of the great aristocracy of Iași, such as the families Cantacuzino-Pașcanu (the current Marriage House), Balș-Sturza (the Post Office Palace), Cantacuzino (on the place of the Former Chamber of Commerce), Balș (the University of Arts), the family of Prince Grigore Ghica (the palace inside the Cuza-Vodă Maternity), Ghica-Calimachi (the palace near Golia Monastery), etc. After receiving the right of free trade on their properties in 1830, towards the street, narrow buildings linked to each other were constructed, with two or three levels and basements, which hosted various shops. The Jewish tradesmen opened numerous shoe and clothing shops, tailor shops or antique shops, and this spirit is still maintained nowadays. Some buildings near the Post still bear the elements of the Art Nouveau style, with various decorations: angel faces, alto reliefs of some deities, vegetal motifs or shells rolled as a document with the monogram of the owners, which show the ancient tradition of those tradesmen. In 1925, on the opposite side, the first wing of the Chamber of Commerce was built, in Neo-Romanian style, nowadays hosting insurance companies’ offices. After 1948, the remaining Jews (after the Pogrom), left their dwellings, so the communist regime took them and gave them with vulnerable persons, which led even more to the degradation of the buildings.

As in the past, a walk along the narrow street attracts the attention towards the wide opened windows, with exhibits arranged precisely to catch the eye of the passers-by.

The Anthem of Israel and the Anthem of Iași

The Romanian culture and the Jewish one have influenced each other in time. The lyrics of the Jewish anthem – Hatikva (Hope), initially called Tikvatenu (Our Hope), were composed in 1878 during Naftali Hertz Imber’s stay in Iași, a wonderer Jewish poet, born in Galicia. The anthem’s melody was composed in 1888 by Samuel Cohen from Ungheni (today, the Republic of Moldova), after the Moldavian folk song “Carul cu boi”.

Also, the melody of the anthem of Iași – “Iași, proud fortress”, is based on the Jewish folk song from Russia, “Tumbalalaika”. The Yiddish lyrics describe the story of an intelligent young man who was looking for a proper wife, inventing riddles in order to test her cleverness.

Strada Cuza Vodă, Iași
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Jewish Heritage
Five streets coming from different parts of the city, meet in Târgu Cucului: Cuza Vodă, Costache Negri, Elena Doamna, Cucu and Sărărie.

Until 1800 it was called “the Flour Market” and it was placed at the periphery of the city. Afterwards it was named “Cucului”, due to the cuckoo birds that were singing in the nearby forest, but also as a metaphor to say that it was a market where sellers could avoid paying fair taxes (customs). The first Jewish families settled here around 1650, but the immigration of an important Jewish community in the neighborhood took place after 1830.

Târgu Cucului united people through poverty and belief, and it wasn’t a place for rich people. It was a “city inside a city”, especially due to the fact that some Jews were good merchants, and people were always present on the neighborhood’s streets.

During the week, the Jewish merchants would always come out in front of their shop and tried to lure clients inside, in contrast to the other merchants who would wait inside for the clients to come in. Although they were determined not to spend anything, some passers-by couldn’t resist the offers. On Saturdays, when Jews ceased any activity, the atmosphere was stimulated by the Christian merchants, Romanian or Armenian. The food and tailor shops dominated the area. Books were also very well sold, especially during winter, when the cold winds and the snow sent everyone inside, around the fireplace. Afterwards, cafés came to life, fish shops enchanted the clients with delights from all around and the bars were transformed into ballrooms during the evenings. The cultural life was booming in the Jewish neighborhood. Conferences and Sunday night balls with jazz shows were frequent, and the impressive numbers of synagogues and schools made Târgu Cucului a true cultural center.

The Gheltzer cafeteria and cinema, with its Toynbee Hall, named after the cultural society, were across the street from the residence of the Jewish Community, at the intersection of the tram lines. The construction was built to help feed the needy children, but also functioned as a cinema, ballroom and office spaces for some associations. This place became the headquarters of the Yiddish culture in Romania, but sadly, it was demolished in the 1980s.

The renowned traditionalist Hasidic Jews, were distinctive through their typical outfit: mantle, hat and long side curls. The famous Romanian painter Octav Băncilă, born in Iaşi, immortalized the faces of the local Jewish people through a series of very expressive portraits.

