Except for some crows cawing in the distance, the morning was quiet and dreary. A sweeping mist obscured the top of the hill, but we knew we were close. So wearing raincoats and jeans, we decided to continue the search on foot, and after making our way up a winding slippery path, we finally reached the top.
“This is it,” I said. “We found it.”
“Wow,” Molly breathed.
We gazed in silence, our fingers hooked in the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot. Among gnarled trees and tall dead grass, hundreds of tombstones stretched away from us, fading to white in the dense fog.
A small elderly woman emerged from a ramshackle house abutting the graveyard. Carrying a pail of water, she wore a burlap skirt, a brown peasant’s bandana and rubber boots. Smiling behind piercing blue eyes, I had the impression she’d been expecting us.
“Guten Morgen,” she said in German with a slight Romanian accent.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“Nein,” I said reflexively, surprised by the language switch. Then I relented, though ashamed at my pathetic lack of German. “Aber, ein bisschen.” Just a little.
I guessed this woman was a kind of groundskeeper for the cemetery, and I asked her if we could enter. Without a word, she unlatched the gate, turned on her heel and motioned for us to follow. She guided us through an old shed filled with clucking roosters and rusted farm tools hanging overhead. When we emerged into the burial ground on the other side, the lady mock-pushed at us, as if to say, “Go ahead, take your time. I’ll be here.”
Molly and I strolled alone among the jagged rows of graves. The moss-covered headstones leaned this way and that in the black earth. Frozen at dramatic angles, the cemetery seemed somehow alive, as if we’d interrupted an elaborate ballroom waltz. The thick morning haze allowed for only a few yards’ visibility in any direction, intensifying its sense of eternity, and I had difficulty imagining this place ever saw the sun.
We paced along slowly in the soft light, scanning the faded epitaphs of generations of Romanian Jews. All were carved in Hebrew except for the names – Moses Glasberg, Saul Dawid, Josef and Sarah Schmidt. I noticed that the small rocks, which usually adorn Jewish headstones in cemeteries the world over – placed lovingly by family or respectful visitors – were conspicuously absent here. There were no fresh flowers, no candles, no prayer books. No sign of anyone left behind. It seemed the loneliest spot on earth.
Molly and I had come to Bucovina to escape the noise and commotion of some of Eastern Europe’s great cities. We’d planned to spend a few days exploring the region’s painted monasteries, but stumbled upon this abandoned Jewish cemetery on a tip from a woman who is writing a book about the region. Depressing, yes. Morbid, perhaps. But I can’t think of another person besides Molly who would be as thrilled by this gloomy setting as I was.
Eastern Europe may not sound like the most ideal place to spend a vacation mid-way through a tour in Afghanistan, but it suited Molly and me. We share a penchant for melancholy and for traveling to places that put us out of our comfort zones. For us, it’s not the creature comforts that matter so much as places and experiences that stir the soul. From that perspective, Bucovina was the crown jewel of our trip.
I have been captivated by Romania ever since I first visited there more than two years ago. I was drawn, as I am now, by the rich cultural history of its land and people. The playground of empires for centuries, Romania has been occupied by Romans, Habsburg Austrians, Ottoman Turks, Nazis and Soviets. As a result, Romania is today one of the most diverse countries in all of Europe – a mish-mosh of ethnicities and languages that boggles the mind.
Orthodox Romanians, who speak a tongue derived from the coarse vernacular of Roman soldiers garrisoned there 2,000 years ago, find their country surrounded on all sides by Slavs and Magyars. Catholic Hungarians, Muslim Turks, Saxon Germans, Ukrainians, Jews and Gypsies. All have weaved their threads through the colorful ethnic tapestry of this land.
And then there is Bucovina – “the land of birch trees” – nestled in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains in the far northeast of the country. I’d first read about the region in Robert Kaplan’s travelogue “Balkan Ghosts” while living in Germany several years ago and before my first trip to Romania. I was intrigued by Kaplan’s description of Bucovina as a place almost lost in time, probably the only place where one can witness how most of rural Europe looked more than a hundred years ago. Largely due to its geographic isolation and inaccessibility, Bucovina, Kaplan explains, was incubated more recently from the worst ravages of the despotic communist regime that impoverished the rest of Romania.
Bucovina is a rich, bountiful land that is at once haunting and seductive. Weather-beaten wooden cottages line narrow mountain roads. Their sagging roofs bear the burden of perennially harsh winters. Men wearing fedoras and leather jackets bounce along on rudimentary wooden carts laden with hay or manure. Powerful steeds pull them along, their red tassles bouncing to the clop-clop-clop of hooves on crumbling roads. And old men sell jars of homemade honey from their Dalias, the car of choice during communist times.
