What Lies in the Field

Community Highlights Europe What Lies in the Field

(I suppose I should remind the gentle reader that I had mentioned in the previous blog that this portion of ancestral hunting was not going to be pleasant. This post is an example of that.)


Those of you who have been following my blog know how meaningful cemeteries are to me. They provide information about the history of the area as well as information about who lived in the area and even perhaps how they died. Many of the cemeteries I have visited over the years are as beautiful as any local park and some of them feel ¨älive, as strange as that might sound. What I mean is that you will usually see fresh flowers on the gravestones, freshly cut lawn as well as little memorial items that had not been eroded by the weather. There are usually a few people milling about, paying respect, cleaning up and silently remembering a loved one, and not just on Sundays. I have even been inside a few cemeteries that seemed downright festive that you can almost feel a sense of joy...but that might just be how I am feeling at the time. Never did the feeling of loneliness enter my mind, even at the darkest, dreariest ones...except at the Israelite Cemetery Philanthropy in the heart of Bucharest.

This was one of the more unusual cemeteries I had ever visited. I went there, as usual, to look at names and to perhaps get a better idea of the Gheiler connection or at least a sense of the Jewish community he and his family were part of before coming to the Americas. The vast majority of graves are covered with thick greenery. What are still view-able makes up maybe 5% of the entire cemetery. I saw a few surnames that seem similar to Gheiler, even a ¨Theiler¨ which fooled me for a minute. But if their is a Gheiler here, I wouldn´t be able to see it.
The chapel had some names on the walls that I also so in the cemetery.

The day before, I visited the Sfanta Vineri Cemetery to check out the names. A good portion of the surnames there had an ¨escu¨at the end of them and, after about an hour, I realized the Sfanta Vineri had no connection to me whatsoever. I did learn later that many famous locals were buried there including Ion Rimaru known as ¨The Vampire of Bucharest¨for the murders he committed in the 1970s. Knowing he is buried there among all the other markers with Christian symbols is a bit perplexing...or maybe it shouldn´t be?!!? It´s Bucharest and its history of violence goes well beyond Vlad the Impaler and Dracula.
Although Bucharest is happy to welcome tourists in search of vampire stories, I also get the impression that it is trying to hide its more recent blood-thirsty past even while new high tech buildings go up alongside the various McDonald´s and Starbucks. Bucharest has also been recently crowned a SMART city for using technology in innovative ways to make life better for the population. Though, I must say, it is a bit disconcerting when you find you cannot use the nearby self-serve laundromats unless you have a smart phone and a Facebook account. I am not kidding you when I say I could not get my clothes washed in Bucharest because I didn´t have an FB account. Pretty soon you won´t be able to take a pee without one, I guess.

But while Bucharest is booming and becoming hip and noticed, you find that it is being a little selective about the kind of history in wants to show visitors.
Along with cemeteries, I try to visit as many local museums as possible to also glean information that would help me understand something about my ancestors and the way they (and their ancestors) lived. My maternal grandfather is listed as having been born in Besarabia. Besarabia, as an official place, no longer exists with portions of it divided up between Moldova, Romania and The Ukraine sometime in the early 20th century. In fact, Besarabia as its own region, existed for maybe a total of 50 years. Many times it was called Moldova but was in such a location that it was regularly passed around between kingdoms and empires like a frisbee. For my purposes, it meant that I had to keep in mind that Gheiler´s parents could have documentation showing they were from Moldova or even Russia etc. It wasn´t until after WWI did Greater Romania unify the major principalities that sometimes had been squabbling bastion of royal intrigues for centuries. I visited The National Museum of Romanian History which leads the visitor to this great moment in history when Romania finally became as one, mostly due to the fact that they had sided with the victors of WWI. That was a fairly astonishing decision for the people because it instantly made them surrounded by enemies ; The Austria-Hungarians, The Bulgarians , Turkey and The Russians. But siding with the victorious good guys in WWI allowed the loose parts of Romania to finally come together as one great country.
Those history of the¨loose parts¨, which included Wallachia, Transylvania, Bukovina, Besarabia and other, is quite head-spinning. but I will try and sum it up here.
From the beginning, the area bordering the Northwest part of the Black sea was occupied by humans since very ancient times. Indeed, some of the earliest human dwellings are being uncovered to this day around the region. Later, The Greeks came and dominated the region and named it Dacia. Genetic analysis shows that the people of Romania still carry Greek genetic signatures as well as ones from Russia and greater Southern Europe.
When the Roman Emperor Trajan came to conquer the region, he brought along the language and culture that Romanians identify with to this day. Romania literally means ¨citizen of Rome´, a designation bestowed upon it while under Roman rule.
The museum had on display parts of Trajan´s Column which was a monument that stood in Rome marking the historic victories over the Dacians by the emperor. Thus, there would be, from then on, a direct connection between Romania and Italy.
The Romanian language is a mixture of several languages and I was able to pick up some of the Italian words from time to time. However, it is still a different language with the term for ¨thank you¨being ¨multmesce¨which is nothing like ¨grazie¨.

