Romania -- On the Road

Interior, Bistrita synagogue, used as an art gallery/culture center. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Day two of the Cousins and Candlesticks road show, combining my research with family history and cousinly camaraderie ...We've now reached Radauti, the ancestral town of our Gruber clan, after a slow, scenic drive (hills, forests, meadows, cows, horses, horse-carts, tin-roofed wooden houses, decorated wells, churches, etc etc etc) from Bistrita, where we spent the night at the modern Golden Crown (Coroana de Aur) Hotel, named after the fictional hotel in the city that featured in Bram Stoker's Dracula...

Located near the Borgo Pass that separates Transylvania from Bucovina, Bistrita as a town dates back nearly 1,000 years and was a Saxon stronghold and trading center in the middle ages. It has a charming old town center, whose main attractions include a 15th/16th century Evangelical church and a long row of arcaded houses from late medieval times. (There's also a very pleasant pedestrial street, with a tempting collection of sidewalk cafes.)

The town also has a fine synagogue, built in 1856. It has been restored -- with major funding from various Japanese sources -- and is now used as a concert hall and cultural center.

There didn't seem to be any signage, however, denoting it either as a synagogue or as a culture center/concert hall... Work was going on restoring the outer walls, and it didn't look open. A young woman, however, was sitting on a park bench across the street (near a Holocaust memorial located in in the park) and she came across with the key to open up when she saw us trying the door.

Bistrita synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Cousins in front of Holocaust memorial, Bistrita. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

From Bistrita, the road goes over the pass -- we pit-stopped at the kitschy Dracula's Castle Hotel, where I stayed 3 years ago; dipped into the tourist market, whose best wares seemed to be some retro-looking hand-painted garden gnomes. I was glad to find that the road over the pass is undergoing serious repair work...

Dracula Castle Hotel, with bust of Bram Stoker. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

No comment. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

At Vatra Dornei, we stopped to take a look at the derelict, Moorish-style great synagogue, built in 1902, which looms over the main street of this once-grand old spa town (and source of major brands of mineral water). Years ago I attended a Hanukkah celebration here, when I toured Romania during the festival with the then-chief rabbi, Moses Rosen... The sanctuary was brightly lit and crowded with people in winter coats and fur hats, and a Jewish children's choir performed. Most of the Jews who lived there have now either died or moved to Israel (or elsewhere). I have no idea what the fate of these once-magnificent building will be....It looks no better but no worse that it was when I saw it 3 years ago; but time will take its toll. What to do with buildings such as this, large, impressive structures that need much work and a fitting, dignified use, was the subject of the Jewish heritage seminar in Bratislava in March, which I reported on at that time.

Vatra Dornei synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Given my Candlesticks project, I paid attention to the candlesticks/menorah motif that edges the top of the building.

Candlesticks on synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber