Translated by Ala Gamulka
The catastrophe which descended on European Jewry destroyed thousands of established Jewish communities. Some of them were of over a thousand years standing. The Jewish residents were uprooted and sent to exile or annihilation. A unique literature was the outgrowth of the upheaval. It is unparalleled in any other nation or language. I refer to memoirs, memorials and mourning scrolls in the form of Yizkor books. This is the way in which over four hundred Jewish communities sought solace by describing their past, especially that of the past two decades, by erecting monuments to their fellow citizens and their family. They wanted to ensure that they would not be forgotten and that future generations will be told about their predecessors and their history.
These enormous projects were prepared by collecting, verifying, selecting and publishing with unimagined diligence and dedication. They contain documents and descriptions amassed for thirty years. They are important not only for the continuity of the People of Israel, but also for the rest of mankind.
The time came for the Community of Bendery maybe one of the last ones- to bear witness and to add to this magnificent and tragic story.
Bendery was situated on the right bank of the Dniester River, across from Tiraspol in Podolia, in the Province of Bessarabia (Moldova). For several hundred years, Bessarabia changed hands (Turkey, Russia, Romania, Nazi occupation, Soviet annexation). The Province lies between the Dniester and the Prot Rivers. It was called Tighina during the Romanian occupation and Bender or Tighin in ancient documents. It lies northwest of Odessa and close to Kishinev, the capital. Until the end of World War I Bendery was part of Tsarist Russia. It was then annexed by Romania. Its fate was decided and its image formed during the twenties and the thirties of the Twentieth century. During the Holocaust the community was destroyed and its Jewish citizens were among those exiled to the other side of the Dniester.
According to research (done by Dr. T. Lavi-Levinstein and M.Karp in the Black Book- written in Romanian and stored in Yad Vashem) a pact was signed on August 30 1941 in Bendery. This was the infamous Tighina Pact dealing with ethnic cleansing, exile and transfer of population for so-called economic reasons to camps in Ukraine, on the other side of the Dniester. This is how the term Transnistra was coined. (Proof that this pact could not have been achieved without the active involvement of Romania can be seen in the speech of the Vice Prime Minister, Mihai Antonescu, given on July 3, 1941).
The image of Bendery was forged by its topography, the ethnic make-up of its population, the friendly neighbourly relations and mutual cultural influences, its extraordinary benevolence, strong Zionist beliefs and love of the Land of Israel, Russification and the terrible tragedies culminating in the Holocaust. Bendery was influenced by Kishinev and Odessa during its blossoming period and it deteriorated under the Romanian occupation between the two wars. These characteristics were preserved during the Soviet period and during the Holocaust. The reasons for this can be found although there are not many-in documents and testimonies, descriptions and images of outstanding personalities and ordinary folk, public institutions, Heders, synagogues and academies, schools and libraries, youth movements and sports clubs, choirs and drama groups. They all contributed a great love for Jewish culture and tradition, the Land of Israel, Renaissance and pre-revolutionary Russian literature and culture.
Although there were cordial relations with the Christian community, the Jewish community of Bendery knew how to preserve its unique ethno-cultural entity. The survivors, whether they found their way to Israel or whether they remained in the Diaspora (mainly the United States), are those who bear witness by their activities in many public arenas. Their wounds have not healed yet and they present their memoirs in these pages.
In this book we planned to present a wide and colourful panorama of the scenery of Bendery, its daily life and customs, its Rabbis and community leaders and educators. These are authentic images of those who fulfilled their debt to society, sometimes in wealth, but mostly in poverty. They were genuinely happy, but they also suffered. The natives of Bendery filled an important part in the Aliyah movement, beginning with the second and third ones, in illegal immigration and in settling the land. They played important and useful roles in making the country flourish and in its defence. Even those who were scattered in the Diaspora, mainly the United States, held pivotal positions and keep in touch, to this day, with their former fellow townspeople. It is with their help that this book could be published.
The natives of Bendery felt a deep commitment to bequeath their tradition to future generations. Those who follow will know their roots and will learn about the personal courage in the daily life of ordinary people who put the welfare of others above their own needs. Poverty and lack of funds did not stop these souls from giving to others and from believing better times would come, until they were cut down by cruel deeds.
