Our Romanian partnership began in 1990. Our friends there still suffer hardships as a Hungarian Unitarian minority. They meet in a small room upstairs in a Lutheran church. The money we sent these past 29 years installed a tiny bathroom in a closet and a handrail on their steep staircase. It buys a Christmas treat for all the 40 members each year and helps defray gasoline expenses for Rev. Zsolt Solymosi, who travels 5 hours round trip every other Sunday, without compensation, to conduct their services. Some went towards Rev. Zsolt purchasing a used car. It sponsored a young woman through 4 full years of college in Romania. After 4 visits to Beszterce and 5 visits from their ministers over the years, our friendship continues to grow.
TRANSYLVANIA PARTNER CHURCH PILGRIMAGE OF UU CONGREGATION, COLUMBIA
Tour of Transylvania, Romania and Budapest, Hungary – July 9 to 20, 2019
Five UUCC members and a Methodist friend were privileged to tour with Rev. Zsolt Solymosi and visit our Beszterce Partner Church friends of 28 years. No words can fully describe this “pilgrimage,” but this article will attempt for now.
This trip was more than a tour; it was about relationship building and shared experiences. Our interaction with the P.C. friends included a worship service and dinner as well as a 3-day excursion. Our UUCC spring gift, monies from the Cabaret evening, helped defray their expenses.
We began in Kolozsvar/Cluj where Rev. Zsolt works full time as Assistant Principal of János Zsigmond Unitarian School. Across the street from the school, in the newly renovated “House of Religious Freedom” we saw relics and a chalice used by Frances David, the father of Unitarianism. Another grant will pay for the erection of a statue of Frances David next to the Unitarian school.
In Bezsterce, the partner church home city, Zsolt conducted a service in Hungarian and English. The pilgrims sang hymns in English and the members sang in Hungarian. After the service, the partner church group hosted us for dinner and presented us with handsewn bags and books about Transylvania.
The next day, both groups set out for a three-day journey to the northern Maramures region. Along the way to the city of Sighetu, we stopped at the Barsana Monastery, operated by a few Romanian Orthodox Nuns. The church was beautiful; the buildings were thatched and differently shaped.
On our first full day in Sighetu, the themes were both death and resilience. The Merry Cemetery brought an unconventional, humorous touch to death. We met the artist who paints these crosses in his workshop.
The bright blue crosses depict a narrative about person’s life. Some are very funny, like the one about the grave of a man’s mother-in-law where he feared she would come back from the grave to nag him as she did in life. This is the third most visited burial site in the world, behind the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids.
Our visits to a Sighetu Communist Prison (now museum), where 8,000 people died at the hands of the communists, and to the boyhood home of Elie Weisel were more sobering. In World War II the Nazis took control of the area and rounded up thousands of Jews, all bound for Auschwitz. Elie Weisel, 16, watched his mother and baby sister taken to the gas chamber. The Jewish population of the region is almost insignificant now.
Our third day with the congregation was highlighted by a steam train trip in the mountains! The P.C. group brought bags of home-made treats to share. Both groups enjoyed taking turns signing traditional songs along the way. We emerged from the trip holding hands, with arms around each other. The time with them was over but what memories we made!
Our last Romanian stop was the idyllic Unitarian village of Torocko, tucked between 2 mountains. Here we learned how to bake cinnamon cakes, visited a grain grinding mill, toured a cheese factory, and shopped for local crafts. The bell picture here in the Unitarian Church could be heard through the village each hour.
Then it was on to Budapest, almost a day’s drive.
One of the highlights was a presentation by Zsolt on his last summer’s Siberian road trip. Zsolt felt transformed by the experience and, sharing stories about people’s generosity everywhere he went, said the trip brought home how much we prejudge. Instead, we must be open to other people, realizing how much we have in common.
We visited St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s most important church, where supposedly the first King of Hungary’s sacred right hand is interred. We also re-visited the big Unitarian church with its lovely wooden walls and pulpit.
Our visit to the Dohany Street Synagogue was a highlight of our Budapest time. The second largest synagogue building in the world, it holds 3,000. Its Byzantine-Moorish style is most unusual. It was designed by a Christian because no Jewish architects were available. Usually temples are built in the round, with the Torah and pulpit for the rabbi in the middle. Here a compromise was made to place the pulpits in the middle among the congregants, though the architect planned them to be up front like a traditional Christian church.
It also has an organ, though musical instruments are forbidden to be played by Jews on the Sabbath, so the organist is a Christian. The building is so different that their form of Judaism has the name: “Neolog Judaism.”
An outside memorial garden pays tribute to those lost in the holocaust. In all, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. A silver weeping willow tree has known victim’s names on each leaf. There is also a wall dedicated to gentiles who tried to hide and shelter them. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands, is remembered especially.
During our 2016 visit, Zsolt discussed the holocaust but this time he helped us feel it. We gained more admiration for the resilience of our Bezsterce congregation through the war, the occupation of the Nazis and the rule of the communists. Nevertheless, the beauty and elegance of Budapest swept over us too. The last evening together was a happy celebration with gypsy music and dancing at the Matyas Pince restaurant.
Twelve memorable days together left us closer to each other, to Zsolt and our Bezsterce friends. And we know that there is still so much more of Romania and Hungary still to see! Zsolt invites more pilgrims to come in the near future!
Transylvania to Magadan
Our partner church minister and friend, Zsolt Solymosi and a former student, who happens to be an ace mechanic, embarked on an overland trip from Cluj, Romania, to Magadan, in the far reaches of Siberia and then back. They covered thousands of miles in 77 days. Their vehicle was a refurbished and beefed up Toyota Land Cruiser to handle the sometimes primitive roads. They traveled over 4000 miles and are now back home. Zsolt posted daily on the Facebook page entitled Transylvania to Magadan. Go check it out and let him know how you enjoyed the travelogue. The hundreds of photos are amazing!
Since 1993, the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) has encouraged and supported almost 200 congregational partnerships between American and Canadian Unitarian Universalists and Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists around the world. These relationships weave together the lives and stories of people who share our fundamental affirmations of freedom of conscience in matters of religion, tolerance for those with different beliefs, a reasoned approach to religious ideas, and a willingness to grow and change in our religious understandings. Read Rev. C. Leon Hopper’s history from 1998 for more on our beginnings.