Over the past three years, 18 partners including municipalities, Jewish communities, and associated institutions joined forces to rediscover the Jewish cultural heritage in eight countries of the EU’s Danube region. Their efforts took place within the framework of REDISCOVER – a project financed by the EU’s Danube Transnational Programme whose aim was to reveal and promote often hidden Jewish heritage, both tangible and intangible, and encourage Jewish heritage tourism as a component of local tourism. Galați, a port town on the Danube in northern Romania’s Moldavia region, was one of the nine mid-sized cities that formed the REDISCOVER network. In this essay, Anca Filipovici, of the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, describes how the REDISCOVER project was implemented there with a multifaceted Jewish culture festival — held online because of the pandemic.
Exploring the hidden Jewish heritage on the Romanian shore of the Danube: The REDISCOVER project in Galați — and its pandemic-era online Jewish culture festival
By Anca Filipovici
May 19, 2021
One of the main objectives of REDISCOVER was to build on the cultural and historical legacy of Jewish heritage to foster creative tourist attractions, featuring intangible heritage alongside synagogues, cemeteries or other elements of built heritage. That meant introducing the general public, as well as visitors, to local Jewish heritage sites, as well as to music and literature, oral histories, cultural traditions, photo collections, and other intangible legacies, through various events, exhibitions, and touristic products.
In Galați, the main partner in the REDISCOVER project was the Municipality of Galați supported by the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities (RIRNM) in Cluj as an associated strategic partner. With input from the tiny Jewish community, the Galati team sought to bring to life a forgotten past through a variety of cultural instruments and events adapted to the pandemic context – in other words, online.
Moldavia has a rich Jewish heritage dating back to medieval times, and as a Danube port, Galați was long home to a multicultural population.The city’s first organized Jewish communities began to develop in the 17th century. Their religious life was complemented by the institutional organizations arising in the dawn of modernity, through the creation of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, Jewish hospitals and primary schools, craft guilds, charity societies, ritual baths, Hevra Kadishah etc. The city was also an important Zionist center, and during World War I, many Jews from Galați fought as soldiers – and died – for Romania.
Before World War II and the Holocaust, Jews made up around 20 percent of the city’s population and were active in local government as well as in all areas and levels of social, economic, and cultural life. The community suffered violence and persecution during World War II, but most local Jews survived – most, however, emigrated to Israel and elsewhere in the decades after the war.
Today, fewer than 100 Jews live in Galați, and the long and complex Jewish history of the city remains little known to most of the local population.
REDISCOVER’s goal was to reverse this amnesia, and to introduce both local people and visitors to the centuries-long experience of Jews in the city.
A key event took place this spring – a Jewish culture festival, organized by Rediscover and the Municipality of Galați that took place online because of the pandemic, hosted on a dedicated website and Facebook page. Live events were broadcast on those platforms on March 25-28, 2021, with recordings posted later so that visitors can access them permanently.
This “e-Festival” was organized in several sections, devoted to both tangible and intangible heritage.
Oral histories with video interviews of members of the Jewish community (in Romanian with English subtitles) were a major focus. The interviewees tell their personal histories and recount family stories and memories, mostly covering the first half of the 20th century, the dark times of World War II, and the restoration of Jewish life in the post-war era. They reveal the joys and tragedies of family life, the connection to Judaism and the community, the influence of religious and cultural traditions in maintaining Jewish identity.
One of the interviewees was the well known actress Maia Morgenstern, whose origins trace back to Galați.
Fragments of Jewish family histories are also depicted in a virtual photographic exhibition including correspondence and photos from the archive of the “V.A. Urechia” County Library. Other photographs present Judaica objects from the Jewish museum hosted in the Galați synagogue.
The impressive synagogue itself, its history, and its architecture form part of the e-festival section dealing with the city’s Jewish built heritage.
Known as the Craftsmen’s Synagogue, the imposing building was inaugurated in 1896. The synagogue was completely renovated in 2014 through the efforts of the community and stands today as both an architectural symbol of the city and a Jewish religious center.
The synagogue, the Jewish cemetery with its stunning tombstones and historical monuments, the former Jewish community institutions, and private houses of prominent personalities form part of a one hour virtual guided tour conducted by Marius Mitrof, an adviser within the Galați County Directorate for Culture. Each place on the tour serves as a means to explore the history of the Jewish community or of individuals and institutions. These buildings identify today with both the past of a community and the present of a dynamic city. Whether ornate or more “ordinary” buildings, they demonstrate the eclectic architectural styles of the19th century and have had different uses and owners over time. Most of them today are in a good condition and enjoy the status of historical monument.
A Treasure Hunt feature of the e-festival invites users to virtually locate on a map the main sites of Jewish cultural heritage in Galați.
The festival also highlighted various aspects of intangible cultural heritage, including performance. These ranged from concerts of traditional Jewish music and dance, to theater performances by actors of the Jewish State Theater in Bucharest and a recorded dance performance by the Haverim Israeli dance group, representing an adaptation of a play written by Sholem Aleichem.
A popular section of the e-festival was dedicated to the local Jewish gastronomy introducing the audience to Jewish cuisine. Ten traditional recipes corresponding to Jewish religious holidays are included in a richly illustrated electronic brochure, accessible online. Moreover, a detailed explanation of popular and religious celebrations is accompanied by recorded cooking workshops, revealing a fascinating universe of tastes, aromas, and colors.
The REDISCOVER festival – despite all the limitations imposed by COVID-19 restrictions – was (and remains) probably the first event of such a magnitude that reveals the hidden Jewish treasures of Galați. The project is a tribute to the Jewish past while focusing also on the present, placing Galați in a network of Danube Region cities whose Jewish heritage is now recognized as a significant component of local cultural heritage that can be attractive for tourists and other visitors, as well as for locals. Though the planned events had to be redesigned due to the pandemic restrictions, the virtual festival and the complex website remain online and provide access to a wider audience.
We dearly hope that all of our virtual visitors will soon become on-site visitors, tourists and local residents alike, rediscovering the Jewish heritage on the Romanian shore of the Danube!
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Anca Filipovici is a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities and was an adviser on the REDISCOVER project in Galați