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JEWS IN MOLDOVA

Jews in the 15-18 Centuries

In the 15th century, Sephardic Jewish merchants began using Bessarabia (a region that today includes Moldova) as a trade route between the Black Sea and Poland. Bessarabia is the region between the Dniestr and Prut rivers. Jews settled in the region, prompting a growth of communities in northern and central Bessarabia.

The first Jewish settlers in the area of modern Moldova were Sephardi. Yet some evidence exists of a Jewish presence in the region long before that time. Near the town of Chotin in Bessarabia, engraved coins were discovered depicting Yehuda Maccabeus of the second century before the Common Era.

Records confirm that hundreds (1500 in some sources) Jews lived in Moldavia during the reign of Prince Roman 1 (1391 - 1394) and Alexander Bun (Alexander the Good) (1401 - 1433). The Jews came to the region mostly from Poland and became influential in Moldavian trade and commerce. It is important to note that during this period the Jews were granted the privilege to live and do business anywhere in the province. During the reign of Stephan Chel Mare (Stephen the Great, 1457 - 1504) the Jewish merchants were active in the cattle trade and other businesses. There are several examples of Jewish involvement in Stefan Chel Mare’s government and in the court system. Isaak ben Beniamin Shor of Jassy, a Jew, was an attended steward to Stefan Chel Mare. Isaak advanced to the rank of Logofat (from Latin: logotheta “one who accounts, calculates”) to Chancellor, one of the highest positions in the internal affairs of medieval Moldavia. From 1473 - 1474, Isaac Berg (Beg), a Jewish physician in Stefan Chel Mare‟s court became the Moldavian emissary to the court of the Persian Sultan Uzun Hassan. He sought an alliance between Moldavia and Persia against the dominant Turks. In 1498, Stefan Chel Mare wrote a letter advising the Polish King Alexander Jagiello that his ambassador should pay a 1200 gulden ransom for a Polish noblewoman who had been freed by Jews from a Tatar prison

In the 15th and 16th centuries Jewish emigration to Wallachia consisted mostly of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Jews from Constantinople. At this time Moldavian Jews were mostly of Ashkenazic descent having emigrated from Galicia, Poland and Germany. From the 15th century onward, Jewish Sephardic merchants from Constantinople began to reside in Bessarabia. Trade routes at the time crisscrossed the territory connecting Black Sea nations with Eastern Europe. Later, Jewish merchants from Poland also began trading and settling in Bessarabia laying the foundation of the first Jewish communities in northern and central Bessarabia. Jewish communities in southern Bessarabia had been in existence since the 15th century. By the 16th century many Moldavian princes started to limit privileges previously granted to Jews. In 1545, Jews complained to the Polish King that the Moldavian Prince Petru Raresh prevented them from taking Turkish horses to Poland and Lithuania, a common trade item at the time. In 1579, Prince Peter Schiopul (Peter the Lame) ill - treated Jews and expelled Polish born Jewish merchants from Moldavia. The Encyclopedia Judaica 3 states that Jews were completely expelled from the region in the last decades of the 16th century. On January 8, 1579, the sovereign of Moldavia, Peter Schiopul (Peter the Lame), ordered the banishment of 7 the Jews on the grounds that they are ruining the merchants and had a total monopoly on Moldavian commerce. There is no evidence that the decree was enforced. In 1591 - 1595, Prince Aron the Tyrant (Emanuel Aaron) was placed on the Moldavian throne due to the influence of Solomon Ashkenazi, the well - connected Jewish court physician of King Sigismund II, Augustus of Poland. Several sources claim that Emanuel Aron was of Hebrew descent. However, Emanuel’s cruelty to the Jews is infamous. In despotic fashion he ordered the decapitation of 19 Jews of Jassy without due process of law.  By 1612, Jews were well established once again in Moldavian commerce. To encourage their participation, Jews were invited by the boyars, great Moldavian landowners, to settle in Moldavia, establish cities and markets, administer estates, run taverns and build distilleries. These invitations to develop the Moldavian economy paralleled the economic expansion of Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries when Jews were invited to promote regional business. Prince Stefan Tomsa (1611 - 1615, 1621 - 1623) wrote to the Magistrate of Lemberg requesting that regardless of religion, merchants be allowed to settle in Moldavia to promote trade and to do business without disturbance. To attract Jews to the area, he declared the expulsion order of Peter the Lame null and void. Through 1634 - 1653, Prince Vasile Lupu treated Jews with consideration until the appearance of the Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnitsky. In 1652, the Cossacks came to Jassy to claim Vasile Lulu’s daughter Ruksand a for Timush, the son of Bogdan Khmelnitski. On his way, Khmelnitski massacred Jews. According to the chronicle of Neta Natan Hannover, a Jassy Rabbi during late 17 century, between 1648 and 1653, many Ukrainian Jews sought refuge in Moldavia fearing death by Cossacks. At the end of the 17th century, the first town founded by the Jews was Onitcani in Orgeev district.

