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Behind the Headlines Rumanian Jewry: Pent-up Longings

September 7, 1977
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A brief encounter with Rumanian Jewry can be a haunting and moving experience, as Premier Menachem Begin discovered last week. For this reporter, who accompanied the Premier on his official visit to Rumania the experience was even more heart-wrenching because he, unlike the Premier, was able to mingle freely and speak directly with numerous Jews in Bucharest, the capital.

The all-pervading fear of even the most chance contact with foreigners which used to daunt all Rumanians has apparently eased somewhat in recent years. There were many opportunities for conversation, although, of course, some sensitive subjects were, by tacit understanding, ruled taboo and carefully avoided.

Chief among these was the subject of aliya. It is the desire of many of Rumania’s remaining Jews to re-unite with their relations in Israel. If the desire is present and yet it has not been realized, the reason, in most cases, is the authorities refusal to grant an exit permit. Hence the reticence on the subject. Some of the cases one comes across are painfully poignant.


One devout, bearded man mentioned in passing that he had a son studying at a yeshiva in Israel. In the course of the conversation it emerged that the boy is now aged twelve, that his doting father had sent him alone to Israel two years earlier (“How can I bring him up the way I would like to here?”) and that there is no knowing when the two will meet again. The man’s elderly parents are living in Israel and the boy spends his weekends with them.

There is also the story of an older man, also devoutly Orthodox, who lost a wife and seven children in Hitler’s death camps. He married again and had one daughter, whom he brought up in his own devout traditions. When he found the girl was having a hard time at her school (They lived in a provincial town) because she observed the Sabbath, he sent her to Israel. One meets a good many Jews who have visited Israel-but never as a family. “Don’t let’s talk about that any more,” said one meaningfully. His hint was clear enough.


At the same time there is a very conscious awareness among all the Jews one meets of how fortunate else in the Soviet bloc. For only in Rumania could they maintain their religious and communal life, freely and openly, actively encouraged by the authorities.

Moreover, as one bearded and side locked Jew from a provincial town told me, every sign or semblance of anti-Semitism is quickly and forcefully slapped down by the authorities and thus a Jew who looks like a Jew need have no fear to walk the streets or travel on the trains even in the most isolated areas. Every Rumanian knows that a tangle with them is to be avoided at all costs–even at the cost of foregoing the joys of Jew-baiting.

Ironically, it is this relative freedom and well being that the Jews of Rumania enjoy which itself is the major reason why one basic freedom is denied them: the freedom to leave. This is because the government seeks to prove to the world–both East and West-that it is genuinely tolerant of religious practice and religious minorities without this prejudicing its Communist orthodoxy. It is yet another pin with which to prick the Kremlin.

But to achieve this a primary prerequisite is the existence of a Jewish community upon which to lavish the religious tolerance and governmental care and protection. With an estimated 400,000 Rumanian Jews (Holocaust survivors–some half a million were killed by the Nazis) having gradually left, mainly for Israel, over the years, the government is apparently concerned to retain the remaining few thousands. (According to Israeli estimates the current figure is around 50,000. The Rumanian authorities put it lower.)

Thus Begin’s plea for free family reunion for all those who wish it did not meet with an immediately positive response from President Nicolae Ceausescu and his aides. Nevertheless, Israeli sources professed themselves not discouraged. Apparently they took heart from the sympathetic hearing which the Rumanian leaders gave to Begin on the Jewish issue.


Obviously, though, the fate of Rumania’s remaining Jews is linked with the broader issues of Rumania–Israel relations and of Rumania’s own policy considerations, in which the Soviet connection is always the predominant factor. Begin could only give the Jews of Bucharest who flocked to the Choral Synagogue on Friday night to hear his vague and unspecific message of hope and encouragement. But, given Begin’s rousing oratory and the passionate sincerity with which he spoke, this was clearly enough to lift the hearts of those who heard him–as their faces so vividly portrayed.

He spoke in Hebrew, and then in Yiddish–“the language which my mother spoke to me.” He recounted his own previous visits to Rumania in 1938, and again in 1939, at the head of large groups of Betar youngsters fleeing the Nazi scourge and headed for Palestine.

The first groups were able to embark on a freighter and made their destination. The second was turned back at the Rumanian border when the British envoy in Bucharest intervened to invalidate their visas. Eventually they all went back to Poland. “I am one of the very few of that group of 1900 young Jews and Jewesses who survived the Holocaust,” the Israeli leader said.

When a choir of youngsters in blue and white gave a rendering of “Jerusalem of Gold” Begin could no longer contain his emotions and wept openly. “We shall always remember your tears,” Rumanian Chief Rabbi Moshe Rosen told Begin later. “Your visit was a true reunion of brothers.”

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