Jewish or Christian holidays were moments of joy, especially for children, who tasted the traditional treats, typical to each culture. This cross-cultural bonding could have been noticed on the ”New Year of the Trees” (Tu Bishvat) as well, when Jewish children went to plant a tree in the yards of other locals, because back then, neighbourhood green spaces were very few. The building agglomeration, the narrow and winding streets and the tens of synagogues, arranged in simple houses, created a unique atmosphere.

But the Second World War changed the neighborhood’s spirit, first through the horrors during the Pogrom of 1941, then through the bombings which destroyed many dwellings and, finally, through the population’s exodus towards Israel, after its founding in 1948. The Jewish population dramatically decreased, and synagogues, schools, as well as some dwellings, true architectural jewels, were left behind in decay.

Afterwards, the communist regime began creating a new image for the neighborhood, by demolishing old houses, redesigning the streets and erecting collective blocks of flats in the spirit of the regime. The plans weren’t completed, thus we can still see wide green spaces or vacant land. In the last years, this area received a new look through the rearranging of green spaces and the construction of a new Palace of Justice. The Jewish buildings that still remain from the famous Târgu Cucului neighborhood are very few, but thankfully, the oldest synagogue in Romania is still standing.


Strada Cuza Vodă, Iași 700259
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Photo by Avishai Teicher

Jewish Heritage
In the 1930s, Iași was home to over 100 Jewish houses of prayer or synagogues. Today there are only two of them still open. Most of the synagogues were arranged in simple houses, without a special architecture, due to the fast evolution of the community in the 18th and 19th century.

These were established mainly by the guilds (bresle or professional associations), but three of them were more important: the Grand Synagogue in Târgu Cucului, the Grand Synagogue in Podu Roș and the Synagogue in Păcurari, the last two being demolished during the communist systematization. The Jews in Moldavia were mainly Ashkenazi, descendants of the medieval communities from the center of Europe, which spoke Yiddish – considered a German dialect. In Iași, the religious Hasidic branch was also present, with spiritual leaders considered to be saints (tsaddikim), triggering thousands of Jews to come to them for a blessing.

The story of the oldest synagogue preserved in Romania begins in the 16th century. In 1671, the Grand Synagogue was erected on the ruins of a Jewish praying place built in 1580, which burned in a fire. The word “synagogue” comes from Greek and means “to reunite”. The one responsible for building this edifice was Nathan (Nata) ben Moses Hannover, Talmudist, Cabalist and historian who came from what is nowadays Ukraine. He studied in Prague and Venice, after which he became a Rabbi in Iași. He is known for the work “Yewen Mezulah” (1653) in which he describes the rebellion of the Cossacks led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky in 1648-1649 and the persecutions of Jews in Poland and Russia, managing to create a live image of that period. Hannover is considered one of the top historians of the 17th century.

Building a Jewish house of prayer in Iași wasn’t easy. Documents of the time stated that no other building could be taller than the metropolitan church, and synagogues couldn’t be made of stone, so the first synagogue was made of wood. In 1671, the building of a new stone synagogue was allowed, and the engineering solution was to build it a meter under the ground, in order to be the most imposing building in the Jewish neighborhood, as the Jewish law states. Even more, this decision was also motivated by a psalm verse transposed into architecture: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord”.

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. We can also notice the narrow windows and doors. The building was damaged during fires and earthquakes, obtaining its current shape after 1761. In order to resist in time, the synagogue was built with a one meter-thick walls, shaped of stone and bricks. You enter by going down a few steps. Inside, the massive chandeliers dominate the room and frame the pulpit. A central arch goes through the main hall, from one end to the other in the shape of a rainbow over the small benches. The niche with the holly scrolls (Aron Kodesh) is part of a wooden sculpted panel, gilded and painted, dating since 1864, currently in restoration. Since 2008, the Synagogue entered a process of complete restoration, the religious ceremonies being moved in the headquarters of the Jewish Community, afterwards in the Merarilor Synagogue. 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”. On the Stihii Street nearby, in the past, there were seven synagogues, along with dozens of other houses of prayer in the crowded Târgu Cucului quarter.