There are two sad sections in the book- the Holocaust and the Necrology of family members as described by the survivors. This is an unparalleled and unconditional duty. Charity towards a living human being can always be reciprocated. However, it cannot be done with those who are no longer alive, especially when it comes to a whole community. It has been thirty years since the terrible events and memories may have dimmed. It was necessary to concentrate and strain to collect details and descriptions and to sketch personalities in order not to forget.
There was a great deal of diverse material about normal life in the town. Unfortunately, much less remains of the period of the Holocaust- except for one authentic testimony and a description of the Concentration Camp in Transnistria. This is due to the fact that Romanian archives could not be easily researched. Some documents were lost in bombardments and others were deliberately destroyed by the Romanian Secret Service. Ironically, it is only in the German Archives that one can discover more information. The only authentic material can be found in the words of Dr. T. Lavi-Levinstein and in the Black Book by Matityahu Karp deposited in Yad Vashem. All other searches and inquiries in Yad Vashem proved fruitless except for the section In the Furor of the Shoah in this book. The representatives of the book met with Dr. T. Lavi-Levinstein in Yad Vashem and were guided by him as to what should be included. One must also pay special attention to the section 'From the Diary of a Wanderer'(written in Central Asia) brought to us by Rabbi Shimon Efrati. It is a detailed and profound document describing the Soviet occupation of Bendery.
This book is published with sincere thanks and emotion, a sense of responsibility and absolute knowledge that it is incomplete. Under normal circumstances the manuscript would have been properly rechecked. However, the sense of responsibility of the natives of Bendery propelled them not to delay any longer. They felt compelled to salvage what could be saved and they knew the importance of this project for them and for future generations. It is hoped that, another time, others will add and complete and perhaps find additional documentation. It is published thirty years after the Holocaust and is one of over four hundred such books- perhaps one of the last. Structurally, many destroyed communities may be similar, but there is always something in each book to differentiate it from the others. Its publication is thus justified. We believe that the community of Bendery for reasons previously mentioned- was a special one. Even if the book is published later than the others, it describes what was unique about Bendery. If not in its entirety, then at least in some sections, it not only emphasises and strengthens those who preceded us, but it also contributes information.
Pinhas Bendersky (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
A writer once said: our nation has a wonderful custom of visiting the graves of our dearly departed so that we may remember them and continue our traditions. This is referred to in Deuteronomy 32:7 as Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. That is why, perhaps, we are more inclined personally and publicly to have special memorial days, to write testimonials and to hold commemorative assemblies. After the Holocaust that befell our nation, our need to erect memorials to the now extinct communities intensified. We must preserve the values of previous generations lest we forget. We want to continue the connection between our ancestors and their spiritual and historic descendants. There must never be a break in the link. Truthfully, all the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe have disappeared and there are remnants of only a few of them. It is the sacred duty of the former residents of Bendery, Bessarabia, the few witnesses salvaged from the ashes, to build a permanent memorial to our town.
Bendery was a colourful and deeply-rooted community. It had both Yiddishkeit and assimilation. The atmosphere in our town at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century permeated our childhood and youth. It shaped our generation. Our life was full of longing for perfection and lofty ideals, belief in creativity and in the genius of mankind.
It is not easy after so many tempestuous years to relive that atmosphere and to include in it the images of our parents, teachers, brothers and sisters. I will do my utmost to recollect our town and our community. In addition to the geographic description I found in the encyclopaedia, I will give personal memoirs and experiences.
The history of Bendery begins in the sixteenth century- as I discovered in various documents. At first it was called Tighini in the District of Moldavia, Province of Bessarabia. The name Bendery originates in the Turkish language and means gate. It signifies the right bank of the Dniester River which springs in the Carpathian Mountains and flows into the Black Sea.
A fortress stood in the northern part of town. It was built in the fifteenth century by the Genovese people and was later conquered by the Moldavians. At the end of the sixteenth century the fortress was taken by the Turks. They extended the town in the seventeenth century, changed some structures and called it Ben Dura. In 1709 King Karl XII of Sweden visited Bendery. After the Battle of Poltava and the Russo-Turkish War the town again belonged to the Turks. It was conquered three times by the Russians and was finally annexed by them in 1812.
