Romanian Jewry faced a challenge equal to the one of Gypsies: in face of regime guidelines, they needed to comply. Instead of disappearing and becoming state statistics like their cohabiting Gypsies, Jews were there
For a long time, Romanian second-grade pupils were greeted from the pages of their abecedar by a drawing: a hora of people in motley costume were dancing, and the caption read: naționalitățile conlocuitoare live in harmony in the SRR . It was 1985 when I witnessed this as a second-grader; and I looked around and noticed a Gypsy schoolmate. She was not joining the hora: she was not listed among the co-habiting nationalities; as the descendant of a Jewish family, I was not in the picture either.
The absent gypsy
Several things can account for the absence of Gypsies from the drawing. To begin with, the image spoke of a plan which was blueprinted (namely assimilation and gainfulness of Gypsies), and then a checked off desideratum from Ceaușescu’s bucketlist. Gypsy children were schooled and partly literate, but dropped out at the cost of jailing of their change-resisting parents. They did not drop out because they did not like it, but education in their dialects was not crucial, and their reported learning disabilities stemmed from being schooled in a language they barely understood. Secondly, although Ceaușescu was far from being a political heir of Marshal Antonescu, he did step into the latter’s shoes: taking on the acquired notion that Gypsies are a social problem, and not an ethnic group.
To date, Romanians speak about social failure in everyday expressions such as “a se îneca ca țiganul la mal” (literally: to drown like a Gypsy on the shore, used in order to describe inability to complete an action), while even parents of the 2010s will admonish their misbehaving offspring with “vine țiganul cu sacul și te ia” (literally: the Gypsy with a sack will come and grab you). At the same time, Romanians are unaware of the Gypsy linguistic bounty they carry themselves: before it was surpassed in usage by the English “cool”, “mișto” (of Gypsy etymology) was slang Romanian for “excellent”. “Boyfriend” in slang is “gagiu”, while “crazy” is “diliu”, borrowings from Gypsy dialects of originals “gadjo” and “dilo”. Parenthetically, when the Gypsy-themed French-Romanian co-production Gadjo Dilo was screened in Romania, the title was translated for Romanian audiences. Being “in Gypsy”, words used every day did not carry any meaning.
The Gadjo Gypsy
The above “gadjo” comes from a social dyad with “Rroma” that raises issues for Romanians and Gypsies alike. For Romanians, “gadjo” is opaque and could not possibly be connected with their everyday “gagiu”. “Rrom”, however, causes a ruckus. With a massive rootless cosmopolitanism of Gypsies in the EU receiving mixed media attention, Romanians do not fail to react. The largest Romanian-based Facebook group is the one pleading for the ban of the word Rroma from the EU: for fear of confusion with Romania and Romanians. Recent hacker attacks on reputable publications such as Le Monde or The Daily Telegraph, which resulted in the shutdown of the above sites and the display of hate messages, boiled down to the same “stop spreading confusion between Rroma and Romanians”.
On their side, Gypsies have no doubts about why they should be called Rroma. “Rroma” is a Gypsy autonym, but also the word for (married) man. “Gadjo” on the other hand, means for them anyone who is alien to their version of Gypsy culture, including other Gypsy guilds and Gypsies who stand apart. The visibility of Gypsies in rich visual content nowadays is one such example: the presence of Gypsies in digital culture is not infrequently seen by Gypsies as an attempt at trying too hard to be “gadjo”. It’s hard, however, to say from available evidence if the Gypsies embrace digital culture, or digital culture monetises the Gypsies for their metaphorical value.
The absent Gypsy does not only shy away from the camera, but also from European models of understanding and preserving memory. The rootless Gypsy, settled down by force by Ceaușescu, who thought it wise to confiscate Gypsy carriages between 1977–1983 – himself unaware that he does not only deprive them of a means of transport, but also of their, however itinerant, homes, was part of a plan of settling and blending in. Animosities against Gypsies were fueled by their settlement in vacated homes of Saxons and Jews: more affluent and better positioned than their Romanian neighbour’s ones. In the early 1990s, Romanians and Hungarians occasionally forgot their antagonistic claims at history and joined in the burning of no less than 60 settlements. With the exception of the Bolintin massacre of April 1991, the free democratic media of the 1990s did not cover the respective incidents at all. Similarly, they failed to make public “the shame” of the Romanian state who only undertook to pay damages to the dispossessed and surviving Gypsies in 2009.
