Only Remaining Sephardic Synagogue in East Europe Bulldozed in Bucharest

The only remaining Sephardic synagogue in Eastern Europe was bulldozed in Bucharest on July 21, in spite of repeated assurances from Rumania that the building would be spared, according to a Jewish community official.

Alfred Moses, a vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said he had been told by Rumania’s Ambassador in Washington, Nicolae Gavrilescu, that a massive urban renewal project under way in his country’s capital would not affect the 600-year-old building, the Spanish Synagogue.

Rumanian Embassy First Secretary Dan Dumitru told the JTA last Friday that he could not yet confirm whether the Spanish Synagogue in Bucharest had been demolished and that he expected to hear something from his government “maybe next week.” But a State Department official said that the building had been razed.

The incident took place after Moses testified in June before a House subcommittee, reluctantly favoring the extension of Rumania’s Most-favored-Nation status (MFN), which affords special trade benefits otherwise denied Soviet bloc countries under the Jackson-Vanick Amendment. In Eastern Europe, only Rumania and Hungary enjoy Most-Favored-Nation treatment.

President Reagan had notified Congress on June 5 that he was preparing to extend Rumanian MFN for another year. But there has been considerable pressure in both houses of Congress to suspend the Jackson-Vanick waiver for Rumania because of concerns about human rights violations.

ISSUE RAISED WITH AMBASSADOR

Representing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Moses said in his testimony at the House June 10 that despite “shortcomings” in Rumania’s policies on human rights and emigration, the Conference believed that progress had been made, measured in part by the emigration to Israel of some 25 percent of the country’s Jewish community over the past six years.

He added that the Rumanian Ambassador had been told “how important it is that the Rumanian synagogues in Bucharest…not be bulldozed to make room for Bucharest’s urban renewal.”

But word subsequently came from Bucharest that the area around the Spanish Synagogue had been cleared, indicating that the government intended to go ahead and destroy it, Moses told the JTA. He said that he and a number of other Jewish community representatives raised the issue at a meeting with Gavrilescu July II, requesting that assurances be given in writing that the synagogue would not be touched.

The representatives at the meeting–Moses, Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee, Warren Eisenberg of B’nai B’rith, and Jesse Hordes, of the Anti-Defamation League–were told by Gavrilescu that the building was not in jeopardy, but no written assurances had yet been given, Moses said. He said a similar commitment was made at a meeting between the Ambassador and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-NJ).

But Eisenberg told the JTA that the Embassy had promised no more than “that they hadn’t destroyed it,” leaving those attending the meeting to “try and penetrate what that means.”

A State Department official said that Rumanian signals on the synagogue question had been “pretty opaque,” and that while “some Rumanian officials had made categoric statements, others had not.” The official said that high level protests have been registered in Washington and in Bucharest.

DISMAYED AND SHOCKED

“We are dismayed and shocked by what has happened,” he said. But he added that the Administration position remains, in balance, supportive of extending Rumania’s MFN. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Rozanne Ridgeway will be testifying on the issue in the Senate Finance Committee on Friday August 1.

Moses, who was also to testify on Friday in support of extending Rumania’s MFN, said he was considering backing out now that the synagogue has been destroyed. “We have in the past supported the extension of MFN for Rumania, but in view of this most recent action, we will have to reconsider our position,” Moses told the JTA.

Expressing “deep sadness and disappointment” over the Rumanian action, Moses noted that the Jewish community in Bucharest had offered to have the synagogue moved to another site but “even this was denied by the Rumanian government.”

The urban renewal project in central Bucharest has seen the demolition of a number of synagogues, as well as churches and other buildings. But there was an understanding with the Rumanian government that it would spare both the Spanish Synagogue, the oldest in Eastern Europe, and a Jewish museum housed in a landmark 19th century building within the same historic Jewish quarter, according to Moses.

“The destruction was without advance notice and will have a serious effect on the attitude of the American Jewish community toward Rumania; it calls into question whether Jewish leaders can rely upon statements made to them by the Rumanian government,” Moses said.

There are no indications at this point of any immediate plans to destroy the Jewish museum as well.

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