In 1818 Bendery became the capital of the district. The fortress was renovated in a superb manner.
Tsar Alexander I- known in history as Alexander the Good- was a liberal-minded person. He tried to bring to Bendery a large number of Jews because he felt they were the only ones who could develop the area. He also believed them to be good material for Russification. Thus he granted them rights, special preferences and many discounts. They did not have to pay taxes or serve in the army. It is clear that this was a drawing card for Jews from other parts of Russia, Wallachia and Romania.
The census of 1918, supervised by the Zamstva-pre October 1917 local government- showed that there were 32, 000 residents in Bendery, including nearby Borisovka and Giska. (As a young man I participated in the census with my then- girlfriend, Yeva Tiomkin.) There were 10, 600 Jews (about one third of the total) and the rest were Katzaps (descendants of the Ruriks from White Russia- the founders of Russia), Malorussians, Moluccas (Russian Orthodox sect in Tsarist Russia), Armenians, Moldovans and Germans.
In Bendery there were two elementary schools for boys and two for girls. Some schools were mixed (Jewish and Christian) and some were for Christian students only. There were also a municipal post-elementary school and a four-year technical school. The technical school prepared workers and clerks for the railroad company. They were all run by the government.
In addition, there were high schools for girls. One was run by the government while two were private (Mrs. Boyko's and Mrs. Grassimenko's). Later a high school for boys was opened. It was named after Tsar Alexander I. There was also a science high school.
The leading Jews, fervently committed to Zionism, wanted to give their children a Jewish Zionist education. In 1909 they invited to Bendery one of the top Jewish pedagogues of the era- Zvi Ben Yaakov Schwartzman. He was famous for his devotion to the Zionist cause and was given the task of opening a Hebrew four-year high school. It included secular studies in Russian. Thus, Jewish children did not have to attend secular schools. Those schools adhered to Numerus causus (limited number of Jews accepted). This experiment opened a new window for the younger generation and united it with the Zionist movement.
Schwartzman belonged to the left wing of the Zionist movement and he tried to instill in the youngsters the ideals of the labor movement. He always chose as assistants those teachers who thought like him.
Among the teachers I particularly remember is Yonah Yakovlevitch Gogol. He was one of the leaders of Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) within the Zionist movement in Russia. He reached Bendery as a soldier in the Podolian Regiment which camped in our town. While serving in the army he helped organize Poalei Zion in Bendery (in secret, of course). He was completely dedicated to the movement and he brought in many members. He left our town in 1910. During the 1917 Revolution he joined Ravotsky who was a member of the Ukrainian committee. It was headed by Skorepedsky who was an under-secretary for Jewish affairs in Ukraine. Gogol was imbued with idea of defence against the wave of disturbances and rioters. He managed to form a Jewish brigade from among the Jewish soldiers serving in the Russian army. His fervent wish was for self-defence. Even while he was teaching at the school he explained the idea of self-defence. He felt Jews must accept it as one of the ideals of Zionism.
Indeed Gogol and the brigade he formed succeeded in teaching a lesson to the gangs of Ukrainian rioters running wild in those days. Until members of the committee decided to eliminate him and this is how our beloved teacher's life ended.
In 1918, after Bessarabia was separated from Russia and annexed by Romania*, evening classes for students and young adults were officially sanctioned by the government. This was in addition to the high schools available in town. These classes were open to those who were unable to attend regular schools and were held in Russian. The curriculum was similar to that of the regular schools. The evening classes were administered by Nikolai Fyodorovitch Boldir. The teachers were academics and among them we should remember Maria Ivanovna Ivanova who taught history. Her students greatly enjoyed her classes. She was one of the Revolutionary Progressives and included overtones of actual politics in her lessons. She thus created great interest.
After they completed these evening classes, many of the students were accepted in Romanian universities and were able to obtain their degrees.
There were many heders for young children, followed by the teaching of Gmara. In town there were also two Talmud Torahs- elementary religious schools. The Jewish Talmud Torah was meant for the children of the poor who could not afford to pay tuition. They were taught Bible and some Gmara. The other- the Russian Talmud Torah included secular education in addition to prayers and Bible. The rest of the curriculum was the same as that of the government elementary schools and was under its supervision. Teachers had to be licensed by the government after attending a Teachers' College.
