The Jewish Community of Turnu Severin, Romania
By Haim F. Ghiuzeli
The Jewish community of Turnu Severin, a town today called Drobeta Turnu Severin, flourished mainly during the late decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. In 1899, the number of Jews in Turnu Severin reached its high of 899 individuals constituting almost five percent of the town’s general population. Typically for a Danubian port town at the time, Turnu Severin, which was situated before WW1 at the western most part of Romania, harbored various nationalities: Jews made up the fourth largest ethnic group, after Romanians, Germans, and Serbs, in a town that also sheltered small Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, and Turkish communities.
Because of its particular location, on the River Danube and close to the Romanian borders with Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Turnu Severin knew an important economic development that attracted many Jews to the town throughout the 19th century. Some local traditions put the beginnings of the Jewish settlement in Turnu Severin during the last years of the 18th century when the troupes of the Turkish rebel Pazvanoglu ravaged the region. However, Jews started to settle permanently in Turnu Severin only during the 1830s, after Cerneti, the former county main town was destroyed in the 1828-1829 war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. In addition to Jewish refugees from Cerneti, Turnu Severin attracted Sephardi Jews from Balkan Jewish communities, especially from Vidin and Nicopole in Bulgaria, but also Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary and the eastern regions of Romania. At the turn of the 19th century, about two thirds of the Jewish inhabitants of Turnu Severin were Ladino speaking Sephardi while the Ashkenazi formed the remaining third. Each Jewish group set up a separate community. Thus Turnu Severin became a meeting point for Jewish groups as different as Sephardi Jews from the Ottoman Empire, Ashkenazi Jews coming from the predominantly Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe, and some other Ashkenazi Jews who arrived from the Austria-Hungary Empire bringing with them an attitude characteristic of the late 19th century Central European liberal Judaism. Commerce, especially trading in cereals, served as the main occupation for most of the local Jews while others were active as small artisans. In 1910, there were in Turnu Severin 172 Jewish tradesmen, three tailors, one carpenter and 10 other artisans.
Quite often during the 19th century, the relations between the two Jewish communities were tense. Each community established its own institutions and organizations: a synagogue, cemeteries, burial societies – the Sephardi hevra kadisha was called rehitza gedola. The Sephardi community was the first to open a school in 1871. Seven years later, 58 students attended this school, a number that grew to 170 students in 1910. As the Sephardi school enjoyed a high prestige, non-Jewish students also attended it. Nevertheless, the Sephardi school was shut down during WWI. The Ashkenazi community opened its own school in 1878 when it had 45 students, boys and girls. However, this school was closed after a short period, after that Ashkenazi Jews used to send their children to either the Catholic or the Protestant German schools that functioned in the town.
The Return to Zion movement gained support among a significant segment of the Turnu Severin Jews during the last decades of the 19th century. One of the movement’s main followers was the Sephardi Rabbi A. Crispin who distinguished himself as the editor of the El Luzera de la Pasiensia (1885 – 1887) – the only Ladino language monthly in Romania. This periodical strongly advocated the ideas of the “Settlement of Eretz Israel” movement in Romania. In 1894, Rabbi Crispin published Monte Sinay (Har Sinai) – a Hebrew literary monthly. The Sephardi Jewish community of Turnu Severin was instrumental in promoting Zionist ideas among the Jews of northern Bulgaria and Serbia with whom it kept close relations. Among other distinguished leaders of the Jewish community in Turnu Severin, a special mention should be made of the Hungarian born Rabbi M. Schwartz who served the Ashkenazi community from 1911 until 1920. An active Zionist, Rabbi Schwartz converted many local youths to the Zionist ideals and he himself emigrated to Palestine in 1920 where he passed away in 1955. He was followed at the leadership of the local Zionist movement by M. Calev, the cantor of the Sephardi community. Already in 1915, Calev published a Ladino prayer book for women: Tehinot Rahel. Suplicaciones de Rahel. Contiene oraciones importantes para la vida del Mujer. (Supplications of Rachel. Contains important prayers for the life of the woman).
First Half of the 20th Century
The numbers of Jews in Turnu Severin declined after WWI, while in 1925 there were 640 Jewish inhabitants in the town, their number was reduced to 446 in 1930 making up about two percent of the total population The Sephardi community joined in 1928 the newly established Union of the Sephardi Communities in Romania. A Zionist Youth association was established in 1925; two years later, it became a branch of the HaShomer HaTzair movement. Like in other places, the Zionist movement managed to enlist members from both local Jewish communities.
In the years between the two world wars, there was a significant increase in the local anti-Semitic activities. The peak of anti Jewish instigation and defamation was reached in 1925 during the trial of Corneliu Codreanu, the future leader of the Iron Guard, the Romanian Fascist movement. The trial was transferred to Turnu Severin by the Romanian government in an attempt to calm down rioting by right-wing extremists elsewhere in the country; Codreanu’s supporters, however, followed him to Turnu Severin and started organizing anti-Jewish incitement among the local population. The seizure of power by the Romanian Fascist movement in September 1940 brought about open persecutions against the local Jews, including a boycott of their businesses.
During the rebellion of the Iron Guard in January 1941, many Jewish stores were looted by Fascists in collaboration with some local German inhabitants. A number of Jews from Turnu Severin who happened to hold Yugoslav citizenship, among them Cantor M. Calev, were expelled to Yugoslavia where they subsequently perished at the hands of the Nazis. During 1941 – 1944, the local Romanian authorities refrained from putting into practice some of the anti-Jewish measures promulgated by the central Romanian government. For instance, they postponed sine die the implementation of the order forcing Jews to bear the discriminatory yellow Jewish badge. In 1944, following increasing Allied air raids on Turnu Severin and in sharp contrast to other regions of Romania, Jews were permitted to take refuge in the surrounding villages.
In the years of the Holocaust, the small Jewish community of Turnu Severin, despite the high risks involved, accorded assistance to Jewish refugees from Vienna and Czernowitz who were stuck on two separate ships that were anchored at Kladova, on the Serbian shore of the Danube. In 1941, the Jews of Turnu Severin hosted about 600 Jewish women and children refugees, who were expelled from Darabani, in Moldavia, and sheltered them in the local synagogues and community offices.
There are two synagogues in Turnu Severin; both are recognized historical monuments and both in urgent need of major repairs. The Sephardi synagogue, located at 3 Averescu St., was the first to be built in the town in the middle of the 19th century. The facade of the Sephardi synagogue was designed to be reminiscent of the Moorish style prevalent in the medieval synagogues of Spain, thus underlying the fact that this is a “Spanish” synagogue. The interior is decorated in a rich pseudo-Oriental style with the women’s gallery supported by consoles. A Magen David and the Two Tablets of the Law surmount the Holy Ark.