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The Barlad Fusgeyers with their horse, wagon, and the three women who were part of the group

The Barlad Fusgeyers with their horse, wagon, and the three women who were part of the group

     In 1858, ten years later, after the Peace Treaty of Paris concluded the Crimean War, the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia united to become the new country of Romania with Bucharest as its capital.

     Alexandru Ioan Cuza, a prominent figure in the 1848 Revolution, now Prince of Moldavia and Walachia, declared himself willing to emancipate the Jews in exchange for financial compensation. However, the Jewish Community dithered over the sum to be paid, quarrelled over the necessity of obtaining political rights — the Orthodox claimed such rights would only encourage modern thought and cause believers to stray from the righteous path. When, in 1866, the new constitution was produced, the seventh article stated that Romanian citizenship would be restricted to the Christian population only. Romanian Jews had become “foreigners”, and anti-Semitism would soon be part of national identity.

     Over the next forty years, new discriminatory laws came into effect, and anti-Semitic propaganda became so respectable, it was taught in state secondary schools. Sanitary Laws declared that Jewish pharmacists could no longer acquire or manage pharmacies, and that Jewish country physicians had to cede their position if a Romanian claimed it. Jews were no longer employed in psychiatric institutions, and they could not be received as free patients in hospitals. To clear whole areas of their presence, Jewish houses were demolished under so-called sanitary orders.

     Laws against peddling were stretched to include shop owners as well as market sellers and, as an example, three hundred Jews were rounded up, put into prison, severely beaten, and their goods were confiscated. The tobacco trade was also cleared of Jews and individual cities were allowed to create their own economic restrictions: in Botoşani, Jews were banned from selling soda water, spice bread, certain cakes, sugar, and from transporting baker’s bread. In Iaşi, Jewish women were forbidden to sell sugar, flour, or goods manufactured by their families for the market.

Although 15 per cent of pupils were Jewish, in 1893 and 1896 new laws excluded Jewish children from primary and secondary schools; less than 10 per cent were permitted to attend elementary schools.


Employed and unable to improve their situation, a group of young Jewish craftsmen who belonged to an amateur theatre group in the town of Barlad, decided to leave Romania and head for America, and do so in a very visible way. They would walk across the country. Taking the name fusgeyers — the Yiddish word for foot-goers, pedestrians, or wayfarers, they would pay for food and expenses by giving theatrical performances in the towns along the way. This first group of fusgeyers was so successful and so admired, that soon thousands of other trades people, artisans, workers, and students also organised themselves into groups and began walking out of Romania.


Forty years later, aside from being mentioned in Joseph Kissman’s The Immigration of Rumanian Jews Up To 1914, the Fusgeyers had been largely forgotten. But in 1942, the New York Yivo Bleter offered a prize for the best immigrant story, and the winner was Jacob Finkelstein, writer of Zikhroynes fun a Fusgeyer fun Rumania kayn Amerika (Memoirs of a Fusgeyer from Romania to America).


I first found excerpts from Finkelstein’s memoir in Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers,[i] and I wrote to YIVO and asked for a copy of Finkelstein’s manuscript. It took a while before I could translate it from the original Yiddish (it is the only existing document written by a fusgeyer,) but by the time I finished translating the article, I had decided that I, too, would walk across Romania and follow the itinerary of the Barlad fusgeyers. I would see if any trace of the movement remained, then I would continue along the immigrant trail through Europe and on to America.


     The result is my book Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers. The introduction and first chapter can both be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/j-arlene-culiner/finding-home-in-the-footsteps-of-the-jewish-fusgeyers




[i]-Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, New York and London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1976.

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