The Friday we arrived in Bucharest my husband’s Grandmother, whose parents were from Darabani, passed away back in Pittsburgh. Her memorial service is today, and since we can’t be there I am dedicating this post to her and to keeping her family’s history alive for her great-grandchild.
The US Embassy in Bucharest helped to put us in touch with the Jewish communities that remained in these small towns, and we are incredibly grateful for their help. After a whirlwind of travel from Bilbao to Madrid to Bucharest and a few days of R and R and local sightseeing with family friends, we headed out on Sunday evening (October 23rd) by plane to Suceava in the north. We were leaving the busy capital behind and heading into Bucovina, where the closest notable town would be Botosoni. The northern border with Ukraine has moved a great deal over the years and Dorohoi and Darabani are almost as far north as you can get and still be in Romania. Our guide was from Maramures and told us that Bucovina is now South Bucovina because the northern part was lost to Ukraine around the time of WWII.
Our guide was waiting for us on Monday morning when we crawled down to breakfast. I can’t imagine anyone I would have more enjoyed spending three days with. He knows more about, well, just about everything, than I could possibly imagine and was able to answer all our questions–which on my end often included how to raise the kinds of sheep we saw and the species of trees growing in the forest. He is a naturalist who loves the old traditions of Romania and he was excellent company. We had a wonderful breakfast of fresh raw vegetables, farmer’s cheese, and omelettes topped with fresh dill. The owner of the hotel was in the kitchen cooking and our guide translated for us.
A surprising number of Romanians speak excellent English, but in the countryside and smaller cities most older folk do not. I say surprising simply because in Spain everyone studies English in school for 8 years or so and still almost no one can communicate in English, something Spaniards are quick to tease themselves about. I certainly don’t expect to go to foreign countries and be able to communicate in English, which is why it was so surprising that in Romania we generally could. The high level of technical and engineering training, generally low levels of inequality (though sharply higher than under communism), and history of excellent primary and secondary education (which, like all public services here has worsened in the past two decades due to a lack of political commitment and corruption) are some of the reasons that major tech firms, call centers, and other relatively high value-added industries have started to invest in Romania (though corruption problems have certainly slowed this trend). But I digress, we were talking about food.
Only half an hour behind schedule, we finished our delicious fare and got in the car and headed out to Dorohoi, 30 km northwest of Suceava. Dorohoi is a small town of about 30,000 people near the border with Ukraine. Many of these towns have switched sides as borders have slipped and slid. The area around Suceava produces timber and has traditionally been the home of fine woodworking and incredible wooden houses with wooden shingles. But as we drove out of town we saw almost no wooden houses. Instead we saw big homes made of concrete with tin or asbestos roofs, many painted bright colors, with balconies and mediterranean style details that seemed out of place with the brisk chilly wind and sloping farmlands with black-skinned beech trees. The soil in this area is acidic and not especially good for farming. Potatoes and cabbage are the main subsistence crops, though over time corn has become common as well.
My husband’s paternal grandmother’s parents were probably both from Darabani, her mother certainly. Both of her husband’s parents were from Dorohoi. As we drove by we asked questions and learned more and more about the region that was home to my son’s great, great, grandparents, who fled the pogroms in 1906 and 1907. Until the recent economic troubles, nearly 10 per cent of the Romanian population was living in Southern Europe sending home remittances. The new concrete houses with bright colors were built by immigrants who had returned and designed homes in the style of the places they had been living. Many remained unfinished or had never been painted. The roofs were mostly tin or metal designed to look like the ceramic tile roofs that were common in Western Europe.
The Roma do fine tinwork. They live outside the towns but come through with their wares, shouting to see who needs tinwork, or sometimes going up to knock on a door where the house looks like it needs some help. They get paid when the work is finished because people do not trust them to work if they have been paid in advance. Many of the homes have ornate tinwork along the roofs and gutters. We shared the road with horses pulling long flat beds that looked almost like the bottoms of boats and carried stacks of hay or dry corn plants to be used for bedding for animals.
In Dorohoi we were met by the head of the local Jewish community, Mr. Iancu. There were once 28 synagogues and 7000 Jews (out of a population of 20,000) in Dorohoi. Now there are 30 Jews remaining in a population of 30,000, which is a level of decimation hard to comprehend and a reality that is painful to witness. There were photos along the walls of the community center of Hanukah 1978 when there was still an active Jewish community and a group of visitors had come from Tel Aviv. The building was an old retirement home for Jews and still has a few people living in it. There were grape vines draped all along the interior and reaching into every room. We had black coffee that, as I discovered was common in Romania, was so thick and strong that my latte-loving palette could barely handle it. The two women helping in the center played with our son and he called them “friend” and they responded “amic!” I couldn’t speak with them, since I was chasing our son around while my husband, his father, and our guide were visiting with Mr. Iancu and hearing the history of Dorohoi.