The most famous Moldavian of the 18th century was the Prince of Moldavia, Demetrius Kantemir. A picture of religious tolerance is described in the Descriptio Moldavei. In the political section of the book, Jews were mentioned among other peoples living in Moldavia. According to the author, Jews were allowed to build wooden synagogues but not stone structures. Jews were citizens of the nation but paid an annual tax that was higher than other citizens. Jews were engaged exclusively in commerce and tavern keeping.

 In the middle of the 18 century, Jews from Poland were invited to settle in Moldavia. They were expected to found new towns and quicken the economic development of the country. They were offered: land on which to build synagogues, religious schools and ritual bathhouses, free cemetery plots, and several years exemptions from all taxes! Thousands Jews came to settle in Moldavia. The peasants and small town people found the Jews indispensable, because Jewish merchants and shopkeepers provided them with the prime necessities of living. They sold to Moldavians iron utensils, rope, pipe tobacco, salt, rice, and leather boots. Jews also build small - scale industries.

By the 18th century, several permanent Jewish communities had been established in urban developments. In the 18th and 19th century, Jews were very involved with local trading as well as liquor distilling. The rabbis of the communities prior to 1812 were Hayyim ben Solomon of Czernowitz, rabbi of Kishinev, and David Solomon Eibenschutz, rabbi of Soroki.

In Moldavia, the first census, organized by the Russian military authorities of occupation during the war with the Turks in 1774, recorded 1,300 Jewish families. 1803 - 30000 Jews lived in Moldavia Principality.

 

Jews in the 19th Century

1812 - Bessarabia, the entire territory between Dnister, Prut and Danube rivers was annexed by Russia. By the time, of Russian rule in 1812, there was a permanent Jewish presence in Moldova, with an estimated 20,000 Jews living in the area. There were 16 Jewish schools with 2,100 students and 70 synagogues. The region became a center for both Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In 1836, the Jewish population had grown to 94,045 and, by 1897, there were 228,620 (11.8% of the population) Jews living in Bessarabia.

Between 1836 and 1853, a vast number of Jews entered agriculture and 17 Jewish agricultural settlements were formed. However, after several years of agrarian crises in Russia, the economic situation of Jews in Bessarabia began to deteriorate. By 1897, the majority of Jews were once again involved in commerce and industry. During this period, Hassidim flourished among Jews of this region.

For the first half of the 19th century, Jews of Bessarabia were not affected by the severe Russian anti-Jewish decrees. By 1835, when Bessarabia began to lose its autonomy, Russian anti-Jewish laws began to be equally applied to Bessarabian Jewry. In 1869, 1879, 1886, and 1891 decrees of expulsion were issued to Jews of various cities. After the many hardships of the 19th century, Hovevei Zion societies were established in Bessarabia in the 1880s, led by Abraham Grunberg and Meir Dizengoff. Many Jews became strong Zionist activists and, at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, were represented by Jacob Bernstein-Kogan from Kishinev.

Laws concerning Jews were issued by the Russian government in 1818 in “Regulations of establishing Bessarabia district”. Jews were required to join one of three estates, classes: merchants, petty bourgeois (townsmen), or farmers. In the same “Regulation” was stated that “...privilegias (privileges) given to Jews by Moldavian princes (gospodars), will be kept by entirety”, while the existent Russi an legislation concerning the Jews did not apply, since Bessarabia had autonomous status. The regulations even authorized Bessarabian Jews to reside in the villages and engage in leasing activities and innkeeping, in contradiction to the "Jewish Statute" o f 1804. They even could buy a piece of empty land for farming. Because of this regional autonomy, the Jews of Bessarabia were spared several of the most severe anti - Jewish decrees issued in the first half of the 19th century.

86% of Jews worked in trade and 12% in handicraft. Several industries were almost entirely hold by Jews: Grain Trade - 85%; Markets in Major cities - 90%; Post Office - 100% Jewish; Vodka production and trade - 100% Jewish. Russian Jews were allowed to move to Bessarabia, as Bessarabia become part of the Pale of Settlement (April 1835). Jews, as well as Gypsies were excluded from taking part in government (public) service. Jews who were removed from closed cities of Sevastopol, Nikolaev and moved to Bessarabia were given privileges (1830) as an exception from common rulings. Jews - doctors from these places were able to hold a government position. It was most likely that after 1818 Jews were required to have hereditary surnames. Before that, in both Moldavia and Turkey, last names were not required.

