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Translation of Cetatea Alba chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Romania
Translation of Cetatea Alba chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem, 1980
Published in Jerusalem, 1980
This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Romania, Volume II,
pages 389-393, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1980
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
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Translated by Ala Gamulka
Town in Ismail District (now Ukraine) on the banks of the Liman, where the Dniester flows into the Black Sea, about 30 km from Odessa.
In early days the town was called Tyrars while in the Byzantine era it was named Asprokastron (white Cetatea Alba). The Barbarians referred to it as Maurocastron (Black citadel). In the 14th century the merchants from Geneva called it Maurocastron. The Turks gave it the name of Akkerman, while the Romanians renamed it Cetatea Alba. The Germans Weissenburg or Weissburg. The Soviet Union called it Belgorod Dnestrovskiy. Jewish sources refer to it as Weissenburg or Weisstadt. In Hebrew it was called white city or just white.
Beginning of the Jewish Community
Akkerman is an ancient city that underwent many wars and struggles. It was ruled, at different times, by Mongols, Romanians, Germans, Tatars, Turks and Russians.
There are differing opinions about the beginning of the Jewish community. Even in the first century an emissary of The Christian church, Andres (a Jew) writes that during his visit to the Black Sea area he found Jews and Greeks in Tyrars. According to other sources there were Jews there during the Tatar reign in 1330. It is assumed they were of Khazari origin. Many Jews accompanied the Genovese who built the citadel in 1280-1450. It stands to this day. The testimony of the monk Gregori Camblac in the 15th century, as well as historical documents, tells us that there was a respectable Jewish population at that time. The Jewish doctor of the King Persia, Yitzhak Bag, visited the area and confirmed the existence of the Jewish community. From 1457 on, during the reign of the Moldovan prince Stefan the Great, many Jewish immigrants came from Byzantium. This was especially true after the exile from Spain. Cetatea Alba served as an important station for Jews who tried to reach Samson in Northern Asia Minor, going on the Black Sea. They were on their way to Eretz Israel. A Karaite community existed in Cetatea Alba because it was close to the Crimea where there were many Karaites. A Torah scroll from the 16th century found in town (it was later moved to Constantinople) has the following inscription: In the assembly of the land of Karman in a community of Karaites. This is proof of the existence of the Karaites. At that time Rabbi Caleb Afurdupula (died in 1509) an important Karaite scholar lived in town. He was a brother-in-law and a disciple of Rabbi Eliahu Basheitzi, another important Karaite scholar. Further proof is the headstone from 1527 on which is etched a eulogy in Hebrew. According to other sources the Jewish settlement continued in Cetatea Alba in the 16th and 17th centuries. Commerce was the reason for this growth. The old synagogue had 3 Torah scrolls from the 17th century. There was also an ancient record book from 1807.
Economy and Occupations
As in all urban centers in Bessarabia, most Jews in Cetatea Alba were small merchants. Others were craftsmen, blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, tailors, hat makers and furriers. This was an agricultural area rich in excellent wines and fish. Thus commerce was concentrated in these fields. Hundreds of families made their living in this way. Near Cetatea Alba there were resorts and convalescent facilities where people rented apartments or rooms in pensions.
The Jewish Colonization Association lent money to merchants and especially to craftsmen. It formed a cooperative to buy raw materials, tools and to sell products. In spite of the fact that economic situation in Cetatea Alba was better than in other places, there were many people who were forced to immigrate to the United States (after the 1905 pogrom). Others went to Argentina with the assistance of the Jewish Colonization Association of the Baron de Hirsch. There they settled in Primido de Maya nicknamed the Akkerman settlement.
When the Romanians conquered Cetatea Alba there were no more commercial ties with Russia. It was no longer a crossroads place and the number of Jews decreased. In 1936 Cetatea Alba suffered from drought and hunger and the community needed outside help.
Internal Organizations of the Community
Public Jewish life in Cetatea Alba during Tsarist times weas full of philanthropy, but it was dynamic and on par with other communities in Bessarabia. The institutions were managed by a group of leaders. There were two societies in Cetatea Alba. The Society to Enable Education and the Society to Help Poor Jews were active in economic aid to those needy of food, clothes and even money. It was a special community framework. These were unelected leaders.
