Braila was birthplace of my grandmother, my father’s mother Polly. (We have her actual birth certificate!) She and many others in the family – her parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, a grandmother – were all born here, all of whom emigrated to the UK and who died a long time ago and are buried in Jewish cemeteries in London. So I had to come.
Apart from this I wasn’t particularly looking forward to being there. Braila is another place not on the Romanian tourist trail, described by everything I’d read as a rather functional city. However as soon as I got there, I felt good.
Firstly I met Gica. By sheer chance she was the rare thing of a woman taxi driver, who picked me up at the station and took me to my hotel. She was very friendly and tried to talk to me but didn’t speak any English. She quickly she made a phone call on her mobile and then thrust her phone into my hand. Who, what?…
‘Hello,’ This was Simona, Gica’s daughter, who spoke very good English. She was lovely! We spoke several times while I was there. I took her and Gica’s numbers. ‘If you need anything, call me.’
Secondly, before I left Mircea in Focsani had phoned the Jewish community in Braila ahead for me, and they had booked me into a lovely hotel in a very quiet and beautiful part of the town, the old Jewish quarter by chance. My room looked out onto a beautiful view of a huge gold domed church and for some reason I felt immediately relaxed here after not particularly expecting to.
The next day I met up with the Jewish community in Braila, which has with a bigger community than in Focsani, but unfortunately a lot less English! David Segal was the community president and had no English. He was exasperated by my lack of Romanian, and facts to go on, which was fair enough. We had a few conversations via Gica’s daughter Simona on the mobile! As we went through the ancient records of deaths and burials David talked to me constantly in Romanian and I could feel we had the same problem. All the family members I know of died in London, I was here to find out about their predecessors. All I could think of was to try to any with the family names. One name which interested me, a ‘Pulina Feldman’ – my grandmother was named ‘Margareta Paulina Feldman,’ eventually anglicised to ‘Pauline Margaret’. Maybe this ‘Pulina’ was some relation..?
But it was impossible. David was trying to help me, he just needed more information – which unfortunately was exactly what I had come to Braila to try to find. But he took me to the Jewish graveyard at Braila. One half of it seemed completely wild, but was in fact only overgrown, and efforts were being made to clear it. I met one of the men doing it who had a little English. He said if I could send more information they would search for the gravestones and photograph them and send it to me. David talked to me constantly in a language I couldn’t understand. My grandmother will never have been to this cemetery as it is the Jewish tradition that children don’t visit graveyards while their parents are living, and she was only a child when she left. But I must have ancestors there, it seems impossible that I don’t.
What could I find out? I wandered the beautiful streets where I guess my ancestors had once walked. I went to the museum.
Braila is located at the mouth of the mighty river Danube, which travels the length of Europe ending up there near the Black Sea. It was an important place for trade, and a cosmopolitan centre where people from all over Europe traded, gathered and settled. I like the idea of being from such a place. Braila was a thriving port when my family lived there, a sophisticated town with municipal parks and public institutions including a library. I am told on Polly’s side of the family there was a sense that they had come from ‘better things’ and had fallen on hard times in the East End of London. This made sense. Polly’s father, my father’s grandfather was described as an educated and erudite man who read books in English – Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Marx and Engels. There was even talk of Polly marrying ‘below’, my grandfather Lew Decent being from poorer and less sophisticated stock. I understood that better now.
I was determined to find the place Polly was actually born – the address is on her birth certificate: Buluvardul Carol 212. Amazingly I found the street and one evening found myself walking along a long and wide main boulevard. Down the centre of the road was a strip of leafy park full of old trees. People were walking, sitting, taking in the evening pleasantly. I counted the numbers down… 212!
I have no idea if this is the original house, but it was incredibly grand! So okay, we can now scrap the idea of Polly being from a rural village shtel as in ‘Fiddler’! Even if it wasn’t the same house, it is clear that Polly and her family were from a sophisticated urban background at a cosmopolitan place. No wonder they felt they had hit hard times in the East End.
It was Yom Kippor while I was there, the Jewish Festival of Atonement, when you ask God – and others – to forgive your sins. David’s wife Roxana invited me to spend it with the community at the synagogue. Most of the congregation were older people. They wondered who I was but nodded understandingly when they were told my grandmother was from there. The oldest were racking their brains to see if they could remember any Feldman’s of Sibalis’s, which was kind. One woman reminded me of a photo of my grandmother, and David himself reminded me of an uncle! Whose to say if there is any connection? The services didn’t mean much to me, the language, and organised religion isn’t my thing, nor was it my father’s. I don’t know if my grandmother or her relations had ever been there, this is the only remaining synagogue of 14 that used to be in Braila before the war. But I was touched to be in this beautiful place, painted pale blue with gold stars on the ceiling, amongst loving, welcoming people who were trying to help me.
The rabbi asked if I would like to light the candles – not having a Jewish mother prohibited this but still it was very kind. I was introduced to Nadia who had a little English and took me affectionately under her wing. She explained the services to me (which was just as well as my Dad never told me anything!) At one point she asked when I had the idea to come to Braila. I told her the truth. ’A long time ago,’ I said. ‘I have always wanted to see the places my family were from.’ She nodded. ‘I think it must have been a hard journey for them and a big change.’ She squeezed my arm. We were both moved. A coming home.
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