The philanthropist Velvel Rabinovitch donated these two schools to the Jewish community at the end of the nineteenth century.
The second Talmud Torah was administered by Yehoshua (son of Issar) Tiomkin. He was born in Lithuania and was a graduate of the Volozhin Yeshiva and the Russian government Teachers' College. He was also a dentist and practised for some years. Tiomkin was one of the first in town to be well-versed in Hebrew studies: Talmud, Bible and Religious subjects.
It was rare for people to speak Hebrew in those days. Although he was not fluent he was able to express himself, as we would today. His reputation preceded him and he was invited to Bendery by the government inspector and on recommendation by the intellectuals in town. Before he arrived in Bendery he worked closely with the late educator Avraham Avronin, the famous Hebrew linguist. Together they had opened a Hebrew high school in Priluki, Poltava. He was a devoted Jew, but he was quite involved in Russian culture in those days. He did not join the Zionist movement in spite of his fervent dream in later years to leave the Diaspora and to go to Eretz Israel. Unfortunately, for reasons out of his control, he could not achieve his dream and he died in Galatz. He was a proud Jew who never felt inferior to the non-Jews. He often quarrelled with the authorities or the inspectors. His home was conducted in the spirit of Russian culture, but there was much Jewish content.
On staff was Mr. Landris who taught Russian. He also came from Lithuania and had graduated from the government Teachers' College. Hebrew was taught by Mr. Lev- a great scholar. He left Bendery, moved to Odessa and was replaced by the late Noah Lifshitz- the first Hebrew teacher in town. Mr. Tiomkin's dedication produced many students who continued their studies in institutions of higher learning. He selected the most talented students and tutored them during vacations. He did this because he was devoted to them and not for commendation. He also interceded on their behalf with the authorities. He worked hard to get them into these institutions. In those days teachers were true idealists.
The Jewish community became the guardians of this Talmud Torah. These were the intellectuals as well as the Russificators who believed in assimilation. One person who stands out was the pharmacist Vineshneker. These people leaned towards the Russian language and its influence, but Tiomkin opposed this radicalism. He would not allow the removal of the Jewish spirit from the school. Another was Yitzhak Nissenboim who was well-known for his kindness. He donated funds for a Jewish hospital for the poor. He also sponsored a department in the Talmud Torah to teach Jewish children a trade. He introduced machinery and tools in the school. Special teachers were hired. It was the first step in the formation of a trade school for Jewish children in Bendery.
There were twelve synagogues in our town. Five of them were small (Kloiz), the Sadigura, Talne, New, the Butchers' and that of the town Rabbi. There were also those of Rabbi Yosef Shaposnick, of the grocers and the tailors and the shoemakers. There also existed shtieblach (tiny synagogues) that had a nice atmosphere. One was run by Leyzer-Yonah Prakansky and served the Jews who lived near the auditorium and the prison. Another was housed in the Jewish Talmud Torah.
- son of Isser- Tiomkin with teachers and students 1923
The minyans at Mincha and Maariv were full of congregants. They came to pray, but also to study a page of Gmara or a chapter of Mishna. Jews would shut their stores or would otherwise free themselves for several hours in order to learn Torah. They would do so between Mincha and Maariv or after Maariv. They sat around a long table by candlelight and studied together or argued vigorously many Halachic issues. Each person wanted to prove his point and his depth of knowledge.
I well remember the Talne small synagogue at dusk. The leader was Haim, the son of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak, the son of Itele the Rebbetzin. He was the grandson of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak from Berdichev. He was a gifted scholar and it was said of him that he had completed the study of the Mishna three times. If he would have stayed away from the bottle he could have become a famous genius. He was the final authority on all matters and was closely followed by the beadle, Rabbi Yosef. He knew every page and could easily find any page and any required verse.
On the eves of the new month or the blessing of the moon, after studying a chapter of Mishna, they would sit down to eat herring and drink liquor accompanied by dancing and the singing of lively Hassidic tunes.
*Bessarabia was conquered by the Romanian army in January-March 1918. From Jewish Bessarabia by David Vinitsky, Part A, page 35. Return
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