Yesterday’s post described some of the reasons that Jews like my grandfather and his relatives decided to leave Romania in the early years of the 20th century: rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, violence, false accusations, and laws depriving Jews of access to education and to most means of earning a living as well as denying them the legal rights of citizens. Thousands of Jews left Romania between 1900 and 1910, many of them on foot, including my grandfather. In both The Wayfarers by Stuart Tower and Finding Home by Jill Culiner, there are vivid descriptions of how these people managed to accomplish the task of walking about 1500 miles to cross the border from their homes in eastern Romania to Hungary or Galicia, where many then caught trains that would eventually bring them to the ports where they could sail to the United States.
Both Tower and Culiner relied heavily on the unpublished manuscript written by Jacob Finkelstein around 1942, describing his personal experience as a member of the first group of Fusgeyers. Finkelstein’s memoir appears to be the most important primary source regarding the Fusgeyers, and Culiner begins most of her chapters with an excerpt from that manuscript. The first group of Fusgeyers walked out of Romania in 1900, traveling by foot from Barlad to Predeal and crossing into Hungary. As detailed in both Tower’s and Culiner’s books and as described by Finkelstein, that first group was an outgrowth of a club of young people in Barlad who put on theatrical works to raise money for charitable causes. Members of the group decided that they could use their talents to raise money to pay for their travels out of Romania. They raised some initial money through donations and from fees collected from those who wished to join them, and eventually there were seventy-five men and three women who joined the group and left Barlad in April, 1900.
One person was selected to be the leader of the group, and others were appointed to various roles: treasurer, medical care, scouts, and security. They had flyers printed to distribute in the towns they planned to visit, and the people of Barlad provided not only financial support, but food and supplies to the group. The group then walked from town to town across Romania, often being treated very well; in some places people provided them with food, shelter, and generous donations. The group would stage musical performances to raise money. Many newspapers publicized the movement, bringing even more donations and larger audiences to greet and support the Fusgeyers. Moreover, this first group inspired new groups to form and to leave their homes as well. My grandfather, who loved music and was smart and funny, might very well have been one of the Fusgeyers who left Iasi in 1904.
Sometimes, however, the group met up with hostility. In Ramnicu Sarat, the police confiscated the passports of that first Barlad group, telling them to keep themselves from being noticed. The passports were, however, returned once they left the town. The group was threatened with arrest if they entered the town of Mizil, so they stayed out, sleeping in tents in the rain instead, and they were told to avoid the next town as well, resulting in another night of sleeping in the rain. There was even trouble within the group; money was wrongfully taken by one of the group representatives. Overall, however, at least according to Finkelstein, his group’s experience was a huge success—enabling not only that group to escape, but also inspiring thousands of other Romanians to do the same.
I cannot capture or describe all the details of the experiences of the Fusgeyers. All I have as primary material in Finkelstein’s memoir, but Stuart Tower’s book takes the skeleton of facts provided by Finkelstein and builds from those facts a novelized version of that experience that helps to bring to life the Fusgeyers’ trek through Romania. He developed characters and storylines that add an extra layer of humanity to this basic story.
When I was doing some additional research about the Fusgeyers yesterday, I happened upon a website that described plans to turn Tower’s novel into a documentary about the Fusgeyers. I did not realize it at first, but the website was a page on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourced fundraising site that helps people raise funds for private projects—in the arts and otherwise. The Kickstarter page for The Wayfarers movie had not yet attracted any donors. I made a small donation and also left a comment for the contact person of the page, Ron Richard, explaining my interest and expressing my concern that there had not yet been any other donations for the project.
I have heard back now both from Ron Richard and from Stuart Tower, the author of The Wayfarers. Tower sent me some wonderful photographs of Romania from a Fusgeyer tour he ran in 2005, and I am hoping to get permission to post some of those photos here. If any of you would also like to help Ron Richard and Stuart Tower make this film about the Romanian Fusgeyers, please check out their Kickstarter site at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1552736981/the-wayfarers-the-story-of-the-fusgeyers?ref=live It may be the best opportunity many of us have to see Romania and to understand better the experiences of our ancestors.
Jill Culiner’s book takes a different approach to exploring the Fusgeyer experience. After reading Finkelstein’s memoir, she decided to re-enact the walk of the Fusgeyers, also walking from Berlad to Predeal, but not with a large group, just with one companion. Her experiences doing this provide a chilling post-script to the story of the Jews in Romania, one that I found moving and haunting even re-reading it. I will post more about her book and her experiences tomorrow.