Capital of Romania. The first written reference to Bucharest (Rom., Bucureşti) is in a document dated September 1459, issued by Prince Vlad Țepeş (known as Vlad the Impaler) and referring to the “citadel of Bucureşti.” Situated in the south of Romania, Bucharest became, with occasional interruptions, the capital of Walachia as early as the sixteenth century. The town’s geographic location enabled it to expand by integrating and assimilating several villages, and it also experienced significant population growth during the eighteenth century. Given its economic importance, Bucharest attracted, besides Romanians from various regions of the country, a large number of foreigners, mainly from neighboring Balkan areas. Thus the city acquired a strong cosmopolitan character, with foreigners constituting approximately one-quarter of the population around the year 1800.
Choral Temple, completed in 1867, Bucharest, Romania, 2000. The memorial in the foreground commemorates Romanian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Photograph by David Gordon. (© David Gordon)
Jews came to Bucharest from two directions: Sephardic Jews came from the south, mainly from the Ottoman Empire; later, Ashkenazic Jews came from the north. The latter, from Galicia or Ukraine, settled in Bucharest after having lived in Moldavia. The first document confirming the presence of Jews in Bucharest dates to 1550: it is a responsum by the rabbi of Salonika, Shemu’el de Medina, who mentions an organized Sephardic Jewish community. Their number and (especially) economic power increased gradually; some became creditors of the ruling princes. In 1593, when Mihai Viteazu (Michael the Brave) rebelled against the Turks, he had his creditors massacred, among them several Jews. Ashkenazic Jews settled in Bucharest in the mid-seventeenth century when waves of refugees from Ukraine fled the Cossacks led by Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi. These Jewish groups originally settled in Moldavia, and from there some continued south, attracted by the great urban center in Bucharest.
The size of the Ashkenazic community gradually increased and became larger than the Sephardic. By the mid-seventeenth century, state authorities had organized Jews into a single community for tax purposes and compelled them to pay a fixed portion to the treasury (similar organizations were imposed on other minority groups such as Armenians). Pursuant to a law of 1819, Prince Alexandru Şuțu acknowledged two communities—the Sephardic (“Spanish”) and the Ashkenazic (“Polish”)—that subsequently developed in parallel until the Communist regime forced them to join together in 1949.
In 1832, ten Ashkenazic and one Sephardic synagogue were known to exist in Bucharest. In general, they were modest prayer houses that met in private homes. However, when the groups grew more economically secure, they hoped to build a representative synagogue for the entire Jewish population. The leaders of the Ashkenazic community consequently began to construct the city’s Great Synagogue, inaugurated on Rosh Hashanah in 1847. Still, for ideological reasons, the Ashkenazic community soon split, as the increasing influence of the Haskalah movement led to the emergence of a group seeking to develop a Western-style community. Thus in 1857, some members of the Jewish elite, led by Ya‘akov Löbel, planned the development of the city’s Choral Temple, its founders issuing a document deliberately referring to a Western model: “Driven by the example set by other Israelite communities from civilized Europe, and whose goal is, besides the glorification of God, to promote in new ways a program of modern principles. . . .” The temple was designed by architects Enderle and Freiwald, inspired by the Choral Temple of Vienna; the building was completed in 1867.
The Ashkenazic community was thus divided into a modernist group situated around the Choral Temple, whose most outstanding representatives were Iuliu Barasch and Yitsḥak Leib Weinberg, and a second group, made up of more conservative Orthodox Jews led by Me’ir Leib Malbim (Me’ir Leib ben Yeḥi’el Mikha’el). The latter figure attempted to impede the reformist tendencies of the elite group, which, with its connections with the government, succeeded in having Malbim imprisoned; he was later expelled from the city. There was no such conflict within the modernist-oriented Sephardic community.
Shops owned by Jews, Bucharest, Romania, ca. 1930s. Pictured are (second from right) Bentsion Leibovici’s Parisian dry cleaning and tailor shop. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
The Jewish population of Bucharest grew significantly, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1835 some 2,600 Jews lived there; this number reached 5,900 in 1860. By 1900, the total had risen to 40,500, making Bucharest by far the largest Jewish community in Romanian territory. By 1930, the city’s Jewish population of Bucharest was 74,480. Jews settled in virtually all districts of the city, especially in areas where economic growth was fastest (districts included Calea Griviței, surrounding the Gara de Nord; Calea Moşilor, near the Obor Market). Jews were active in a variety of fields, working as artisans, workers, merchants, and bankers. The commercial center of Bucharest itself developed in an area neighboring the main Jewish district, and its major streets (Lipscani, Blănari, Colțea, and Gabroveni) were the sites of a large number of Jewish-owned companies.
The first modern Jewish school in Romania opened in Bucharest in 1852, directed by Yisra’el Pick and Naftali Popper. Popper, especially, followed Haskalah principles and had a major influence on the evolution of Jewish education in that country. A significant number of Jewish schools existed in Bucharest, especially at the turn of the twentieth century. Vocational institutions existed as well; in particular, the Ciocanul (Hammer) school played an important role in training Jewish craft workers.
By developing specific trades, Jews strongly contributed to the urban evolution of Bucharest. Thus, toward the end of the nineteenth century, several ironworks and foundries were established, owned by business leaders such as Leon Abramovici, Sigmund Prager, and Adolph Solomon. Their manufacture of urban ornaments, including streetlamps, fences, balconies, and gates for monuments, marked the city’s urban landscape with features associated with Art Nouveau at the end of the nineteenth century. Jews also introduced new economic trends, such as marketing research offices and special advertising papers; among these publications was Mercurul Român (Roman Mercury), issued by Michail Nachmias in 1886.