Strada Sinagogilor 7, Iași 700259
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Photo by iasi.travel

Jewish Heritage
The Jewish places of worship were organized on professional criteria, each synagogue taking the name of a guild. The same was for the “Merarilor” Synagogue on Elena Doamna Street in Târgu Cucului, where apple sellers and gatherers came to pray.

In the context of a fast growing Jewish population in the city, many more places of prayer were needed, thus simple houses were transformed in synagogues. The “Merarilor” Synagogue, hosted in a house with one floor, was inaugurated in 1869, on a small street called ”Labirint” (the Maze), hidden behind other buildings. 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 synagogue was re-inaugurated on the 13th of December 2015 after a long restoration process. On the building’s façade, a commemorative plaque was placed. The Rabbi Rafael Shaffer, the religious leader of the Hebrew community in Romania, placed the mezuzah (a little box put on the door frame, with a small fragment of the Torah), blessed the new house of prayer and read the traditional prayers from a holy Torah scroll, recently restored and donated to the “Merarilor” Synagogue. The modern look of the interior and the light coming in through the large windows create a pleasant and opened space for religious ceremonies or various meetings.

Between the moment of the closing of the Grand Synagogue for restoration in 2008 and the inauguration of the “Merarilor” Synagogue in 2015, a praying place was settled in a room of the headquarters of the Jewish Community, with religious objects from the Grand Synagogue, Merari Synagogue and Schor Synagogue (in Podu Roș, recently demolished), as well as from the Synagogue of Vaslui. An Aron Kodesh with seven Torah scrolls and a pulpit were placed here.

Visiting hours:
09:00-14:00 (Request at the Jewish Community Center)

The writer Benjamin Fondane

Benjamin Wechsler (later on Fondane/Fundoianu) was a poet, essayist and a film and theater director, proud member of the Romanian vanguard from the first half of the 20th century. Born in Iași in 1898 to an intellectual Jewish family, he makes his debut by translating text from Yiddish to Romanian under the name B. Fundoianu, after the name of his father’s birthplace, the village of Fundoaia. The only book published in Iași was “Tăgăduința lui Petru” (Peter’s Denial) in 1918. At only 16 years of age, he published texts in Ovid Densușianu’s Symbolist Magazine „Vieața Nouă” (the New Life) and he establishes, alongside Armand Pascal, the vanguard theatre „Insula” (the Island) in Bucharest.

In 1923 he immigrated to France, where he started using the name Fondane. He began translating to french the poems of the most famous Romanian writers of the time – Tudor Arghezi, George Bacovia and Ion Minulescu. His own poems spoke about sad themes like roaming without purpose, exile, the lost paradise (l’Exode, Ulysse), sometimes evoking his childhood spent in Iași, in Târgu Cucului. Benjamin was also the screen writer for the movie Rapt (1934). In spring 1944 he was arrested in Paris by the Gestapo, after someone reported his Jewish origin, and was incarcerated in the Drancy transit camp alongside his sister, Lina. Some of his most influential friends, amongst which were the Romanian writers Emil Cioran and Stefan Lupaşcu, managed to get a pass for him, as he was a French citizen, with a Christian wife, but it is said that he could not accept to leave his sister alone. Both of them were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they suffered tragic deaths. There is no record found for Lina, but Benjamin was sent to the gas chamber on the night of the 2nd of October 1944. In his memory, the street that goes between the Jewish Community Center and the Merarilor Synagogue bears his name.

Strada Elena Doamna 13, Iași 700398
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Photo by iasi.travel

Jewish Heritage
The Jewish community, initially known as the “Jewish guild” (breasla jidovească), had the role of organizing the spiritual and economical life of its members. This also had a political role, the guild being the legal representative of the Jewish citizens.

The Jewish population was organized in guilds, according to their trades. The rich ones started having connections to princes or boyars to whom they used to lend money. In 1666 the position of Haham Basa appeared, him being the spiritual leader of the community (abolished in 1834), the secular leader being the Great Master, Rosh Medina (“the head of the city”). The Rabbi was at forefront of the community, being a judge and supervisor of the House of Marriages. The taxation policy, the gabela, appears, from which the debts to the Rulers were paid, and the rest was used for the maintenance of institutions and for helping the poor. In 1859, the Jewish community of Iași reached almost 50% of the city’s population. The modern hospital, schools and institutions to help the poor were founded. In 1863, gabela was abolished, schools were closed and the community duties and the institutions were all transferred to the Israeli hospital, which was a separate legal entity. After 1919, due to the difficulties in which the community’s institutions were, its reorganization was decided. The Jewish Community in Romania was recognized as a public organization only in 1927, after the Constitution of 1923 was put in action, which gave citizenship rights to all ethnicities in Romania.