Gypsies do not recollect with an European bend, if at all. Paradoxically, they resist remembering their own history of persecution, while at the same time they preserve their mores, dress code, and guild-oriented crafts. The Romanian school system abounds in compulsory readings of “genuine” Romanian literature that exploits the Gypsy theme: from the times of slavery to public punishment by hanging or burning of Gypsies. Țiganiada, Răzvan și Vidra, and Vasile Porojan are such examples. However, social and political scholarship fails to address the recent past of Gypsy slavery or to make amends to it. Gypsies themselves do not identify with the lore of slavery, in the same manner as they do not aptly remember their Porrajmos or the dire times of forced settlement during Communism. Recent events of equal impact, such as the Baia Mare incident in 2012 or the National Liberal Youth initiative in early 2013 have the same impact on memory.
The Gypsy in the Romanian imagination is supposed to be a “gadjo”, but even the “gadjo” Gypsy does not stand more chances. In the Bolintin pogrom, Gypsies who were dispossessed or murdered were not Gypsies from Gypsy quarters, but ones living among Romanians. “Gadjo” Gypsies who break the code and make it through university and seek employment are usually seen as lesser versions of their more professional Romanian colleagues. Being a “gadjo” Gypsy is exactly what Gypsies, irrespective of their approach to memory, will defend with their life. What Romanians would love the most is a “gadjo” Gypsy, one deprived of their traits, even the single trait everyone, even open-minded Romanians, will resort to, as bottom-line in any conversation: Gypsies steal, and everyone has at least one relative or acquaintance who was skillfully and astutely robbed by a Gypsy.
The Present Jew
Jews would have hypothetically joined in the hora described in the preamble. However, by 1985, the new final solution, which implied no bloodshed, but a decent state budget built on Jew sellout had reduced the Jewish population of Romania from an already decimated 200,000 to 11,000. The ones remaining, still under the mirage of Israel being too young of a state, or those who were not allowed to leave because their professions were capital to SSR development plans, clung on to their Jewishness in a more or less recreational manner: they had extra celebrations, relatives abroad, most likely always a friend to talk to in their Yiddish-flavored Romanian, and a sizable pool of stories of recent times to argue about, or try to see the signs of future tumult in current affairs. This meant they were the silent partner in cohabiting nationalities: appreciating their quiet, and rejoicing their arbitrary rights. Another reason why they would have joined in, but at the same time the reason why they were not even asked to, was the opinion that Jews are if not privileged, at least conveniently spoiled.
Figures in 1985 were what you could call a stark contrast with the 1.5 million Gypsies and less than 10,000 Jews. It meant that Gypsies could have been present, while Jews less so. Practice shows, however, that neither were truly present, and rights were unevenly distributed. Due to the pressure of international bodies of Jewish faith and doubled by efforts from the local community, Jewish heritage, however small, was often left intact, with only the wear of time. However, Romanian Jewry faced a challenge equal to the one of Gypsies: in face of regime guidelines, they needed to comply. Instead of disappearing and becoming state statistics like their cohabiting Gypsies, Jews were there. This meant that everyone knew a Jewish doctor, a Jewish apparatchik, or a few lucky ones could claim to be on speaking terms with the Chief Rabbi of Romania, Moses Rosen. To some extent, spiced up by the publication of Revista Cultului Mozaic, the surprising opening in 1979 of the Museum of Jewish History in Bucharest, as well as ritual food shipped from Israel, the presence of Jews became of topical interest to Romanians. And to their leaders, who, with the lesson of the late 1940s learned – when 100,000 Jews left Romania, vacating houses and jobs, and leaving nothing behind, arranged so that later dispatches of Jews, as well as conditioned home visits, be added value to the state budget. Romanian Jews sold to Israel were not allowed to pack generously. On the contrary, the number and categories of items were monitored. What they left behind was randomly looted, discarded, or possessed by the regime’s scavengers.
