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First Person How the Past Reached out During a Recent Trip to Romania

May 22, 2006
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What I remember most about my great-uncle Pinkas is his age — and his hat. I only met him once or twice, when I visited Bucharest on journalistic assignments in 1978 and 1979.

Pinkas, my grandfather’s brother, was then in his mid-90s. His wife had recently died, and he was staying with friends in a small apartment while arrangements were being made for him to enter a newly opened old-age home run by the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities, and named after the then-Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen and his wife.

I visited Pinkas at the friends’ apartment and also at the home, where he later passed away. Pinkas, I remember thinking, seemed like the oldest man I had ever met. Still, his wizened features bore a striking resemblance to my own father and his siblings. And like so many men in Romania, he wore a black fur hat, even inside.

Back in those days, under the dictatorial regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was not safe for Romanians to have contacts with foreigners — and especially not with foreign journalists. I kept my contacts limited and brought Pinkas hard-to-get oranges and similar items rather than money.

I’m not really sure that he even knew who I was. My grandfather, like Pinkas born near the town of Radauti in northern Romania, had left for Ohio before World War I and had been the only member of his family to immigrate to America. Most of my family members survived the Holocaust in labor camps, and after the war they left Romania for Israel.

Pinkas was the only one who stayed behind. I was told that he worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel or another organization that helped Jews emigrate. As far as I knew, he had no children.

The image of my uncle returned vividly during a recent trip to Bucharest, when I went with members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee board to visit the federation’s social welfare programs, which are supported by the JDC.

Early in the morning, we assembled at the federation’s central kosher kitchen to watch staff members load meals-on-wheels containers into vans and move off on their rounds to more than 240 elderly Jews around the city.

More than half of Romania’s estimated 10,000 Jewish community members are 60 or older, and many are elderly Holocaust survivors living on pensions of less than $100 a month. The JDC and the federation run an extensive network of social welfare programs that regularly serve about 2,000 people nationwide.

Dubbed “the dignity program,” the system has been in place for decades, and, despite budget cuts, its programs still include medical care, cash grants, cooked meals and food packages, clothing, day-care centers and senior homes that represent a vital lifeline for many recipients.

According to the JDC, 85 percent of the elderly Jewish Holocaust survivors served by the federation are alone, and fewer than 25 percent of them have relatives in Romania. But thanks in large part to the Jewish parallel support system, one of the welfare team told us, “Jewish life expectancy in Romania is seven years more than that of the normal population.”

I thought of Uncle Pinkas, and how he had been one of these people. Like elderly Romanian Jews today, he had signed over his apartment and belongings to the federation when he went into care, and he spent his last months in the federation’s Rosen home, which not long ago marked 25 years of activity.

I’m not into genealogy, but sometimes the past can reach out like an embrace.

On a whim, I mentioned my distant, and long-deceased, uncle to the chief social worker, Franca Oprescu. Would any records on him still remain? Would there be, perhaps, some record of where he had been buried?

Two hours later, Oprescu handed me a tattered folder.

“Gruber Pinkas,” the cover read, in flowing script. Stamped on it in red ink was the word “deceased” above a handwritten notation, May 4, 1980.

Inside was a sheaf of papers documenting his years of social assistance and making the bureaucratic preparations for his acceptance into the Rosen Home.

Pinkas died at 98.

One of the forms in the folder noted his parents’ names: Anschel and Ettel. They were my great-grandparents. Anschel had died long before World War II. Ettel, then in her 90s, had remarkably survived the Holocaust in a labor camp and eventually passed away in 1947; I was given my middle name in her honor.

Oprescu took back the folder to return it to the files. She handed me a slip of paper, on which she had written down the plot in a Jewish cemetery south of the city where Pinkas had his grave.

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