Romania -- Occupational Hazards

Siret -- new cemetery from middle cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Sept. 6, 2009

I tromped around in the Jewish cemetery in Siret, Romania (on the border with Ukraine) this morning: as I already knew, but recognized yet again, this is not the best time of year to be trying to research and/or photograph neglected Jewish cemeteries....In Radauti, a few days ago, I got hot and sweaty clumping through the grass and weeds in a cemetery that is actually very well maintained (by the gold-toothed Mr. Popescu, who also provides water in a plastic bottle to wash hands with, according to tradition, when leaving the cemetery. He pours it three times over your fist. A woman who may or may not be Mrs. Popescu will open up the tall domed ceremonial hall and draw out slim candles, if you ask.)

At Radauti, I was bothered (so to speak) by the spider webs that looped across the spaces between the tombstones and also draped from the overhanging branches to the stone. More so than the webs, I was bothered by the big fat brown spiders that sat amid them, waiting, or occasionally scutting up the slim threads when they felt a human presence.

When I got back from photographing the stones in Radauti, actually, several hours later, I was perturbed to find, crawling on the brilliant white of my hotel bed linen, a little black tick....Shades of the fear of lime disease (from which a friend of mine in Hungary has been suffering.) Also memories of how I was bitten by a tick when visiting the old Jewish cemetery on the Lido of Venice, some years ago. I had to get a tetanus shot and take the dead tick to the health service for analysis. An interesting way to see untouristed parts of the city.

At Siret, there were no spiders. But there was plenty of tall grass that I swathed through -- thank goodness for my cowboy boots. They saved my legs 3 years ago, when I tripped and fell over a hidden stone in the cemetery of Sadagora, Ukraine.

This is the third time I've been to Siret, whose three cemeteries are among the most impressive. I also love the way you can discern the hand of individual artists -- there are "templates" of style, arrangements of elements as well as individualistic style of carving.

This has always been one of my favorite stones in Siret. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The tall grass and other undergrowth made it difficult to get to many if not most parts of the special "middle" cemetery; but it was Sunday, and standing there, swimming through the weeds, recording the physical reminders of so many Jews who once lived here -- the archetypical "Tribe of Stones" -- I could hear the Sunday service the one of the local churches, broadcast over a loudspeaker.