In 1882 the Old Jewish Hospital was opened in two rooms in a private home in a rickety building. It contained 20 beds and served the poor Jews. In 1890 the philanthropic society Supporters of the Fallen was organized. In 1896 the Society of Benevolent Charities was founded. Jews from outside Cetatea Alba benefited from it as well. The Ezra Society of Berlin as well as expatriates in the United States sent funds to help those who suffered in the Bris fire and in the pogrom.
A cooperative Savings and Loan Bank resulted from an assistance fund. It helped merchants and craftsmen.
The main changes in public life occurred after the 1917 revolution and later under the Romanians. The Zionist influence brought about an election of an executive committee with proper representation from all strata of the Jewish population in town.
When a new executive committee was to be elected in 1935 there were five lists: craftsmen (with some scholars added) they won!, synagogue worshippers, a democratic group and merchants. The last executive committee elected in 1939 consisted of representatives from all sections. At the opening meeting of this committee the topic of discussion was the worsening situation of the Jewish population.
The Jewish community looked after all social, economic and cultural needs of its members. The new hospital opened in the 1920s with 60 beds. It was funded by expatriates in New York and served Jews and non-Jews. There was also a burial society (founded in 1807), an old people's home, a fund to help the poor, etc. Most of the institutions were directly managed by the community and some were even funded by it. The community also organized help for refugees from Ukraine in 1919-1922 and victims of hunger in 1925-1936. A soup kitchen was also set up and it served hot meals to the needy. Matzos were also centrally baked. In addition there were women's auxiliaries.
In Cetatea Alba there was also Ort and Uza that had begun to function before World War I. Ort provided classes for craftsmen. Uza's work was more extensive. There were also clinics for babies and for pregnant women. Free medications were distributed to the poor as well as fish oil given to children. Experienced doctors were available.
There were four synagogues in Cetatea Alba and two houses of study. One was opened in 1815 and had the 17th century Torah scrolls. The second was begun in 1828 and became the Great synagogue.
In 1847 the burial society opened the Old synagogue. In 1903 the tailors' synagogue, also known as the craftsmen synagogue, was founded. In 1940 the authorities confiscated the building and turned it into a government archive. The four synagogues were destroyed in the Holocaust. When the remnants returned one of the synagogues was rehabilitated and one Torah scroll was brought back. One of the residents, a blacksmith, had taken it with him when he left town. He guarded it during his wanderings to Kazakhstan and back.
There are remnants that prove the existence of Jewish cemetery in town in the 16th century (a headstone with Hebrew writing was found during excavations). The ancient cemetery became a private vineyard. Later on the new Akkerman section was built there. A marble stone was placed on the communal grave of the eight victims of the 1905 pogrom. Next to it a small headstone was erected to designate that the Torah scrolls desecrated in the pogrom were buried there.
During the Holocaust the Nazis and their local collaborators broke all the headstones and destroyed the cemetery. Thousands of graves were desecrated and ruined. Only one headstone remained whole that of Rabbi Moshe-Feivel.
As in the rest of Bessarabia the traditional Heders continued to exist in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In 1882 the Talmud Torah was founded mainly to serve poor children. After several years the school improved considerably when supervision of curriculum was handled by Zionist public figures. The Hebrew language was taught and a Zionist atmosphere prevailed. In 1913 a building was erected for the Talmud Torah. Only after the 1917 revolution did the supervision of the Talmud Torah go to the Cultural League which was anti-Zionist. This caused a change in the educational atmosphere of the school.
There were two attempts to establish yeshivas. One lasted for two years, but due to lack of proper teachers and insufficient funds it had to close down. Students who wished to continue their religious studies in a higher institution were forced to go to Kishinev and Odessa. There was a desire for secular education and with the help of the Society for the Propagation of Learning in Peterburg a school for girls was opened. It had five classes and its principal was Bertha Coffman. It was a sort of middle school. The language of instruction was Russian and the general atmosphere was secular Russian. The teachers were Jewish, some even from nationalistic circles. The graduates were accepted in high school at the 3rd or 4th level. The establishment of this school at the beginning of the century came as a result of the discrimination against Jewish girls in government or municipal schools. Up to then 50% of the student body were Jewish girls. Anti-Semitic groups of the Black Century were lobbying for more discrimination. In 1909 the municipal Duma decided to only allow 10% of the Jewish girls to enter a general high school. The authorities appealed this decision, but the Duma also appealed and won. The same discrimination applied to boys entering high school. The principal forbade the Jewish students from participating in school celebrations. It is interesting to note that it was the non-Jewish students who protested against this prohibition.
