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The Jewish Community

In June 1623, Prince Gabriel Bethlen issued a decree which allowed Sephardic Jews to enter the principality of Transylvania. They were allowed to settle exclusively in Alba Iulia. This decision was motivated by a desire to improve commercial exchanges with the Ottoman Empire. After the incorporation of Transylvania into the Habsburg Empire the number of Jews increased, with Ashkenazi Jews settling in the province next to the Sephardic Jews. In Alba Iulia, for a while, two synagogues functioned. From the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century the Jewish population of Alba Iulia reached a significant size relative to the total population of the city. Later, however, emigration to Israel caused a drastic reduction of the number of Jewish inhabitants after World War II.

The decree issued by Prince Gabriel Bethlen in June 1623 stipulated for the first time the legal status of Jews in the principality, warranting their right to settle, to move unhindered, and to practice commerce and their religion freely. The prince aimed to improve trade between Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire and the Jews were seen as the best mediators between the two states. Since Alba Iulia played an important commercial role in the economic life of Transylvania, the prince assigned this city as place of settlement for the Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and later found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Until the late seventeenth century the Jewish community of Alba Iulia grew slowly. It is not clear what the number of the Jews settling in Alba Iulia after the decree issued by Gabriel Bethlen was. According to the general census of 1753 there were 31 Jewish families in the city.

After the victories won by the Habsburgs against the Ottomans Transylvania was integrated in the Austrian state system. This had important consequences for the inhabitants of the principality. Ashkenazi Jews started to settle in the province, coming mostly from the Habsburg Empire. The privileges granted to the Jews were confirmed by the Habsburgs and the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Bishopric extended over them. In Transylvania, the Habsburgs only formally recognized the Jewish community of Alba Iulia. As such the chief rabbi, who held supreme spiritual, administrative and judicial authority over the Jews from the principality, was elected by the community of Alba Iulia.

The synagogue of Alba Iulia was inaugurated in 1840 and its construction took place while Ezekiel Paneth (1823-1845) was chief rabbi. It was the first synagogue built of stone in Transylvania and the architecture of the building combined Baroque and Neoclassical elements. The name of the building was Mareh Yezekiel and the synagogue was used by both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. The second synagogue of the Jewish community was built over the period 1874-1883. Unfortunately, during the program of urban systematization promoted by the Communist regime, the second synagogue was demolished in 1983.

By the end of the eighteenth century, as there was a legal impediment to Jews to settling elsewhere, 98.7 % of the urban Jewish population of Transylvania resided in Alba Iulia. Change occurred only in 1840 when Jews were permitted to settle in other cities of the principality and the importance of the community from this city declined. During the last third of nineteenth century, the equal footing of Jews with Christians, as well as the equality of the Judaic religion with the Christian confessions, were recognized, and citizenship was granted to the Jews of Transylvania. Consequently, the Jewish community of Alba Iulia lost its primacy and the authority of the chief rabbi was heavily challenged. From 1867, it was reduced to a symbolic role.

The defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War and the unification of Transylvania with Romania created a completely new situation for Transylvanian Jews. The Magyarization of names and integration into Magyar society through linguistic and cultural assimilation was the solution adopted by most before 1918. This option was no longer viable after 1918 when the political centre for Transylvanians moved from Budapest to Bucharest. Although Romania promised to protect all its citizens without discrimination, by signing the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1919, many Jews lost their citizenship at the end of the interwar period, as was the case with the Jews from Alba Iulia. From 1938 to 1944, several anti-Semitic bills were passed, mostly during the military dictatorship of Marshal Ion Antonescu under whose rule a Holocaust took place on the territory of Romania.

From 1945 to 1947, many Jews from the community of Alba Iulia chose to leave the city and the country and to settle for good in Palestine, then under British administration. The foundation of Israel in 1948 led to spectacular increase in emigration in 1950 and 1951. Later, the number of emigrants diminished significantly.

The number of Jews in Alba Iulia remained modest in the eighteenth century but increased significantly during the next one. In 1850, there were 735 Jews; by 1881 there were 1,112. They represented 13.59 % of the population of Alba Iulia in 1850 and 15.15 % in 1881. The highest number of Jews in Alba Iulia was reached in 1941 when the community countered 1,654 members. This was the highpoint: from this year on the number diminished constantly. According to the most recent census of 2011, the community of Alba Iulia Jews now stands at 19 people representing just 0.02 % of the city’s population. The history of the Jewish community is practically finished in Alba Iulia: only the buildings of the Jews and the cemetery located on Vasile Alecsandri Street remind us today of the important role played by the Jewish community in the history of this city. (S. A.)