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III.Book Reviews


 Andrei Oișteanu

The History of the Jews of Banat. Chronicle of a Forecasted Book


Victor Neumann, Istoria evreilor din Banat. O mărturie a multi şi interculturalităţii Europei central-orientale, (The history of the Jews of Banat. A testimony of the multi- and inter-cultural background of Central and Eastern Europe), Atlas, Bucharest, 1999, 271 p.                          



In 1999 a volume was published which did not enjoy, at the time, the comments it deserved. I am referring to Victor Neumann’s book, The History of the Jews of Banat. In my view, V. Neumann is the right man to approach such a topic. Not only because he is a genuine offspring of Banat, being born in Lugoj (in 1953) and currently a professor at the Western University of Timisoara, but also because of his dedication to the research of the history of the ethnic minorities living in Banat and of the specific multicultural background of this region. He has done this with the earnestness given by the German school of history. His specialization stages at various education and research institutes in Bonn, Berlin and Vienna were very important to his formation, just like those in Washington, Paris and Budapest (he is currently a Fulbright fellow in the US). His knowledge of German and Hungarian has allowed him to study in detail the archives of Vienna and Budapest as well as those of Bucharest, Timisoara and Arad.

The work was to be expected after, if not even forecasted by, his latest articles, studies and books. His study O diaspora generatoare de convergente? (A Diaspora that generates convergences?), which dealt with the irradiation of Judaism in Central and South-Eastern Europe, was published in a highly successful book: Tentatia lui Homo Europaeus (The Temptation of Homo Europaeus) (Ed. Stiintifica, 1991). The volume was granted the Academy Award, was published in English at Columbia University Press (New York, 1993) and benefited from a second edition in Romanian (All, 1997). The titles of his other books speak for themselves: Istoria Evreilor din România. Studii Documentare şi Teoretice (History of Romanian Jews. Documentary and Theoretical Studies) (Amarcord, Timisoara, 1996) and Identităţi Multiple în Europa Regiunilor. Interculturalitatea Banatului (Multiple Identities in the Europe of Regions. The inter-cultural background of Banat) (bilingual edition, Romanian and French, Hestia, Timisoara, 1997).



Between Turks and Habsburgs


In the volume under discussion Victor Neumann does not ponder on the archeological vestiges of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, which prove the presence of Jewish soldiers in the Roman legions (ex toto orbe romane) that colonized Dacia. He also skips over the written testimonies regarding the Jewish merchants who crossed Banat during the Middle Ages. The book begins with the first attestations of Jewish communities already settled in Banat. Similar testimonies concerning the Jewish community in Bucharest date back to 1550 and they prove the connection existing between this community and the Jewish community in Salonic (Thessalonica). Things were rather similar in Banat. The oldest attestation here is the epitaph on an ancient tomb of a Sephardi Jew, ”born in Salonic”, probably settled in Timisoara at the end of the 16th century, who died in 1636.

It is obvious that the first Jews to settle in the towns of the South and South West of today’s Romania (Timisoara, Craiova, Tirgoviste, Giurgiu, Bucharest, etc.) were mostly Sephardim (the Ashkenazim settled there a little later, coming from Central Europe). Sephardi Jews settled in the area starting with the 16th century, coming from the large towns of the Balkans (Salonic, Constantinople, Sofia, Sarajevo, Belgrade). These were the offspring of the Jews expelled from Spain (in 1492) and Portugal (in 1497), who were warmly welcomed by the Turkish Sultans. This was the time when the Ottomans were in a rapid expansion over South Eastern and Central Europe and were in need of entrepreneurial and polyglot craftsmen, bankers and merchants, as the Jews were. Let us not forget that Banat was part of the Ottoman Empire for over a century and a half, starting from 1552.

For centuries Banat stood ”between the Turks and the Habsburgs”, as Neumann entitles the first chapter of his book. In 1716 the Turks abandoned their garrison in Timisoara, leaving it in the hands of the Habsburg authorities. In accordance with the capitulation act, the Jews were allowed to go south or stay on. Most of them chose the latter option, particularly because the Habsburgs needed them in the economic recovery of the area following the Austro-Turkish wars.

The strategic position of Banat, between two hostile empires, generated the special statute granted to both the region and the Jews populating it. This could explain the special laws issued in regard to the Jews of Banat during the time of Empress Maria Theresa. The famous Juden Ordnung, passed in 1776, for instance, is an act with an exceptional documentary value, to which the author dedicates an entire chapter. This Order contains lots of extremely precious information concerning the Jews of Banat. It allows not only for a quantification of the official anti-Semitism but also for a comparison with the statute of the Jews in other regions of the empire. The tolerance edicts (Toleranz-patent) issued in 1783 and 1787, which already reflected the spirit of Central European Enlightenment are well known.

A chapter of the book is dedicated to the cultural life of the Jews of Banat (Timisoara was called ”Little Vienna”) as well as to their religious life (synagogues, rabbis). Another chapter is dedicated to the Jewish education system, oscillating between ”tradition and integration”. Many documents taken from archives are published by the author in the annexes at the end of the book. Neumann pays a particular attention to the religious reform and political emancipation of the Jews of Banat. Prompted in Germany (Hamburg) during the first decades of the 19th century, the reform of the Mosaic cult (from the orthodox to the neolog) was brilliantly represented by Aaron Chorin (1766-1844) Chief Rabbi of Arad. Disciple of the famous Rabbi of Prague, Ezekiel Landau, Chorin was a remarkable figure in the history of Central European Jews. Due to his efforts, the reformation movement of the Mosaic cult in Banat and Transylvania took place at the same time with that occurring in Central Europe.