Today, Jews are present in the discourse more than they are in social life or politics. In Bucharest, a stroll downtown means encountering one single street sign in Hebrew: a lawyer’s office. There is no Jewish food on restaurant menus, and no memorial plaques show the way to the Jewish district: with the exception of JDC offices, the Jewish Museum which displays the same risible collection of school-like collages and not so deftly vintagised photocopies, the Jewish neighbourhood of Bucharest was not brought back to life. While more than 20 per cent of the synagogues made it through the communist regime and stood against the wear of time, only one reported shtetl street survived the wrecker’s ball, in the northern city of Dorohoi. Some of the synagogues are well-kept and have regular religious services. Some others, most notably Tranzit House of Cluj and the Synagogue of Bistrița were revamped in order to host cultural events. In what concerns cemeteries, their deprecated state and commitment to forgetfulness rather than memory is disturbing. This is what Ruth Ellen Gruber of National Geographic fame describes, trying hard to use different words each time. The script is more or less the same: a Romanian family, with clothes on the washing line and cattle grazing between the matzavas, will guide you in and out of the cemetery.
The Goy Jew
In what seems a joke, a tourist enters a Romanian tourist office and asks about the local Jewish heritage. In face of confusion, the tourist adds it could be things like a synagogue. The answer from the rep is “ do you mean synagogue?” It is not a joke, and the city was Iași – which hosted one of the largest Jewish populations in Romania, still hosts a necropolis-sized cemetery, and incidentally witnessed the second harshest pogrom of the Second World War after Babi Yar.
Romanians are oblivious to Jewish heritage and to the presence of Jews. Jews, on their side, are excellent chronologists and excellent data collectors. For a long period of time, that is, for more than three centuries, Jews produced more written evidence of historical value than the Romanians themselves, ranging from rabbinical responsa to community and guild census books, as well as personal and travel diaries. Committing memories to paper and via artifacts has always been a Jewish pastime, but in the course of history, it went astray.
The result today is that history graduates shrug their shoulders when asked about the Jewish presence in Romania’s history, and there is no cultural dialogue on the topic. Jewish communities do not stand out – neither do they try to fix the informational gap in the form of discourse that would appeal today. Funded from government money for minorities as well as from local resources, the Jewish community keeps the faith of publishing Judaica. However, they are rarely present at book fairs and do not reply to emails with book orders. There is no Jewish bookshop, but in central Bucharest in the Mihai Eminescu Bookstore, you can find a shelf that holds a meager portion of books on Jewish history: some of the HaSefer books published by the Jewish community mingled with legionnaire propaganda and the never absent Protocols of the Elders of Sion. Miriam Bercovici’s diary, the only literary evidence of the deportation of Romanian Jews to Transdniester, issued in 1995 by a one-time-wonder publishing house, did not reach critical acclaim, even if it was of the standing of a Ruth Laskier, if not an Anne Frank. In 2013, by special arrangement with a former employee of the publishing house, you can still get your hands on a copy of the diary, during one of the visits of the employee to the Bucharest warehouse which holds the unsold copies of the first and single print run of the document.
In face of such examples, Romanians do not have a strong appeal to Jewish heritage, or, in recent generations, hardly ever know there were Jews in Romania. The relics of Jewish culture do not play a distinct role – not even in street directions. In Târgu Mureș, the displaced Holocaust memorial is believed to be “new”, although it spent two decades in the local Jewish cemetery before it was placed downtown in a ceremony. Similarly, the statue of Avraham Goldfaden near the Iași National Theatre has stood there since 1976, and was reconsecrated in 2003. Despite it being there, and Avraham Goldfaden giving his name to the local theatre festival, the Jewishness of Avraham Goldfaden remains unknown to the public. In other places of memorable quality, such as the native Rozavlea of the world-famous Ovitz family, there is no plaque commemorating the ensemble which, prior to the Second World War went on European tours with their band, rented the National Opera of Budapest for one month, and had the first car in the region of Sighet – before being regretfully deported and submitted to Mengele’s experiments. The Bucharest football club Macabi was renamed Dinamo București in 1948 and it is today a major player on the European football scene, but everyone seems to fail to acknowledge its origin. Jews don’t make the news.