Most of the attempts by the Jewish youths to obtain an education hit snags set up by local anti-Semites. In 1917 Tarbut opened a Hebrew kindergarten. The response to this event was so great that a second kindergarten was opened.
In 1918, after the Romanian conquest, a Tarbut school was established and it became the basis for a Hebrew high school with eight classes. The school was attacked heavily and the Romanian educational authorities put stumbling blocks in the way. They did not want the school to succeed. In addition, the Jewish population was indifferent. At first, many continued to send their children to Russian schools. They were still open in the first few years after the Romanian conquest. Later, they sent their children to Romanian public schools. Still, the Hebrew high school held an important place in the life of the community as an educational and cultural center. Many of the graduates were pioneers and founded the agricultural settlements in Eretz Israel.
The first Yiddish library in town was founded in 1917 by Tarbut. The library was a center for public activities and a meeting place for Zionists and members of Tarbut and Hechalutz. There was also a Hebrew-speaking club.
In 1918 the Yiddish Culture Club opened a Yiddish library and a club called the Cellar.
The beginning of the Zionist movement in Cetatea Alba occurred during the times of Hibat Zion (Love of Zion). As in the rest of Russia, the movement had few resources due to the prohibition against Zionist activities. The local authorities enforced the regulations zealously.
Publications in Russian and Hebrew came to Cetatea Alba and caused a great deal of interest. The actual Zionist activities began with the collection of funds for Eretz Israel, the selling of shekels and Jewish National Fund stamps. In 1910 several Zionist leaders, headed by Mendel Komorovsky, were exiled to Kherson for two years for selling the stamps.
Cetatea Alba had the honor of sending Meir Startz as a delegate to the Second World Congress and two representatives (G. Zilberman and M. Startz) to the Minsk conference. The Zionist slate received 64% of the votes for delegates to the all-Russia Jewish conference.
After the 1917 revolution the Zionist movement was openly active. The Zionists carried a blue and white flag at every general public demonstration. Often, there would be assemblies with Zionism, lectures and discussions.
At the first Zionist conference in Bessarabia held in Kishinev in 1920 there were eight representatives from Cetatea Alba. The Tarbut Hebrew high school helped to strengthen Zionism as its students were active in Zionist youth movements.
In 1924 the Zeirei Zion movement was founded. It encouraged the establishment of other youth movements such as Gordonia and Hashomer Hatzair. This was followed in the 1930s by the establishment of a craftsmen group dedicated to Aliyah (Haoved). This group held its conventions in the settlements of southern Bessarabia. Beitar was also active in town. Hechalutz attempted to establish a Hahshara farm for pioneer training in the area. It did not last long. The pioneers of Cetatea Alba prepared themselves on the farm for all Bessarabia- Masada, near Balti. Many of them made Aliyah. The first group from Cetatea Alba went to Eretz Israel in 1920. There were also active Maccabi (from 1918), WIZO, Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod groups.
Relations with Neighbors and Anti-Semitism
The Jews of Cetatea Alba were well integrated in their town and in the population of the area. There were many different peoples there. Since it was close to Odessa the Jewish community was also influenced by Russification. There was a trend to secularism and some Jewish stores remained open on Shabbat and Holidays. It seemed that neighborly relations were good. Still, in 1865, when there were no infectious general riots, there was still a pogrom in town. This were localized anti-Semitic disturbances.
In 1905, in the spirit of the times, Cetatea Alba became the center for the leaders of the Union of Russian People (or Black Hundred). It was headed by an infamous anti-Semite - Porishkautz. He was their representative in the Russian Duma and was helped by Dr. Kostiurin, Dr. Glaidiukov, K. Popov and several priests. The Union opened a special saloon as a meeting place for anti-Semitic inciters and thugs. Cetatea Alba was intended to serve as an example for organized anti-Semitism and pogroms in the area.
