Jewish Life in Romania under Ceausescu: Dealing with the Devil

Jewish Life in Romania 1978By Liam Hoare

In 1978, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Socialist Republic of Romania produced a commemorative pamphlet, celebrating the three decades since Dr. Moses Rosen was elected the country’s Chief Rabbi. “The descendant of a brilliant rabbinical family whose genealogy goes back to Rashi,” the pamphlet says of Rosen, “he was habilitated as a rabbi by great contemporary gaons. His Eminence has made a considerable to the solution of problems facing Jews today.” Rosen is shown receiving an honor from Nicolae Ceaușescu “for his social and political activities.”

The exultant, purple-hued language of this pamphlet is demonstrative of how, during the time of communism, Chief Rabbi Dr. Moses Rosen dominated Jewish community life in Romania. From 1963, Rosen was also President of the Federation, and held the dual positions of community president and chief rabbi until his death in 1994, five years after the democratic revolution. For several decades, in the Jewish community, Rosen was both God and Caesar. He was the autocratic leader of a Jewish community living in an autocratic state.

Indeed, Romania was perhaps the most autocratic and despotic of all the eastern Europe socialist republics (save Albania). Nicknamed ‘Ceauschwitz’, Romania was “turned virtually into a personal fiefdom” during Ceaușescu’s time in office, Mark Mazower observes. Becoming General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, Ceaușescu was one of Europe’s ‘little Stalins’, with his own cult of personality. All state-level decisions were taken by Nicolae and his awful wife, Elena, and his tight grip on institutions and the people was aided by the Securitate, his secret police.

For Romanians, by the 1980s life under Ceaușescu had become miserable and wretched. Required to pay off foreign debts accrued during a previous period of economic expansion, Ceaușescu “did not flinch at impoverishing his people in order to keep the national accounts in the black,” Robert Service writes. Consumption was squeezed as exports of crops, oil, and wine increased, while “daily life was ravaged by the insanely destructive program of ‘systemization’ through which the regime demolished thousands of villages, scores of towns and eventually a large part of Bucharest itself,” Mazower writes.

Chagim in RomaniaBut Ceaușescu’s Romania was a country of contradictions. In spite of the social and cultural tumult that Soviet communism brought to eastern Europe, Romania was the one state in which Jewish life, including religious life, survived to some extent (with some difficulty). Around 40,000 Jews lived in Romania in 1978, and at that time the community owned 120 operating synagogues, 61 of which had daily morning and evening services. There was Talmud Torah classes and community choirs, kosher restaurants, Jewish cemeteries, magazines in Hebrew and Yiddish, a common Seder on Passover, festivities for Hanukkah, Purim, and Sukkot, and a Jewish museum in Bucharest.

Another contradiction was Ceaușescu’s pursuit of a national communism policy which, in practice, meant both membership of the Warsaw Pact and an orientation towards the West that brought financial rewards. This benefitted Romanian Jewry in two ways. First, on the back of positive relations with the United States, Ceaușescu allowed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to return to Romania in 1967, having been banished after the Second World War. “The Jewish community had a special situation because we were able to obtain money from the JDC,” Dr. Aurel Vanier, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM), told me. “It was the principal sponsor of Jewish activity in Romania.”

Moshe Dayan RomaniaSecond, Romania was the only Eastern bloc state to maintain relations with Israel after the Six Day War. The community’s 1978 pamphlet contains pictures of visits by Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Navon visiting the Coral synagogue, and Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres attending Talmud Torah classes. Romanian Jews were also allowed to make aliya, although as Service notes, Ceaușescu turned Jewish emigration into a profit-making venture. “Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel had to pay a heavy financial toll for the exit visa and the air trip,” Service notes. It is thought that Israel paid the regime $112,498,800 between 1968 and 1989 for 40,577 Jews, at a price of $2,500-$3,300 a head, at a rate of around 1,500 Jews per annum.

All of this – the survival of Jewish life, the contribution of the JDC, and the continuation of aliya – was made possible, in no small part, due to the work of Dr. Moses Rosen. It was Rosen who acted as a conduit between Romania and the United States to help secure the return of the JDC, in turn developing a system of social assistance within the community, and between Romania and Israel to set up the cash-for-olim system that thinned the ranks of Romanian Jewry so dramatically. On the back of these successes, he was able to protect Jewish religious life, and particularly during the 1980s, “a new life within the community began and the Jewish community was more open,” Vanier said.

Rosen was favored by and had a working relationship with Ceaușescu. It was useful to Ceaușescu to deal with a single individual who had total control over Jewish communal institutions. Moreover, Ceaușescu saw how useful Rosen could be, and indeed was, to his regime due to his contacts with the West. Rosen “was like an ambassador for Ceaușescu to the Occidental powers and especially to the United States,” Vanier said, and also to Israel. It was Rosen who, amongst others, helped Romania achieve Most-Favored-Nation trade status with the United States.

For his works – for dealing with the devil – Rosen was criticized for granting a dictatorial regime “a fig leaf of respectability in the eyes of much of the West.” Indeed, in the Jewish community of Romania, there are many different opinions, Vanier told me, about the life and legacy of someone who dominated community life for four decades. “Rosen carried out the politics of the communist regime in our community, but, he had good results because he preserved our heritage and activities in our synagogues did not stop.”

It is true, Vanier conceded, that Rosen was “very autocratic. Democracy was not present in the life of the Jewish community” during his tenure as Chief Rabbi and President of the Federation. While thousands would make aliya, he did not permit rabbis and hazzanim to emigrate to Israel, since he needed him to work with him in the religious life of the community. But, Vanier contends, Rosen “tried to find solutions to improve the situation for Jewish people” in Romania.

In Bucharest today, there is a retirement home named after Dr. Moses Rosen, one of two care facilities in Romania operated by FEDROM and supported by the JDC. (The other is in Arad in the west of the country.) The home is part of the system of care that Rosen helped to establish, which today has a kosher kitchen, a synagogue, and various common spaces including a garden.

“Each person has their good sides and bad sides. Those times were very complicated,” Pompiliu Sterian, a 96-year-old resident of the Moses Rosen House, told me when I visited the home. “Rosen was a diplomat and a politician, and a great theological educator. Even though 350,000 Jews left Romania, there is Jewish life here because of him.

“In order to achieve what he wanted to achieve, he had to make some deals. You cannot just request; you have to give,” Sterian continued. “He was the one who obtained some extraordinary successes – Moses Rosen was the negotiator between the communist regime, [the JDC], Israel, and the administration in the United States. He was requesting something from the communist regime for the community, and he was the element trying to intervene for Romania to try and get something from the international community. He served the communist system and helped the Romanian state, otherwise, he couldn’t have obtained anything.

“One of the legends about Moses Rosen, that I heard when I came to Bucharest, was that he would sell his soul to the devil in order to get every Jew out of Romania,” Sterian said.

See part 2: Jewish Life in Romania under Ceaușescu: ‘It is Difficult to be a Jew.’