On the outskirts of Chișinău, Moldova, is one of Europe’s largest Jewish cemeteries, largely overgrown, largely deserted. This video is also viewable on YouTube.
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 .)
“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.
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.
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. 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.