The 1905 pogrom erupted in the wake of other pogroms all over Russia after the October 17 constitution announcement. Cetatea Alba's turn came a little later. The pogrom began on October 20 and lasted three days (October 20-22). The anti-Semitic group, led by Kosta Popov and Dafkovitz, brought to town gangs of peasants from surrounding villages. They were joined by hooligans from Cetatea Alba itself and even by some teachers and intellectuals. They marched on the streets in a patriotic demonstration carrying holy pictures and a picture of the Tsar screaming constantly: Beat up the Jews and save Russia. At the end of the demonstration the hooligans dispersed in the streets. For the next three days they rioted, robbed and set on fires hundreds of Jewish stores and homes. There were eight dead and many injured.
Good self-defence prevented the results of the pogrom from being even worse. The organized self-defence was influenced by the failure of the nearby Kishinev pogrom in 1903. Additional impetus came from the visits of Ber Borochov and Hannah Meizel who were Poalei Zion emissaries. The self-defence worked along the rules of a good underground movement: arms, arms training, equipment, immediate response, rescue efforts and help for the injured.
A commission of inquiry, headed by Leo Motzkin, was formed. The writer Avraham Ludipol came to Cetatea Alba as a member of the commission. He spent two weeks in town and gathered information about the pogrom and its victims and on Jewish property lost or destroyed. The Ezra group from Berlin and expatriates in the United States sent help for the victims of the pogrom. A common memorial stone was erected in the Jewish cemetery, between the eight graves. Desecrated Torah scrolls were buried nearby.
Even after the 1905 pogrom, the anti-Semitic gang continued its incessant incitement and created tension in town and in the surrounding area. It was also felt in the villages nearby from where unwanted Jews were expelled.
The German-speaking residents contributed to the poisonous atmosphere. They always had a good attitude towards the Jews, but they were swept in the anti-Semitic wave. Attacks increased, but the self-defence also became stronger. The youths always reacted to every incident.
Times of War and the Holocaust
On the eve of the Holocaust there were about 5000 Jews in Cetatea Alba. This includes tens of Romanian families who had returned to their birthplace from Galati, Iasi and Bucharest after Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union. About 4500 suffered greatly. There were bombings, hunger, disease, etc. Prior to the physical destruction of the Cetatea Alba Jewish community there was a phase of public and spiritual ruin.
In July 1940, during the Soviet rule, all the Jewish institutions in Cetatea Alba were closed and dismantled. These were charitable, educational, cultural, economic institutions and sport and youth clubs. Only houses of worship and cemeteries remained. A few months later the beautiful synagogue (craftsmen) was confiscated and turned into a government archive building. This is how the unraveling of the Jewish community began. First there were waves of surprise arrests of tens of Jews. Many of them were wealthy and quite respectable. They totally disappeared after their arrests. Soon Chapter 39 was published. With it, all previously wealthy merchants and property owners were banished to area villages. On 13.6.1941, in the dead of the night, hundreds of people were sent to Siberia. Very few survived and not one was able to return to his town.
On 22.6.1941 the war erupted and many young Jews were drafted into the Red Army, mainly to labor troops. Tens of them fell in battle or in other circumstances while in service. The majority did survive. When the Red Army retreated hastily the Jews of Cetatea Alba assessed the situation and left town in droves. They mainly went to nearby Odessa. It was the only opportunity they saw.
It is estimated that only 500 people remained in Cetatea Alba. Among them were the sick and the elderly who could not travel with their kinfolk. However, the majority of those who remained were the ultra-Orthodox who believed the Romanians would not harm observant people because they opposed Communism. Another small group of Jews with passports who had previously been banished returned to Cetatea Alba and preferred to stay there. Their properties had been confiscated and they felt they would not be hurt because they had been victims of the Soviets. It was a bitter mistake.
