Bucharest is more than meets the eye. 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 Bucharest beyond its most popular attractions.
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 so 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 Jews had the right to build an actual Synagogue. Most of these edifices appeared in the 19th century when the richest members of the Jewish community took this responsibility. Unfortunately, most synagogues were 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 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.
The racial 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, was a defenseless 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 together with several Orthodox churches and entire neighborhoods in order to make room for the new capital Nicolae Ceausescu wanted to create.
Only six synagogues exist today in the capital, but just two are used for religious service. The Great Synagogue was saved, but tall large blocks were built all around to isolate it, a similar practice like in the case of many Orthodox churches.
From 1992, the Great Synagogue hosts the Holocaust Memorial. The permanent exhibition presents 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 Choral Temple and walk on the few streets that still survived the almost complete destruction of the Jewish neighborhood. With a good tour guide or guidebook, 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.