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Behind the Headlines a Tale of 3 Central European Cities

May 14, 1985
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There is a street in what was once the old Jewish Quarter of Bucharest named for Abraham Goldfaden, founder of the modern Yiddish theater. There are costumes, posters, and flyers from the Yiddish theater in the Historical Museum of the Jewish Communities of Rumania, established seven years ago in the former men’s tailors’ synagogue. There is also a functioning Yiddish State Theater, which performs plays by Jewish authors such as Peretz, Ansky, and Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish, and provides its audiences running translations via earphones.

“Revista Cultului Mozaic,” the newspaper published by the Rumanian Jewish community since 1956, has several hundred foreign readers, among them Soviet Jews. The community gets letters from them saying they read and study it.

During this past winter, which has been severe not only metereologically but also economically, the Jews have been the only Rumanian citizens who have meat. The government accords the community the right to carry out schechita (kosher slaughter) in state facilities. The Bishop of Bucharest came to the Jewish community — asking for a kilo of meat.

When the Iron Guard carried out its pogrom of January, 1941, the Torahs in the Great Synagogue were hurled toward the ceiling, ripped and crushed. All were destroyed but one, which got caught on a chandelier and was later rescued. After the war it was sent as a gift to Israel.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Rumania created new sources of income for its educational and cultural budget (and for 20 percent of the social services budget). They originally got a monopoly on the baking of matzot and the pressing of grapes from their own vineyards. Now they import without customs duties, and sell matzot from Israel as well as alcoholic beverages — 200,000 bottles of wine a year and 200,000 bottles of cognac. Most of the buyers are non-Jews.

The Giurgui cemetery of Bucharest has memorials for the Jews murdered during the Nazi and Iron Guard pogroms of January, 1941. It also has a tall white monument on which are listed in black the names of all the 768 Jews who drowned when the “Struma,” a vessel trying to smuggle in illegal immigrants to Palestine, sank in the Black Sea February 24, 1942. There was one survivor, who made his way to Japan.

Rumanian Foreign Minister Stefan Andrei, in response to a question from members of the World Jewish Congress delegation who met with him during their visit to Bucharest, stressed that Rumania considered Archbishop Valerian Trifa a war criminal but Rumania would not ask for his extradition because he is not a Rumanian citizen. Trifa, the Iron Guardist accused of inciting the January 1941 pogrom in Bucharest, lived as a U.S. citizen in Michigan until he was deported, following denaturalization. He is now in Portugal.

The Hana kosher restaurant in Budapest, which feeds 1,000 people daily, is supervised by a woman mashgiach (person who makes sure the laws of kashrut are observed). She is Zsuzsika Lefkowitz, who learned the profession from her husband.

A young academic claims that if a survey were made of prominent Hungarian Jewish intellectuals, it would be found that almost all were members of Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist youth movement, in 1948.

Dr. Ilona Benoschofsky, who has been the director of the Jewish Museum of Budapest for 21 years, is the sister of the Chief Rabbi of pre-war Buda, Dr. Imre Benoschofsky. Imre gave Hannah Senesch religious instruction when she was a high school student, said Ilona. He came to a meeting of the Jewish youth club she served as president and reported to his sister that “she spoke with a Jewish heart.”

At the Friday evening gathering at Rabbi Sandor Scheiber’s Seminary in Budapest during the visit of the World Jewish Congress delegation, those present sang Shir Hamaalot, one of the zmirot (traditional Shabbat songs), to the tune of Hatikvah, the Jewish national anthem.

While the official position of Czechoslovakia is anti-Zionist, some Jews perceive private sympathy to Israel among Czech gentiles. A case in point is the Israeli rescue of its hostages from Entebbe in 1976, which occasioned much unofficial cheering. Some generals and high officers in the Army reportedly screened a film about Entebbe and regarded the operation as a model to be emulated.

Last year, the newspaper of the Czech Jewish community published an article on the 1944 revolt in Slovakia, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, which the country was marking. The article included an account of how Haviva Reik, native of a village near Banska-Bistriza in Slovakia who settled in the Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz Maanit, parachuted into the liberated territory with her comrades from Palestine and how she was killed when the territory was recaptured by the Nazis. Her body, thrown in a mass grave, was identified after post-war exhumation by a bracelet she wore giving her British Army nom de guerre. (Reik’s remains and those of another comrade were brought to Israel in 1953 and re-buried in the parachutists’ section on Mt. Herzl.)

The State Jewish Museum in Prague was an excellent archive which, I was told, includes 3,000 books stolen by the Germans from the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest in 1944. The Seminary wants them back and the Czechs want to return them, but the accomlishment of this effort is snarled in inter-ministerial red tape.

The tomb of the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew — credited with the creation of the golem in the 16th century) in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague — like the tombs of other Jewish saints and the Western Wall, is stuffed with petitions on tiny slips of paper, asking him to apply his wonder-working powers to various personal problems. Hundreds of letters addressed to the Maharal arrive every year from all over Eastern and Central Europe, mostly from non-Jews. The post office turns them all over to the secretary of the Jewish community.

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