My Jewish Family in Romania, Past and Present

In the 1890s, two Jewish men from Moldavian towns roughly 230 kilometers apart left Romania for the United States. Following in the footsteps of roughly 70,000 of their compatriots, these men left for both political and economic reasons. During this time, Jews in Romania were denied collective citizenship, with naturalization occurring only for individuals who were approved by the entirety of the Romanian parliament. Without political rights, it became increasingly difficult to engage in commerce, as trades and professions were restricted solely for Romanian nationals throughout the second half of the 19th century.

These two men, Litman Yager and Charles Smilovitch, are my great-great-grandfathers. Little is known of their story beyond this rough sketch, although recent digitization of immigration records in the U.S. has given my family a better idea of where exactly they lived in the Old World. Litman, my mother’s great-grandfather, lived in Bârlad before moving to the United States; Charlie, on my father’s side, emigrated from Botoșani. Both towns were havens for Jews through the 19th century, with Botoșani’s Jewish community even outnumbering Christians in the 1890s. The Jewish communities in these towns, as well as throughout the old Danubian Principalities, were vibrant places of commerce, education, piety and culture. In 1899, there were 16,817 Jews living in Botoșani, with 54 synagogues sprinkled throughout the city acting as both spiritual and cultural centers for the community. Bârlad, a smaller town than Botoșani in all respects, had 5,883 Jews in the same year, with roughly 8 synagogues (I say roughly as the exact number is not known; the most recent information is from 1941, so it is likely that there were even more synagogues in the 19th century).

Back row from left: Nate (Litman’s oldest child), Loretta (Litman’s second oldest child), Miriam (the bride), Cera (Nate’s wife), Clare (Litman’s youngest child)
Front row from left: Mary (Litman’s wife), Litman, Saul (Litman’s second youngest child and the groom)

Members of these communities (including my great-great-grandfathers) began emigrating in the late 19th century in response to increased anti-Semitism, wrought both through legislation and administrative edicts as well as personal attacks and discrimination. A few thousand left between the turn of the century and the beginning of the Second World War, although the communities were still rather robust overall (11,840 in Botoșani in 1930; 3,727 in Bârlad in the same year). Those few thousand who chose to leave, facing the uncertainty, fear and cultural and linguistic isolation of migration over increasing anti-Semitism in their homeland, were the lucky ones.

During the war, anti-Jewish sentiment in Romania reached its zenith, with roughly 300,000 Jews murdered by Romanian soldiers and citizens. Nearly all of the victims came from Moldavia, Bessarabia and Bukovina — Ashkenazi Jews who had fled pogroms in Galicia and Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries, only to find continued persecution and ‘Otherization’ in their adopted home.

Those who survived met with a different form of annihilation: systematic forgetting of the fate of Jews between 1941 and 1945. It is only recently that Romania has truly begun to reconcile with this aspect of its past, and even still the reconciliation is only partial. Holocaust denial is not the issue; the onus of a Holocaust in Romania is now acknowledged and accepted. The problem is that this history is sterilized, with guilt being both exported and diluted. On the one hand, local histories of the Holocaust are cast aside. While it is recognized that the Romanian government participated in the systematic persecution and destruction of its Jewish community, national discourses rarely go deeper in their discussions. The number 300,000 is thrown around without much regard for each individual person comprising that totality. And on the other hand, those complicit in the Holocaust have been slowly rehabilitated into Romanian historiography. As one commentator recently put it, “the Holocaust is more or less acknowledged, but many position it in second place in the hierarchy of twentieth-century human suffering” (1). More explicitly, Romanian suffering under Ceaușescu is elevated above Jewish suffering under Antonescu, with enemies of Communism gaining a gold medal for their anti-Socialist fight regardless of their own history of atrocities.

Outside of words on paper, I myself have not experienced the latter, although I saw the former in practice. Last spring, I drove with my parents to visit both Bârlad and Botoșani, to reconstruct the histories of both Grandpa Litman and Grandpa Charlie. I did not expect much, knowing the history of both the Holocaust in Romania as well as post-war Jewish emigration, particularly under Ceaușescu. I envisioned a small Jewish quarter, with perhaps a handful of synagogues still standing, home to the prayers of a diminished yet still present Jewish community. I could not have been more wrong.

We first visited Bârlad, where Grandpa Litman was from. After a long morning spent driving through Transylvania and the Carpathians, we were excited to finally see a milestone marking Bârlad. This excitement quickly dissipated when we arrived at our destination.

