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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Romania, August 2019 (Part 3)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 8: Brașov – Gherdeal – Cincu

From Brașov, we drove northwest into the Transylvanian countryside. We saw enormous stork nests on rooftops and telephone poles. I wish I had taken a picture of those. Nestled among the corn and other crops, at every crossroad, we saw a stylized Orthodox depiction of a crucified Jesus, which is apparently something about declaring that the surrounding neighborhood is under the protection of Christ. We called him “Scarecrow Jesus” or, alternately, “Jesus of the Corn.”

70 miles from Brașov, we stopped in the small and nearly empty agricultural village of Gherdeal. The headline on this Romanian news article from 2015 tells the tale succinctly:

“The village where no one has been born for 27 years. The story of the 12 people living in Gherdeal: ‘The Saxons left for Germany, the Romanians – under the trees'”

By “under the trees,” they mean the graveyard. We’ll get to that later.

Gherdeal’s population has recently been increasing, however. Romanian hipsters discovered that they could get fixer-upper homes for pennies and started moving in. The bearded guy spearheading this effort is leading workshops for the New Gherdealians (sp?) on basic rural life skills: woodworking, masonry, cattle farming, beard maintenance, axe throwing, etc.

Susan and I began at one end of Gherdeal, in a tiny church with incredible murals on the curved wooden ceiling.

As we left, I pointed at a table by the entrance.

“Hold up a minute – I want to take a photograph of this traditional Romanian peasant hat…”

“That’s mine,” snapped Susan.

We walked through the town, pursued by feral dogs, photographing the abandoned houses. Barb and Sally were talking to a woman who looked to be in her 80s, holding a dangerous-looking scythe. “All these new people!” she exclaimed. “I don’t recognize the place anymore…”

We had been told that the town graveyard was worth seeing. “Take a right at the curve in the road, onto a dirt path,” the New Gherdealian Leader had told us. “It’s a bit of a walk, but don’t worry, you’ll find it.”

Susan and I found the dirt path and walked. And walked. The sky was clear, the sun was high, and we were walking through forest and meadows of brightly-colored flowers. It was lovely, but we also didn’t want to be late for the meet-up at the other end of town. We were about to turn back, but I decided to run ahead a bit just to make sure… and there was the gate. Again, many of the graves had those delightful airbrushed portraits. Vines and weeds were gradually consuming the graves, which stretched far back into the forest, with no clear pathway.

“I wish we could have spent more time talking to the old woman,” remarked one of my tour-mates as we drove away.

“You could send her an email,” I suggested. “I think she said her address was sexygranny75@cheapestautoinsurance.ro.”

After Gherdeal, we stopped at a pizzeria in the small town of Cincu. Derek asked about a fortified church at the far end of town. “Oh, yes, you should go see our church!” the pizzeria owner responded. “I’ll call Brigitte; she has the keys.”

There was no indication that Cincu’s fortified church would be anything particularly exciting. Plus, we had seen a lot of churches already. Plus, my good camera was locked in the van and I didn’t feel like dealing with it. So, phone in hand, I followed the group on our after-lunch walk to the church.

Brigitte didn’t arrive right away, so we walked around the church grounds, took some pictures through the windows, and enjoyed some quiet time in the shade. Then Brigitte showed up, and provided one of the accidental highlights of my Romanian trip.

Cincu’s fortified church was built in 1265 by German colonists and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, then rebuilt in the 1500s in a Gothic style, and rebuilt again in the 1700s. The two rows of fortified walls only exist in crumbling fragments, but the church itself is in good shape, used occasionally for non-denominational services and music performances. Locals have placed hand-knit seat cushions on the first several rows of pews. Renovation efforts have partially revealed beautiful murals on the walls.

