Bezidu Nou is a small village in Transylvania, in the north-central part of Romania. Not far from Târgu Mureş, the seat of the county, surrounded by forested hills, this place hides unexpected stories. From the religious restrictions of the medieval age to the freedom of spiritual beliefs in modern times, and ending with the tragic rupture generated by Nazism and Communism, Bezidu Nou represents the submerged history of Transylvania.

Sabbatarians – the only non-Jewish group in Europe who converted to Judaism

For over 400 years, no less than four different religious communities lived in Bezidu Nou. Orthodox Romanians, Hungarian Catholics, Unitarians, and Jews cohabited peacefully. As one of the villagers born in 1927 recalls, at that time, it was a common practice for people to participate in the religious services of their neighbours of other faith.

Pavel Samuel Kovács was born in the Jewish faith, but his name is often found among three different ethnicities. Pavel is a Slavic cognate of the name Paul and is mainly used by Romanians in honour of the New Testament apostle. Samuel is often met among the Transylvanian Jews, meaning the name of God in Hebrew, while Kovács is one of the most common surnames among Hungarians and means blacksmith.

But what is really special about this small hidden village is that it housed the only Jewish proselyte community in Europe. In the late 19th century, a group of Székelys – a subdivision of the Hungarian people who migrated to Transylvania in the 11th and 12th centuries – freely chosen to convert to Judaism.

The steeple of the Catholic church

Their history dates back to the 16th century when Andreas Eőssi, a Székely nobleman from Transylvania and initially a follower of the Unitarian faith, decided to observe the Sabbath and the law of Moses. He laid the foundations for a new religion, which was called Sabbatarianism. After his death, the new faith was observed and further developed by his adopted son, Simon Péchi, and his disciples.

Due to his erudition and intelligence, Péchi embraced a political career and soon became a favourite of Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania. But he continued to practice his father’s faith, even after being appointed Chancellor of the Prince. Simon Péchi (1575–1642) composed a Sabbatarian prayer book and managed to convert about 20,000 Székelys to Sabbatarianism.

The rapid spread of the new religion in the major cities of Transylvania, such as Cluj or Târgu Mureş, was not seen with good eyes by Prince Bethlen and the church leaders. Thus, Péchi was arrested and jailed for four years. Bethlen’s successor took even more drastic measures. He outlawed the Sabbatarian religion and ordered that the adherents’ properties should be confiscated. Many believers were tortured, imprisoned or sentenced to hard labour. Péchi himself was sent to prison and died soon after release.

Sabbatarians were forced to convert to one of the Christian religions accepted in Transylvania, namely Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism or Unitarianism. Only a few continued to practice their faith in secret, among them the small group of Székelys from Bezidu Nou, a village once owned by Simon Péchi. For over two centuries, they kept on observing the Sabbath and the moral codes set by Péchi and his father.

The hillside cemetery

In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted political and religious rights to all Jews in the territories under the civilian and military command of Austria and Hungary, including those in Transylvania. The Sabbatarians of Bezidu Nou (Bözödujfalu in Hungarian), who had already embraced the prescriptions of the Torah, received permission to convert to Judaism. About 100 Székelys have thus become the first Jewish proselyte group in Europe, arousing the same interest today as in the past the history of the Khazars and their conversion to Judaism.

In the late 19th century, the Sabbatarians built a synagogue and a ritual bath in Bezidu Nou. They continued to speak in Hungarian, like most Jews in Transylvania, but the prayers were recited in Hebrew. Hebrew was also the language used for texts inscribed on gravestones. By the end of the 1930s, the Sabbatarians had reached around 80-100 families, many of them bearing the name Kovács.

World War II and the deportations to Auschwitz

In the interwar period, Transylvania was part of the Romanian Kingdom, but in 1940 its northern part was ceded to Hungary following the agreement signed with Germany. At that time racial laws against the Jews were already in force in Hungary, so they were also extended to the newly incorporated region. In May 1944, all Jews from Northern Transylvania were imprisoned in ghettos, and soon afterwards they were deported to Auschwitz.

The Sabbatarians were given a chance to escape death by a quick conversion to Christianity. Those who refused had the fate of the rest of the Jewish population of Bezidu Nou. Gendarmes gathered them in a ghetto in Târgu Mureş, and from there they were sent to Auschwitz. However, even then, a Catholic priest was able to enter the ghetto and take out some people by issuing certificates stating that they are Christians and are therefore exempt from deportation. Among them was a 17-year-old boy, Pavel Samuel Kovács.

Gravestone with Hebrew inscription

For the Transylvanian Jews, deportations to the Nazi extermination camps took place less than a year before the German capitulation and the end of the war. But when they arrived at Auschwitz, many were sent directly to the gas chambers. Few survived and were able to return home. Sabbatarians of Bezidu Nou were no exception. Of the survivors, some moved to Israel shortly after liberation from the camps. Only a few families of the old Sabbatarian community continued to live in the village.

A village swallowed up by water

After the end of the Second World War, Transylvania returned to Romania, but the monarchy was soon abolished, and the new Communist government imposed its totalitarian regime. Because President Ceausescu wanted massive urbanisation of the country, in the 1980s, he began a systematic destruction of villages. The authorities decided to build a hydropower plant in Bezidu Nou to alleviate the flood that affected nearby townships and to supply the city of Târnăveni with industrial water. The dam, which was to be built on the river Târnava Mică, would have diverted water to the village, thus flooding the entire valley.

Despite the protests of the villagers, Bezidu Nou, a symbol of Transylvanian tolerance due to its centuries-old ethnicities and religions, was sacrificed and its houses swallowed up by water. The inhabitants were forced to leave their homes and move to neighbouring villages and towns. The schools where the Christian, Jewish and Sabbatarian children learned, the synagogue and churches of various religious orientations, and all the buildings that have witnessed a life of harmony have remained at the bottom of the lake.

The only elements remaining to attest the uniqueness of this place in the world are the steeple of the Catholic church, emerging from the water, and a hillside cemetery with inscriptions in Hungarian, Romanian and Hebrew. Even though a long time has passed since their homes had been submerged, the inhabitants of Bezidu Nou cannot forget their beloved village. Every year, at the beginning of September, they gather on the water’s edge to stare into their memories and listen to the message of love sent from the depths of the lake.