 By 1835, when the liquidation of Bessarabian autonomy began, the "Jewish legislation" in Russia was equally applied to Bessarabian Jewry, although the prohibition on Jewish residence in border regions was not enforced in Bessarabia until 1839 and compulsory military service until 1852 - 53. Jewish farming was very much developed especially since 1835, when the government gave different privileges to people who wanted farming. According to the new status, Jews could freely cross over into the farmer class without any restrictions.

78,751 Jews lived in Bessarabia 1858 the Law of 50 verst from the border was soften, almost cancelled. 1864 - 97,700 Jews lived in Bessarabia 1867 - 94,045 Jews lived in Bessarabia, excluding New Bessarabia.

By the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population in the region had reached 230,000, about 12 percent of the total population. By the end of the 19th century, the Jews made up approximately half of Kishinev's population of 125,000. Most Moldovan Jews lived in poverty, working as cobblers, watchmakers, peddlers, and outside the cities, farmers.

In towns there were 109655 Jews, which is 37.4% from total population. Kishinev - 50237 Jews, which is about 46.5%, Beltsy - 10348, 55.9%, Bendery 10644, 38%, Orgeev - 7144, 59.5% and Soroki 8783, 57.4%. Jews by Professions: Tayliors and shoemakers - 13%, Grain trade - 9%, Forest - 8%, Trade of other - 11%, Sales - 43%, Transport - 3.65%, Agriculture - 7%.

Total of 377 plants, factories in Bessarabia and 106 were owned by Jews, and they were getting 30% of all products made.

The population continued to grow as tensions with Moldova’s populace mounted, culminating in massacres of Jews in 1903 and 1905 in Kishinev.

In 1903 and again in 1905, anti-Jewish pogroms broker out in Kishinev, then the capital of the Bessarabia Governorate in the Russian Empire and in surrounding villages. These disturbances are known as the "Kishinev pogrom." The first Kishinev pogrom began with a blood libel, in February of 1903. A peasant found the corpse of Mikhail Rybachenko, aged 14, bruised and covered with stab wounds, in a garden. The murder fuelled wild rumors that he had been killed by local Jews in need of his Christian blood to prepare their matzot.

A poisonous anti-Jewish campaign was led by Pavel Krushevan, publisher of the Bessarabian newspaper Bessarabets, who incited the population through a constant stream of journalistic invective since 1894.

The most popular newspaper in Kishinev, the Russian-language anti-Semitic newspaper Бессарабец (Bessarabetz, meaning "Bessarabian"), published by Pavel Krushevan, regularly published articles with headlines such as "Death to the Jews!" and "Crusade against the Hated Race!" (referring to the Jews). When a Christian Ukrainian boy, Mikhail Rybachenko, 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, Bessarabetz 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. Another newspaper, Свет (Svet, "Light") made similar insinuations. These allegations, and the prompting of the town's Russian Orthodox bishop, sparked the pogrom.

On or about March 30, 1903, a proclamation letter was reportedly posted at a local tavern in Kishinev. It began with the announcement of the coming Easter holiday and a brief description of how Jesus Christ was “tormented by the Jews” and crucified. It ended with a battle cry for the holiday: “Down with the Zhids! Beat these mean degenerates, blood suckers drunk with Russian blood! Remind them [of the] Odessa pogrom. . . .” It was signed by a fictitious official. The real author may have been Pavel Krushevan, the abovementioned newspaper magnate.

The pogrom began on April 19 (April 6 according to the Julian calendar then in use in the Russian empire) after congregations were dismissed from church services on Easter Sunday. In two days of rioting, 47 (some put the figure at 49) Jews were killed, 92 were severely wounded and 500 were slightly injured, 700 houses were destroyed, and 600 stores were pillaged. The total property loss was estimated at  2,500,000 gold rubles, and about 2,000 families were left homeless.

The New York Times reported:  "The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plain 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."

The Times published a forged dispatch by Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Minister of Interior, to the governor of Bessarabia, which supposedly gave orders not to stop the rioters, but, in any case, no attempt was made by the police or military to intervene to stop the riots until the third day.

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.

Despite a worldwide outcry, only two men were sentenced to seven and five years and twenty-two were sentenced for one or two years. This pogrom was instrumental in convincing tens of thousands of Russian Jews to leave for the West or Palestine.

A second pogrom took place on October 19-20, 1905. This time the riots began as political protests against the Tsar, but turned into an attack on Jews wherever they could be found. By the time the riots were over, 19 Jews had been killed and 56 were injured. Jewish self-defense leagues, organized after the first pogrom, stopped some of the violence, but were not wholly successful. This Pogrom was part of a much larger movement of 600 pogroms that swept the Russian Empire after the October Manifesto of 1905.

 

Jews in the 20th Century

 

In 1917, Bessarabia was became a territory controlled by Soviet power. The Russian Revolution brought some civic equality for the Jews of Bessarabia.

