Solka: An Unlikely Story From
A Place That Isn’t What It Used To Be
by Iona (Jane) Rostos
“The Solka Spa in the Bukowina officially opens on the 15th of June. This spa is lying at the foothills of the Carpathians, and has an excellent climate, quite proper for recovering patients, anemic people, as well as for all of those suffering from bronchitis and pulmonary catarrh. Rich in restaurants, cafes, first-rate villas and good housing for reasonable prices, the spa offers the most modern comfort, and has parks with fir-trees and spruces. Fir, salt and carbon-dioxide baths, renowned physicians, a classical military band, automobiles and coaches for every train arriving in the railroad station in Cacica. The Mayor of Solka.” (Czernowitzer Morgenblatt, #2353, Czernowitz, Wed., June 2, 1926.)
1. Getting there is half the fun
The rain has stopped, and we’re on our way to Solka. Not that we expect to find some brass band playing at our arrival, or a horse-drawn carriage to take us for a ride through the town. The season hasn’t yet opened, and, besides, it’s unlikely that we’d still find there either—not after 80 years, anyway. Not even in Dorna-Watra could we possibly encounter anything like that nowadays. But, a walk through the fir-and-spruce park does sound quite tempting…
We drive toward Ilisheshti, where we have to pass through the forest which there is…no morei. Actually, a part of it is still in place, but for some reason we get the feeling that soon enough there won’t be any trees at all left standing. We have to be careful so the car won’t skid: the felling machines, trucks and horse-drawn carts have dragged an impressive (incredible, outrageous, etc.) amount of clay onto the road. We get out of the woods and take a right, toward Radautz. We even spare a moment to admire the villas and the cottages built in this more or less secluded kind of area—away from everybody’s mean eyes, including the tax-and-finance inspectors’. There still is a forest around them, but, for how much longer? We’ve recently read in a local newspaper that a couple of Austrian companies are coming over to build timber factories in three locations in Suceava county. Although their line of reasoning comes to mind right away, we can’t help arguing, Why come all this way, why not build them in Austria? Have they perhaps suddenly developed some sort of an Empire-related nostalgia? In any case, we sure wish to advise them to move a bit faster, if they still want to find any trees at all standing around these parts!
We drive down the winding road, toward Cacica. Once there, we visit the Catholic Cathedral. There is obviously some work being done around it: the courtyard is being paved, and the old roof has been replaced with a new one, which seems to be of good quality, too. An encouraging sight, for a change.
We leave Cacica, still not having figured out where the railroad station might be. Not that it really matters: the coaches are long gone anyway. I vaguely remember that, back in the 1980’s, there were, in a certain place in Suceava, a couple of (real!) coaches—yes, of the old kind, much alike those hired by rich tourists for expensive rides through…Vienna, of course!
Eventually we get to Solka. On the left-hand side of the road there’s a fir-tree (and spruce!) forest. The trees are really majestic, tall and straight. Taller and straighter, in fact, than the beeches in what used to be the woods of Ilisheshti. Too bad for them! Still, if we look more closely, we can notice (obvious traces of) alleys and even (of) benches among the trees. But: alleys and benches…in a forest?! Do I see images of Germany here? No, of course not, that can’t be. We can only take a wild guess as to what the forest really is: it’s nothing but one of those parks which the mayor of Solka boasted about, precisely 80 years ago. Whereas now, quite contrary to the well-known songii, it looks like the present mayor hasn’t got much left to boast about.
We drive on across the town. Actually, we’re looking for the Sanatorium, but…let’s take it one issue at a time. We do locate a palace of sorts, which has obviously seen much better days. It bears the name of a “Hospital”, but it doesn’t look remotely like what we have in mind. We cross a bridge, which does not span some pure mountain stream—long gone are the times when even the well-known Ozanaiii used to be “beautifully flowing and crystal-clear”. Now, what we’re talking about here is the typical Romanian rural brook. To make a dirty story short: it’s muddy and clogged with garbage. On the right there’s a “general store”iv; on the left, a “super market”v. Did someone let out a “Wow!”? It wasn’t us.