Gracious and informative Brigitte gave us the 15-minute historical lecture, then asked, “…are you interested in seeing the well?” I mean… sure? We probably didn’t sound super excited. To our surprise, Brigitte walked to the center of the church, between two rows of pews, and yanked up the loose floorboards to reveal a GAPING PORTAL TO THE UNDERWORLD. I could hear water dripping in a pool far below. Cold, damp air wafted up from the dark, and I shuddered. It was spooky and unexpected, and I felt bad that I hadn’t been more enthusiastic.

Then Brigitte asked if we might also like to see the crypt, and I was ALL IN. OF COURSE I want to see the crypt! Do you know who you’re talking to?

This time, she walked up to the stage or whatever you call it in a church, rolled aside an ancient carpet, and pulled up several heavy floorboards to reveal a hollow space beneath. We all gathered around the hole in the floor, eyes wide.

Someone shone a flashlight down to reveal a human skull, resting in the dirt 3 feet beneath the floorboards. “Point your flashlight over there,” Brigitte directed. “You should be able to see… yes, there it is.” We all saw the human pelvic bone and gasped. There was also a femur.

“The crypt connects to an escape tunnel leading to one of the outer buildings…” Brigitte began, and I was all like “Awwwwwwww yeah, let’s do this,” and began stripping down for a tunnel crawl. “…but it’s really not safe, so I can’t let you go down there,” she concluded, dashing my hopes.

“Sorry to disappoint you! Let’s see… you could climb up in the bell tower, if you’re interested. The ladders are old, but they are safe, I think.”

OH HELL YES I WANT TO CLIMB UP IN THE BELL TOWER YOU BEGUILING ENCHANTRESS.

And that is how we ended up spending four hours in a church in the middle of nowhere and skipping all further items on our daily agenda.

One of the first things they did when renovating the church was install a satellite receiver to synchronize all three clocks and the bells in the bell tower. The bells ring every hour on the hour, so I made sure I was positioned near them at the correct time to shoot some video. It was LOUD.

Inghetata, Brigitte!

We drove back to Brașov, noting every stork nest and Scarecrow Jesus on the way. On our last evening there, Matthew and I took a long walk around Brașov together, which was a treat. Matthew’s responsibilities as one of the leaders of the trip had made it hard to find time to catch up. When I moved from Massachusetts and back to Washington State, away from my East Coast coalition of urban explorers and photographers, it became harder to stay in touch with Matthew. That evening in Brașov, I was reminded of all the reasons I love that guy.

Brian, Susan, Barb and Sally discovered a carousel and had their own fun. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I’ve included a couple of their pictures in the album at the end.

The next day, Wednesday, August 21, would be the last full day of our tour.

DAY 9: Brașov – Florești – Bucharest

I could have spent another week in Braşov, but our itinerary would tolerate no tarrying, so we checked out of our hotels at dawn (or, you know, 8am, which is still pretty early, don’t you think?) and piled in the van. Cold medicine overdose caused me to fall asleep immediately, but when I awoke, we were at an abandoned power plant in an undisclosed location. Undisclosed to me, anyway, because I slept through Derek’s en route educational lecture.

The town was Florești, I soon found out. I wasn’t able to find much information on the power plant, but according to Darbians, it was constructed before the Communist period, then nationalized during the Communist period, and eventually closed in 1971. Today, all of the machinery and other debris have been removed. All that remains are these grand brick and stone buildings with enormous interior spaces. Communist slogans adorn the outside walls: “PROLETARIANS OF ALL NATIONS UNITE!”

Susan was working on an image for a series she calls “Locked-In” (see more about that on her website). In a party dress and roller skates, she posed on the landing of a crumbling stairway, her expression apprehensive. As throughout the trip, we each had our own ideas of what we wanted to shoot, and there was a fair amount of stumbling through each other’s shots and apologizing. Luckily, everyone was accommodating and good-natured, and no fisticuffs were required.

