The carved and painted wooden Aron ha Kodesh (Ark) from the historic Great Synagogue in Siret, Romania has been dismantled and taken to Israel, where it will be sold at auction on February 20. Photos show it was replaced in the synagogue by a replica within the past three years.
The Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities FEDROM, the official owner of the synagogue, denied knowledge of the removal and said it was acting to find out what happened.
In its auction advertisement, the Moreshet auction house in Jerusalem calls the Ark a “museum-worthy item of extreme historic value” that dates from the early 19th century — and sets the opening bid at $35,000.
The Moreshet web page says that the Ark was recently dismantled “in a complex operation and after great efforts” but does not say who carried out its removal from the synagogue. Nor does it give specifics about who did it and who is selling the Ark.
It states (this is a combination of the English and Hebrew web sites):
A few years ago, during a visit to the city of Siret, it became clear that the ancient Holy Ark, located in the area, was meant for some reason to be dismantled in order to create a new Holy Ark. A Jew with a warm heart and a developed sense of history decided to do something, he undertook instead to finance the new Ark, and in exchange for him to professionally and responsibly dismantle the old one in order to preserve it for future generations. In a complex operation and after great efforts, the Holy Ark was brought to Israel a few months ago and is now here before you Height: 5.4m without the stairs, width: 1.4 meters at the bottom, 2.2 meters at the top; depth: 0.7 meters, the Holy Ark was assembled again here in Israel, there are minor flaws and imperfections, general condition is good. Assembly and transportation will fall to the buyer.
In an email exchange, Moreshet said that the original Ark had been replaced by a replica already three years ago. It said it had documentation on the sale.
Photographs taken at the site this week confirmed that the Aron currently in the synagogue is a simplified replica of the original. Photos from April 2016 show that the original Ark was still in place at that time.
FEDROM expressed shock at the news and issued the following statement:
FEDROM (and implicitly the local Jewish Community), is the rightful owner, and the sole owner recognized by law, of all and any synagogues existing on Romanian territory, but as such, it has no knowledge about the selling, dismantling, replacement-replica, or taking the Ark (Aron Kodesh) out of the synagogue and out of the country. Furthermore there are no visible signs of forced entry or robbery on the site.
We will take all necessary steps of action to clarify this tangled issue.
Historic movable heritage objects like this cannot be exported legally without clearances, including from the Culture Ministry.
The Moreshet web site describes the Ark thus:
[It] was decorated with wooden beams with a Star of David with a caption bearing the inscription “And you made an offering of pure gold”, and above it the Tablets of the Ten Commandments with large wooden reliefs vases and flowers. The entire cabinet is decorated with wooden decorations, some of which are golden. In front of the ark is a hand-made metal railing. The curtain is a bright floral pattern, with the symbols of the Star of David on it embroidered: “This is evidence of the generosity of Mr. Manali Satungar and his son for the soul of his wife and their mother M. Yantu [Yenta] Rachel B. Elijah [daughter of Elijah] Pinhas Nef [died]  in Mogilov (Mohilev-Podilsky-Ukraine)
Its web site provides pictures of the dismantled sections of the Aron, including the wooden portions, the metal railings, and even the curtain.
Siret is located in northern Romania’s Bucovina region, just south of the border with Ukraine. No Jews remain in the town.
The synagogue is believed to have been built in 1840 and is noted for its fine ceiling paintings of the zodiac and Talmudic animals. Carved and painted wooden arks feature in a number of synagogues in northern Romania, including Botosani, Iasi, Targu Neamt, Roman, and others. (See, for example, documentation of some on the web site romanian-synagogues.org)
Siret is also the site of three historic Jewish cemeteries, including one of the oldest in Romania, believed founded in the 16th century.
All three are situated near each other and feature very fine carved decoration.
In 2013, a tri-lingual signage was put up to mark the Old Jewish Cemetery and the synagogue, as well as other historic sites, in Siret. The signage, in Romanian, Ukrainian and English, has been placed as part of an EU-funded cross-border development project involving Romania, Ukraine and Moldova, apparently aimed to highlight shared heritage, culture and history in a region that has been carved up over time.