Bucharest's Cradle of Yiddish Culture risks destruction

The State Jewish Theatre is a testament to the survival of the Yiddish culture through the Holocaust, Communism and Romania’s transition to the EU - yet now is threatened with collapse

by Michael Bird

21 May 2014


In 1980s Romania, under the brutal Communist regime of dictator Niculae Ceausecu, Bucharest’s Jewish State Theater staged a play by Woody Allen called ‘Death’.

A humorous allegory of mortality cast as a serial killer in an interwar city, it evoked Eugene Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd, and touched upon the paranoia and futility of existence that was everyday life during Totalitarianism.

But in late Communist Romania, a theater could not perform a play called ‘Death’.

The censor told the director that if a play was called ‘Death’, the audience would think it was an imperative to wish ‘death’ upon Ceausescu and his wife Elena.

‘Death’ was forbidden under Communism.

Therefore the play needed another title.

At that time, the cinema was screening a revival of the Paul Newman 1950s prizefighter movie - ‘Somebody up there likes me’.

The play’s director, Adrian Lupu, proposed changing the title from ‘Death’ to ‘Somebody down there hates me’.

But the censor was not happy with this title either.

He approached the director and asked him:

“How come you have given this play the title ‘Somebody Down There Hates Me?’” he said.

“What do you have against Bulgarians?”

“Bulgarians?” thought Lupu.

He then realized the censor had taken the title as a literal example of geography.

Because Bulgaria is south of Romania, the name must imply that Bulgarians hold the Romanians in contempt.

This anecdote is rendered to me by Rudi Rosenfeld, a 74 year-old holocaust survivor and Yiddish actor who took the lead role in ‘Death’ and still performs for Bucharest’s Jewish State Theater.

The players staged Woody Allen in winter in a city without heat, where Ceausescu was saving money to pay back international loans by starving and freezing the population.

The audience were dressed in winter coats, while the orchestra would play their instruments wearing gloves.

The theater had to submit the texts for censorship to the Ministry - but these were translated from the Yiddish, which meant some phrases could escape scrutiny.

“The censor’s mentality was: is it against the party? Cut! Does it go with the party? OK, you can stage it!” says Rudi. “But the censorship was made by people who were not very well prepared.”

Rudi recounts how an official from City Hall came to see the one-act play ‘Death’.

“Afterwards, the official came up to me and said: ‘Yeah, I like this show, Rudi, but there is a problem - it made me think.’”

“You can only laugh,” Rudi says now, a frown playing across his face.

Bucharest’s 250-seat Jewish State Theater has survived Fascism, Communism and Romania’s uneasy transition to democracy.

This preserve of Yiddish language and culture remains the most prominent secular monument to the massive contribution Jews have made to Romania over the last two centuries.

But a blizzard in February blow apart over a third of the roof of the 19th Century construction, flooding the stage and threatening the structure of the building, unless urgent renovation work begins.

Rudi Rosenfeld

After the second world war, the theater was a lifeboat for Jewish performers, says Rudi Rosenfeld, actor and holocaust survivor

The theater began in 1941 as a cultural ghetto for Jewish performers and musicians, because Fascist wartime leader Marshall Ion Antonescu forbid Jews to perform on the Bucharest stage.

The artists collected in this former clinic, built by philanthropist and doctor Iuliu Barasch, at the heart of the Jewish community in south Bucharest.

However Antonescu banned performances in Yiddish.

At this time the Romanian Army was slaughtering Jews throughout today’s Moldova and Ukraine and the authorities were sanctioning pogroms in Bucharest and the city of Iasi, where Jewish populations were large.

But the actors continued to perform song, drama and comedy to a community on the edge of destruction.

Antonescu held back from ordering a full-scale eradication of Romania’s Jews, especially in the south of the country.

This meant the community remained alive after the dictator was tried by a People’s Tribunal and shot dead in 1946.

In 1948, the Romanian Communist State transformed this product of ethnic cleansing into a celebration of Yiddish culture, turning the building into the Jewish State Theater.

Rosenfeld meets me in his fifth-floor one-bedroom apartment in Bucharest. The rooms are decorated with sketches of costumes for Yiddish performances and a collection of metal scales he has picked up from antique fairs over the years.

Rosenfeld speaks Yiddish and Russian, but today talks in Romanian. His life mirrors that of the theater - one of survival and a fragile heritage which risks disappearance.

Romania’s ‘killing field’

Rosenfeld’s family came from Cernauti - a powerful multicultural hub in western Ukraine.

A city developed by Habsburg occupation, in the 1930s it boasted a near-equal mix of Germans, Jews, Ukrainians and Romanians, as well as Poles.

