At Age 92, Remembering Romania’s Jewish Community
The still sounds of the entire hall were filled by the voice of an elderly man, his words recounting the rich and bustling Jewish communities that once filled Romania before the Second World War. However, unlike most, Aristide Streja, age 92, saw it with his own eyes.
Mr. Streja, now a curator of the largest Holocaust museum in Romania, spends his days attending to the few wandering visitors or the massive American tour groups who come to learn of an event that is not so well known in Western history books. The Shoah in Romania, unlike most of the other nations, was something perpetrated by the Romanians themselves. As in Germany, neighbor turned against neighbor amid the rise of totalitarian complacency.
The moment you walk in The Great Synagogue of Bucharest you are immediately struck by the beautiful 19th century architecture and art that decorates the walls, only to be lead to the Shoah exhibition that surrounds the entire shul, which is oddly indicative of the still overarching pain that surrounds the Bucharest Jewish community. It is rather disconcerting that the shul, which is functioning, also serves as a Shoah museum. However, the lack of funds and support has given the community no real choice.
In fact, the strife that the community had gone through historically is unthinkable. After the death of 400,000 Jews in the Shoah, anti-semitism in Communist Romania was just as alive. A great deal of Jews left for Israel under Ceausescu, Romania’s Communist dictator, which has led to the community today dwindling to approximately 9,000 people. The shul itself, found in one of Bucharest’s old neighborhoods, is surrounded by decrepit communist-styled apartment buildings, making it seem not only physically, but also symbolically, out of place.
Mr. Streja, at his old fashioned desk, in his out-of-style tie and at his frail age, jumps at the opportunity to greet people in his museum. Despite, the morose mood that continually haunts the place, an occasional smile can be seen on Streja’s experienced face, only to remind his visitors that despite what people have gone through, there is no reason not to continue on living a happy life, even at 92.
Born in 1922, in Bucharest’s old Jewish neighborhood into a pious Jewish family, Mr. Streja grew up with a conventional Jewish education, only to later go to a high school in the same area as the the synagogue/museum he currently curates. However, like most Jews, his family suffered terribly,
As a result of the anti-Jewish legislation that was instituted by the Antonescu regime in the late 30s, Mr. Streja’s father lost his business and was not longer allowed to engage in any trade. Streja spent his teenage years during the war doing hard labour around and in Bucharest, under the supervision of Antonescu’s army. He saw friends, parts of his family, and a great chunk of the community murdered.
This lasted until 1944, when Soviet troops liberated Bucharest and Romania from the fascist grip.
After the war, he continued to live in old Bucharest and took up a rewarding career in architecture. He later got married and finished college in 1977 under the Communist university directive. However, he never stopped participating in the Jewish community, both socially and religiously. In 1996, he co-authored a book entitled the Synagogues of Romania, in which he outlined the current state of Romania’s shuls and communities.
The point is that Mr. Streja is a man who interestingly has not only seen history happen but lived through it, and the fact that he continues to curate a museum today should be exalted. However, his fame does not extend outside Bucharest’s Jewish community, or the few tourists and visitors whose hearts he touches. In fact, there is very little about him out there.
An interview I read before visiting the museum gave the impression of a man who had gone through a lot, but his optimism was electric the moment I saw him behind the shul doors. Although his hearing obviously fading, his smile and attentiveness were gleaming with youth. A youth that, mind you, cannot be extinguished. He also has hope for a better future for Jews in the diaspora and in Israel. In his own words, he said that Israel ” was a miracle back then and today”.
The author is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He has dedicated much of his time researching the Jewish Community of Jassy, as well as that of Romania. He is currently working on his book The Jassy Pogrom.