Tag Archives: Chisinau

Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is on Monday back home. Champa and I got a head start earlier this month when we visited the big victory memorial here in Moldova.

Located in the heart of Chișinău, the memorial complex is built around a circle of five dramatic red pillars surrounding an eternal flame. IMG_4712Nearby are sculpted murals depicting the bloody struggle to defeat Nazi Germany. Smaller monuments honor fallen heroes and show the names of Soviet soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Moldova in August 1944. Rows of white grave markers in the adjacent cemetery are reminiscent of Arlington Cemetery, albeit with Russian inscriptions.

We visited the park with two Peace Corps friends, Beth and Andrea, shortly before Moldova’s Victory Day on May 9. Soldiers were mowing the grass, pulling weeds and sprucing up.

IMG_4715Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, which was America’s most important ally on the eastern European front of World War II. Yet we inevitably view our joint victory through the lens of the subsequent Cold War. For Moldovans, the legacy is even more complicated since the German occupation was followed by decades of Russian rule.

I found it fascinating how the Soviet gravestones lack any religious markings while those erected since Moldovan independence, just a few yards away, are adorned with crosses. One gravestone has an inscription saying (in Romanian), “Born speaking Romanian; died speaking Romanian,” a clear rejection of the Russian language. The cemetery also honors Moldovans who died shortly after independence in the war in Transnistria, the pro-Russian region that broke away and remains largely autonomous.

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Yet many Moldovans have close personal ties to Russia, want closer relations with it and cherish its glorious triumph. Just outside the park we saw this billboard promoting Victory Day. It displays a Soviet hammer and sickle and the signature of Moldova’s current president, who sat beside Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s victory parade on May 9. IMG_4683Many thousands of Moldovans marched or gathered in Chișinău the same day, as they did around the country, especially in Russian-speaking areas. In places where Romanian is commonly spoken, the emphasis tended to be more on European unity, especially with the West.

Even the date of Moldova’s Memorial Day is complicated. Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies occurred on May 7, 1945, which Americans remember as V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). People in this part of Europe, however, commemorate a ceremony that took place late the following day in which Germany formally surrendered to the Soviet forces. Since it was already May 9 by then in Moscow, that became the official date for Russia and other Soviet states, including Moldova.

IMG_4718More than 70 years after the war ended, its impact on the history and psyche of this region remains profound. As I have written previously, almost every Moldovan village has a memorial, usually accompanied by the names of local men who died. In the village where I lived during training, the list exceeded 100 names, an astonishing toll. Many Moldovans also have painful memories of family members and friends who were deported by the Soviets after the war.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I avoid politics. Yet our visit to the memorial park was a reminder that history is never far away in this small but complex country. Like the flame inside Chișinău’s monument, memories here smolder, flicker and burn. Every day is Memorial Day.

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Painting Eggs

Are you getting ready to paint Easter eggs?

If you need some inspiration, the most beautiful Easter eggs in the world are surely here in Moldova and its neighboring countries. See for yourself in this photo I snapped last weekend at the travel fair in Chișinău.

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Viorica Flocea painted these eggs. That’s her with Champa and our friend Denise. You can watch her technique in the video below.

Painting eggs for Easter is a centuries-old tradition in this part of the world. The practice nearly disappeared in Moldova during the decades of Soviet rule when religion was suppressed. Now it has been revived and many Moldovan families paint eggs with their children during the Easter season.

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You begin by draining the egg’s contents through a small hole. Then you mark the egg with hot wax lines to form ornamental areas. After the wax turns cold, you place the egg in colored water and then dry it. Next comes the fun part,: painting the egg with different colors, progressing from lighter to darker colors. Finally you dry the egg and strip off the wax lines.
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Traditional designs may symbolize the sun, a leaf, wheat or the cross. Certain lines represent life or death, while others portray water or purification. Several websites like this one have more information.
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People here traditionally paint Easter eggs on the Thursday and Saturday before the holiday. However, artists such as Viorica paint eggs throughout the year and at exhibitions like the one we attended.

