Synagogue on Cozia Street, Arad
on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2000.
Entrance to synagogue on Cozia Street, Arad
on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2000.
...I leave Cluj at 0400am so as to catch the only train that day from which I can get a connection across the border into Hungary. But then, disaster... I accidentally get on the wrong train, and miss the one for Szeged. I return to Arad, but the next Hungarian-bound train is some nine hours later, at about 0130am... and for Budapest not Szeged.
After exploring some alternatives, I decide the 0130am train is my best bet, and head for the centre to find something to eat. Arad is a city of some 190 000 people near the border with Hungary and Serbia. The old part of town still features much of the richly decorated old Austro-Hungarian architecture, albeit mostly in a dilapidated condition.
I locate one of the town's two synagogues, in the old Jewish quarter. The streets are dirt or cobbled, lined with trees.
And close up to the pavements, old low-roofed houses, surrounded by small ramshackle gardens. With the help of a lady in the street, I find the old Orthodox schul, now used by the Reform congregation on Cozia Street. Dusk is falling as I turn into the quaint little street, my suitcase trundling behind me.
I stand outside the synagogue, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, take a couple photos and prepare to enter. A young man also goes in, but we’re too late. The service has just finished, the people heading home. Several people cluster round, a couple of gentlemen, and several young girls. Then it emerges that the young man just ahead of me is an Australian Jew, en route to Jerusalem by bicycle. No-one will believe we’re not together. It just seems too great a coincidence that two Antipodeans would appear on their remote doorstep at exactly the same moment.
We finally convince them that we’re strangers, and the young ladies take us for tea. Two pretty sisters, total opposites in character, and a 29 year old dental student, Naomi. After a walk round town the others disperse and Naomi and I return to her apartment. Her best friend, Astrid, is returning to Stuttgart with her parents, and is also catching the 0130am train, so we will all go together.
Naomi’s sister and her husband are expecting a baby, and have given up their jobs as computer programmers so as to relocate to Stuttgart, with Astrid’s help, to build a better future. As they see it, there’s little hope for life in Romania. Also the Jewish community here is elderly, and the girls struggle to keep a small youth group going.
The sisters are fluent in Romanian, Hungarian, German and English, much to my envy, and also know some Hebrew. They talk about their childhood under Ceaucescu, and their lives since the coup. They are exceptionally intelligent, and are inquisitive about the outside world, having grown up in a country where it was forbidden to even speak to a foreigner.
Jews settled in Arad from the early 18th century, and Reform Judaism later became a powerful influence here under Rabbi Chorin. Among the changes he brought about were the use of German in services and the accompaniment of organ music.
According to my guidebook, about 10 000 Jews lived here before WW2: the community survived the Holocaust, and most of them moved to Israel. At the end of 1990, more than 580 Jews lived in the town and four nearby villages, making the community one of the largest outside Bucharest.
Astrid arrives and we take a taxi to the railway station. We’re so busy chatting that we almost get on the wrong train, the distractions of conversation and once again, erroneous platform numbering to blame. We then find out that the border crossing has been changed and that we’ll be travelling by a different route.
We all squash into a compartment, Astrid, her parents, half a ton of luggage and two young Romanian students, all heading for Germany, and me, for Budapest. Our party soon develops a cheery cameraderie which gets us through the trials of an hour or so at the border, with authorities checking documents and battle-ready soldiers checking for smugglers and the smuggled. Three or four desperate hours of sleep before an early morning arrival at Keleti station. Tod müde.