“In the city, everyone got along very well,” says Rosenfeld. “It was an amalgam of languages and people. Entirely atypical compared to what was happening around it.”

However Hitler was planning to annex the Soviet Union with a three-pronged attack through the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine.

Meanwhile the USSR was also plotting a land-grab and, in 1940, the Red Army annexed Cernauti from Romania.

In 1941, Rudi’s mother became pregnant. The day before the Germans undertook the counter-attack, his father went to fight for the Russians.

That summer the Romanian army, as part of the German-led offensive, swept through today’s Ukraine.

Rosenfeld was born in Cernauti on 4 August - the moment when Romania’s wartime leader, Marshall Ion Antonescu, ordered the Jews of Cernauti into ghettos.

In October, the Romanians deported Rudi, his mother and two thirds of the town’s 50,000 Jews towards Transnistria, part of today’s Moldova.

This was Romania’s ‘killing field’ for Jews, where up to 200,000 Jews and Roma died in unsanitary and murderous conditions.

The mother and son stayed in makeshift barracks in a transit camp in Mogilev-Podolski, until the war was over.

In the camp there were dozens living in one windowless room and he survived due to his mother’s deals on the black market.

“My mother would escape from the camp and go to the peasants to buy milk,” says Rudi, “bring this back and sell it with one more kopek to use this profit to buy milk again.”

At two years and two months old, he became sick with diptheria - and was close to dying.

“I had to receive injections in my belly and it was hard for her to find a doctor,” he says. “To this day, I do not give blood or have injections because I am afraid. Somewhere in me there is this fear.”

Liberated, he and his mother returned to Cernauti, where the Jewish community had vanished.

“You know what family means to me? For very many years I did not know what a cousin or what an aunt is, because all of my relatives died. How did they die, what happened? I don’t know.”

Meanwhile his father joined the Red Army’s march on Berlin, returning home in 1945.

“My father only met me when he came back from the war,” says Rudi.

His father did not want to live with Russians anymore and the family emigrated to Bucharest.

As a skilled carpenter, his father found a job building sets for the Jewish Theater, where his mother worked as a wardrobe assistant. Rudi would push wheelbarrows of materials and carry bricks to help his father build walls and arrange rostra.

“I grew up here,” he says. “I was spending the evenings in the theater. I saw the plays performed at the theater hundreds of times - from rehearsals to the final performances. I was a child of the theater.”

At 12 years, he was singing musical numbers and soon began touring to overflowing halls around the Moldavian region of today’s Romania.

In the 1940s and 1950s Jewish actors would come from Poland and Lithuania to Bucharest.

“After the war, the theater was a lifeboat,” he says.

The theater performed Moliere, Schiller and Balzac in Yiddish, with 45 actors employed and an orchestra of 12, plus 150 backroom staff. There were carpentry, shoemakers and tailor’s departments in the theatre.

“It was like a factory,” says Rosenfeld.

However by the late 1950s the Romanian state was infiltrating the lives of every person.

In 1958, Rudi’s father was chief carpenter for the sets and the technical coordinator. The actors were about to prepare for a large tour.

He went to the director and told him he wanted to surprise the actors each with a suitcase, designed by him, to accommodate makeup, towels and a mirror.

As he started making the suitcases in his workshop, someone reported to the authorities that he was running a private business - an illegal act under Communist law.

He did not use the theater’s wood, but timber he bought himself.

The police did not take that into account and a judge sentenced him and four others to six years in prison.

“Because this is how things were done back then - they would take you, judge you and send you away,” says Rudi.

During the Communist period, Romania facilitated the passage of 100,000s of Jews to Israel. After two and a half years, Rudi’s father left the prison and applied for the right of return to Israel.

But even making such an application was a gamble.

“In the 1950s, if you submitted your documents for Israel, you would be fired from your job,” says Rudi. “About four actors had submitted their documents and they were not allowed to get a job in the theater - instead they worked as laborers building fruit crates.”

In 1964, Rudi and his parents gained the approval to move to Israel. Rudi was at that time married, but was deliberating over whether to leave.

Nearly all the actors who left for Israel could not perform in a country where Hebrew was the national language, which few actors knew how to speak.

“I saw that I would not be able to perform in Israel - nearly all those who left from here as actors were not able to perform there, all others got lost, and then I gave up, I said I would not leave. But soon the Jews left one by one.”

Between 1956 and 1992 the Jewish population in Romania fell from 146,264 to 8,955 - almost all as a result of emigration to Israel.

Meanwhile under Ceausescu in the 1970s and 1980s, Romania destroyed the heart of Jewish Bucharest to make way for giant building projects of wide boulevards and ten-story blocks echoing the totalitarian architecture of Pyongyang.