After we bought several of her eggs to bring home as gifts, she encouraged Champa and Denise to give it a try by each drawing their name and the date on an egg.

You can learn from Viorica, too, at her family’s lodge in Fundu Moldovei, Romania. If you’re here in Moldova, the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History organizes several exhibitions and workshops each year where craftswomen demonstrate the craft.

You also can learn egg painting at the Orhei Vechi archeological complex or Lalova village in Rezina district. Tatrabis offers an all-day excursion in Moldova that combines a class on egg painting with homemade wine tastings where you can wash away your disappointment at not being as skilled as Viorica.

Perhaps I should say you’re not as skilled yet. You still have some time before Sunday to become a master egg artisan yourself.

The Sky in the Synagogue

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My paternal grandmother Sarah grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, not far from where I now serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova. Her family — my ancestors — fled to America to survive the violent anti-semitism depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

At that time, more than 50,000 Jews lived in Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, comprising 46 percent of the city’s population according to an 1897 census. In 1903, 49 of them were killed in anti-semitic riots. A survivor said: “Dead bodies were everywhere, many of them horribly mutilated, and in most cases with the clothes torn off. There were ears, fingers, noses lying on the pavements. Babies were tossed in the air to be caught on the points of spears and swords. Young girls were horribly mistreated before death came to end their torture. I saw these things with my own eyes.”

It’s hard to imagine anything more chilling than that, but things got worse for Moldova’s Jews. A few decades later they were nearly wiped out by Nazi death squads who rounded them up and executed them in every corner of the country, sometimes with local help. Shortly before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps, “60 Minutes” broadcast a chilling story about a French Catholic priest investigating The Hidden Holocaust in the former Soviet States. (A clip is at the end of this story and on YouTube .)

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.50.24 PM“We traveled with Father Desbois to the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where in one day he took us to four unmarked mass graves,” reporter Lara Logan said in the story. “In this field, he told us, 60 Jews beneath this farm, 100 above this city, under this hill, a thousand.”

In a small village near Telenești, an 85-year-old man tells them what he witnessed as a boy: “The Jews were facing the ditch, so they were shooting them in the back of their heads or their backs to fall into the ditch. They were shooting them as if they were dogs.”

Moldova’s Jews were murdered in their homes, in ravines, on death marches, in camps — everywhere. By the time the Soviet Army returned in August 1944, the Nazis had killed as many as 300,000 Jews across Moldova and neighboring areas of Bucovina, Bessarabia and Transnistria. Few survived.

After we were accepted as Peace Corps volunteers, one of our sons saw the “60 Minutes” story and told us he was worried about our own safety in Moldova, even though I am not an observant Jew and Champa grew up with local religions in Nepal.

In fact, we have both been welcomed warmly with few exceptions. We’ve now been here more than nine months and enjoy living here. I have yet to knowingly encounter anti-semitism, even though it still exists in Moldova and extremist groups can be found in much of Europe. What I have seen are some promising, if modest, signs of a Jewish revival.

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Jewish young people participated at a volunteer fair at Malldova in October.

Roughly 25,000 Jews live in Moldova these days, mainly in Chișinău but also in places such as Bălţi, Bender, Soroky, Rybnitsa, Orhei and Tiraspol. Their numbers grew under Soviet rule until the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-semitism led many of them to emigrate, mainly to Israel and North America.

Many of Moldova’s Jews now are elderly and living on small fixed incomes. In October, Champa and I spent an afternoon with Alex Weisler and others from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is doing wonderful work here to support the Jewish community with basic services and religious, educational, legal and cultural programs.

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Earlier, shortly after arriving in Chișinău, my friend Tom and I visited the local Chabad, where they were happy to welcome us after I joined them in the prayer they were reciting, although I declined their attempt to wrap me in tefillin. Tom and I also passed the nearby synagogue shown at the beginning of this post, with the sky showing through its smashed windows. A few blocks away, on Jerusalem St.,  was the red granite monument you see here, honoring victims of the Chișinău ghetto.

