Region in the southwestern section of Romania, between the Mureş and Danube Rivers. The oldest traces of a Jewish presence in the area date to the Roman period in the second through fourth centuries. A second-century coin issued by Shim‘on bar Kokhba discovered in Pojejena, as well as golden plates with Hebrew characters and Judaic symbols found in Dierna-Orşova, prove the existence of Jews among Roman colonists. After Banat became part of the medieval Hungarian kingdom in the eleventh century, the earliest reference to a Jew from the region dates to 1521 in the area of Caransebeş.
Banat became a Turkish pashalik in 1552, with headquarters in Timişoara; the area then was a province of the Austrian Empire subsequent to the Peace of Passarowitz (1718). Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire lived in Banat during the Ottoman period; for example, 12 families (144 people) were living in Timişoara when the Austrians occupied the city. Jews from other parts of Hungary and more distant areas soon settled in the region. The Keppich and Bachrach families obtained imperial privileges to develop industry and trade, as well as to supply imperial garrisons. Jewish traders were intermediaries in trade relations with Venice, the Ottoman Empire, Poland, and Central European countries.
When Belgrade fell to the Turks in 1739, Banat’s governor Count Franz Wallis allowed Jews from that city to settle in the region. That year, Jews in Banat increased to 31 Ashkenazic families (139 people) and 15 Sephardic families (81 people). Totals rose in 1743 to 38 Ashkenazic families and 53 Sephardic in Timişoara and 11 families in the rest of the province. Between 1769 and 1774, the numbers rose to 353 people.
With the accession of Empress Maria Theresa to the throne in 1740, government policies toward Jews became harsher. Various edicts forbade Jewish residence in military areas, restricted trading activities, and imposed tax obligations (especially the extremely high “Tolerance Tax”). This unfavorable situation culminated with the issuing of the so-called Juden Ordnung (Order Concerning the Jews) in 1776, which was meant to minutely regulate Jewish life in Banat, limit population numbers, place a ban on peddling and other occupations, and restrict areas of residence. To a large extent these severe restrictions were not applied, as Maria Theresa’s death in 1780 and the accession of Joseph II led to more tolerant policies.
In 1779, Banat lost its autonomous status and was divided into three counties (Caraş, Timiş, and Torontal); it was administered by the Kingdom of Hungary within the general framework of the Austrian Empire. The provisions of the Tolerance Edict issued by Joseph II in 1783 for Hungary also applied in Banat; the edict stipulated that Jews were allowed to learn crafts and trades and to join guilds; Jews also were allowed to own and cultivate land. The humiliating distinctive symbols were eliminated, Jews were allowed and encouraged to set up their own modern school system, and they gained access to public schools at all levels. The effects of this relaxation were visible in the demographic evolution of the Jewish population from Banat. A census ordered by Joseph II in 1787 indicated only 226 Jews in the three counties of Banat, but this number rose to 686 in 1804, to 1,960 in 1821, to 4,158 in 1836–1840, and to 6,571 just before the revolution of 1848.
Neolog synagogue, Timişoara, 1906. (Centrul pentru Studiul Istoriei Evreilor din România)
After emancipation in 1867, the number of Jews living in Banat doubled to 13,591, and the last census before World War I recorded 19,153, accounting for approximately 3 percent of the total population. After World War I, Banat became part of Romania, and the Romanian census of 1930 recorded 14,043 Jews in the region. Jews of Banat survived the Holocaust, as in the autumn of 1942 the Romanian government abandoned its deportation plans for Jews living in this region. Data from 1947 revealed the presence of 15,963 Jews, and the census of 1956 showed a total of 17,816. As a result of the mass emigration, however, only several hundred Jews were living in Banat in 2000.
At the institutional level, Timişoara was the only town to officially acknowledge a Jewish community in the eighteenth century. Except for the brief period when the Juden Ordnung was applied, there was in fact both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic community, each of which built a synagogue in 1760; these synagogues were officially opened in 1762. A new Ashkenazi synagogue was inaugurated in 1862. Subsequent to the Congress of Jews of Hungary and Transylvania (1868–1869), the community in Timişoara was divided into a Neolog community that accepted the regulations adopted by the congress, and an Orthodox community that supported strict compliance with tradition; the Orthodox group established its own synagogue in 1895. Other nineteenth-century synagogues were located in Lugoj, Caransebeş, Făget, Ciacova, and Deta. In the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, the rabbi of the community in Timişoara also held the position of chief rabbi for the Banat province. The first to hold this position was Ya‘akov Mosheh of Belgrade (1739–1741), and the last was Tsevi Hirsh Oppenheimer (1821–1859).
Jewish education in Banat initially followed the traditional religious form. Modern schools were then established in Lugoj (1833), Virset, Becicherecul Mare (Zrenjanin), and after 1848 functioned in Timişoara (1857–1872), Făget (1871–1891), and Sânnicolaul Mare. Until World War I, Jewish elementary schools that taught Hebrew and Judaism also existed in the districts of Torontal (five schools) and Caraş (two schools). After World War I, as Jews in Banat began to reject assimilation and leaned toward Zionism, a Jewish high school with instruction in Romanian and Hebrew was founded in Timişoara in 1921. When Jewish students were excluded from the Romanian public education system during the Holocaust period, this high school served as the main Jewish educational institution in the region. Communist educational reform led to its closure in 1948.
Although strongly affected by restrictions and persecutions during the Antonescu regime, Jews in Banat survived the war. Some Jews were then attracted by the egalitarian slogans of the Communist regime established after 1945, but eventually Jews from this area of Romania emigrated in massive numbers to the State of Israel and elsewhere. By the early twenty-first century only several hundred Jews remained.
Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, Toldot yehude Transilvanyah, 1623–1944 (Jerusalem, 2003); Izvoare si mărturii referitoare la evreii din România, vol. 2, pt. 2 (Bucharest, 1990), pp. 145–172; Monumenta Hungariae Judaica, vol. 18 (Budapest, 1980), p. 347; Victor Neumann, Istoria evreilor din Banat (Bucharest, 1999); Jakab Singer, Temesvári rabbik a XVIII és XIX-ik században (Seini, Rom., 1928).
Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea