Sunken Synagogues in Szekely Land

The archives of Targu Mures are already providing intriguing stories and it’s only been one week. Granted, I am favorably disposed to this city in general and knew it better upon arrival than the other cities that have been surveyed thus far (Suceava, Sibiu, Brasov). I used to live just over the hills in the exquisite medieval hamlet of Sighisoara. For us, Targu Mures was the “metropolis” to which we would hitchhike for a taste of big city life – diverse restaurants, large stores, men with beards, students with tattoos. Sighisoara is serene and stunning, but sometimes a bit of worldliness does one good. Sighisoara was all otherworldliness; there legends seem to rise with the mist from the hills. Several times when I spoke with people there about my work in Jewish cultural heritage I was told a colorful tale. It was 2007, near the beginning of my stay in Romania, and my Romanian wasn’t too good. I understood something about Szekely peasants, a count – or was it a prince?, Jews, a sunken synagogue, a flooded village, a lake with a steeple peaking out, away beyond the hills. Sounds like a pretty legend, I thought, nodding vaguely, not at all understanding what the speaker was talking about.

Later I came to realize it wasn’t at all a legend, it was the story of the Szekely Sabbatarians, a group of Szekely peasants who, led by their local nobleman, in the 16th century, began observing Jewish law and ritual (this is a gross summary of the situation). Even in relatively tolerant Transylvania (one of the earliest regions in Europe to issue a patent of religious tolerance in 1568) their teachings, which denied the deity of Christ and the teachings of the New Testament, went too far. The leaders and their followers were persecuted and eventually most returned to one of the accepted religions (especially Unitarianism or Calvinism). A small group, however, continued to practice in secret all the way up until the 19th century, when, after Jewish emancipation in Austro-Hungary, they officially converted in mass to Judaism. This group lived in the village of Bözöd-Újfalu or Bezidu Nou. The story goes that part of the community was deported to Auschwitz, whereas other members were saved by local priests who convinced the Germans that they were not “real” Jews.

What about the lake, the sunken synagogue, the flooded village? In the 1980s, Ceaușescu decided to building a dam near Bezidu Nou and the village was subsequently flooded, thus finally erasing all material and architectural traces of the Szekely Sabbatarians.

Little has been written about the Sabbatarians and even less exists in English. Do the archives have anything about them, I have wondered for years. How are they catalogued in the collection of civil records? Under Jews or do they have their own category? I had so many questions about this group - Who were their leaders? How did the local Jewish communities (there was a large one in Sângeorgiu de Pădure/Erdőszentgyörgy, just a few kilometers away) interact with them? Was there intermarriage? Is there really no one left? Has anyone done oral histories?

This week a few of my questions were answered – there is one birth, marriage, and death book for the Israelite community of Bözödújfalu from the 1880s – this would have been after the mass conversion and thus I presume it is in fact the register for the Sabbatarians. I also found entries in the Unitarian book during the war – but that story will wait for next week. Until then, good Shabbes!