Romanian synagogues are under threat of extinction. The Mihai Eminescu Trust, an English foundation founded during the last gasp of the Ceausescu years, has set itself the task of trying to save a few of these fascinating places of worship in Transylvania. This is a natural part of our programme of restoration of historic buildings: but more importantly, it is the result of a personal encounter with Erich Ilie-Raducan, known as "The last Jew of Sighisoara".
Erich was buried on 2nd October 2008 amid skewed, sunken, but finely carved gravestones in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of that mediaeval citadel town. He was born Erich Kupferberg in Radauti, Bukovina, in October 1912. His life encapsulated a vanished world, at a remote meeting point between two civilizations. For some 500 years, the fragile structures of the outer reaches of the Habsburg Empire had acted as a bulwark against the wild hordes pressing in from the land stretching eastwards to the Kirghiz Steppe, Galicia and Russia, a short march beyond the Dniester river. The collapse of the Empire after the First War saw Kupferberg's homeland ravaged by armies and by Nazis and Communists in turn. It was not until near the end of his days that a semblance of peace and order returned, after sufferings that epitomized all the tragedy of Mitteleuropean Jewry in the 21st century.
Erich left his village in 1932 to read law in Czernowitz, which at this time harboured half of all Bukovina's Jewry. He immersed himself in the proud Jewish fraternity, made up of doctors, lawyers, small bankers, cattle dealers, managers of slaughterhouses and God-fearing rabbis and Orthodox Jews. Here he encountered the poetry of Heinrich Heine, and the ritual and rites of Jewish duelling clubs, with their chivalrous justice, where the men fought swathed to the ears in leather and cotton armour, and master swordsmen practised with heavy sabres, naked from the waist.
Despite growing nationalism, until the mid 1930s the Romanian government had issued no explicitly anti-semitic decrees. But in December 1937 the Coga-Cuza administration stripped Jews of their citizenship, their privileges and their civil rights, including their right to work and to receive an education. Now an established lawyer, working for a rich businessman, Erich found his license rendered invalid.
Coga's regime was short-lived and his decrees were soon abolished. Events, however, were moving fast. When war was declared, Romania allied with the Nazis. Erich struggled on as a jobbing consultant-at-law in the face of renewed racism, but in 1941 the pogroms began, followed by an avalanche of zealously implemented anti-semitic laws.
In 1941 Erich was deported to Transnistria during the mass arrests ordered by the Prime Minister, Marshal Antonescu. Thousands of his fellow deportees fell exhausted on the marshy ways, stricken by the cold, or stabbed by the bayonets of their oppressors. In the freezing winters of minus 40 degrees that followed, 200,000 Jews died from typhus or hypothermia. Erich's survival was most likely due to Romania's chief rabbi, Alexandre Safran. The Jews' survival depended entirely on Antonescu. Safran asked the Queen Mother Elena to intervene on their behalf. She did so, obtaining a promise aid for the Transnistrian camp. On December 17th 1941, not long after Erich's internment, the first trickle of food and medicine arrived.
Erich was released in the summer of 1944. The danger that the Jewish population might be exterminated did not finally pass until August of that year, when Antonescu was arrested by King Mihai at gunpoint and Romania switched sides. Erich could now rethink his future. He moved to Sighisoara, in Southern Transylvania, where 40, 000 Jews had survived the war and the indigenous Saxon minority were German speaking.
Erich worked as a lawyer and legal consultant for two factories in Sighisoara. But his newly settled life was short lived. The "liberation" of Romania by the Russian army in 1945 was a cruel deception and in 1947, the Romanian Communist Party, a mere 1,100 activists trained and directed by Moscow, took over.
In 1950, during the Stalinist terror of Party Secretary Gheorgiu-Dej, Erich was again arrested. He spent six months in the Securitate cellars on trumped up charges before being sentenced to three years of maximum security imprisonment in the Jilava prison near Bucharest. On his release, it was at first impossible for him to find work, as his sentence included ten years of civil proscription.
The terrible times continued under the dictatorship of Ceausescu, without heating, sometimes without food but in December 1989, Ceausescu was assassinated and a pale form of Romanian democracy was installed.
The traumas of Erich's early life never left him, but as his contemporaries died off, he derived comfort from new friends and those who shared his love of the Sighisoara synagogue, that included us in the Mihai Eminescu Trust, with our central office in Sighisoara.
To visit his house was to enter another epoch: dark heavy furniture, betassled carved wardrobes, armchairs, tables, sidetables in the Gothic style of the turn of the century heaped with magazines and books piled high from his personal library - a priceless collection of documents on Jewish persecution from the early Middle Ages to recent times. He told us with a certain irony that he enjoyed the interest shown in his Jewishness, "the fewer of us there are around the more fascinating we appear".
He liked to be thought an ordinary man, but ordinariness had been denied him. Instead, he had become the living embodiment of the tortured Jewish world of Central European literature so graphically portrayed in the novels of Joseph Roth -- where survival was the greatest triumph and remembrance the greatest duty.
It is because of Erich Raducan that we are now raising money to save the synagogue in Medias, the next door town to Sighisoara. Built in 1904, it has all the original details including majestic frescoes, but it lies abandoned and crumbling. Please fly over to London to the Romanian Embassy, No 1 Belgrave Square, on 10th June to see a photographic exhibition of Romanian synagogues in peril but also, too, our plans for the Medias synagogue's restoration. If you cannot come, any donation, however large, however small, would be gratefully received.