At that moment, the director of the Jewish Theater, Maia Morgenstern, started acting at the age of 18.

“It was impossible to enter the theater because it was in the middle of a building site,” she says now.

Many of the Jews were relocated by the Communist authorities to Bucharest’s western suburbs.

Therefore the community was hit from two fronts - voluntary emigration and forced displacement.

All that remained was the theater - a bastion of low level architecture in a wasteland behind the tall new blocks, standing like a bright white canine in a mouth of knocked-out teeth.

Only 19 actors were still working at the theater.

“It was a period in which we performed in front of an audience of five,” says Rudi.

After the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the only difference was that there was no censor and the theater could stage what it wanted.

“But we were so censored within that we would censor ourselves,” says Rudi.

jewish theatre 1

Over six decades of Yiddish theater, the stage is now hosting a tarpaulin to catch leaking water from a busted roof

I meet Maia Morgenstern, one of the most popular actors on the Romanian stage, in her office.

It’s doubling up as a dressing room, with nineteenth century dresses hanging from the side of the open doors of cupboards. She sits back and talks, while smoking gold-tipped Sobranie cigarettes.

When 80 square metres of the theater collapsed, the stage became waterlogged. Sets and clothing were wrecked.

The day after the storm, Morgenstern herself - at 51 years of age - risked her life by dangling aloft the remaining roof by gyropes to take pictures of the wreckage.

Now the stage - which for 63 years has showcased classics of international theater and contemporary work - is hosting a giant plastic tarpaulin that collects leaking water.

The actors still rehearse in the rooms, but the stage is not fit for performances and the seats lay empty. Any attempt to light the stage could result in a fire.

“It’s not because of the weather,” she says. “We always have wind and snow, but the fact that you can see the disaster is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Morgenstern, whose film roles include Mary, the mother of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, is fighting a battle to ensure the building is renovated.

The building needs a restoration. As a historical monument, the Romanian law states it has the right to be preserved.

But who will carry this out and when is a problem.

I try to contact the City Hall, but the officials at the Investment Directorate, which deals with the theater, refuse to meet me or talk over the phone.

The press department tells me they will answer my questions.

But after one month of waiting and soliciting for answers, they only send me a statement.

It details how they will reconstruct the interior and restore the electricity, heating and lighting in an 18-month contract at a cost of 3.1 million Euro.

They claim the Bucharest City Hall is now in a tender procedure for the award of the job.

But when I push them on when the works will begin and whether this takes into account the fact that the roof has collapsed, the officials fail to give me an answer.

“We have serious promises from the City Hall,” says Morgenstern. “We are assured this will happen. Nobody says to us ‘no this will not happen’.”

I ask her - what is the risk, if nothing materializes?

“I cannot think about this,” she says. “There is a danger concerning walls, the building, the structure - work has to be done. It is an emergency situation.”

Jewish theatre interior 2

It is an emergency situation. There is a danger concerning walls, the building, the structure - work has to be done, says Maia Morgenstern, director of the theater

Rudi and the remaining players are running a homeless troupe, finding spaces in the studios and stages of Bucharest, where they perform in Romanian and Yiddish with translation.

Their existence depends on the charity of other theaters in the capital.

But can they still deliver quality material?

I catch the company performing Romanian-French playwright Gilles Segal’s ‘The Puppeteer’ in the upstairs studio of the Comedy Theater, directed by Alexander Hausvater.

Around 100 members of the audience are packing out the space.

It’s 1950s Berlin. A puppeteer named Finkelbaum has locked himself inside his basement room for seven years.

A survivor of the death camps, he is playing out his marriage, his relationships and the horror of Auschwitz with his box of puppets.

His landlady attempts to coax him out of his stupor, but he is reluctant to give in to her advances.

Rudi then enters the stage - playing a survivor of the camps and a friend of Finkelbaum.

If he cannot lure his friend back into the open, no one can.

The two friends strip to their shirts, share their memory of facing death as a daily routine, their shock and guilt of remaining alive - and how they must move on, how they must get out of the basement.

But Finkelbaum falls back into his delusion and the two remain in the room, both locked inside, with a chorus of puppets reliving memory in an eternal performance.

I spend my time checking out the audience. Are they getting this? I ask myself. Is this play really speaking to them in a language they can understand?

But there, at the front, are a group of teenagers, stunned, mesmerized with terror by the proximity to Finkelbaum as he delivers his delusions in a paranoid frenzy, pointing to members of the audience, accusing them of conspiracy.

Afterwards, the kids walk out of the theater, silent, confused, shocked, but thrilled - reeling from a punch to the brain.