The inauguration of a museum dedicated to the contributions of the Jews to the life of Iași took place in 1986, in the Grand Synagogue. The synagogue’s restoration determined the moving of the museum in 2011 in the today’s Community Center, also called “The five roads house”. The museum is exhibiting Judaic religious objects, typical to the rituals of the main holidays in the Jewish calendar: Shabbat (each Saturday), Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year, September – October), Simchat Torah (The Joy of receiving the Torah, October), Hanukah (The Holiday of Light, November – December), Purim (the freeing of the Jewish people from the Persian-Babylonian empire in 427 B.C., March) and Pesach (Jewish Easter – the holiday of the freeing of Jewish people from the Egyptian ruling, March – April). An adorned canopy, placed in the center, reminds us of the Jewish marriages. The exhibition regroups articles, magazines, old photographs, posters and books of Jewish authors from Iași.

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.

Visiting hours for the museum:
09:00-14:00 (the identity card is required).

Cătălin Mihuleac – “Fondane’s Last Cigarette”

The contemporary writer Cătălin Mihuleac, born in Iași, remarked himself through novels, theatre plays and a prodigious publicist activity. In 2014, he publishes the novel “America after the Pogrom”, an important book in the Romanian literature, which treats without dodging, the infamous Pogrom of Iași in June 1941. The next volume, “Fondane’s Last Cigarette” (2016) invokes the life of Benjamin Fondane, a remarkable Jewish writer and poet (Romanian-French), born in Iași and exterminated in Auschwitz. This volume of micro-novels was played on stage in 2015, during an experimental theatre play, where the video projections, the music of that period and the unconventional space with a symbolic meaning (the Tramway Depot in Iași), recreated his tragic moment.

Strada Elena Doamna 15, Iași 700398
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Photo by Manole Alexandru - Wikipedia

Architecture, Jewish Heritage
The trusteeship (administration) of the Israeli Hospital, founded in 1827, bought from the headman Mihalache Cantacuzino, in 1841, an abandoned inn on the White street, the current Elena Doamna Street.

The building’s authorisation was given with one condition: to erect a building that will make the city more attractive, and that would resist fires. The building was made of stone, in an area dominated by short wooden and adobe houses.

The hospital, initially called hekdes, became, through donations and good management, one of the most important in the city, serving both Jews, as well as non-Jews. In 1889, the Hospital was visited by King Carol I. In the 1930s it was treating almost 2000 pacients and there were over 650 surgeries made per year.

The Israeli Maternity was also hosted here, founded in 1878, and sponsored by the first Israeli women’s society in Iași. Its financing was made through donations, and the activities were based on the voluntary work of the devoted medical staff, who were attending over 400 women annually.

The Israeli hospital was a separate legal entity from the one of the Jewish Community, being an advantage when the country’s laws became restrictive for the Jews. When the community had difficulties in buying the land for the Cemetery in Păcurari, because it was on the territory of a rural setting where Jews weren’t allowed to own land, the land was bought by the Israeli Hospital.

After 1948, the hospital’s building and annexes were nationalised. Until 1974 it functioned as a children’s hospital, and then it became the “Elena Doamna” Obstetrics-Gynaecology Clinic Hospital of Iași, as it is known to this day, taking the name of the First Lady of Romania, Elena Cuza.

The Neoclassical building has pillars and window frames, typical to the style. The entrance, placed in a second plane, has a triangular gable with an atypical semicircular base. An obelisk situated in front of the hospital reminds us of the past of this former Jewish institution.

The hospital cannot be visited.