We drive straight on, until there’s no “straight on” to go to anymore. A road sign directs us toward a “Historical monument: 500 meters”. It’s only at this point in our trip that we utter our own “Wow!”vi. Why makes us do that? Well, it’s because we know that the Sanatorium we’re looking for was built in 1876, which nearly qualifies it to be a “historical monument”. Besides, rumor has it that the Sanatorium is actually going to be torn down. And voila, it isn’t so. Isn’t that nice?
Once more, we go on, until we can’t go on. Once there, we realize what the said monument is. Though, “we realize” might be too much to say. Up to this day, we’re unsure of whether Solka’s sole historical monument is a monastery or a mere church. In either case, it’s surrounded by high stone defense walls, just like every monastery in the area. And the gate is large, heavy and closed. Actually, it’s not only closed, but firmly fixed in place with a solid-looking crowbar. Did we see anything like that in Cacica? There must’ve been a gate there, too—oh, right, there was a small gate, but it was wide open, even if there was no service in the cathedral at the time, either. No comment.
We make a U-turn. On the left there’s a cluster of buildings looking pretty much abandoned. That is, or was, The Solka Brewery. Is, or was? We couldn’t tell. How long has it been since we’ve last seen Solka Beer in any store at all? No idea. We ain’t no elephantsvii, either, you know.
We pull up the curb in front of the Town Hall. It’s a new, funny building with a turret. The cleaning lady is cleaning windows. We ask her if we could possibly talk to the mayor. She peers at us, momentarily unable to decide whether or not we’re trying to make fun of her. Then she asks back, “Today, on a Saturday?”. We should’ve seen that one coming. “And the vice-mayor?” – “Well, I guess I did see his car a while ago…but he isn’t inside.” – “What about the historical monument over there, what is it, a church, or a monastery? The gate is closed.” – “Well, they had a service today, but it must be over by now.” – “And the Sanatorium? Is it still in business?” – “Oh, no, not for the past two years, it hasn’t been.” That’s what we thought. “But where is it?” – “Over there, up the hill from the hospital.” We thank her and leave. She stares after us.
2. Once upon a time there was…
Having no clear notion of what “up the hill from the hospital” may mean, we judge it wiser to stop in front of a landmark, i.e., of the hospital itself. It’s indeed a large, beautiful, impressive, dilapidated edifice, built in the good old days of the Empire. Luckily, back then they used to build for all the centuries to come. Otherwise, the town of Solka would probably not have any hospital at all these days.
The outer stairs up front lead to a bolted door. No matter, we wouldn’t risk “ourselves”viii to climb them anyway. They give off the impression that they might crumble under our footsteps. We go around the building, not before taking a good look in front of usix. It’s common knowledge that everything was better before…and, before that, it was even better! Finally, a door comes in sight. A brand-new one, too, much unlike the windows, which seem to be just about as old as the hospital itself. Anyway, it looks like we’ve found the entrance. Are we good, or what?
So we enter and, instinctively, press our hands against our noses. Was it the reek of a poor hospital? The stench of a bad cafeteria? The malodor of a dozen dirty toilets? The stink of thriving mould? The effluvium of a house where the windows have never been opened up? No, sir! It was all of the above and something else on top of it, indefinable, but certainly evil enough to make even healthy people sick—any healthy people who might dare cross that threshold. Us, for example.
We quickly make up our minds to be expeditious: a glance into the hallway the outer staircase leads to reveals the fact that it’s filled with old, broken furniture. Okay, got it. We can now resume looking for the syringe needle in the hospital haystack. To be more precise: for the hospital manager, or for the chief physician, or for any sort of person in charge at all. But, surprises-surprisesx: it is (again) the cleaning lady that shoves us right back into the real world: no kidding, but it’s Saturday at the hospital, too!
