Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World in Small Romanian Town, Glory of Jewish Community is Long Past

March 3, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When the synagogue in Satu Mare was built in 1892, the Jewish community here was so large that a second synagogue had to be built next door to accommodate the overflow.

Now, both of the adjacent synagogues stand empty. Dust collects in piles on the floors and feathers drift down from damaged roofs where birds sit in a row.

Yet beneath the decay, signs of refulgence shine through: The larger of the two shuls at one time was decorated with bright blue and yellow tiles, which are still visible, and in a small room off the main sanctuary there is a grimy ark that contains a Torah scroll still used on many Friday nights by a few of the remaining elderly Jews.

The expert design of both buildings is still evident beneath the ubiquitous dust.

Keys to the two historic buildings are kept in the desk of Nicolae Decsei, president of the Satu Mare Jewish community, which numbers about 90 Jews.

A compact man in his 60s, Decsei is among the youngest members of the community.

Though it’s clear he doesn’t have a tremendous crush of business or visitors to whom to attend, Decsei comes to the office most days, preferring his seat at a small metal desk to “staying home and watching TV.”

Next to his office, a single room serves as a dining room for community meals and doubles as a classroom for local, non-Jewish Romanians who study Hebrew and plan to seek work in Israel.

Decsei remained here through multiple waves of migration spurred by anti-Semitic incidents after World War II.

Born to a non-Jewish Hungarian father and a Romanian Jewish mother who were active Communists, he grew up without a real sense of religion. He joined the Romanian army, where he was forced to attend Christian services.

Decsei came to Judaism after marrying a non-Jewish woman with whom he has a son, Paul, who does not identify as Jewish.

In 1989, Decsei briefly considered making aliyah, assuming there would be opportunities for better work in Israel. However, after the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu fell from power and was killed in December 1989, Decsei decided to stay in Romania to see what changes the post-Communist era would bring.

As keeper of the Jewish community, Decsei is a minor celebrity in Satu Mare, a ramshackle town in northwestern Romania near the Hungarian border.

In 2003, there was a long feature about him in the local paper — he wears his yarmulke in the picture and smiles, claiming that he never encounters any negative consequences from being openly Jewish.

His status as a community leader affords him a certain cachet as he promotes the community about town. Recently, when a member of the Jewish community died of cancer, Decsei persuaded the paper to include a Jewish star in her obituary, similar to the crosses that frequently appear next to the names of deceased Catholics.

Some historic synagogues in Eastern Europe have been renovated with generous grants from charities that know a sizable local Jewish community can visit and utilize them, but the Satu Mare synagogues seem to stand little chance of being restored.

According to Decsei, there are 123 Jewish cemeteries in Satu Mare County, and the biggest problem the community faces is maintaining them all.

Satu Mare is the ancestral home of Satmar Chasidim, now based in New York. Occasional visitors from Brooklyn and other Western communities come to find relatives’ graves or pass through Satu Mare on heritage trips of Eastern Europe.

As Decsei describes it, “they come in from Budapest, take a taxi right to the cemetery, pray for a while and then they go back to Budapest.”

If they get as far as the building behind the synagogue that houses Decsei’s office, some of the visitors slip a dollar or two into his hand.

Yet Decsei and the community remain positive. In June, a memorial plaque will be erected so that passersby will be aware of the two synagogues. A third decrepit synagogue stands a few blocks away, long abandoned.

Decsei says he looks forward to the June ceremony. Meanwhile, he’s hoping that other Jewish tourists will find their way to the community and will be able to donate some money toward its future.

Looking wistfully around one of the synagogues, Decsei whispers, “Sic transit gloria mundi” — “Thus passes the glory of the world.”

Outside he poses for a picture — in which he is smiling, still.

Recommended from JTA