Molly and I stayed in Voroneţ, just down the road from one of Bucovina’s best preserved monasteries of the same name. For $50 a night, we got a room with a balcony overlooking autumn-colored hills. Over the next three days we traveled to the Voroneţ monastery and others with names like Moldoviţa, Suceviţa and Humor.
Similar to one another in construction, each monastery generally consists of a large Orthodox church, a garden, a well and living quarters, all housed within four stone walls. The monasteries are remote and peaceful, the perfect setting for a life spent in decades of prayerful solitude. Today, serious nuns wearing black frocks and little square hats till the gardens that sustain them year round. Many of the nuns are surprisingly young, an indication that devotion runs deep in Bucovina.
The monasteries, most dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, must have been a marvel even in their own time. It is the churches within them that are the real reason people visit. Each one bears vibrant exterior frescoes in the Byzantine style. The images, painted in deep reds, blues, greens and yellows, recount the story of the Bible to what would have been illiterate medieval peasants. Most surprising of all is how well the murals have survived the elements for so long.
At Suceviţa Molly and I found ourselves alone in a courtyard with a well and a solitary stone cross. The air was heavy and wet and the faint sounds of brass instruments being played at a wedding in a nearby village could be heard over the monastery’s 20-foot walls. I thought about it only later, but at that moment, Afghanistan must have been the furthest thing from my mind.
“I wish I could just spend a summer here writing,” Molly said.
“Me, too,” I said. “I wish I could do it with you.”
Our stay in Bucovina was both romantic and relaxing. But the region’s secluded culture, unblemished for centuries, will soon be gone. It will be erased by the modernizing effects of Romania’s membership in the European Union, which it joined – along with Bulgaria, its Balkan neighbor to the south – in 2007. As Molly and I drove through village after village, it occurred to me that we were probably among the last people who would see this land as it has existed for ages.
Already in the larger towns, one could get a glimpse of Bucovina’s transformation. Construction is everywhere. Flashy new homes of concrete, vinyl and plastic seem vulgar against the backdrop of smoking chimneys and hay bails. Mercedes and Audis careen around horse carts on much-improved roads. Designed to last in a style that is unmistakably German, the new roads are sure to lay the foundation for a robust future in tourism. It won’t be long before monastery bus tours and gaudy hotels invade this sheltered way of life forever.
Which made discovering the abandoned Jewish cemetery at Gura Humorului all the more remarkable. Once at the center of a thriving Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, most of Bucovina’s Jews met their end in World War II, some in the camps, others at the hands of their fellow Romanians. The cemeteries are virtually the only evidence they were ever here. Now lying neglected and overgrown, I had the sense that before long the cemeteries, too, would vanish from the earth.
As Molly and I prepared to leave the graveyard that Monday morning, I fished around in my pocket for a 10 lei bill to give the old woman as a tip. But before I could hand it to her, she stopped us.
“Woher kommen Sie?” she asked us, her words tinged with a faint Latinate flourish. Where do you come from?
“America,” I replied. “New York.”
Her eyes sparkled and she stood silent for a moment. I wondered what New York must have looked like in her mind’s eye. I tried to remember what I expected of Bucovina before my first trip there more than two years ago.
Now I was dying to find out about this woman’s roots. Just how had she come to speak flawless German? Though I realized questions of nationality could be explosive in this part of the world, I asked anyway.
“Sind sie Sachsen Deutscher?” I said, betting she was among a small minority of Saxon Germans, descendants of 12th and 13th century settlers, who inhabit Bucovina’s neighboring region of Transylvania.
She laughed and shook her head. “Nein.”
“Well Jewish then?” I asked confused, wondering if I had mistaken German for its linguistic cousin Yiddish. But I was wrong there, too.
“Ich bin Österreicherin,” she whispered with a smile that said: “just between us.” Her family, she explained, had moved from the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna to this town in 1875, when it was then a far off city at the edge of the empire. Austria-Hungary, I thought. Empire. Something you read about in dusty old history books. And yet it wasn’t so long ago.
I slipped her the tip and thanked her for her company.
“Danke,” she said warmly. “Auf wiedersehen.”
With still a week remaining on our trip through Eastern Europe, Molly and I drove off again into the land of birch trees. The day had begun well. We were together again and in a place where no one could find us.
Our spirits soared.