The occasional flock of gulls could be heard squawking overhead on a warm summer day in July 2022. Echoes from the flying packs bounced off the walls of the nearby buildings, all in pristine condition or at least currently under renovation to meet the aesthetic appeal of the surroundings. Constanta, Romania was a pleasing skyline from the shores of the Black Sea. Scanning the horizon, one could see an array of beautiful umbrellas, families enjoying a holiday at the sea, restaurants, merchants, and state of the art condominiums that sought to bring the region into the 21st century. The postcard scene only had one sore spot to bear, only one blemish on the reputation of the bustling beach town and in many ways the history of Constanta matched its vista.
Standing in front of the imperfection was a United States Army Rabbi, who seemed like he observed the city from a photo-negative perspective. The blemish, to him, appeared as the jewel of this tourist town. Chaplain (Col.) Shmuel Felzenberg, the V Corps Chaplain, was a shorter man with white hair that betrayed his age and decades of service to the Army. He looked at the crumbling structure in front of him with admiration. Presented before him were the aged and decaying remains of The Great Synagogue, the only Jewish place of worship to have existed in Constanta. The building was a witness to a once vibrant Jewish community. An older woman walking by testified to the contrast between the beautiful city and the sore spot as she responded to whether it would be ok for the Rabbi’s small group to enter the structure.
“Of course,” said the woman walking by. “No one cares about that place.”
The aged woman’s words could not have been more accurate. For all the beauty of the city, here stood a building that residents had forgotten. The roof was caved in, the walls crumbled, and plants and small animals now filled the center. The setting was something a Hollywood director would cherish in a war-torn movie scene as it spoke loudly to its rare audience “stay away.” Nevertheless, the Rabbi and his small group walked through an iron gate which seemed to restrain the Synagogue from the world, rather than keep the world out of the synagogue. Passing through the gate, the Rabbi’s eyes widened as he looked up to see the Star of David in stained glass.
“I’m shocked that the glass is still intact,” he said.
Chaplain Felzenberg had a vested interest in the decomposing structure as his family, generations ago, may have visited the house of worship before World War II. His family was from the former Transnistra area. Transnistra encompassed parts of modern-day Moldova, Ukraine, Transylvania, and Romania. While there was no certainty, a small plaque on the front of the building increased the prospect.
The Rabbi’s family was part of the Jewish community in Transylvania, and while it’s unlikely that they migrated to Constanta in 1868, there’s no doubt that they had some ties to the community and perhaps visited the structure that was now in front of him. Chaplain Felzenberg proceeded to enter the structure, stepping over the rotten wood entrance and around debris that looked as if it remained from the days of the holocaust.
Constanta was not on the positive side of history in World War II as the Romanian government capitulated to the much stronger German Army and joined the axis powers. On 22 June 1941, Romania provided troops and equipment to help the Germans invade Russia (a historic enemy dating back to the Russo-Turkish War). Unfortunately for the Jewish community in Romania, the government in trying to avoid Russia, aligned itself with a country that sought to remove Jews from existence.
Shortly after joining the Axis, Romania started to follow suit with Germany and shipped Jewish persons to ghettos. With the stories shared from around Europe of death camps, Jewish communities like those in Constanta knew that escape was paramount, so Jewish families quickly left. The community gave little care for the synagogue as compared to their lives. Chaplain Felzenberg, standing in the middle of the once great synagogue, listened to the old building tell its history, then translated it to the group.
“You can see here,” he said, pointing to the upper tier of the building, “that would have been the area where women came to pray.” However, all the group could see was the blue sky and more seagulls through what used to be a dome shaped ceiling. Nevertheless, the Rabbi continued painting in the parts of the structure that time had destroyed. Each step through the rubble was a testimony of a community that quickly abandoned their home. For Chaplain Felzenberg it was an honor to be standing where, perhaps, his ancestors stood years before the Jewish community of Constanta was decimated.
“This is really quite special,” he said. “It’s just a shame that none of it is being used.”
The Rabbi was referring to building parts that were still good and some supplies that appeared to have been left from a previous revision attempt. Chaplain Felzenberg brought a spirit of optimism, despite the tragic history of the Great Synagogue that lay ruined before him. The Jewish community, who left Constanta with hopes to rebuild in Jerusalem must have shared the same sense of optimism. The humble, small statured Rabbi spent the rest of the visit telling the group how he, like the Jewish community, could rebuild what history has largely destroyed from the rubble. Perhaps the Chaplain’s perspective was the correct viewpoint after all; for what seemed to be a crumbled stain on the vibrant community, was in contrast a beautiful testimony of a people that far surpassed the incredible allure of the Constanta skyline.