This story makes me incredibly sad. But it’s also more important than most of what I write about, because it is worth knowing the story of the people who once lived and gathered together to worship in this place. It’s based on all of the stories I heard while I lived in Romania, fact checked where possible with online resources and histories. To the best of my knowledge, this is the story of Oradea’s empty synagogue, and the people who worshiped there.
Oradea, Romania had a sizable Jewish population for almost 500 years. They lived first in a Jewish quarter, segregated from the rest of the population, and after legal changes in the 1830s which provided a greater degree of tolerance and freedom, they lived within the city wherever they chose. There were both reformed and orthodox Jewish communities, and a set of institutional and social structures including a hospital, baroque style synagogues and schools, a soup kitchen and a women’s association.The Jewish residents of Oradea were architects, doctors, bankers, teachers, merchants, civil servants and farmers, and I read once that they comprised the most vibrant Jewish population within the entire Austro-Hungarian empire. Although many of the synagogues were demolished, what remains of the architecture of that time is beautiful. Indeed, I know many families who live in lovely apartments sectioned out of the homes of affluent Jewish families, homes that were seized before the start of the second World War and never returned to the families who had built them.
Oradea is a city I have lived in, a city that I love, and it has been passed back and forth between nations over the years. In the 1920s it was part of Romania, when the rise of the Iron Guard, an aggressive anti-Semitic group, foreshadowed the attitudes of the Holocaust. They were one marker of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the region. Then, in 1940, the border city was ceded back from Romania to Hungary. Then came four years of conscription, forced labor, confiscation of businesses and personal property and residences, refusal of service in shops, and denial of their right to work. In 1944,there were 30,000 Jewish people in Oradea (about a third of the city’s population). But then they were squeezed into an impoverished ghetto, which in all of Hungary was second in size only to the famous Budapest ghetto, and they began to die, of typhoid and suicide and the terrible living conditions. Then they were crammed into cattle wagons, and told they were being taken to work. Instead, they were taken to the death camps at Aushwitz-Birkenau. Ultimately, 25,000 Jewish people were taken from Oradea to the concentration camps.
At the end of the war, only 2000 survivors returned to Oradea, which became part of Romania once more.
They were looking for family, for fellow survivors, but they didn’t find many. The years that followed were also oppressive to Romania’s Jewish population, and most of the survivors left for the US, for Israel, for other parts of Europe. Even after the time of Ceaușescu finally ended in 1989, they didn’t return.
Today Oradea has only a few hundred Jewish residents. I don’t know how to explain what it does to a city when a third of the population is killed or exiled in a few years, how haunting it is to walk the streets and see reminders that so many people left and never returned. And yet there is no museum of Jewish history in the city. The reminders are too few. But there is one very visible memorial right in the center of town, casting its reflection into the river.
The Zion Temple has fallen into disuse and disrepair, but is still beautiful. Built in 1878, it seated over 1000 people. Today it is inhabited by an older man, two dogs, and many cats. There is an armchair in one corner, an outhouse behind the building, and the old man smokes his pipe and invites visitors on a tour, asking for money ‘for repairs to the synagogue.’ He says that he keeps out the vandals and makes repairs to the broken glass when he can. Maybe he does; I can’t say for sure.
Along the interior synagogue walls are markers that the survivors of Auschwitz put up for the family members and friends who did not return, simple black plaques engraved in Hebrew and Romanian and Hungarian, with names and dates and Stars of David. They hang on the wall beneath a dome of broken glass, alongside a balcony that is collapsing, too dangerous to walk along. If you stand beneath it, you can look straight up through the holes in the wood to the gorgeous blue dome, which in spite of its chipping paint is still lovely. I know all of this because this year I finally did something I’ve been longing to do for the last decade – I went inside the Zion Temple. Here is what I found:
The synagogue was so beautiful and so heartbreaking and so incredibly compelling, all at the same time, because of the lives and the history that it evoked, that I think I will remember it until I die. Which is exactly what we should do, and perhaps all we can do, for the very real people who once worshiped in this place.