Still, she kindly helps us locate the nurse on duty (I guess). We actually find two young nurses, chatting in a sparsely furnished room. They both gape at us in disbelief while we tell them the following: Once upon a time there was a Jew called Hermann Poras, who was born in Czernowitz in 1835 and attended the Medical School of the Vienna University. He returned to the Bukowina and settled down in Radautz. He used to spend his summers in Solka, as founder, owner and head physician of the Sanatorium. After his unexpected death, management was taken over by his son Josef, who even wrote a book explaining in detail, with the aid of statistic analyses of their frequency and efficiency, the different types of water and inhalation therapies they used. As the Sanatorium was well advertised in newspapers and magazines published throughout the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, it was favored by patients from all over Europe, who came over from as far as Germany and Switzerland to be cured of gynecological, respiratory, digestive, rheumatic and locomotion ailments. In 1904, Josef Poras and his family moved to Czernowitz. They stayed there until World War I, when they left for Vienna, where they opened a private medical practice (cf. www.poras.com/solka.htm). Now, in the year 2006, one of their descendants, Joseph Poras of Framingham, MA, a man born and raised in the United States of America, would like to come to Solka, visit the Sanatorium, and set a plaque in remembrance of his ancestors and of his family’s connections to the Sanatorium and to the spa. He would even like to make that a part of a ceremony to which he desires to invite the local and county officials, a number of journalists, and members of the Jewish communities in the area. When we gave him the unexpected news that the building of the old Sanatorium is abandoned and doomed to be torn down, he did not express any loathing, but had the incredible dignity to reply, “Life must go on, and history with it. If that building is in such a bad state, that it may endanger the safety of those entering it, then, yes, by all means, it would be best if it were indeed torn down. But, do you think they could possibly postpone that until the end of May, when I can be there? All I want is to step inside it, breathe in its scent, get a feel of the places where my family used to dwell.”
The only answer the two nurses can give us is, “We’re way too young to know these kinds of things.” However, one of them volunteers to show us the way to the elusive Sanatorium. We leave behind a visiting-card for the hospital manager to peruse, and express the hope that he would contact us as soon as possible. But, as they say in Germany: three times you may guess if he’s done that or not.
We go on foot. The Sanatorium is indeed close enough. Just up the hill, in the middle of another fir-and-spruce park with wide alleys. There are also several benches and a fountain in the middle (“Wow!” again? Have a little bit of patience!xi). There’s also a metal fence around the estate, with a gate—unlocked! There’s no point in locking up the gates leading toward no-one’s land, is there? We open it (or, was it open?!) and step right into this puddle, which is way too large to avoid. There’s a spring somewhere to the left of the main building, and its water flows freely all over the park. Although it’s visible from the street, it’s only now that we notice a piece of sheet iron, supported by two metal bars firmly implanted in concrete stumps. It reads, white on bluexii: sanitary headquarters of suceava county. Solka Town hospital. BUILDING 1. Underneath a thick layer of dirt, the presence of the alleys can only be guessed at. The ghostly benches don’t look solid enough. There are a couple of small trash-cans as well, painted violently yellow. It’s probably been decades since the dry basin of the fountain has seen its last drops of any other sort of water except rain-water.
And the Sanatorium stands. Still. The funny part is that it doesn’t look any worse than a (big fat) whole lot of other buildings, not nearly as old, which are still in use. Actually, it doesn’t look any worse than the old buildings of the Suceava County Hospital, or than the apartment buildings built all over Romania in the ‘80’s. That is, those which our local newspapers warn that we shouldn’t be near when it’s raining, because the water may (and does!) cause large chunks of plaster to fall downxiii. There’s nothing falling down off the Solka Sanatorium. The roof is there. The grayish plaster is in place. Only a couple of windows are open and/or broken—for the time being anyway. But they are no danger to people entering or getting close to the building.