A Google search revealed that there was one synagogue left remaining in Bârlad, the Templul cel Mare. After typing this name into multiple GPS maps and finding no results, we decided to ask a local for direction. One man responded with surprise, saying that “there are no temples here. We are all Christian.” Another told us about the Orthodox church in the vicinity, thinking that we had simply confused the terms temple and church. After much searching and adventuring, we found the street address listed for the synagogue, but saw no temple. Down a dirt path lay a few houses, an outdoor pen with what appeared to be farm equipment for sale, and through a small gap in fencing a canal that separated one part of town from another. We decided to try to ask one last time, thinking that perhaps someone living on the same street would know better. To our luck, an old man who spoke no English recognized the phrase “Templul cel Mare” and motioned for us to follow him. He left Strada Sfantul Ilie, where the synagogue is supposed to reside, and turned right past a large church before stopping in front of a garishly blue furniture store. “Templul cel Mare, Templul cel Mare,” he repeated, pointing through a small wrought-iron gate at the side of the store. After over an hour of searching, we had found our little corner of Zion hidden behind a shop, completely concealed from view from the street.

We tried to open the gate, but it was locked shut. “Closed,” the man said, pointing to a restaurant next to the gate. He then gestured a key opening a lock, suggesting that the restaurant manager was the one who would be able to open the gate for us. With no time to wait for the restaurant to open, I decided to look for an alternate way in.

I did not find one, but I did manage to get a better view of the synagogue. Around the other side of the furniture store was another fence with a better angle on the front of the temple. One of the windows in the vestibule was broken in and the others were shuddered closed, despite it being Saturday (a holy day in the Jewish faith, and one traditionally dedicated to the study of the Torah). Puzzled, I scoured the internet for more information, eventually discovering that the Jewish population in Bârlad today consists of 27 members, most of whom are old women. In fact, it is so small and aged that it is impossible to have a minyan (a quorum of 10 men necessary to engage in religious practices, according to Jewish law).

We left feeling rather unsatisfied. Not only was it difficult to find the synagogue in the first place, with practically no one in the city able to tell us where it stands, but we could not go in, nor could we read anything about its history, as there was no plaque or historical sign of any kind. We left with only a handful of sneakily taken pictures and a bad taste in our mouths.

The next day in Botoșani was better, but only marginally. Learning from the day before, we typed in the listed address of the synagogue (Sinagoga Mare, 1 Marchian Street) into our GPS, hoping that the city would reflect the listing. We got to Marchian Street and tentatively walked around the corner, which revealed a squat synagogue embraced by three towering apartment blocks. Excited by the fact that this temple was not entirely concealed from view, we hopefully approached, only to see a padlock on the gate. Unable to step inside, the three of us instead recited the Shema at the gate of our ancestral synagogue. For a non-religious Jew like myself, this felt more like a eulogy for lives and stories lost to time than a prayer celebrating G-d. The words felt foreign coming out of my mouth, likely due to my general avoidance of prayer in the U.S., but I heard my family generations back reciting the ancient text along with me: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

It was a bittersweet moment. As I embraced my parents, I could feel Grandpa Litman and Grandpa Charlie, Grandpa Hymen and Grandma Libby, Grandpa Lou and Grandma Tess, Grandpa Burt and Grandma Rusty, Grandpa Vernon and Grandma Lois with me in that moment, reuniting in a foreign home. But even as we gathered around an imagined table to share Cohen’s Big Blintz and homemade tuna salad, I knew that in reality these reunions no longer happen in Romania. Out of a population of nearly 17,000 Jews, less than 100 remain today in Botoșani. 54 synagogues became two, one of which is used as a mechanic shop. And even Sinagoga Mare, although it is not explicitly concealed from view, is by no means celebrated or acknowledged. Stuck in the middle of the parking lot that services the apartments towering around the synagogue, there is no sign or plaque indicating what it is. Only the large Star of David on the front reveals its purpose.

WWII draft order for Charlie Smiler (his name was changed at Ellis Island from Smilovitch to Smiler). He lists “Botshon, Romania” as his place of birth, which the family determined meant Botoșani.

Back at our hotel, I laid down in bed, hoping to decompress from the day. I picked up my book for class, a memoir written by Norman Manea, a Bukovinan Jew who lived through the 1940s. He experienced the concentration camps in Transnistria from the inside, had witnessed his grandparents’ death in the camps but had never been able to say a proper goodbye at their unmarked graves in Ukraine, had lived through the deafening silence of the Communist years, and saw the revival of Legionnaire reputations after 1989. He knew the pain of exile, just as my great-great-grandfathers had. And upon his return to Romania in 1997, he felt the same estrangement, the same papering over of history that I saw in my ancestral hometowns, the same rejection of guilt and remembrance. The words on the page jumped out immediately, as if I had thought them myself: “Once they were strangers, now nobody cares” (2).



  1. Alexandru Florian, Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania, Indiana University Press, 2018, p. xxix.
  2. Norman Manea, The Hooligan’s Return, Yale University Press, 2013(2003), p. 376.



Cover photo credit: Arcul de triumf Botoşani/Wikicommons

The original version of this article was published on Carleton College’s blog.

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Nick A. Cohen

Nick A. Cohen is a Minneapolis-based writer who recently completed his degree in International Relations at Carleton College. He has spent time studying in Berlin and Bucharest, and hopes to return to the Balkans soon. His interests vary widely, including geopolitics, security studies, food heritage and Balkan wine.