Romania took control of Bessarabia between 1918 and 1940, and Jewish life continued to thrive in the region. Jews automatically received Romanian citizenship in 1918 and were permitted to open Jewish elementary and secondary schools with instruction in Yiddish and Hebrew. By 1922, there were approximately 140 Jewish schools in Bessarabia. During this time, there also existed 13 Jewish hospitals and old-age homes. By 1920, the Jewish population in Moldova numbered about 267,000. Although, the numbers of Jewish citizens continued to climb, many communities experienced hostility and anti-Jewish harassment. The weakening of the Bessarabian economy also hit the Jewish population extremely hard; however, they received assistance provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee.

The 1930s marked the peak of Jewish life in Moldova. In 1935, 40 Jewish communities united as the Union of Jewish Communities of Bessarabia. 

In 1940, Bessarabia was reclaimed by the Soviets, who promptly sent thousands of Jews suspected of disloyalty to gulags (work camps) or to Siberia. all Jewish institutions were closed.

In June 1940, when it was returned to the Soviet Union, the Jewish population had grown to an estimated 60,000 because of the influx of Jews from Romania which began to turn fascist. With the killings and the deportations, within one and a half years "Jewish Kishinev" was left with only 86 Jews

After the German-led invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany reconquered Bessarabia on July 23, 1941. During this fighting, thousands of Jews died in mass shootings, deportations, ghettos and concentration camps on Bessarabian and Ukrainian territory. A large number of the Bessarabian Jewry was deported to Transnistria or massacred by the Einsatzkommandos. The Jewish community of Kishinev was nearly annihilated, with the Nazis murdering 53,000 out of the 65,000 inhabitants of the city.

When the war started with the attack on the Soviet Union, the German and Romanian armies encountered Jews escaping from burning cities. A great number of these were executed immediately. According to Matatias Carp: "On July 17, 1941, along the two roads into the city [Kishinev] the arriving Romanian and German troops killed 10,000 Jews. The roads were Sculeni in the north and Hancesti in the south."

Carp also mentions 4,000 Bessarabian Jews who evacuated from Kishinev and were caught and killed by the advancing armies in the Ukraine. Julius Fisher describes the death of some 11,500 Bessarabian Jews in July and August, 1941, as they were driven back and forth between the Germans and the Romanians before some were interned in the camp at Vertujeni.

After these initial events, there were in Bessarabia some 75-80,000 Jews interned in the Ghetto of Kishinev and at nine other camps. Of these, again as reported here, 55,867 were counted at the various points of crossing the Nistru river into Transnistria. They joined 45,538 Jews deported to Transnistria from Bucovina, for a total of 101,405 people.

The Jews deported from Bessarabia and Bucovina joined, in the camps of Transnistria thousands of Russian Jews. Earlier, tens of thousands were burned to death in Odessa and executed at Bogdanovca and Dumanovca. From 1942 to their liberation by the Russians in second half of 1944, tens of thousands continued to perish in death camps like Acmecetca and others throughout Transnistria.

While many Moldavians are believed to have collaborated with their German occupiers (Romania joined the Axis powers in late-1940), Israel has recognized 53 Moldavians/Romanian as “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, more than 42,000 Moldovan Jews have immigrated to Israel.

In August 1944, the Russians reoccupied the region. This land became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic with the capital in Kishinev. Following the Holocaust, much of the Jewish community of Moldova met with increasing hardships, were forbidden to practice many Jewish traditions, under Communism. In 1961, the Jews were forbidden by the government from celebrating Bar/Bat mitzvahs and, in 1964, all synagogues were closed except for one in Kishinev.

After World War II, the number of Jews in Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic increased significantly, peaking at 98,001 in 1970. During the 1970s and especially late 1980s, many of them emigrated to Israel. The last Soviet census of 1989 registered 65,672 Jews in the Soviet Republic.

 

Modern Community

The Jewish population of Moldova has decreased substantially since independence due to the high percentage of elderly Jews and high levels of immigration, predominately to Israel

Because of Transnistrian conflict (1992), much of the Jewish community was evacuated from the area. Following the fall of Communism, Jewish life in Moldova began to flourish again with the emerging democratic society.

Chabad Lubavitch maintains synagogues in Chisinau and Tiraspol and is active throughout Moldova. The movement runs one of the two Jewish day schools in Moldova.

The Israeli Embassy’s Israeli Cultural Center operates in Chisinau, and the Israeli Government and Moldovan Education Ministry jointly run a school to prepare children for aliyah. Jewish Agency For Israel also has a presence and runs Nesharim summer camps and winter seminars on Jewish history and tradition.

International organizations have provided significant aid to Moldovan Jewry.