On Sunday, Champa and I saw this display of a Torah, menorah and other Jewish symbols in the religion exhibit at Chișinău’s history museum. IMG_3276 Just outside of town is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery, now overgrown beside an abandoned synagogue. A new website, JewishMemory: History of the Jews in Moldova, provides an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to learn more, as does this site.

In other words, Moldova’s Jewish legacy is here if you look for it. The Israeli Embassy maintains a good list of current organizations and activities. If any of my Moldovan friends or Peace Corps colleagues are curious, this article tells where to find graveyards, memorials and other Holocaust sites in Bălți, Cahul, Comrat, Briceni, Florești, Hincești, Calarași, Leova, Soroca, Ungheni and other locations.

I hope to visit Odessa before we leave, to honor my grandmother and the rest of my family who endured so much before finding a better life in America. I think their spirit is still here, like those of so many others, whispering to us from the sky-filled synagogues, bullet-pocked walls and broken cemetery stones.

Startups Dreamup in Chisinau

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Sergiu Matei, left, interviews tech journalist Andrii Degeler at a gathering of the Dreamups Innovation Campus in Chisinau

Staring at laptops adorned with stickers, sipping coffee, tapping their sneakers, the young people who gathered for a talk from a visiting technology journalist Thursday evening looked like they might be at Durham’s American Underground or some other entrepreneurial hub in the United States. They nodded when the host said “awesome” and “cool.” They laughed at a joke about Pokémon Go.

But they weren’t in Durham, much less Silicon Valley. They were in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a country whose economy is struggling and whose people often voice skepticism about the possibility of making a change in the world.

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Almost all in their 20s and 30s, they gathered to hear Andrii Degeler offer advice on how to promote their startup businesses to reporters. Degeler, a Ukrainian native who now lives in Amsterdam, reports on the Central and East European tech scene for The Next Web and publishes a newsletter about the region.

“Salaries are much lower in Moldova,” he noted, saying this has the potential to provide “more freedom to experiment” to international companies that recruit Moldovan talent. The meeting’s host, Sergiu Matei, cautioned, however, that local entrepreneurs will succeed only if they are willing to fail, an idea familiar to U.S. startups  but challenging in a post-Soviet nation where many people are risk-averse.

img_0284Matei joined Degeler on the stage, both in armchairs, one wearing shorts, the other a black T shirt. A projected slide behind them showed the event’s sponsors — local companies, media partners, the U.S. government and others.

Chisinau’s Dreamups Innovation Campus organized the event. Founded only in March, the group calls itself “a community where young entrepreneurs learn, share ideas and launch global companies.” It hosts networking events, pitching sessions and discussions with mentors. It runs a startup accelerator program and helps sponsor local events such as Startup Grind Chisinau. Its website features quotes from Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

Matei, 29, helped launch several companies when he lived in California’s Bay Area, returning to Chisinau to be with his family and work with the local office of a London-based language translation company. He also wanted to “give back to my community” by sharing his expertise with young Moldovans interested in starting their own companies. About 3,000 people have already participated in Dreamups activities, he says.

img_0289Back when I was in Durham, I interacted with the thriving local startup scene, which I helped publicize through articles such as these. Durham’s entrepreneurs face many challenges but these now seem small compared to the ones in Moldova, where venture capital is scarce, collaborators are few and the entire system can seem stacked against a bright young person with a great idea. Yet here was an entire room of them on Thursday evening, determined to make an impact. It was impressive.

I hope to write again about Dreamups and some other programs here that are promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, especially among girls and women. Peace Corps is working with two of these, Diamond Vision and Technovation. If you’re interested in this topic, I hope you’ll share a comment or words of encouragement here with Sergiu and the others. I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Perhaps someone might even want to send them some stickers for their laptops? That would be cool, possibly even awesome.