Jewish Life in Romania under Ceausescu: ‘It is Difficult to be a Jew’

Dorotea Weissbuch and Pompiliu Sterian; photo courtesy Morris Rosen Home
Dorotea Weissbuch and Pompiliu Sterian; photo courtesy Morris Rosen House

[see part 1: “Jewish Life in Romania under Ceausescu: Dealing with the Devil]

By Liam Hoare

Communism came to Romania in 1947. After the Second World War, the Romanian Communist Party over whom the Soviet Union had tremendous influence gained greater control within the government appointed by King Michael, absorbing and fusing with other left-wing parties. The communists ruled Romania “as if it was already a one-party state,” Robert Service writes, eliminating its political opponents in the process. “The atmosphere of repression thickened.” King Michael was forced to abdicate in November 1947, and total control was guaranteed by fraudulent elections held in March 1948.

It was at around this time that Dorotea Weissbuch – now 85-years-old and a resident of Moses Rosen House – was attending first a Jewish kindergarten, and then a Jewish school. “After the communists came in, all the religious and ethnic schools were nationalized by the state, and the Jewish education in our schools stopped. The teachers were fired and the students didn’t have a place to continue their Jewish education.

“What happened? The former teachers obtained other jobs and the pupils were sent to different kinds of schools, but the majority were collected by the community in the synagogue where these teachers were unofficially continuing their education, not necessarily Jewish education, but they were teaching physics and mathematics and so on,” Weissbuch told me. She also recalled how their family was thrown out of their home when it was requisitioned by the state.

Dinu Margareta, 106; photo courtesy Moses Rosen Home
Dinu Margareta, 106; photo courtesy Moses Rosen House

“From those times, there existed a saying: ‘In Romania, it is difficult to be a Jew,’” Margareta Dinu, aged 106, proffered to me.

“When communism was introduced, religion and nationality no longer existed. Everybody was equal. There were Hungarians, Jews, Romanians, and so on,” Pompiliu Sterian told me, who under fascism was thrown out of university for being Jewish and during the Holocaust was deported to Transnistria into forced labor. “But it was important to be communist and to have the same opinion, way of thinking, and ideology. Even if Jews were in positions of power, they didn’t protect the Jews. They were protecting the communist laws.

“I don’t want to speak about why they were communist but everyone has their own ideological positions and has the right to think and decide on his own. But in the name of this ideology, crimes were committed: obstruction, destruction, suffering, and it needs to be condemned. We cannot condemn their conviction but we can condemn the bad things they have done,” Sterian concluded.

Unlike in Poland, for example – where there was a wave of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in 1968 that drove most of the country’s remaining Jews away to other lands – anti-Semitism was never the official policy of the state in Romania. And, as previously mentioned, Romania never severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, even after 1967, and continued to allow aliya, albeit for a fee. But the residents of Moses Rosen House with whom I spoke talked of other kinds of anti-Semitism they experienced under communism and during Ceaușescu’s rule.

“I was a journalist. I began my career as a second-degree reporter, and then ascended the hierarchy slowly, and eventually became editor of the newspaper published by the post office,” Sterian explained. “At a certain time, the ministry in charge of running the post office was shut down and with it the newspaper disappeared.

“I wanted to remain in mass media, and was writing articles about economics, and when the newspaper was shut down I went to other newspapers and to some colleagues I knew there. I told them about the situation and asked if I could work for them. We were friends, very good and dear friends, and they said, ‘It will be done. Come back in three days.’ They said, ‘We will ask the party to look at your file.’

“After three days, I returned, and they said, ‘We are sorry but the party section on human resources would not agree.’ They had orders from the county. This happened three times on three different newspapers, and the reason, I would come out later, is because I am a Jew,” Sterian said.

Dorotea Weissbuch; photo courtesy Morris Rosen House
Dorotea Weissbuch, 85; photo courtesy Morris Rosen House

Dorotea Weissbuch also experienced discrimination. “In 1956, there were huge lines for putting down documents in order to request aliya,” she told me. “What was the reaction of the authorities? My husband was an engineer, working on large projects, and because he tried to register documents to make aliya, he was demoted to a lower position.”

“My mother was Jewish, my father was not. My father was a member of the Party. Until 1964, when I began primary school, my parents weren’t married because my father, being Romanian and a member of the Party, wasn’t permitted to marry a Jew. This is why, in 1964, he took the decision to quit the Party, in order to get married,” Mihaela Birlegi, 61, recounted to me.

“In 1975, my sister requested to make aliya and she was thrown out of her job. In 1977, based on the fact that my sister tried to leave, I was thrown out of my job even though I was not the one to request aliya,” Birlegi continued. “I have also evicted from the home where I was leaving. For a period of three years, I couldn’t find employment anywhere. After three years, I found work as a cleaning lady. This all happened because my sister tried to leave.”

While Moses Rosen achieved great victories for the community, then, including the right to aliya, thrown out of work and evicted from their homes, Romanian Jews could not escape the reach of the Ceaușescu regime. “Jewish life during the time of Ceaușescu was very mixed,” Dr. Aurel Vanier recalls. He noted that during the period of systemization, after 1978, “more or less a thousand synagogues and cemeteries were taken.” Moreover, while religious life was preserved, that doesn’t mean that the state felt favorably towards it.

Vanier was born in a shtetl in prewar Romania, where families were traditional, kept Shabbat, and sent their children to the cheder to learn Hebrew. But later, living in Bucharest, Vanier found that religious expression was kept within the family. “My family respected religion and went to synagogue,” but over time contact with religion reduced. “We kept kosher, but especially us children, we also began to eat non-kosher food, and had meat and milk at the same time. We kept the holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur – in the home but we did not have a religious life. Only my father went with my mother to the synagogue on the major Jewish holidays.”

“My parents were religious. They went to synagogue, lit candles on Shabbat, celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, and Sukkot. They made traditional Jewish cakes. They did what was possible,” Sterian told me. “This is what I inherited from my parents, but during the period of communism, we tried not to draw attention to ourselves, so what we did was limited to what it is possible to do in the home. Going to the synagogue, going to the community centre, less so, in order to protect ourselves.

“Some Jewish life existed on the level of the community, especially because of the work of Rabbi Moses Rosen, who tried to maintain Jewish life within the parameters set down by the communist regime. Some synagogues were saved, a few rabbis remained. Jewish life was limited to the synagogue and what was around the synagogue, the kosher canteen, choir.

“But outside of the community, people shouldn’t know, they shouldn’t see us, they shouldn’t hear from us, in order not to complicate our lives,” Sterian said. As for the JDC, they were “coming and helping us. Because of them, it was possible to get kosher meat, which we bought not because it was kosher, but because in the shops it wasn’t possible to buy meat.”

“We Jews were trying to be equal to everyone else,” Sterian concluded.