Back in Bucharest, we stopped at our final scheduled location: The Philanthropy Israelite Jewish Cemetery. This is the main Ashkenazi cemetery in Bucharest and was founded circa 1865. It has a large domed pre-burial house and a striking art deco entry gate. Many prominent Jewish intellectuals are buried here, particularly in sections near the gate, and there is a memorial to Jewish soldiers killed in World War I. As noted in an earlier section, the Jewish population of Romania has been decimated. There are 29,000 graves here, but the cemetery is currently maintained by three elderly caretakers, and they are losing a war of attrition. Though the first few rows are bright and well-maintained, the weeds and vines soon take over. By the time you have wandered a hundred yards down the central path, the graves are almost completely consumed by tangled foliage.

Earthquakes, particularly a serious one in 1977, have also taken their toll; many of the headstones are cracked and tumbled. Somewhere near the back of the cemetery, there is supposedly a pit or amphitheater containing 127 graves, but it is now full of vines and murky water and I never found it.

Alin Adler Aron Beniamin ber Meir Tzvi, a former administrator at the cemetery, estimates that 98% of the people buried here have no living relatives in Romania to visit them. Thus, their graves remain untended and their memories fade. I’m not Jewish, and the place still felt haunted and overwhelming to me. No words seemed appropriate, so I separated from the group and wandered between the graves alone.

Somewhere in the cemetery is a headstone for Adolf Hittler (two t’s), a hatmaker who died in 1892. During WWII, the headstone was taken down to avoid offense, but it was later replaced. Our guide (one of the caretakers, who had kindly stayed past closing time to answer our questions) was eager to show us this grave, but couldn’t remember its location. He later found it and sent a photo to Stefan (which I’ve included in the album at the end).

On several of the headstones – often the more elaborate ones – I saw a stylized illustration of a hand symbol: Palms facing out, both hands in a Vulcan salutation, tips of thumbs and pointer fingers touching.

It looked Masonic to me, and I Googled every combination of keywords I could imagine to get more information. It is actually a Jewish symbol of priestly blessing (birkat kohanim), also called the “Raising of the Hands” (nesiat kapayim), offered in conjunction with a Hebrew prayer recited by Kohanim (the Hebrew Priests, descendants of Aaron). If I understand correctly (and please, if you have more accurate information, leave a comment below), this symbol on a grave indicates that a Jewish priest is buried there.

From an essay on vice.com, which – even translated from Romanian – describes the feelings evoked by the overgrown cemetery better than I can:

“Who are the people buried here? I walk through the graves with Mr. Adler and write down a few names. Pachter, Zimbal, Reinhorn, Grunberg, Silberstein, Weissmann, Cohen… What did they mean for Bucharest’s life? What did they do? Where did they and their families go? Why are we left without their cultural capital, intelligence? Where is their history? Where is their money?”

It was a somber end to our trip, and we left in silence.

On our final night in Bucharest, we stayed at the lushly-appointed and Art Deco-styled Hotel Lido. There were rumors of a swimming pool, abandoned for decades, hiding behind the hotel. I was too tired to investigate, but Matthew skulked around and shot this video:

We dined that night at La Plăcinte, and that’s a good opportunity for me to mention that the Romanian word for “pie” is “plăcintă” and that made me uncomfortable every single time I said it, but it did not stop me from ordering pie whenever possible. We exchanged contact information, reminisced on our favorite moments from the trip, and I shouted “Inghetata!” several times, to diminishing returns.

There were excellent people with me on this trip, and some supremely talented photographers. Check them out:

Matthew Christopher: Abandoned America

Derek Baron: Wandering Earl

Susan Borowitz: Website

Sally Semonite Green: Website

Brian Muller: YouTube Channel

Inghetata!

Back to Part 2

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2 Comments

  1. Honestly, once you get to “proceed to part three” and then there is a sentence about feral dogs and being followed by them one is pretty well committed to reading the entirety of the piece. Thanks for this Jason.

    • Glad to hear you found it worthwhile/compelling, Jeff! Let’s catch up after the first of the year.

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