Following the fall of Rome, the Romanian people were divided up among a loose collection of kingdoms or principalities which sometimes worked with or fought against each other for centuries. Consistently, the borders of these kingdoms were forever moving, sometimes within the same year. The town of Hotin was part of Besarabia when my grandfather was born but it is now part of the Ukraine and before that was part of Moldova etc. etc. If his parents were born here, most likely they would have been part of Moldova.

The museum maps were quite illuminating as Hotin seemed to lie at the very northern point of Romanian influence. The Ottoman and Russian empires, along with the Hapsburg Empire, played a crucial role in shaping the region and affecting the populations in a myriad of ways. Essentially, It had been about 2000 years between Roman rule and final Romanian unification.

After touring the big museum for a while, I began to wonder why I was not seeing any mention of Jewish populations which I knew had existed in the region in the past. The Israelite cemetery could easily fit a modern NFL stadium in it so I knew there must have been a fairly sizable Jewish population around Bucharest alone. Indeed, the 15th century Hanu lui Manuc Inn where I had lunch, included a history page describing itself as a place where travelers mingled with Turks, Romans, and Jewish merchants among others.

Also, it is well-known that the early Roman Empire was relatively tolerant of Jews and brought many to the Romanian region as slaves and merchants. Yet, the museum makes no mention of its Jewish past even though there are a few synagogues still standing in the city along with three Jewish cemeteries. I had hoped any information related to those people might shed light on the roots of my maternal grandfather who practiced Judaism.

Later, I googled things like ¨Jewish history of Romanian¨and discovered to my horror why the museum seemingly erases Jews from its history.
Apart from the Germans, 20th century Romanians were considered the most brutal towards Jews during WWII. Stories of entire Jewish settlements being wiped out and women and children slain in the most barbaric fashion left a terrible pain inside me and this instantly changed how I view Romania now. Even before that, the Jews of the region had fewer rights and liberties than Christians and therefore were mostly poor and illiterate.

Articles online do show that there is some effort (by young Romanians) to recognize this painful part of Romanian history, but the authors proclaim that Romanians themselves refuse to admit to their culpability in atrocities and the Holocaust while clinging to a convenient reasoning that blames Russia for all this.
Today´s news still shows some desecration of Jewish monuments happening in the country and their does seem to be some strong, lingering antisemitism hiding openly in the shadows, in my opinion. Whereas Germany freely admits its guilt and teaches the truth of the Holocaust in schools, Romania does not and continues to hide this part of its history among the McDonalds, Starbucks and gleaming malls that have popped up around the booming city. For someone like me, who had been to a dozen Holocaust museums, had been to Auschwitz, seen the piles of human hair, walked through the train cars that carted humans like cattle, and viewed the little piles of teeth pulled from the mouths of Jewish children (because they had a little gold in them) , the newly painted, modern face of Bucharest now seems like a grotesque mask hiding something sinister.

