Fri 25 Mar 2011
As we were drawing near to our first and maybe most important stop for me in this trip the weather started to become gray and rainy. We felt the change in landscape as soon as we entered the judetz (county) of Neamtz. Hills took the place of the dusty landscape that we crossed for about 300 kilometers. Unfortunately the sun chose to hide and clouds were quite low. When we entered the city of Piatra Neamtz, the place were the Romascanu family lived for more than one hundred years, since the mid of the 19th century, the three hills surrounding the city were hidden by clouds.
Frankly speaking I was not sure at all that we will find the place I was looking for. We were looking for the house of my grandparents, the house where my father and my aunt lived as children, the place where I spent every summer vacation until the age of 14, after which my grandparents left the city and moved to Bucharest, to live close to my father. As we where getting closer I was thinking that the chances to find the house still standing were low, as all the area was full of new condos buildings and villas. And then the GPS told us ‘you have reached your destination’ and the house was there! Everything around was new on that side of the street, all but my grandparents house!
I had not seen the place for more than 30 years. I had returned to Piatra Neamtz only once since my grandpa and grandma left the city, and this must have been around 1980. Many people describe their experience when getting back to places that were very familiar when they where children in a change of dimensions, a disappointing dwarfing in many cases. That was not at all my impression. The house is imposing, it was renovated and it is well maintained by the people who own it today. It was a well built structure, raised in the 1920s when my grandfather was a wealthy merchant. He owned all the land up to the slopes at the mid of the Cozia hill, where he was growing grapes, apples and prunes. The Communists confiscated all the property excepting the house at the street, and even that house he was obliged to share with another three families. My grandfather worked as an accountant at a local paper factory in order to sustain the house.
The address was 35, the Petru Rares street. Actually during the Communist rule the name of street was changed to Lenin street (Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia), but I knew the old name of the street and guessed correctly that at the dawn after the Communist night the street gained back the name of the voievod (king) Petru Rares of Moldavia. The windows on the right were of the room which was left to my grandparents, my bed was under these windows during the summer vacations.
Three more families shared the house. Mr. and Mrs. Moscovici had no connection with Liliana, although sharing the same family name, quite common among the Romanian Jews. Mr. Mihailovici was a pharmacist and was very seldom at home, I think that he worked in another city. Mr. Sherban was an economist and the manager of the local CEC (savings deposit bank). I was sneaking in his room while he was at work to read from the books in his room, as he had what looked to me then an impressive library.
If the house kept the impressive dimensions that I remembered the streets seemed to have compressed. What I remembered as a long walk to the center of the city was a five minutes walk and the synagogue where my grandfather prayed for more than 40 years was even a shorter walk from the house. The building is impressive, and so is the history of the Jewish community in Piatra Neamtz which extends for more than half of a thousand of years. It’s a relatively new building built in 1839 and reconstructed after a fire in 1904. It is said however that successive synagogues on this place existed since the time of king Stefan the Great – as the St. John church built by him in the second half of the 15th century (one of the landmarks of the city that I will describe in the next episode) is situated less than the 150 stânjeni (about 300 m) distance that were to separate a synagogue from a church according to Moldavian law – so the explanation was that a synagogue was already there by the time the church was built.
What is certain and attested by documents is that many Jews came to Piatra Neamtz in the 17th century from Poland and Ukraine after the uprising and pogroms of Chmielniki. In the 18th century Jews were not allowed to build synagogues from stone, and this is how the Baal Shem Tov wooden synagogue was built in 1766. This synagogue unique in its style and method of contruction was recently renovated and said to hold wonderful wooden carvings executed in 1835 by Saraga Yitzhak Ben Moshe. Unfortunately despite the fact that the day was not a Shabat or holiday and the time was a reasonable 2 or 3PM the two synagogues were closed and locked, and no sign indicated how and when they can be visited. All that I could do was to take pictures from the street. Luckily Ruth Ellen Gruber – author of a wonderful book of Jewish Heritage Travel also has a Web site where she put some photos of the interior of the wooden synagogue – http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com/2009/12/romania-piatra-neamt-wooden-synagogue.html