The Jewish cemeteries in Iași

The Old Cemetery in Ciurchi, also called “The Wall”, was the first Jewish cemetery in Romania. It was founded in the 15th century (one of the inscriptions dated back to 1467) and closed in 1880 due to the lack of space. In the beginning, the cemetery had five hectares, and it was surrounded by a three metre high thick wall. Here there were thousands of tomb stones with ancient Hebrew writings, typical to the Oriental art, as well as Honour chambers for the Rabbis. In 1943, on the orders of the marshal Ion Antonescu, 21.900 centuries-old graves were ruined, stating that it was a necessity to construct some blocs of flats for the victims of a flood. Young Jews were humiliated and forced to destroy their ancestors’ resting places. The wall was demolished, the wall’s stone and some tomb stones being used for consolidating slopes or paving some streets. After the war, the community members ceded the land to the City Hall, in order to create the Ciurchi Park, which reminds us of the old cemetery through a memorial plaque.

The “new” Cemetery in Păcurari, opened in 1881 and enlarged in 1936, reached 26 hectares, and over 150.000 graves. Towards Păcurari road the monumental entrance and a portico from 1881 are still standing. The cemetery includes the lot of the Jewish heroes of the First World War, the monument of the 311 Jews killed at Sculeni in 1941, the tomb of the 36 Jews massacred in the Vulturi forest in 1941, a part of the bones brought in 1943 from the old cemetery in Ciurchi and the common graves dug during the Iași Pogrom (June 1941) with the a monument shaped as waggons suggesting the “death trains”.

Strada Elena Doamna 49, Iași 700398
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Photo by Cezar Suceveanu - Wikipedia

Architecture, Jewish Heritage
The Synagogue of Cismari was a Jewish religious house, in a building from the 19thcentury. In that time, many synagogues and houses of prayer were placed in normal buildings, due to the rapid growth of the Jewish community.

The Jewish community was organized in guilds and they were advised to take care of their own synagogues. This building belonged to the members of the guild which dealt with shoe making, until the Second World War. Afterwards, a maintenance and repair shop for medical apparatus was moved here, as well as the Police archive.

The building’s architecture presents a tall entrance, flanked by two curved windows, at the end of a set of semi-circular stairs. The gable has a flower decoration, and under the cornice, adorned with small consoles, we can notice round little windows for the attic’s lighting. Nowadays, the building of the former Synagogue of Cismari is severely damaged and requires extensive restoration works.

Near the synagogue, the renowned Jewish doctor Leon Ghelerter founded a children’s hospital and a clinic in 1937. The building has a lower ground floor and a wooden balcony on the side. Leon Ghelerter has founded charitable organizations, hospitals and clinics, both in Iași, and in Bucharest. His clinic on Ghica Vodă Street, across the tower of the Barnovschi church, offered free consultations to all locals, no matter the religion, especially for lung diseases. He was so-called “the doctor of all people” and has fought all his life against tuberculosis and alcoholism. Dr. Ghelerter was also a strong supporter of socialist ideals, member of different parties and a fervent journalist of socialist magazines in the interwar period. Now, the rehabilitated building hosts the “Dr. Ghelerter” Section of the Psychiatry-Neurology Hospital.

The objective cannot be visited.

Trade and Jewish Guilds

The first Jewish immigrants in Moldavia arrived in the 14th century, most of them being Ashkenazi from Central Europe, but some being Sephardic Jews of Spanish origin. Throughout time they organized in Iași one of the most significant communities in Europe. Because Jews didn’t have access to public positions, they oriented towards trade, commerce, small industry or credit. The Jews have been resourceful tradesmen, who used to sell alcohol, tobacco, cotton or salt since the 17th century. Later on, they worked as gifted artisans – tailors, blacksmiths, shoemakers, watchmakers, furriers, trap makers, coopers etc. Medicine was a favorite occupation for those with studies, as in the case of doctor Shmil, who served at the court of Stephen the Great. The doctors’ guild extended a lot towards the 20th century.

The fashion change of the Romanians from the traditional clothes to the European ones was also made with the help of the Jewish artisans who brought merchandise from all over Europe. They were organized in professional associations called guild, each having its own religious house. In Iași here were synagogues of Shoemakers, Tailors, Musicians, Old-clothesmen, Butchers, Apple tradesmen etc. Only the “Merarilor” Synagogue still exists today, near the Grand Synagogue in Târgu Cucu. Some Jews were into the transportation business of merchandise or people, with their wagons called “Haraba” (rack wagons), which went even all the way to Leipzig. The Jewish economic activity contributed decisively to the development of the urban environment of Moldavia in the 19th century.

Strada Grigore Ghica Vodă 19, Iași 700400
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