The Great Synagogue from Bucharest: Holocaust Memorial and Survival
Bucharest is more than meets the eye at a first look. Tall concrete buildings from the Golden Age of communism isolate and hide rare architectural landmarks, including the few synagogues that survived the mass demolitions ordered by the dreadful regime. The Polish Synagogue or the Great Synagogue is one of these special places you should absolutely visit if you want to discover beyond Bucharest’s most popular attractions.
A Great Synagogue for a growing community
The history of the Jewish community in the Romanian principalities, during the Romanian Kingdom and later under the oppressive communist regime would be fascinating if it wasn’t first of all marked by dramatic events.
The Jewish presence in Bucharest was first mentioned in the 16th century, but it was only hundreds of years later that they had the right to build an actual Synagogue. Most of them appeared in the 19th century when the different trades of the Jewish community took upon this responsibility. Unfortunately, the majority of those still standing some 30 years ago were purposely destroyed by the communist authorities along with the biggest part of the Jewish neighborhood.
The survival of the Great Synagogue, built in 1847, makes the monument an even more invaluable legacy as it’s the oldest of all the remaining synagogues in Bucharest. Its actual look is, nonetheless, the result of major renovations and enlargement that took place in the first four decades of the 20th century. The splendid paintings from the ceiling were done in 1936 by Gershon Horowitz.
Devastation and discrimination
The antiracial laws from the Second World War created a tragic reality also in Romania. The large Jewish community from Romania, around 800,000 people at the time, were a sure target for the local fascist groups that organized mass destructions and deportations. All the synagogues were devastated, including the Great Synagogue from Bucharest. Even its address changed from the street of the Synagogue to the current name Vasile Adamache.
The decades of communism, a regime that actively promoted atheism and nationalism, brought even more hardship to the Jewish community that migrated massively to Israel. The overreaching impact of the political line was inevitable even for their religious monuments. Bucharest had 14 synagogues and two temples in 1975, but most of them were demolished in the 80’s when several Orthodox churches and entire neighborhoods disappeared to make room for the new capital Nicolae Ceausescu wanted to create. Only six synagogues exist today in the capital, but only two are used for religious service. The Great Synagogue was saved, but tall large blocks were built around it to isolate it, a similar practice to the Orthodox churches.
A visit to the Great Synagogue from Bucharest
From 1992 the Great Synagogue hosts the Holocaust Memorial. The permanent exhibition features the most dramatic moments, the discriminatory measures and the pogroms from the Second World War from all over Romania. Written testimonies, newspaper clips and photos are organized chronologically on the ground floor of the Synagogue. A true history lesson that becomes even more interesting with the help of the synagogue’s guide, an incredibly knowledgeable and kind lady that will answer all your questions.
The Great Synagogue is not the only Jewish landmark you can visit or discover in Bucharest, the city where before the 1940s the Jewish community represented 10% of the entire population. Visit the beautiful Coral Temple and walk on the few streets that still survived the almost complete destruction of the Jewish neighborhood. With a good guide you’ll find incredible stories every corner.
The Great Synagogue is closed on Saturdays. You can visit it from Monday to Thursday: 9 am – 3 pm; Friday and Sunday: 9 am – 1 pm.