Isolation versus integration


The dispute between the adepts of Jewish isolation and those of Jewish integration was launched by Moses Mendelsohn, whose ideas had – through his books – a deep impact in Transylvania and Banat. But the issue of the Jewish integration into the ”host community” was approached differently in Germany, for instance, than in the multi-national Banat, in which no ethnic community dominated the others from the demographic, confessional and cultural viewpoint. ”Multiple identity” is a key concept in Victor Neumann’s book. ”A concept like that of multiple identity – writes the author – is very well illustrated by the Jew of this area. Pluri-ethnic, multi-confessional cohabitation and the languages spoken here generated a civil society in which pluralism was at home. Banat was probably one of the few successful cultural and political enterprises of the Habsburgs, if we were to take into consideration the experiment started in 1716 and conducted until about 1850; it was, by excellence, a space of convergence instead of divergence, a space of inter-cultural cohabitation instead of domination of a particular ethnic of religious culture. That is why, in my view, reform and emancipation should be regarded differently here” (p.94). And further on: ”The mutual and self-explanatory tolerance in Banat, the multi-ethnic and multi-religious mixture there, makes it obvious why the reform had its top representatives in the [Jewish] communities of Arad and Timisoara. It also explains why assimilation – despite the hastened reform and emancipation – did not acquire a mass character. It shows how it was possible later, during World War II, for Timisoara to become the main place of refuge for the Jews of the entire area; but also why it was precisely there that one of the strongest Zionist movements of Central and Eastern Europe emerged” (p.95). I have quoted these passages in extenso to show that this is not just another book of community history but rather a book of mentality history.

In 1867, following the political reorganization of the empire, the Parliament in Pesta passed the law regarding the emancipation of the Jews in the Hungarian kingdom (including, of course, Banat). This was another case of synchrony with similar phenomena occurring all over Western and Central Europe after the French Revolution. Unfortunately, in Romania things were different. The Romanian Constitution of 1866 provided under art.7 that ”only the Christian foreigners can acquire Romanian citizenship”. In 1879 the Parliament missed, once again, the opportunity to adjust to the European standards. Under the pressure of the Great Powers, manifested at the Congress of Berlin, art.7 of the Romanian Constitution was modified, but the possibility for the Jews to obtain naturalization remained strictly theoretical. For each Jew the Parliament would have had to issue ”a special and individual law” of citizenship. The conditions thus imposed were so hard to meet that by 1912 less than 4,000 Jews had obtained naturalization.

By 1918 the Jews of Banat had already enjoyed half a century of full citizen rights. Under the circumstances, their fears as to the region passing from the rule of the former multi-national empire into the composition of the Romanian national state, in which the Jew was considered to be the prototype of the ”stranger”, should not be surprising. Here they would be regarded as a ”minority of the minority”, in a double hypostasis of ”strangers”: as ”Jews” and –being pro-Magyar – as ”Hungarians”. In accordance with the decision of the Peace Conference in Paris, however, as of 1919 the Romanian authorities granted the overall naturalization of the Jews in Greater Romania. This achievement was consecrated by the liberal Constitution of 1923.



End of history


In the following chapters of the book, the author reviews the life of the Jews in inter-wars Romania (with its respective specificity in Banat) at a time when the anti-Semitism practiced by Legionnaires but also by the authorities was on the increase. The regime of King Carol II (when the anti-Semitic legislations began to be applied) and the Antonescu regime are analyzed in detail but also in balance, without hiding the dramatic reality but also without ”summary executions”. The tragic destiny of the Jews in Antonescu’s Romania is regarded in its entire complexity: ”The events of the time [1940-1944] – points Victor Neumann – cannot be seen in a linear manner. It is true that Antonescu passed anti-Jewish laws, subscribed to the Nazi ideology, organized the concentration camps in Transnistria (101 colonies), ordered the massacre of the Jews in Odessa [and Iasi, I would add], but it is not less true that 57% of the Romanian Jews survived the war, the highest percentage in all Central and East European countries. The phenomenon was considered to be a curiosity, almost impossible to understand” (p.158). Evidently, the survival of a number of Jews does not make the Antonescu regime less guilty of the merciless murder of the others.

Obviously, the author does not avoid the sensitive themes. In the last chapter of his book he even discusses a topic that is almost taboo: the mythologized phenomenon, either by negation or by exaggeration, of the Jews’ relation with communism. Victor Neumann decomposes the myth of ”Judeo-communism”, showing that most of the Jews in this area enrolled, on the contrary, under the flag of Zionism. During 1949-1951, immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel, several waves of Jewish emigration took place. Other such waves followed later so that today only about 1,700 Jews are still recorded in Banat, of which 600 in Timisoara (as opposed to 12,000 before the war). In 10-15 years this small figure will continue to diminish, as most of the community is made up of elder people. The old Jews die and the young ones emigrate, which allows the author to speak of an ”end of history”. A history that, during the centuries, recorded both exceptional achievements and dramatic events. In this sense, the condition of Jews in Banat is a small reflection of that of Jews in Romania and, with certain exceptions, of that of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe.


English version by Felicia Waldman


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