It may seem wrong to some that I describe the place like that...but when you hide a part of your history...what you put out as ¨truth¨is always just a lie. The museum seemed to skip over the WWII part of its history and conveniently jumps into the Soviet occupation era which, ironically, allows Romanians to then take on the role of victim. It´s hard to see Romanians as victims of Soviet occupation when they freely victimized Jews for centuries. While at the Israelite cemetery, I viewed a monument to the Romanian Jews who fought and died in WWI even though they were never allowed to own land or obtain citizenship among other longtime, disgraceful national policies.

I actually left the National History museum quite angry...and quite angry at Romanians living today. The locals I passed by now appeared different to me. Although they may not have personally done any harm to anyone, I could not help think that many are descended from those that did quite a bit of harm to the Jews, some that even link to a side of my family.

Anyway, I needed to get over that feeling of anger. I know all it does it lead to some mental health issues later on. So I calm myself down by thinking that the Genetic Memories will come back to haunt people. In my books, I write about this at length but the basic gist is that we all inherit memories from long dead ancestors, and sometimes these memories manifest themselves in different ways. It can be good or it can be bad and I tell myself that if people knowingly killed women and children for no reason, then those memories will get passed down to their descendants who will suffer perhaps nightmares and not know why. With that vengeful thought, I move on.

Please don´t take any of this that I think ALL Romanians are evil. I´m sure there were Romanians who tried to help Jews but if the country is going to hide its Jewish past then it´s also hiding any stories of Romanian heroism. There are always people who see a great wrong and then tap their humanity to prevent suffering. Modern Romanians did in fact heroically rise up and shrug off a brutal dictatorship and embraced Democracy and freedom. Today, Romanians would seem to have a bright future ahead of them even though it is still a country where there is far more emigration than immigration. Young people don´t want to stay for one reason or another but that could be changing.
Luckily, I had the good fortune to meet and talk with a few local Romanians who strives to solve the world´s biggest problems. We met through a mutual colleague of ours ( a Venetian no less) as they are all part of a network of bright, creative minds that design solutions that tackle some of the world´s issues with creative solutions. I sat down with the two at the same old Hanuc lui Manuc restaurant where I had lunch my first day in Bucharest. The conversation was lively and interesting and I started to think that they we were perhaps channeling ancestral Freemasons without knowing it. In fact the conversation turned to Freemasons and a few other topics I would not ordinarily share with strangers. I was even able to talk about the whole ¨Free Will and Nothing is a Coincidence¨thing since great examples just presented themselves as we ate and talked through the night. At one point, a lady sitting next to us had Happy Birthday suddenly sung to her by her family and I stood up and watched as it was all conducted in a distinctly Romanian way. After sitting back down, my new friend asked me when my birthday was and I told the story of how I was hypnotized on my birthday but none other than a Romanian! Lucky readers of this blog need only go back to the very earliest blog posts to reread that story.

At the end of the evening, my new friends took me into what used to be known as the Jewish Quarter and pointed out a lovely synagogue which is supervised by a rabbi they said I should try and meet. So the next day I went....

The Harsh Truth
I visited The Coral Temple in what used to be the Old Jewish Quarter of Bucharest. From Wikipedia: ¨It is a copy of Vienna's Leopoldstadt-Tempelgasse Great Synagogue, which was raised in 1855-1858. It was designed by Enderle and Freiwald and built between 1857 - 1867. The synagogue was devastated by the far-right Legionaries, but was then restored after World War II, in 1945. The main hall was recently refurbished, and re-opened in 2015. It still hosts daily religious services in the small hall, being one of the few active synagogues in the city and in Romania¨.
I was lucky enough to meet and be enlightened by the young Rabbi Gilbert Shaim. (To learn more about his efforts to keep traditions alive, google The Coral Temple on Facebook.)