Yiddish Revival

Yiddish culture has spent the last seven decades threatened by attacks from outside and within the Jewish community.

Israel banned Yiddish theaters in the 1950s, discouraging the use of the language in its efforts to bring Hebrew to the fore.

This is despite great texts in Yiddish, such as those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born Jewish American novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1978.

But in the last few decades there have been attempts to reappraise the Germanic-based language.

In 2012, Rudi attended a UNESCO meeting in Paris about the revival of Yiddish.

“Each delegate pleading for the Yiddish language would say a few words in Yiddish and then started speaking in their own language with the help of a translator,” he says.

“No one spoke in Yiddish! Then I stood up and spoke in Yiddish and they had to translate for those to understand what I was saying! I lived a great sorrow, because I am one of the last Yiddish speakers as an actor.”

Another American director also asked Rudi to visit a theater college in the States as “one of the last Yiddish speaking people”.

“I feel terrible,” he says. “because I have the feeling I am a beetle in an insectarium.”

Yiddish is spoken by over 1.5 million people around the world, according to Ethnologue, yet precise numbers are unknown.

“It is sort of reborn,” says Morgenstern. “Yiddish is being reconsidered - its tradition, culture and language - all over the world.”

The actress learned Yiddish in the theater, which operates as a language class for a new generation of actors.

“We are discovering and I am discovering inside me new things, enjoying singing Yiddish, speaking and discovering new levels of spirituality.”

She even teaches Yiddish songs and texts at a local acting school in Bucharest.

“All kinds of audience are discovering that Yiddish theater and language is fun, fine, interesting, full of energy and full of meanings.”

Morgenstern wants the theater to remain as a platform for an open dialogue between Yiddish culture and the rest of the world.

Lingering anti-semitism

In 1930 there were 728,000 Jews within Greater Romania, now only around 2,000 Jews remain in what remains of the country.

Almost 70 per cent of them are in Bucharest - with only a few hundred in the major cities of Cluj, Oradea, Iasi and Timisoara. The local office for the Right of Return is now closed.

However a sentiment of anti-semitism is still present among many people. According to the National Center for Combating Discrimination in 2013, half of Romanians would not accept a Jew to be a relative and 35 per cent would not accept a Jew to live in Romania.

But a frightening statistic reveals that one in three Romanians would not even allow a Jew to visit Romania.

As I am in a taxi riding through Bucharest, the driver begins to talk to me about why Bucharest is such a mis-shapen city of huge wealth disparity and businesses that grow suddenly and then disappear.

He claims this is because so many firms in Romania - such as restaurants, shops, bars and casinos - are used as vehicles for money-laundering.

“And it’s the Jews,” he says, “the Jews who are guilty of using Romania to launder their money.”

I don’t say anything. I don’t even nod to humor him.

“How do you say the word ‘zgarcit’ in English?” he asks.

“It’s a specific word to Romanian, I guess you can best translate it as ‘stingy’.”

“Yes, like the Jews,” he said. “the zgarcit Jew.”

He laughs and rocks back and forth in his seat.

“Except you don’t need to say zgarcit jew, when you say Jew, we already know you mean zgarcit!”

I tell this to Rudi and he is not surprised.

“I did not have problems with anti-Semitism under Ceausescu,” he says. “Unfortunately, now, because life is hard, this comes out: the Jews are to blame. It’s pathetic, but that’s it. Nothing is changing. As long as a single Jew exists, there will be anti-Semitism; get that into your head!”

The actor blames a lack of education and information. Only in the last few years have Romanian schools began to teach about the holocaust.

Last year, according to the Romanian National Center for Discrimination, 30 per cent of Romanians didn’t know what the Holocaust was.

From the remaining 70 per cent, almost half do not believe it happened in Romania.

In 2011, Rudi performed a staged version of the Diary of Anne Frank in schools in Romanian.

“After the show, the teachers would remain and talk about the Holocaust.

“The students had no idea about the Holocaust, how many died and how they died.

“I told them a few things about the Holocaust and told them to ask questions.

“I said I was in a concentration camp in Transnistria and that I only knew the taste of sugar when I was four years old, and I spat it out because it was a new thing for me.

“Then one kid put his hand up and asked me: ‘Do you hate Germans?’. I told him no, I don’t hate Germans.

“He then asked me to give him an example of one German who I didn’t hate.

“I thought for a moment.

“Then I said to him: ‘Michael Schumacher. I mean - how can you hate such a talented guy?’”

With thanks to Natalie Ester, Erwin Simsensohn, Edith Negulici and Oana Monica Nae for helping with this article.

Interior photos of the Theatre courtesy of TES

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