The Jewish History of Transylvania

(Special thanks to Eduard Popescu from Romania Jewish Tours for his help)


(Ger., Siebenbürgen; Hun., Erdély), a province in the western area of current Romania.

There is archeological and numismatic evidence of the presence of Jews in Transylvania as early as the times of the Roman rule over Dacia (106–275 CE).
The next known reference to a Jew in Transylvania dates to 1357.
Until the beginning of the sixteenth century, Jews worked in the main Transylvanian cities (Cluj, Sibiu, Bra?ov) as tradesmen and creditors, acting as middlemen in commercial and financial relations with neighboring countries (Moldavia, Walachia, the Ottoman Empire, Poland, and Hungary).
After the fall of the Hungarian kingdom to Turkish expansion in 1526–1540, Transylvania became an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty.
In 1623, Prince Gabriel Bethlen granted trading privileges and freedom of religion to Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire, but beginning in 1653 they were allowed to reside only in the capital of the principality, Alba Iulia.
In the last decade of the seventeenth century, Transylvania became part of the Austrian Empire. Most of its territory formed the Great Principality of Transylvania, and the rest was divided between the Partium and Banat.
Austrian rule brought with it the practice of taking periodic censuses of persons and taxable property, thus providing significant statistical data also on the demographic evolution of the Jewish population.
In the Great Principality of Transylvania, the first general census of Jews in 1754 recorded the existence of 107 families.
In 1779, their number reached 221, and the census of 1785–1786 indicated 394 families, consisting of 2,092 people.
The same census revealed 1,424 families with 6,884 people in the Partium (Maramure?, Satu Mare, Bihor, and Arad counties), and Banat (which, together with the Principality of Transylvania, became part of Romania after World War I).
By 1867, the Jewish population living in the historical principality of Transylvania reached 23,536 people (representing 1.2% of the total population), whereas the census of 1910 (the last one before World War I) counted 64,074 (2.4%).
Within the same period, the Jewish population of Partium and Banat counties increased from 82,105 in 1870 to 166,768 in 1910.
The spectacular demographic growth was mainly the result of high natural increase and immigration from Galicia, Bucovina, and other regions of Poland and Ukraine.
In 1867, with the transformation of the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Principality of Transylvania became part of the Hungarian section of the Dual Monarchy until the end of World War I.
As a consequence of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1919–1920 Transylvania, Partium, and Banat were included in Romania.
The Romanian census of 1930 recorded 192,833 Jews in Transylvania (3.5% of the population).
When World War II broke out, and subsequent to the 1940 Vienna arbitration by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the north of Transylvania, with a population of 151,125 Jews, was given to Hungary.
The south of Transylvania, with 54,358 Jews, remained part of Romania.
In May and June 1944, a total of 131,633 Jews from northern Transylvania were confined in ghettos and eventually deported to Auschwitz.
Thus after the war, when all of Transylvania again became part of Romania, the number of Jews living in this province was counted at 90,444 in 1947.
As a result of emigration over the following decades, the census of 1956 recorded only 43,814 Jews in Transylvania.
Subsequent censuses (which did not provide distinct data for the country’s historical provinces) indicated that 24,667 Jews lived in Romania in 1977.
In 1992, this number had fallen to about 9,000, and in 2002 to 7,000.
The Jewish community of Transylvania had an abundance of religious and cultural traditions.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the demographic growth of the region’s Jewish communities was accompanied by the proliferation and diversification of Jewish institutions.
In the eighteenth century, there was only one officially acknowledged community—Alba Iulia—and its rabbi held the position of chief rabbi of all Jews in the principality.
In Partium and Banat, communities existed in Sighet Marma?iei, Carei, Oradea, Arad, and Timi?oara.
These cities and towns had synagogues, rabbinical courts, burial societies, schools, butchers, and ritual bathhouses.
The oldest statutes of a burial society date from 1731 (Oradea).
In 1780–1790 (during the reign of Joseph II), the first modern Jewish schools were established in Sighet Marma?iei, Carei, and Oradea.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the number of communities, synagogues, rabbis, and Jewish schools increased considerably.
After emancipation, the Congress of Jews from Hungary and Transylvania was convened in 1868–1869, but it led to a schism.
Those communities accepting the Congress’s decisions became Congress or Neolog communities; those choosing strict adherence to tradition became Orthodox communities; and those wishing to maintain the situation that had existed prior to the Congress were called Status Quo Ante communities.
This division persisted for about a century - until the Communist regime.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the main concern of Jews in Transylvania was to obtain civil rights.
After a difficult struggle, Jews succeeded in gaining the right to enter the cities of Transylvania, and the new dualist Austro-Hungarian regime granted civil emancipation to Jews in December 1867.
An additional law in 1895 granted Judaism a status equal to that of other religions.
The main effect of the emancipation was to grant Jews a stronger position in economic, social, political, and cultural life.
Concurrently, some Jews began to assimilate by adopting the Hungarian language and culture.
Nevertheless, emancipation was followed by the emergence of modern antisemitic trends in public opinion and in the political and parliamentary environments.
After World War I and the integration of Transylvania into Romania, most Transylvanian Jews advocated Zionism.
The National Union of Jews from Transylvania (founded in 1918) and the Tarbut School Organization (1920) aimed to promote the ideals of the movement, and the Új Kelet daily, published in Cluj between 1918 and 1940, was the movement’s main publication.
In 1931–1932 there were 45 Jewish schools in Transylvania, with 224 teachers and 5,000 students.
Violent antisemitic manifestations occurred in the interwar period and culminated in brutality between 1940 and 1944.
In northern Transylvania, which had passed to Hungarian administration.
Jews were gradually excluded from public life.
They fell victim to the Holocaust in May and June 1944 after being confined in ghettos and then deported to Auschwitz.
In southern Transylvania, Jews experienced multiple deprivations, persecution, and forced labor.
The “Final Solution,” however, was not implemented. After World War II, the hopes founded on the egalitarian promises of the Communist regime turned out to be unjustified, as legal actions taken against the Romanian Zionists perpetuated antisemitism under different forms.
Therefore, most Jews from Transylvania, and from Romania as a whole, eventually chose to emigrate; as a result, Jewish life in Transylvania today has largely become just a symbolic relic of a once flourishing community.
Communities still exist in the main cities of Transylvania but their members, mostly elder people, number only in the tens or several hundreds per community and there are no rabbis.

Suggested Reading
Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, Toldot yehude Transilvanyah: 1623–1944 (Jerusalem, 2003);
Paul Cernovodeanu, ed., Toldot ha-Yehudim be-Romanyah, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1996);
Ladislau Gyémánt, Evreii din Transilvania în epoca emanciparii: 1790–1867 (Bucharest, 2000);
Izvoare si m?rturii referitoare la evreii din România, 3 vols. (Bucharest, 1986–1999);
Monumenta Hungariae Judaica, vols. 1–18 (Budapest, 1903–1980).

Author Ladislau Gyémánt

Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea