By Rich Juro
Fran and I journeyed to Moldova in southeastern Europe because it was the final stop of our goal to visit every former Soviet Socialist Republic. While in Moldova, we also spent a fascinating day in the “breakaway” republic of Transnistria. Here’s our story of the countries, their Jews, and of our visit.
Landlocked and located between Ukraine to the north and east, and Romania to the south and west, Moldova was an independent principality in the 14th to 16th centuries. The rulers of the area changed through the years. Moldova (or Moldavia or Bessarabia as it was also known) became part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and later part of Imperial Russia. After WWI Moldova was “awarded” to Romania, and after World War II it became a Soviet Socialist Republic. True independence was finally achieved in 1990-1992 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the turmoil did not stop.
The small area of Transnistria (or TransDneistra, the land across the Dneister River) declared itself a republic in 1990, and after a short but nasty war, achieved its own independence, but more about that later. Democratic elections have been held in Moldova with varying degrees of honesty. A succession of 8 different governments, including some led by Communists, has not brought Moldova economic or political stability. Here’s the latest from a reliable website (I couldn’t make this up!):
“Liberal Democratic Party candidate Chiril Gaburici was appointed prime minister by President Timofti on Feb. 18, 2015…Gaburici’s time as prime minister was brief. He resigned four months later…due to a criminal investigation involving accusations that his school diplomas had been falsified. Deputy Prime Minister…Natalia Gherman replaced Gaburici as acting prime minister.”
So while Moldova is not a failed state, it is the poorest country in Europe. With 750,000 of its 3,000,000 people working in other countries, over a third of its Gross Domestic Product comes directly from money sent back by the Moldovan diaspora. The country also receives aid from the European Union. However, rampant corruption and the ineffective attempts to change from the Soviet socialist bureaucracy to a free market system have held the economy back. Agricultural products and wine are the main exports.
We visited what is proudly proclaimed as the largest wine cellar in the world: you can drive into 75 miles of tunnels filled with kegs and barrels of wine. Unfortunately, now Russia is not importing any Moldovan wines, so most of the production is aging, hopefully for the better. The cognac is supposedly the finest in the world, and at $3 a bottle, certainly is the best buy.
The primary language of Moldova is the same as Romanian. The Soviet Union left the language intact, but made people use the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet. In 1989, when the USSR started to break up, the Moldovan Assembly changed the alphabet back to the Latin one used by its Romanian neighbors. However, many people still speak Ukrainian and Russian that they learned from their parents.
The national sport is wrestling, and a Moldovan woman won a bronze medal for weightlifting in the 2012 Olympics. Obviously, don’t mess with the locals.
The Jews of Moldova
Sephardic Jews arrived in Moldova even before the 16th century, and were soon joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Germany. Interesting factoid: when the Tsar expelled Tatars from the land in the 19th century, Jews were brought in! By 1900, there were 230,000 Jews out of a total population of 2,000,000. In the capital of Chisinau (Kishinev), 50,000 of the 110,000 inhabitants were Jewish. But 1903 brought the terrible Easter pogrom. The “History of the Jews in Bessarabia” states:
“When a Christian Ukrainian boy…was found murdered in the town of Dubossary, about 25 miles north of Kishinev, and a girl who committed suicide by poisoning herself was declared dead in a Jewish hospital, the [newspapers] insinuated that both children had been murdered by the Jewish community for the purpose of using their blood in the preparation of matzo for Passover (blood libel against Jews). These allegations, and the prompting of the town’s Russian Orthodox bishop, sparked the pogrom.”
In 1903, The New York Times described the first Kishinev pogrom:
The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.
There was a second pogrom in 1905. As a result thousands of Jews left for the United States and some went to Palestine. But Jews thrived during the period between WWI and WWII when the area was part of Romania.
The German occupation of Bessarabia/Moldova in 1941-2 brought the worst annihilation to the Jews. Hundreds of thousands were killed outright or forced to move to the Transnistria region. There they died of starvation or illness, and most of those surviving were transported north to death camps. Many Romanians and Ukrainians eagerly joined in the genocide. Yet there are 53 Gentiles from the area who are enshrined in Yad Vashem in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations” for saving Jews during that terrible time.
After WWII the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic was set up by the Communists. All religious activity was frowned upon, so most synagogues were closed. In the 70’s and 80’s, about 30,000 Jews were able to emigrate to Israel, and after Moldovan independence in 1992, more did the same. Currently, the number of Jews is estimated to be between 10,000 and 30,000, with half living in Chisinau (Kishinev). That’s less than 1% of the total population, 94% of which practice the Christian Eastern Orthodox religion. However, many Jews are elderly and poor, with many living on pensions of $10 per month.
As Cantor Wendy of Temple Israel reported, there now appears to be a thriving Jewish community, especially in Chisinau. There are several Jewish day schools and Sunday schools, summer camps, university Judaica departments, and a renovated Jewish Cultural Center. Most are funded by the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) and Israel. Chabad Luvabitch runs the only active synagogues, and we visited one of them. Agudath Israel operates the Yeshiva High School.
Anti-Semitism, once virulent and state-sanctioned, still exists today but only informally. There are several historical markers of interest in Chisinau. The Monument to the Victims of the Kishinev Pogrom was dedicated in 2003 on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Its inscription is in Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian (Moldovan), and Russian. The Holocaust Memorial is a Monument to the Victims of the Chisinau Ghetto (that died during WWII). Both were sculpted by a local Jewish artist named Applebaum. Here’s what I wrote in Trip Adviser after visiting the Jewish Cemetery, which has its own memorial to the pogrom:
This is a huge cemetery, about 1 million sq. meters, started about 300 years ago. Although badly overgrown with foliage, the graves are in numbered sections, and if you can find him, the caretaker can help you find a specific grave if you know the exact spelling. There is an old chapel, but the inside is destroyed and only the walls are
standing. Most touching was the monument to the people killed and Torahs desecrated in the 1903 pogrom. It has the 10 Commandments on it. Follow the path to the left past the old chapel to find it. Although sad to see how overgrown it is, the cemetery is a memorial of the Jewish citizens who once numbered over 100,000 before the pogroms, and then the Holocaust resulted in the murder or emigration of almost all of the remaining.
When Moldova was breaking away from Russia in 1990-1992, the people living near the Dneister River that flows between Moldova and Ukraine declared their own new independent state, with the capital in Tiraspol. Many were of Russian ethnicity, and wanted to rejoin what they felt were their close relations in language and culture. They also were afraid that Moldova would become a part of Romania. A brief war with Moldova ensued, 1500 people died, and the new republic was established. Its official name is the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, but it is generally known as Trans-Dneister or Transnistria (as in “across the Dneister”). It covers 1600 square miles and has 500,000 people, about one-third each of who speak Russian, Ukrainian, or Moldovan (but here Moldovan is written in the Cyrillic alphabet).
In 23 years the only countries that have given official recognition to Transnistria are three other breakaway republics in the region: Nagorno Karabakh, which was an enclave of Armenians that broke away from Azerbaijan, and the only United Nations member to recognize it is Armenia; and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia and would like to be annexed by Russia. The four breakaway republics are considered “post-Soviet frozen conduct zones”. They are friends with each other and have formed the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations. Not quite NATO but it’s all they have.
Although Russia has not officially recognized Transnistria, there are 1350 Russian troops permanently stationed there. In 2006 the people of Transnistria voted to join Russia, but Russia has not acted on it, probably because you have to go across about 500 miles of Ukraine to get from Russia to Transnistria. However, if Russia ever annexes Odessa, the big Ukrainian city on the Black Sea that is only 60 miles from Tiraspol, it could be a different ending. A few months ago, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to suspend “military cooperation” with Russia, which means it will be very difficult for Russia to resupply its armed forces in Transnistria. Another possibility is for Russia to bring its supplies and replacement soldiers through Moldova to Transnistria, but that would be difficult if not impossible given Moldova’s landlocked location and westward leanings. So it’s possible Transnistria may become the next boiling point between Russia and Ukraine. Stay tuned…
Visiting Transnistria is a challenge! First, you have to get to Moldova, which is a small challenge in itself, and has very little tourist infrastructure. We were able to arrange on the Internet for a local guide, Oleg, with good references. In Chisinau we told Oleg that we wanted to tour Transnistria (10 years ago we went to the breakaway country of Nagorno Karabakh via an old military helicopter from Yerevan, Armenia, but that’s another story). Oleg advised us that it was possible to make a day trip from Chisinau, but no more. We set out early one morning in Oleg’s small car, hoping it was more dependable than it looked.
At the ominous border crossing, which had Russian tanks and other military equipment, Oleg arranged for a 24 hour entry card to Transnistria. There’s no visa needed for a one-day visit. He told us, “Don’t lose this or you won’t be able to leave.” Since neither the USA nor any other country has diplomatic relations, violating a Transnistrian regulation or getting arrested is not recommended. There is no Embassy you can appeal to, and the local hoosegow is reputedly not too pleasant. Oleg said we could talk to the Moldovan and Transnistrian border guards, but that it would be unwise to take pictures of, or say anything to the Russian soldiers. Not even Fran, who is known for talking to anybody, tried this. Besides being dangerous to your health, these quasi-KGB guys usually ask foreigners for “admission fees”. Oleg had done this border crossing a few other times, so we were allowed in after about 15 minutes and without having to pay bribes.
The nation has its own currency, the Transnistrian ruble, but it’s not accepted anywhere else. You can’t pay for anything with a credit card. But right inside the border in the capital of Tiraspol was the large Sheriff (pronounced “Sha-reef”, as in Omar Sharif) Supermarket. Sheriff sponsors the national soccer team and built the stadium. It made me proud to be a former supermarket owner. Not only was there a large variety of goods for sale but there was an ATM that dispensed Russian rubles. There was also an exchange office where we changed some US $ for Transnistrian rubles. Apparently, the best buy, like in Moldova, was brandy (I wished I liked it).
Transnistria has its own Constitution, Parliament, flag and anthem. The flag is complete with a Communist hammer and sickle. We had heard that the best jobs involved smuggling drugs and weapons, money laundering, human trafficking, and other nefarious occupations introduced by Russian criminals. This may be true, but the people we met were friendly and welcoming. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch of local specialties at, of course, Hotel Russia.
Oleg gave us a tour of Tiraspol. The architecture is mostly old Soviet-style, depressing gray buildings. There is a large statue of Lenin, WWII memorials, and lots of Orthodox churches. We visited the Minsk Shopping Center, which has dozens of small stores offering everything but what we wanted: souvenir hats or T-shirts.
There is also a Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Dneister River, reminding visitors of the hundreds of thousands of Romanian and Ukrainian Jews that were marched to Transnistria, most of whom died of starvation, shooting by Romanian or German soldiers, or later in the Central European death camps.
We drove by a former synagogue that is now a boxing club. Oleg didn’t know if there were any functioning synagogues in Tiraspol, although I read that there is at least one each in both in Tiraspol and in Bendery, the second largest city. I was unable to research how many Jews live in Transnistria today.
We crossed the border back into Moldova without incident, careful not to overstay our 24 hour pass. As we were driving back through Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, it appeared now to be a fairly normal place. We realized we had spent the day at a really strange country.