My previous visits to the Jewish cemetery and the history museum left me with many questions that he was able to answer. I also understood better how difficult it may actually be to find information about my Gheiler ancestors in this part of Europe.

The Rabbi said there were close to a million Jews living around the various principalities that make up Romania before WWII. Most were poor, living off the land and were mostly illiterate. There were perhaps 80,000 Jews living in Bucharest at that time or around 7% of the population. There were once over one hundred synagogues where there is now barely a dozen in all of Romania. The Jews here had very little rights, could not own property but had to pay taxes and were regularly abused by the Christians and others. Many of these Romanian Jews served in WWI despite not being allowed citizenship. Here is their monument in the Israelite Cemetery.

From Wikpedia: ¨Alexandru Ioan Cuza (pronounced [alekˈsandru iˈo̯an ˈkuza] (About this soundlisten), or Alexandru Ioan I, also anglicised as Alexander John Cuza; 20 March 1820 – 15 May 1873) was Prince of Moldavia, Prince of Wallachia, and later Domnitor (Ruler) of the Romanian Principalities. He was a prominent figure of the Revolution of 1848 in Moldavia. He initiated a series of reforms that contributed to the modernization of Romanian society and of state structures.¨

King Cuza was easier on the Jews than previous monarchs when he proclaimed they could own property and allowed for the construction of the Coral Temple. Romanian Nationalists (like all Nationalists) went berserk and began a campaign of hate against the Jews culminating in the burning down of the Coral Temple. Cuza was forced to abdicate later and fortunes of the Romanian Jews fell with him. Coincidentally enough, the nickname for my deceased brother Carlos was ¨Cuza¨.

I´ll cut right to the chase because it sickens me to write this: Of the 800,000 Jews living in Romania, 50% were killed during the Holocaust. The remaining Jews fled the country to mostly Israel. The Rabbi of the Coral, at that time, was able to arrange a direct exchange between Romania and Israel which allowed people to move but at a monetary cost.
All of this made several things clearer to me. First, I can understand why the Jewish cemetery here is so lonely. The descendants of those buried either died in the Holocaust or left the country. Perhaps 1% of the cemetery is still maintained by those brave enough to have stayed in Romania even during the Soviet era, which I learned, forced many Jews to change their last names.

In summary, finding the Gheiler connection in Hotin Besarabia is going to be very difficult due to the various reasons above. Romania COULD be an ancestral place, but how will we ever know? It´s like finding a field of golden poppies that had been a part of the landscape for centuries. Then someone comes along, yanks them all out, and replaces them with beech trees. A few generations pass and people begin to think that the beech trees have always been there. I wonder how any of us continue to walk through a field of lies.

A Creative Solution to the Lonely Cemeteries of the World
In the spirit of those brilliant people who design, creative solutions to the world´s problems, I´d like to offer up my solution to how to help make the Israelite cemetery ¨un-lonely¨:

I suggest digging up a handful of long forgotten graves to obtain DNA samples. Then upload the genetic results of those samples to popular DNA sites so people scattered across the world can see if they have a relation. This approach is a bit like how the police are using DNA databases to solve old crimes.

Those who do find a genetic relation to the buried, they can then either visit Bucharest and offer to clean up around the grave area OR remotely pay someone to do that for them. Donations can be requested to continue digging up and sampling other graves. Then, I believe, the cemetery will once again come alive and the spirits that dwell there will know that they have not been forgotten.

This research did uncover a document with a Gheiler birth in Raducaneni, Romania and I plan on visiting there soon. However, I WILL NOT be going into Moldova.

It´s off to Brasov, Bran Castle and Beyond.
Thank you for reading.

This featured blog entry was written by georgeaguilar from the blog Genetic Memoirs 2019.
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By georgeaguilar

Posted Thu, Sep 12, 2019 | Romania | Comments