Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some thoughts on Jews in Moldova

My mother's family is thought to have arrived in the vicinity of Bessarabia from Austria, for reasons that are as yet unclear to me, sometime in the mid 19th century. Perhaps it was one of the German speaking merchant families regularly enticed by Russian Tzars to settle the nearby Volga region with promises of free land and religious freedom in exchange for commercial development - privileges withdrawn decades later. By contrast, the history of my father's family in Bessarabia traces back some three hundred years, and perhaps another fifty on top of that, as he would have learned this from his father and grandfather growing up in the 1950s.

Three hundred years is a long time to set roots in a land. I wonder if we would have ever left had the Germans and the Russians not pried and trimmed those roots until there was nothing left to anchor us down, besides graves. As for the Moldovans, my uncle recently recalled a conversation he once had with a Moldovan friend, perhaps in the mid-1980s, as Soviet control weakened and ethnic nationalism surged.

"I like the Jews," my uncle now, recalling his Moldovan friend's words. "Everyone wants something from the Moldovans. The Ukrainians want Transdniester [in the east], the Gagauz [a Turkic people] want the south, the Romanians want the west, the Russians want it all, but the Jews, the Jews just want to be left alone."

I related this to my father, who had marched in solidarity with Moldovans on the streets of Chisinau in the late 1980s, back when no one knew how the Soviet regime would react. It was reckless, for a family man and a Jew, and he didn't tell his parents. "Too late. Too late did they realize it," he said. In the crowds that marched were more than a few who chanted, from the anonymity of a mob, "Russians across the Dniester [river, pictured on the map], but the Jews [Zhidov] in Dniester."

With all this talk of history, it's easy to forget that there are still Jews in Moldova, between 10-20,000, mostly centered in the capital, down from about 100,000 in the republic as a whole two decades ago and nearly 300,000 in the Bessarabia region before WWII. The community actually appears to be in the midst of a revival, of sorts, at least in Chisinau, with a number of Jewish organizations and movements serving the population, including a strong Chabad presence, a yeshiva with a rabbinic ordination program, a primary school for several hundred Jewish students and an Israeli aliyah preparatory program.

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