Like many Romanian cities, in Oradea the atmosphere is relaxed and the economy is on the up. But Oradea’s ghosts at the table are the Synagogues. Recent travels in central and eastern Europe have brought home the holocaust in a way that somehow I wasn’t expecting. You know about the camps but visiting cities where a substantial proportion of the population were taken away and murdered in a short spell of time – it brings it home in a different way.
There’s a full account at this site but Oradea had one of the largest Jewish populations in Romania – making up a third of the city’s population. They made an enormous contribution to the city – most visible today in the Art Nouveau buildings many of which they financed and designed.
Persecution by the Romanian ‘Iron Guard’ fascists began in the late twenties. Things worsened in 1940 when the region became part of Hungary again and Jewish men were directed into labour battalions. In 1944 the surviving population were concentrated by the Hungarian authorities into an appalling, uncovered ghetto before later that year they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau on cattle trains (90 people to a wagon for a four day journey).
After the War the remaining Jewish population regrouped – but the Communist regime was hostile and many emigrated when they had the chance. Now the Jewish population is down to less than a thousand (but still the largest in Romania). There’s a Jewish community centre (with police guard) within a coral which keeps the flame alive – and looks after two synagogues. Elsewhere, right at the heart of Oradea, is the enormous Zion Nealog Synagogue. Abandoned relatively recently it’s now slowly falling apart – too big to keep up for such a small Jewish population. Despite being in the city centre you access it down a rough path where the caretaker hangs out in the porch – a dishevelled but friendly old guy with a dog, some chickens and a rubber truncheon for company.
The ruined Synagogues are unsettling – hit you hard.
You can still sense what a vibrant community it must have been – dynamic and creative. The totality of the violence. The madness of it – 1944 – the war was already lost. The vacuum.