Even before the last Red Army soldiers left town, the neighbors from Papusov and Tur-Lak streamed in with their wagons. They broke into Jewish homes and took whatever they saw. The last Jews to escape related that the gangs of robbers and local riffraff slaughtered the Jews who remained.
In northern Bessarabia the Jews were locked in ghettos and exiled to Transnistria, but in Cetatea Alba the conquerors were unstoppable. In the first days and weeks after the conquest they murdered all the Jews in town men, women and children. The murders occurred at the end of August and September 1941. It is estimated that the number of Jews in Cetatea Alba killed by the Germans was 600-800. In addition to the 500 who remained there were others in neighboring villages.
All the Jews were brought to the craftsmen synagogue. The door and windows were locked for three days and no food or water was provided. They were then taken to Saba Road on the banks of the Liman, to a resort known as Bar Nitka. They were all shot with machine guns. The local residents knew to point out a big common grave. The chief organizer of this slaughter of the Jews of Cetatea Alba was Captain Ochisor. He was a Romanian officer who had lived there for a few years and was also its military governor. He planned the slaughter and showed extreme sadism. He himself murdered Jews when his soldiers could not do it. Among his helpers were Commissar Teodorescu, Panka Stomatopulo and other Christians who were experts in finding hidden Jews.
As previously stated, about 4000 Jews left Cetatea Alba. They all somehow arrived in Odessa. It was then under Soviet rule. They hoped to stay there until conditions improved and they could return home. It was a useless dream. Here, too, evacuations began. The German-Romanian army advanced quickly. It reached Odessa at the end of August 1941 and began a siege. Many residents of Cetatea Alba were killed in the bombing of Odessa during the siege. The refugees could only leave Odessa by sea and even that presented difficulties since refugees became a major problem for authorities. It is estimated that about 800-1000 residents of Cetatea Alba were able to leave Odessa. They wandered for many weeks over thousands of kilometres in the vast areas of the Asian Republics of the Soviet Union. Food supplies were scant and sanitary facilities were unbearable.
Several refugee trains and two ships were bombed by the Germans on the way. Among the dead were residents of Cetatea Alba. The refugees were dispersed and sent to new settlements in Uzbekistan: Kirgizia, Bashkiria, Battadzshikistan, Baraganda, Kra-Kalafak, etc. The refugees led a harsh life in these new settlements. The climate was difficult, the surroundings were strange and the locals were Mongolian Moslems. Many refugees did not survive.
About 3000-3200 residents of Cetatea Alba remained in Odessa. On 12.10.1941 the city was conquered by the German-Romanian army. From that day on the Jews of Odessa were menaced and terrorized. There was a special registration, restrictions, arrests, mass killings and finally exile to death camps.
Many Jews from Cetatea Alba, especially the intellectuals, were imprisoned in Odessa under inhumane conditions. They died there. The Jews of Odessa, including some from Cetatea Alba, were placed in ghettos under terrible conditions. Tens of thousands, including those from Cetatea Alba, died there of hunger, cold and Typhus. Eleven doctors from Cetatea Alba died while helping others. On 17.9.1941 thousands of Jews were hung on electrical and telephone poles, trees and balconies. Many were young men and women. Several hundred came from Cetatea Alba. Many Odessa Jews had obeyed the call of the authorities that all those Bessarabians who were in town and wanted to return home were to present themselves with their belongings so they could be repatriated. They met at Dalnik near Odessa and were imprisoned in large, empty warehouses. Gasoline was poured everywhere and matches were lit. All the Jews were burned alive. The warehouses burned for three days.
Those Cetatea Alba Jews who survived were exiled with Odessa Jews to Transnistria. We know of two Cetatea Alba Jews who managed to escape from Transnistria, but they died on the Struma.
Only about 50 people from Cetatea Alba who were in Odessa survived. Most of them made Aliyah.
There were 5000 Jews in Cetatea Alba before the Holocaust and only 500 survived. After the war, 250 came back to Cetatea Alba. Another 250 resettled in other communities in Russia. Some went to Cernauti.
About 500 people died in battle, on the road, in the Red Army, in concentration camps and Soviet prisons.
The 500 who remained in Cetatea Alba were slaughtered there.
3500 were killed in Odessa and Transnistria.
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