November 15, 2018

The Museum Curator

The still sounds of the entire hall were filled by the voice of an elderly man. His words recounting the rich and bustling Jewish communities that once inhabited Romania before the Second World War. However, unlike most, Aristide Streja, age 92, knows what he was talking about as he lived to see it with his own eyes.

Mr. Streja, now a curator of the largest Holocaust museum in Romania spends his days attending to the few wandering visitors, or the massive American tour groups who come to learn of an event that is not so well known in Western history books. The Shoah in Romania, unlike most of the other nations was something perpetrated by the Romanians themselves. As in Germany, neighbour turned against neighbour amid the rise of totalitarian complacency.

The moment you walk in The Great Synagogue of Bucharest you are immediately struck by the beautiful 19th century architecture and art that decorates the walls, only to be lead to the Shoah exhibition that surrounds the entire shul, which is odly indicative of the still overarching pain that surrounds the Bucharest community. It is rather disconcerting that the Shul, which is functioning, also serves as a Shoah museum. However the lack of funds and support has given the community no real choice.

In fact the strife that the community had gone through historically is unthinkable. Since the death of 400,000 Jews in the Shoah, anti-semitism in Communist Romania was just as alive. A great deal of Jews left for Israel under Ceausescu, Romania’s Communist dictator, which has led the community today to dwindle around 9000. The shul itself found in one of Bucharest's old neighborhoods is surrounded by decrepit communist-styled apartment buildings, making it seem not only physically, but also symbolically out of place.

Mr. Streja, at his old fashioned desk, in his out-of-style tie and at his frail age jumps at the opportunity to greet people into his museum. Despite, the morose mood that continually haunts the place, an occasional smile can be seen on Streja experienced face, only to remind his visitors that despite what people have gone through there is no reason not to continue on living a happy life, even at 92.

Born in 1922, in Bucharest’s old Jewish neighborhood into a pious Jewish family Mr. Streja grew up into a conventional Jewish education, only to later go to a high school in the same area as the the Synagogue/Museum he currently curates. However, while growing up in Romania’s Fascist 30’s, like most Jews, his family suffered terribly,

As a result of the Anti-Jewish legislation that was instituted by the Antonescu regime in the late 30s, Mr. Streja’s father had lost his business, and was not longer allowed to engage in any trade and thus could not provide for his family. Streja spent his teenage years during most of the war doing hard labour around and in Bucharest, under the supervision of Antonescu’s army. He saw friends, parts of his family, and great chunk of the community murdered. This lasted until 1944, when Soviet troops liberated Bucharest and Romania from the fascist grip.

After the war, he continued to live in old Bucharest and took up a rewarding career in architecture. He later got married and finished college in 1977 under the Communist university directive. However, he never stopped participating in the Jewish Community, both socially and religiously. In 1996, he co-authored a book entitled the Synagogues of Romania, in which he outlines the current state of Romania’s Shuls as well as communities.

The point is that Mr. Streja is a man who interestingly has not only seen history happen but lived through it, and the fact that he continues to curate a museum today should be exalted. However, his fame does not extend outside Bucharest’s Jewish community, or the few tourists and visitors whose heart’s he touches with the stories and people he met throughout his life. In fact, there is very little about him out there.

In his own full length interview, conducted by the Centropa Organization, which I had read before I visited the museum had given the impression of a man who had gone through a lot, but his optimism was just as vibrant as the moment I saw him through those Shul doors. Although his hearing obviously fading, as I had to increase the volume of my voice, his smile and attentiveness were gleaming with a youth.

A youth which mind you cannot be extinguished in an entire generation of individuals, such as Mr. Streja, which went through unspeakable ordeals but still hold the hope for a better future for Jews in the diaspora and in Israel. In his own words he said that Israel “ was a miracle back then and today”.