Treasures in the Attic

by Julie Dawson

30 Jun Treasures in the Attic

“Is it open?” I asked my colleague as she tried the handle of the old wooden door. “No,” she answered, but as she gave it one last hefty shove, the door swung open to reveal the spacious, open, attic balcony of the Neologue synagogue in Cluj, Romania. The space was lit by natural light and completely empty but for about twenty elaborately framed paintings, photographs and photo-montages, leaning against the walls. In addition to the artwork, inside a bulky wooden cabinet covered with peeling green paint, we discovered more than twenty zincographs (images engraved on metal, used for printing photographs) still mounted on their wooden foundations – unique treasures from Transylvania’s Jewish past discovered by  Leo Baeck Institute’s Yerusha-funded JBAT project.

The survey of Jewish-history related documents in Bukovina and Transylvania is in the midst of its fourth year. The work has taken archivists from Suceava to Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben), from Brașov (Kronstadt/Brassó) to Bucharest, and, most recently, to the cultural capital of Transylvania, the vibrant and verdant town of Cluj (Klausenburg/Kolozsvár).

Customarily, the focus of the survey is on the National Archives branch of the respective town. If a Jewish community still exists in the town, archivists also request permission from the community leaders to view and catalogue any existing documentary material. This material, if it exists at all, is normally fairly straightforward and manageable in size – a handful of registers, a cemetery map or two, perhaps paperwork and catalogues from the former Jewish school. Nevertheless, these items, however few, are of disproportionate interest to surveyers, since the existence of such material is generally completely unknown to the public and wholly undocumented. Thus far, descriptions of material from the Jewish communities in Brașov, Târgu Mureș (Neumarkt/ Marosvásárhely), Alba Iulia (Karlsburg/Gyulafehérvár), and now, Cluj, will be included in the next major update to the JBAT website and, of course, will eventually be searchable via the Yerusha portal.

The material from the Jewish communities consists first and foremost of documentary material. Occasionally, however, we stumble upon a fantastic and almost inconceivable find – such was the case in Cluj this spring. Orsolya Nagyi, the young woman helping me to process the Jewish community documents, and I, had just begun sorting through several cabinets full of paperwork and registers stored in the former Neologue synagogue. “Let’s make sure there is nothing else here,” I told her, and suggested we do a bottom to top search through the shul. A back room was filled with yellowing cardboard boxes of dusty siddurim (a typical find), a beautifully embroidered but moth-eaten and decayed crimson parochet, and a large, empty wooden chest engraved with the Magen David on its corners. We climbed the stairs to the women’s balcony and walked to the far end, where another stairway led up to a closed wooden door behind which we discovered the items mentioned earlier –the artwork and zincographs.

How this material ended up in the attic of the Neologue synagogue is unknown. The shul was almost entirely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in the early post-war years. Presumably community members deposited the items here over the course of the past decades, perhaps hoping they would be safe and someday, to someone, of interest. Thanks to the Yerusha project, the Leo Baeck Institute is in a position to create digital collections of these items: the JBAT website will host a digital Cluj synagogue “attic art” collection of all the pieces found. Cluj-based artist and photographer, Răzvan Anton, has already completed the photo shoot of these items. Secondly, there will be a digital collection of the zincographs, which include images of community leaders, several Transylvanian synagogues, and an architectural design for a “Jewish cultural palace” proposed in Cluj after the war. Anton and his colleagues are printing several editions of the zincographs, the originals will then be safely stored with the Jewish community. Most of the subjects of the artwork and zincographs are not labeled and unknown; our user interface will include an option to provide information on the individual or place.

These images represent valuable pieces of Jewish Transylvanian heritage and as a result of the Yerusha project, they are being brought to light and shared with a wider community of researchers, scholars, and genealogists.

Julie Dawson is Project Director of JBAT: Jewish Bukovina And Transylvania Archival Survey and Leader of the Leo Baeck Institute’s Yerusha project.

JBAT Website