This is why Jews are probably not Jews anymore in Romania. With a derelict history and lack of presence in the news, other than those which claim theories of conspiracy, and with their own visibility issues, they fail to be “real” Jews. It is a point at which consecrated anti-Semites such as Professor Ion Coja, the former Communist Party Secretary at Bucharest University, and today solely professor, make claims that Romanian Jews are lesser, and unreal Jews. Andrei Oișteanu, among others, claims that, while having always been “real” and “imaginary” at the same time, Romanian Jews are now “imaginary Jews” alone, in a discourse that makes them un-Jewish and anti-Romanian at the same time.
Romanian Gypsies and Jews tell stories that are remarkably similar and at the same time remarkably dissimilar. The content of their memory – or of their rejection thereof – is still uncredited in Romanian history, and the public debate which aims at their discursive repossession, as well as at their revival is still short of breath. There are long, heavy and hurtful steps until everyone joins in the hora of cohabiting nationalities. Gypsies and Jews on their side, lack the manpower, tools or public reception in order to start “something”. At the same time, Romanians are reluctant to approach the dark side of their history, make amends, or find the creative forces within acknowledgement of the harmful past. In the words of film director Florin Iepan, author of a stirring film about the unknown episode of Romanian history which implied the Romanian invasion of Odessa under Marshal Antonescu, and the murder of more than 20,000 civilian Jews without help from the Germans, probably one of the few Romanians who insist on the acute need to redress history: “Serious trouble does not start from minorities: they were never an issue, but all major Romanian history crises had serious consequences on the respective minorities.”
 Abecedar – in Romanian: primer; hora – traditional Romanian dance; naţionalităţile conlocuitoare – in Romanian: cohabiting nationalities.
 Ţiganiada (The Gypsiad), by Ion Budai‑Deleanu, published in 1812, depicting the allegorical descent of Gypsies in hell. Răzvan și Vidra (Răzvan and the Otter), by Bogdan Petriceicu‑Hasdeu, published in 1867 under the name Răzvan Voivode, since 1869 known as Răzvan and the Otter, depicting a freed Gypsy slave facing mishaps of money and love. Vasile Porojan by Vasile Alecsandri, published in 1880, depicting the lack of social opportunities of an enslaved Gypsy, whose freedom meant, as for most first‑generation freed Gypsies, the lack of social and economical props.
 Rroma word for Holocaust. About 36,000 Romanian Gypsies died under direct or tangential orders from Marshal Antonescu.
 In June 2012, the Mayor of Baia Mare decided the imprisonment by force and without trial of about 2,000 Gypsies in a derelict factory, where chemical substances were harmful to the lives of the guarded prisoners.
In early 2013, a civil society outcry against the organisation TNL (National Liberal Youth) gathered the media’s attention after the respective organisation proposed to give 300 lei (around 70 euros) to each Gypsy woman who willingly undertook sterilisation.
 Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen (1912–1994), Chief Rabbi of Romania 1948–1994, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania 1964–1994.
The Jewish Religious Review, monthly magazine of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania, published since 1956 in Romanian, Yiddish and Hebrew.
 Ruth Ellen Gruber, National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, Washington D.C. 2007, pp. 248–280.
 HaSefer Publishing House, founded in 1995, released to date some 200 titles of Jewish and Israeli history, fiction, as well as religious texts.
 Miriam Bercovici-Korber, Jurnal de ghetou (Ghetto Diary), Bucuresti 1995.
 Even the Dinamo museum passes over this episode from their existence (1919–1948) in which Macabi Bucharest won several championships and promoted fair play and compliance with the standards in force within European football.
Copyright © Herito 2020