Timișoara is a medium sized city in western-most Romania, which, over the centuries, has passed from Roman to Hungarian rule and, subsequently, to Ottoman, Austro-Hapsburg, and Hungarian rule again. At the end of the First World War, revised borders placed Timișoara in Romania.
This history gave Timișoara a remarkably multinational and multi-religious character, part of which came from its Jewish population. As far back as any one knows, there have been Jews living in Timișoara.
Tibor Schatteles, a retired economist in Ottawa who was born in Timișoara, offers a history of the city, and, particularly, its Jewish community, in his book, The Jews of Timișoara: A Historical Perspective. The book was published in Romanian in 2013 and in English in 2014.
In nearly 500 pages, Schatteles gives an almost encyclopedic history of Timișoara and explains how the city’s political, cultural, economic, and intellectual flavour changed from one ruling entity to the next until, in 1989, a revolution that began in Timișoara ended nearly 50 years of communist rule in Romania. In each era, with the exception of the Nazi Axis era during the Second World War, Jews played a significant role in the city and, in most eras, had to struggle against native and imported strains of anti-Semitism.
For me, the most interesting chapter in The Jews of Timișoara covers the period between the two world wars. By then, Timișoara was part of Romania, which, though still a kingdom, was trying to be liberal and democratic. At the same time, nationalist tendencies were building, and the government sought to make Timișoara less multicultural and more Romanian. Taking advantage of the relative freedom, the Jewish community established a significant presence in manufacturing and commerce – but success in those areas did not last long. What started as good became bad as government policies put increasing restrictions on Jewish life. By the end of the period, Romania had become an overtly anti-Semitic dictatorship allied to Nazi Germany. After the Second World War, Romania became an only modestly less anti-Semitic Communist satellite of the Soviet Union.
After spending his early life in Timișoara, author Schatteles was working in Bucharest as a mathematical economist when he left Romania illegally in 1973. The following year, he reunited with his wife, Agnes, and they immigrated to Canada, where he became a research economist in Ottawa with Statistics Canada. At his retirement in 1994, he was chief of the Price Analysis section.
In 2014, Schatteles returned to Romania to accept an honorary doctorate from the Romanian Academy of Sciences in recognition of his life’s work.
Schatteles leaves the reader to contemplate the future for the Jewish community of Timișoara. The Jewish population there is now barely five per cent of what it was in 1941. Some of the synagogues and other Jewish buildings remain standing, but, as he writes, expressions of anti-Semitism can still be heard in the streets. He also notes that he wrote this book about the Jews of Timișoara because he “wants to recover a past partially expropriated by a number of biased authors.”