Sign for the “Herzl Bar,” Bucharest, ca. 1930s. The photographer wrote: “In Bucharest, Zionism is so strong that Herzl’s portrait appears on tavern signs.” Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)
Jews also played major roles in the banking system of Bucharest. From the eighteenth century, several businessmen, mainly Sephardim, ran successful banking institutions. Prominent bankers included Davicion Bally, Hillel Manoaḥ, Solomon Halfon, Iacob Marmorosch, and Maurice Blank. The last two set up the Marmorosch-Blank Bank in 1874, which remained the largest bank in Romania until 1880, when the National Bank was established.
Antisemitism was a darker feature of Jewish life. In the early nineteenth century, several cases of ritual murder accusation were followed by violence and pogroms. In 1866, the French lawyer Adolph Crémieux’s visit to Bucharest on behalf of Jewish political emancipation led to vandalism of Jewish shops and synagogues. Toward the end of the century, antisemitic organizations functioned, due in large part to nationalist leader Alexandru C. Cuza’s political activities. In particular, his followers organized antisemitic agitation against Jewish students at Bucharest University.
Since Bucharest lacked a stable communal organization, smaller Jewish associations took on social functions normally associated with larger groups. The traditional burial society took charge, for example, of the Jewish hospital (Caritas, from 1847); B’nai B’rith (represented by the American consul, Benjamin Peixotto, who was Jewish) helped to found Fraternitatea Zion and Noua Fraternitate (The New Fraternity). The Iuliu Barasch Society (1872) and Lumina (1904) adopted social, cultural, and welfare agendas. Libertatea, an elitist intellectual club, promoted collaboration with non-Jewish intellectuals.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Bucharest had a well-developed Jewish press that promoted civil rights, encouraged modern Jewish education, and confronted antisemitism. The first modern Jewish newspaper, Israelitul român, in around 1855, in Romanian and French, was founded by Barasch and the French Jew Armand Levy; it was involved in the struggle for emancipation. Other long-standing publications, representing the mainstream, acculturated Jewish population, included Fraternitatea, Revista Israelita, Egalitatea, and Curierul Israelit. There were also Yiddish- and Hebrew-language journals such as ‘Et le-daber (1859), Hajoetz (1874–1896), as well as the Zionist papers Mântuirea and Hasmonaea. Among the scientific and cultural periodicals issued in Bucharest were Analele Societatii istorice “Dr. Iuliu Barash”; Sinai; Buletinul Societatii de studii iudaice din România; Cultura; and Adam.
Outside the Yiddish theater, Bucharest, ca. 1986. Photograph © Yale Strom. (Courtesy of the photographer)
Yiddish theater in Bucharest was established in the late 1870s, flourishing most brightly in the 1920s and the 1930s, especially with the Vilna Theater and the activities of stage manager Yankev Shternberg. The regime of Ion Antonescu banned Yiddish theater, allowing only a Romanian-language Jewish theater (Baraşeum) to perform. A State Yiddish Theater was organized in 1948.
Before World War I, Rabbis Antoine Levy and Me’ir Beck headed the Choral Temple, the latter particularly stressing Jewish education. Adolphe Stern, a lawyer and man of letters, was a leader of the community. Among the Orthodox, the most important personality was Rabbi Yitsḥak Ayzik Taubes. In the Sephardic community, banker Moscu Asher presided over the community and maintained strong connections with the Alliance Israélite Universelle, while Rabbi Ḥayim Bejarano was a scholar and poet. The interwar period was dominated by the strong personalities of the president of the Union of Romanian Jews, Wilhelm Filderman, a lawyer and politician, and Rabbi Iacob Isac Niemirower, who served as the country’s first chief rabbi. Filderman played an important role even during the Holocaust, supported by Chief Rabbi Alexandru Şafran.
In January 1941, during the rebellion of the Legionary Movement, 120 Jews were killed. Antisemitic legislation downgraded the identity of Jewish citizens to second-rate status: they lost the rights to education and health care, their property was confiscated, and they were forced to perform humiliating hard labor. In September 1942, approximately 1,000 Jews were deported to Transnistria. Despite such treatment, most of Bucharest’s large Jewish community was spared the worst horrors of the Holocaust.
Shortly after World War II, Bucharest experienced a great influx of Jews as refugees arrived from concentration camps as well as from several areas in Romania where they continued to feel unsafe. The Jewish population had grown to 150,000 by 1947. After the first years of the Communist regime and the closing of Jewish welfare and religious institutions, Bucharest continued to be the center of Jewish communal and cultural life due in large part to the ability of its chief rabbi, Mozes Rosen, to cope with the inconsistencies and peculiarities of Romanian official policy, particularly during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu from 1965 to 1989. Massive emigration to Israel, however, drastically reduced the number of the Jews in Bucharest; by 2000 there were only approximately 3,500. Jewish life currently focuses on three synagogues, a community center, a kosher restaurant, and the Center for the Study of the History of Romanian Jews.
Radu Ioanid, “The Pogrom of Bucharest, 21–23 January 1941,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 6.4 (1991): 373–382; Theodor Lavi, “Buka’resht / Bucureşti,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Romanyah, vol. 1, pp. 40–76 (Jerusalem, 1969); Israel Marcus, “O revoluție a evreilor din Bucureşti: Templul Coral,” in Jaloane pentru o viitoare istorie, ed. Dumitru Hîncu, Dorina Herivan, and Cella Vasiliu, pp. 79–92 (Bucharest, 1999); Avram Rosen, Participarea evreilor la dezvoltarea industrială a Bucureştiului: Din a doua jumătate a secolului al XIX-lea până în anul 1938 (Bucharest, 1995).