Mr. Iancu told us that in 1906 there were some wealthy Jews in Dorohoi who owned mills and factories. The workers were mostly not Jewish, which made it easy for me to see the complex relations of class and ethnicity that must have existed. But there was also a larger community of working class Jews, who lived in neighborhoods segregated from the wealthier Jewish community. Anti-semitic politics took hold and combined with a year of poor crop yields that resulted in riots and starvation in 1907. Many Jews left during this time.
We drove out to the Jewish cemetery of Dorohoi, up on a hill, with old as well as recent graves. We stood out on a sunny slope under the shade of a few trees. The weathered man who kept the keys of the cemetery, trailed by two children, told me in Romanian that this was the site of a “holocaust,” but that was all I understood. I walked up the hill to get a translation. Mr. Iancu explained that in 1940 there had been a Jewish army officer from Dorohoi, Emil Bercovici, whose commander was about to be executed when he stepped in front of him and saved his life. He was being buried with full military honors when a troup of Romanian soldiers passing by heard the rifle fire of the salute. They came to the burial site and slaughtered the 96 people there in mourning for Mr. Bercovici. It was not the first pogrom but it is the one most known in the community.
We drove from Dorohoi to Darabani, about 30 kilometers away and farther to the northeast, near the very northernmost tip of Romania and close to the border with Ukraine. Darabani is a “comuna,” smaller than an urban municipality like Dorohoi. Today it is wealthier than it was because the only people who live there are small land owners who farm their own land. There are now 8000 residents. The old Jewish cemetery was a 15 minute walk off a barely passable dirt road. The sun was warm and Little Man had fallen asleep in my arms. I stayed in the car and napped with him while the men-folk walked out to the cemetery. There were horned cows grazing in the yellow fields. I woke later as farmers with weathered faces and traditional caciula hats drove by with horses pulling a flat bed cart. A few minutes after that the men came back. My husband said this cemetery had been very ancient. The last Jew in Darabani had died several decades before and there were graves that were several centuries old. It had reminded him of the graves we visited in southern Alabama, where my mother’s Irish ancestors were buried in the 1700s.
On the drive back to Dorohoi for lunch we passed cornfields with rows of dried sunflowers bordering them. Our guide explained that the elderly woman whose farmland housed the Darabani cemetery had told him they had tried to use sunflowers for bees, but they could not reach inside the flowers and became agitated and disoriented, so some farmers learned to use them to keep pests away from the corn. I saw groves of trees that had long thin leaves and blew silver in the wind. Many looked to have been recently cut back, having sent out long new shoots of foliage. Our guide said they were acacia trees, prized for the honey produced by bees that feed on them and also for firewood, since they were fast growing and could be trimmed periodically for wood. In the late winter people burn the fields to get rid of the winter plant refuse and prepare for spring. They also keep one pig that is slaughtered at home at the beginning of December, for Christmas, and which was eaten over the course of the winter months.
We ate lunch at a restaurant back in Dorohoi. We had ciorba radauteana, a soup with sour cream, garlic, chicken, and peppers that was first made in the city of Radauti that we visited later. We also had Ciorba de perisoare, a meatball soup. We all shared a roast chicken (pui la rotisor) with mamaliga and mujdei, a sharp and delicious raw garlic sauce.
It was a two hour drive from Dorohoi to Gura Humorolui, the town in Bucovina where we would begin the next stage in our journey. We were stopped on the way for speeding, which was an interesting experience. Our guide declared that it was “just like what the communists used to do” to wait at a place that was an easy trap just so you could make people pay tickets. I thought to myself that it was sort of like all governments, remembering quite a few such speed traps at home.
The “buc” in Bucovina means “beech” because of all the beech forests. The landscape was beautiful and as we gazed out the window our guide told us a story. He said that after God created the Earth, God took a bag of favors and walked the land to distribute the favors to different peoples. But over Romania the bag fell and all the favors spilled out–oil, gas, forests, pastures, lakes, and rivers. God said “oh no, this will not do! Now things will not be fair and there will be nothing left for the rest.” God thought for a while and then said “I know what I will do. I will curse the people who live in this land so they will never enjoy all that they have.” And so it was done.
We stayed the night at a lovely bed and breakfast called Hilde’s that my husband had picked out. It has an apple orchard and makes organic cheeses and juice. The apartment was wonderful and we had a light dinner in the restaurant, along with tall .51 liter glasses of Urso, a popular Romanian beer. We had chicken, salad with trout with bright gold skin, beef goulash soup, and a salad of shredded raw carrot, apples, celery, golden raisins, and mayonnaise. Little Man loved my salad and shoveled big piles of it into his mouth. We went to bed early after he tried to destroy everything in the room and broke a glass on the tile floor.
Despite the challenges of traveling with a 19-month old, I wouldn’t trade anything for this opportunity for him to visit the homeland of some of his ancestors, and to do it in the company of his father and grandfather. On Tuesday, the adventure continued…