Sunday, April 9, 2017

Something Was Illuminated


Budapest-->Bucharest (trust me, they are different!)

With the seders around the corner but not a whole lot of actual work to do towards the end of the week (I front-loaded most of my tasks for the week), I decided to look up potential travel options for just a couple days at the end of the week. I searched for roundtrip flights for under $100 and found Bucharest, Romania as my best option.

Romania has always been shrouded in a layer of mystery and mythology for me, and I'm not talking about the vampire legend. With all of my grandparents born in the USA, I never heard stories about life in the Old World, and have had access to virtually no information or records. However, whenever I would ask my dad where we came from and where the name Forester comes from, he would say he knows his grandparents came from Romania, but that's all the information he had. He had heard that Forester was an anglicized adaptation of a similar-sounding word in Romanian, but he wasn't sure what it meant.

Back in the fall, I met a Jewish-Romanian grad student in Budapest studying Jewish studies who offered to help with my inquiries, but ultimately couldn't offer me many answers. The one document we have is an record that says that my great-grandfather Samuel Forester, father of my namesake Benjamin X Forester, was born in Tgnaewitz, Romania in 1884. I googled that town and found ZERO results. I spent time googling cities in Transylvania, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, and I found a number of possible candidates, but no major leads.

Now here I was, heading off on a solitary trip to Bucharest, Romania's capital city, eager to encounter the country that my once housed my ancestors.

I arrived on early Wednesday morning with just my backpack with me, having successfully avoided any extra fares on my budget flight. The hostel was not ready for my checkin at 11 AM, so I took a map from the lobby and headed out.

After two weeks of sunny spring days in Budapest, I was kind of bummed to walk out into a gray, chilly day in a city that has not shaken off its Communist facade. The buildings are boxy and mostly unadorned.

Coca Cola and Pepsi advertisements assert that Communism is over, but the buildings themselves disagree

I first walked to an old Synagogue that currently features the Jewish Museum, but I could not enter due to renovations.

I went to the Old Town, which is the main tourist neighborhood and was left basically untouched during Communism. After enjoying lunch alone (but with the company of some podcasts), I walked over to Parliament, which was built by the infamous Communist leader Ceausescu, as an attempt to cement his legacy. It is the second largest administrative building in the world, behind only the Pentagon. And let me tell you, it is HUGE, and it really stands out. It is also referred to as an iceberg, because only 45% of the building is above ground. It's hard to believe that the building occupies even more space below ground than it does above.
I had to use the panorama setting to capture the entirety of the building
I walked around the outer fence and found that Parliament is open for tours, so I walked in and bought a ticket for the upcoming tour. All tour participants needed to exchange their passports for some sort of identification necklace before entering. The interior is of course massive and quite elegant. The tour itself was rather underwhelming, because we probably saw 15 rooms out of the thousands in the building, and none that seemed to carry much significance. The tour guide listed mostly useless facts in each room, including dimensions and materials used for the structure and furniture. While underwhelmed with the tour, I was pretty overwhelmed by the experience of being in the building at all, and am glad I got the chance to do so.

After seeing Parliament, I finally checked in to my hostel and rested for a bit. I then headed to a park to meet a group for a free walking tour. I try to do these whenever I visit a new city. To my delight, the weather had greatly improved, and a nice group assembled with a really wonderful tour guide. She gave a lot of helpful background about the city, namely covering the rule of Ceausescu and his enduring legacy. While certain Communist countries became increasingly progressive towards the fall of the Iron Curtain, he maintained a firm grip and an oppressive rule until the 1989 Revolution had him removed and executed. After the tour, I joined five others from the tour group for dinner. They were from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Portugal, Germany, and Romania respectively, and it felt great that the arc of my day went from dreary and lonely to warm and social.

The next day, I woke up early (well, probably the time most working adults wake up), and headed to a meeting spot for a full day tour into Transylvania that I booked. While there was definitely more I could have seen in Bucharest, I felt that with a 2 day trip alone into Romania, it was well worth spending a full day out of Bucharest and into the beautiful Carpathian mountains.

While on the minibus, my interest in my family background came back with major force, and luckily there was wifi available to allow me to dive back into my research. Just from looking at my google map of cities in Transylvania, I decided that one city resembled the Tgnaewitz from our ancestry form. I googled the city and found that there is a rich Jewish history, and I found an email of someone who works in their Jewish community. I sent an email explaining my interest and I was delighted by her prompt response, in which she redirected me to a different city, Targu Neamt, in northeastern Romania, near Moldova. I googled this city as well and also found a Jewish history, including a still-active Jewish cemetery that dates back to the 1600s. On my dad's side of the family, we have had an unfortunate history of men not living to see their grandson's birth, so there has been a pattern of grandson's being named for their grandfathers. For example, my Hebrew name is בנימין בן שלום הלוי and my dad is שלום בן בנימין הלוי. My dad promised me at my Bris that we would officially end this pattern. However, seeing the link to the Targu Neamt Jewish cemetery made me emotional imagining that just a couple hour drive from my current location, there is probably a tombstone that reads my exact Hebrew name.