We regard the few crocuses beaming in front of it, next to the empty fountain—a meek reminder of the good old days. Our guide shows us (from the outside, of course! Who knows whom the keys might be with?) the main building, the outbuildings and outhouses in the back, the stable where they used to keep a horse, the uphill half of the park. He’s worked here for a few years, and has had the time to grow fond of this place. He knows lots. “Tell me, can you feel this air?” he demands. “This is the air the people with bad lungs need! But, who gives a damn? There’s only the tuberculosis hospital in Suceava that’s left, and you know what the air is like over therexiv, and then there’s the one in Radautz, where the sick literally lean out the window and spit onto the passers-by. And for Solka—there’s no money.”
3. …’cuz if there hadn’t been, we wouldn’t have any business talking about it, now, would we?
We say Good-bye, and leave with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think the young nurse now believes that the rich American (all Americans are rich, right?) will come to claim back the Sanatorium (we’re talking about a mere building surrounded by a mere park, not about some castle, like Pelesh, or Branxv, or something…). Then he will put his entire fabulous fortune into having it cleaned up and brought back to its gone splendor. And he, the nurse, will again be allowed to work there, in the Building 1 of the Solka Town Hospital.
On the other hand, how do we tell the American that, yes, the building still stands and won’t probably be torn down until May, but…sorry, it doesn’t belong to anyone anymore! No matter how much money it may have brought in its day to the small town of Solka, it has now become useless, an obsolete phantom, with which no one knows what to do except turn it into a pile of bricks and a heap of money. How do we get him to understand that a building, for whose maintenance no money can possibly be found, only becomes valuable to (a certain) someone the moment it ceases to exist? How do we explain it to him that, although he hasn’t worried about the former estate of his family all these years, knowing that it stands not in the middle of nowhere, in some desert, but in the very center of a town, supposedly being taken care of by the local people (and not only by them), well, despite all that, all it means to anyone now is one of those unwanted gifts, that you only wish to dispose of quickly and discreetly? How do we prove it to him that the passing of 130, 80, 2 years does nothing but push things back, as far away as possible from progress and civilization?
And, how could we possibly not envy him for the fact that, unlike us, he doesn’t live in a country unworthy of its past, where even children laugh out loud when hearing the wish, “A great future to match your great past!xvi”?
The end…not before we take a moment to remember the 80-year old advertisement, the eerie invitation from a place that isn’t what it used to be, from a world which exists no more: “The Solka Spa in the Bukowina officially opens on the 15th of June. This spa is lying at the foothills of the Carpathians, and has an excellent climate, quite proper for recovering patients, anemic people, as well as for all of those suffering from bronchitis and pulmonary catarrh. Rich in restaurants, cafes, first-rate villas and good housing for reasonable prices, the spa offers the most modern comfort, and has parks with fir-trees and spruces. Fir, salt and carbon-dioxide baths, renowned physicians, a classical military band, automobiles and coaches for every train arriving in the railroad station in Cacica. The Mayor of Solka.”
By Ioana Rostos, BA,
Irregardless of the interest my article about the Solca Sanatorium has sparked, here in Suceava as well as all over the world, there have also been voices demanding a “realistic scenario on the fate of Solca”.
The good news is that my husband and I have managed to come up with such a scenario.
Background information: back in the early ‘90’ there was a huge campaign in Romania called “Dati un leu pentru Ateneu”, that is, “Give Lei 1.00 for the Athenaeum”. The Athenaeum is one of the landmarks of our capital, a beautiful building used as a philharmonic/opera/theater. Now, the building was in a very poor state, and badly in need of renovation. Of course, the Romanian State had no money for that (does this sound familiar, or what?), so it launched this campaign where every Romanian (and there’s some 22.5 millions of us) was supposed to spare no more than Lei 1.00. Of course, some people gave nothing, but others gave much more, so all in all, it was a successful campaign, which fulfilled its purpose.
