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All Souls Day at The Jewish Cemetery in Cluj

Cemeteries have never bothered me. I think this applies to most Romanians who grew up celebrating October 31st with a visit to the final resting place of friends and family members. It's probably the same for Mexicans.

I've already written about All Souls' Day, and shared the requisite images of the event, so I won't go into it here, but I'm always impressed by the bustle of activity around cemeteries on this day. Small businesses pop-up as flower and candle sellers line the roads leading to the entrance, while the cars parked on either side inevitably take up the sidewalk. In spite of the bazaar-like character, it is still a solemn and subdued event by Romanian standards.

On my way from an unrelated errand today, I passed the Jewish cemetery, tucked off to the side of a small dead-end road. It's relatively easy to miss, though easy enough to identify once you're standing in front of the wrought iron gate.

I'd been curious about the place for years, having lived near it almost ever since moving to Cluj. I wondered why there were hens clucking behind the cement wall running along the street, and why, or if, it was open since nobody ever seemed to walk in or out. So, when I strode up to the gate impulsively and turned the handle, I expected my questions would remain unanswered.

To my surprise, it swung open. I stood there for a couple of seconds, weighing my options. It is so un-Romania-like to find unlocked gates, even at public places, that I felt an illicit thrill at my good fortune. Of the two whitewashed structures on either side of the gate, the one on the right appeared to be a home, if only because of the doorbell stuck to its outer wall and the wires running from it into the adjacent door jamb. I imagined the groundskeeper was in there.

As I continued past an enclosure, which probably doubled as a chicken coop,  a shaggy grey dog scampered over to inspect me, probably too surprised at seeing a visitor to bark - as Romanian yard dogs tend to do when anybody steps into their field of vision. It did eventually start barking, but only once I'd ambled on and reached what it must've considered to be a safe distance. 

The building on my left housed some sort of reception area, if you could call it that. In it, two long wooden benches  sat facing each other in a dusty looking room. At the far end, on a dusty wooden dais flanked by large metal candle holders, was a pulpit, its top rail topped with, also dusty, red velvet trim. A solid wooden frame, the bier, stood directly in front of it. The walls were bare and needed a new coat of paint. It was quite bleak, but it is a state in keeping with death and funerals, so not necessarily uncalled for.

Across the assembly hall stood something like a tool shed. An old worn out sign, hanging on the door frame, indicated that visitors were welcome year round on the basis of a contribution for the upkeep of the cemetery. The recommended donation amounts (differing whether the visitors were local or foreign) had been blacked-out with a layer of paint, and there was no donation box of any sort, unless the basket of onions beneath was meant to double as a collection bin. I didn't think so, although at this point I was beginning to marvel that I was still able to roam freely, especially if contributions were on the line and visitors were few. Either the groundskeeper wasn't around or he was uninterested.


It was around this area that the cemetery proper started. An amalgam of tombstones, some old, some recent, but mostly old, clamored for space  amidst the overgrown grass, small shrubs, and strangely ubiquitous plum trees. After the fourth or fifth tombstone on which I'd noticed decomposing plums, I looked up suddenly, as if a mystery had been revealed to me: It's not just that there were plum trees all over; the cemetery is essentially a plum orchard. 

I then walked among the graves reading the names on the tombstones and wondering what the Hebrew epitaphs said. In my ignorance, I'd assumed they wouldn't be very different from those in the central cemetery next door, but they were. Mendel, Mittelman, Coen, Horwitz, and a mix of Hungarian and Romanian ethnic names, perhaps with some variations, many of which were new to me.

Unfortunately, there is a reason for my ignorance in the matter.

Many of the tombstones, I noticed, listed several names. More than you'd see elsewhere. These tombstones, belonging to different families and dispersed throughout the cemetery also carried a similar inscription: "Auschwitz 1944".

I stood in front of these with a heavy heart. It's not something you usually - or ever -do; stand in front of graves reading the names of families who were wiped out in genocide. It's not any better when you know your forebears were complicit.

Many of the graves had minimal markings and no cement top. The only indication these were indeed grave-sites were the protruding lumps. It was sad to see so many neglected graves, but perhaps not surprising given that throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Romania's remaining Jews mostly moved to Israel and America. From one of Europe's largest Jewish communities, prior to the war, it has become one whose cemeteries lie decrepit and forgotten.

I'd read Elie Wiesel last year, Night, then Dawn, and then Day. But he doesn't go much into the Romania aspect of his life, and maybe he had no good reason to. My friend, Sam, wrote a good post on Romania's Fascist period, which may help explain Wiesel's own lack of depth on the topic.

When I'd seen most of what there was to see - it really isn't all that big -  I walked back to the gate, thinking about clashes of culture, misguided enmity, and man-made disasters all while the little grey dog barked at me.

It's true that even if we all come to the same end, our journeys are vastly different. And yet, with the knowledge of that inevitable final chapter, you'd think we might do a better job of reaching those last few pages with dignity and the satisfaction of a life well lived.

I propose that instead of dressing up as ghouls and goblins, we take some time, one day in the year, reflecting on the soul and thinking about what we're doing in order to avoid becoming human monsters. It is, in my opinion, a more fitting way to commemorate All Souls' Day. The video below offers some good ideas on where to start.


  1. So, Matt, let's bring some precision to this :"It's not any better when you know your forebears were complicit", particularly because it's such a serious matter.

    I have no qualms about individuals or entire nations self-critically (or even autoscopically) examining their history, I would say this is the proper way of dealing with history, be it personal or collective. Yes, Romania and Romanians had better do some thorough soul searching (and I would say regarding pre-communist, communist and even recent years). Now, with respect to the Jewish population of Cluj deportation to Auschwitz during WW II, things, apparently, are pretty straightforward: when the events happened, Cluj (just as a good chunk of Northern Transylvania) was not /no longer part of Romania (the Vienna Dictate of 1940). Hungary had the jurisdiction on the administrative matters in the territories it had just acquired.

    There is a slim chance that Romania/Romanians should assume responsibility for the tragic fate of some of the Cluj Jews: if , assumingly, after the Dictate , number of them moved to Romania and still got deported to extermination camps , then, yes , Romania/ns should bear the responsibility for what happened to them (and, yes , btw. many Jews living in Romania at the time were not spared a discriminatory ordeal). But this hypothetical case is to be documented. If you read Wiesel, you may recollect that Hungarian speaking Jews (in Sighet) were quite content when the new Hungarian authorities moved in. What I know for a fact, from my personal experience, a Jewish family who moved from Cluj to Turda after the Dictate (the new border between Hungary and Romania was on the Feleac Mount, Turda was in Romania, Cluj in Hungary) survived and lived to emigrate to Israel in the 1960's.

    1. I do remember Wiesel focusing on the Hungarian authorities as they'd initiated the exodus from Sighet, and obviously it was a similar situation in Cluj. I didn't clarify that, but I do see it as a bit of a technicality; Antonescu, Bucovina, and Moldova proved we weren't exactly 'Righteous Among the Nations'.


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