Throughout my researching, I started sending emails to any contact info I could find online, and to my family back home. Within 24 hours, my dad had confirmed, by networking through two more distant cousins, that Targu Neamt is indeed where we came from. Something was illuminated.

Back to the actual trip into Transylvania...

I enjoyed the change of scenery from the drab city into the cloud-shrouded Carpathian Mountains, especially because I knew that those mountains decorated the landscape of some of my ancestors' lives. Our minibus winded on narrow roads through active but old and simple villages. We arrived at our first stop, Peles Castle in Sinaia, Romania. This castle is not a remnant of Medieval Europe, but instead housed Romanian royalty for periods during the late 19th and early 20th Century. The palace does not have the imposing facade of a stone castle from centuries ago, and instead struck me as a lovely rural mansion. The interior was quite elegant (pictures weren't allowed, sorry), and I really felt like the rooms reflected the pride, interests, and legacy of Romania's leaders who lived there.

After having some time to walk around the premises and enjoy the landscape before us, we packed back into the minibus and headed deeper into Transylvania, bound for Brasov, where we would eat lunch. I admit that I had never heard of this town before this tour. We were given an hour and a half to eat lunch and explore some of the city's quaint streets and old-time square in the center of the town. The town rests cozily beneath a large mountain covered in trees, with a Hollywood-style "BRASOV" sign at the top, which I believe used to say "Stalin" back when he was cool.

It's hard to make out here, but look for the "BRASOV" sign up in the mountain.

 I wandered into a restaurant and found a man from my tour group sitting at a table, and he invited me to eat with him. We hadn't exchanged words before that, but it turned out he was a 58 year old American who was fortunate enough to retire early and is now on the Eastern European trip he always dreamed of. He is also personal friends with Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, and I really enjoyed our lunch together talking mostly about sports and travel.

After lunch, our group had a brief (~45 minute) tour of Brasov. We began at the foot of a church that dates back hundreds of years, and continued onwards until I saw an Israeli flag hanging from a building. Sure enough, this was the Jewish community building, and hidden behind it was a beautiful, large, and still-active synagogue. More than that, there is a kosher restaurant there! While I really enjoyed my lunch with my new friend, I would have loved to have helped support the Jewish community of Brasov as well as my belly. Besides stopping for a minute outside to hear some words from our tour guide about the Jewish community, I did not have the chance to really meet the community or see inside their buildings. I regretted not having had that opportunity. However, I had a crazy visceral reaction to seeing this Jewish community, alive and proud, in this city where I assumed I was probably the only Jew around. After seeing my Instagram of the shul, a friend who is also on the JDC Fellowship told me that she visited Brasov and had a similar emotional reaction when she discovered the synagogue, and that that experience was a major impetus for her applying to the JDC Fellowship. While I know Instagram is kind of trivial, I used the following caption for my post, and I really meant it: "'Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it' (Genesis 28:16)"

Here you can clearly see the BRASOV sign, as well as Israeli flags proudly flying in front of a beautiful synagogue

From Brasov, we headed towards the famed Dracula's Castle. Of course, Irish author Bram Stoker never stepped foot in Romania, but in his story, he identified a castle on hill in Transylvania, which clearly matches the description of a certain castle. Vlad the Impaler, the true historical leader of Romania who impaled his enemies and dissidents an the namesake and inspiration of Stoker's Dracula character, only spent a few nights of his life in that castle. Thanks to Stoker's legend, the castle has now become Romania's most popular tourist attraction. It was a nice and gloomy day, which was a proper backdrop, although I would have appreciated some lightning. The castle does stand at the top of a hill, but it's not as isolated and daunting as in the cartoons. The castle itself is interesting, but mostly because it provided a historical glimpse into Romania's function as a country inconveniently situated between competing forces in all directions: The Ottomans, the Russians, and the Austro-Hungarians. This castle is a remnant of that era in which defense and administration defined the country's needs.

The whole day left me incredibly satisfied, both to know that my brief trip to Romania had allowed me to actually get out and see a good amount of the country, and that it had revived my curiosity about my own roots in serious ways.

I returned to Bucharest and sat down for an amazing dinner at an Israeli restaurant that I had spotted in the Old Town the day before. I reflected upon the positive arc of my trip, from kind of lost and lonely in a strange city, to very fulfilled with social interactions, interesting sights, and full days.

No comments:

Post a Comment