My husband has had a teleconference with the vice-president of Suceava county, the mayor of Solca, and the editor-in-chief of the Monitorul. They reached the following conclusion: the solution is to call into being The International Poras Foundation For The Solca Sanatorium, to be advertised via the Internet, newspapers and Jewish organizations all over the world. The Foundation would open three bank accounts, one in Romanian Lei, one in USD, and the third in Euro. Donations would be accepted for the purpose of renovating/rebuilding* the Sanatorium.
(*Footnote: One of the reasons for tearing down the building is the fact (?!) that it’s infected with the Koch bacillus, which supposedly dwells in the walls. Now, that sounds a bit doubtful, even to us, people who don’t have the necessary training to judge whether that’s possible or not. Any physicians out there? In any case, samples will be taken, and analyses will be made, and then we’ll know exactly what needs to be done.)
Now, the mayor and county vice-president have agreed to help with all the bureaucratic paperwork, and the Editor of the Monitorul has promised to take up the campaign to the central press in Bucharest. There’s no telling where we can get from there.
In our opinion, this does sound like a realistic plan. Also, we are open to any suggestions, comments and questions.
Do spread the good news around!
Long live the Solca Sanatorium!
i “Which there is” (“care este”) is a phrase that’s been used so many times, and in such inappropriate contexts, by a certain politician in Bucharest, that it has turned into an expression Romanians now often use jokingly in everyday speech. Something like, “Honey, where’s the remote?” – “Which remote?” – “Which there is!!!” It probably sounds much better in Romanian though.
ii “I got something…hey…to boast about” (“Am cu ce…ma…lauda”) is quite a famous contemporary Romanian pop song. What probably helped make it so popular is the fact that, from time to time, the singer repeats only the first words of the verse: “I got something…hey”. Now, it may take a bit of a dirty mind to figure out what each and every Romanian male thinks of when hearing that!
iii “Ozana” is the name of the stream flowing through the village of Humulesti, where Ion Creanga, the author of the famous autobiographic novelette “Childhood Memories”, was born in 1837. He indeed describes that stream as “beautifully flowing and crystal-clear”, which it no longer is.
iv Romanians call that a “universal” store.
v The term “super market” has become so popular in Romania, that it doesn’t even require translating into Romanian. There are “super market-uri” (that would be the Romanian plural) in every street. What we’re talking about, however, are, strangely enough, small grocery stores.
vi For some obscure reason, that sounds infinitely better than the Romanian “Uau!”.
vii Elephants are supposed to have an incredibly good memory.
viii The Romanian slang has turned the transitive verb “to risk” (“a risca”) into a reflexive verb (“a se risca”).
ix Romanians say, “Inainte, ca inainte era mai bine!”, which is difficult to translate, because “inainte” means both “forward” and “before”. So, it’s something like, “Let’s move forward, because it was better before.”
x “Surprize—surprize” is the name of a very popular Romanian television show.
xi That’s a line from a famous comedy by the greatest Romanian playwright, Ion L. Caragiale: “A Lost Letter”. One of the characters there keeps begging the others, “Aveti putintica rabdare!”
xii Normally, Romanians say that something is (written) in “black on white” (“negru pe alb”). That can be taken either literally or figuratively, in which case it means that it’s very clearly expressed.
xiii It’s been happening recently in more than one Romanian town!
xiv Although there’s virtually no “heavy” industry left in Suceava, the number of cars has increased exponentially over the past decade, which makes the air be more polluted than ever.
xv Castles owned by the Romanian State since the late 1940’s, now claimed by and granted to the old King Michael I and his family. Pelesh Castle was built by the royal family at the end of the 19th century. Bran Castle is an old Saxon fortress.
“La trecutu-ti mare, mare viitor.” That’s a line from a famous poem by
Mihai Eminescu, the “national poet” of Romania. The poem is even called
“What I wish for you, sweet Romania” (“Ce-ti doresc eu tie, dulce