Two years after the Annexation, when the public got used to the conditions under the new regime, the Zionists of Kishinev organized the First Congress on 1620 of Iyar (48 May 1920).
The Congress opened in a festive atmosphere in the Blagorodniya Sobranye, an elegant hall and was attended by 110 delegates: 53 Zionist, 46 Tzeirei Zion, 3 Mizrachi, 8 various Zionists and many guest among them the Chief Rabbi of Bessarabia, the Great Rabbi YehudahLeib Tzirelson (Agudat Israel), Rabbi Moshe Hinshfarb (Zionist Federation of Romania), Advocate Moshe Shechter, representing the Moldova Zionism, the erudite activist Mr. Moshe I. Dof from Jassy and many representatives of the local government.
|Illustration No. 3: The Program of the First Zionist Congress in Bessarabia, Kishinev, May 5680 (1920)|
and the Maccabi group under the leadership of Itzchak Rifsman left a great impression on the audience when they stepped on the podium and placed the National flag.
Tuesday Evening session
Saturday (Shabat, Parashat Emor), May 8 at 4:00 P.M. sharp.
The following people were elected to the leadership of the Congress: Advocate M. Shechter (Mishar), Honorary Chairman, Dr. Yakov BernsteinCohen, Chairman, Engineer Mordechai (Mark) A. Gottlieb and Moshe Postan vice chairmen, David Wertheim, Israel Blank, Eliyahu Meitus and Itzchak Shwartz, secretaries.
The agenda is proof to the fundamental issues discussed at the Congress. From the start there were stormy ideological discussions between the representatives of the General Zionists and Tzeirei Tzion regarding the construction and the development of Eretz Israel (public vs. private initiatives), the form of the settlements, the Keren Kayemet policies and the organization of the Zionist Federation in Bessarabia.
Asher Zelig Shochetman (ElIgon) from the Tzeirei Zion declared in his opening remarks that Israel will not be built only by declaration and political acts, but by Jewish organized labour. Moshe Idelman and Benyamin Gichenko declared that it's necessary to organize public capital and encourage the youth to join the Halutzim (Pioneers) and not to depend only on the private capital and initiatives. David Wertheim, Yuli (Yehudah) Rabinovich and Abraham Chacham were concerned that the workers will be exploited by the employers and suggested that the private enterprise should contribute a percentage for the benefit of the workers.
Engineer Mordechai A. Gottleib in his lecture on the Agricultural politics in Eretz Israel and the Keren Kayemet rebuffed that and declared that they will fight with all their might against the workers takeover of Eretz Israel
BenZion Beltzen suggested setting up a separate settlement for the Bessarabia immigrants in order to encourage the Jews of Bessarabia to increase their contributions to the Keren Kayemet.
Moshe Postman opposed the idea of Dr. BernsteinCohen that the Zionist Federation in Bessarabia has to be organized on the basis of all the existing factions. He claimed that no other country in the world has only one party that can represent the interests of everyone. His slogan was First we should separate in order to unite. He suggested to create a federation to cooperate on the issues regarding the building of Eretz Israel, because the Zionist Federation does not and cannot deal with all the social and political issues in the country.
Dr. BernsteinCohen tried to persuade the members of Tzeirei Zion not to separate, because the General Zionists are not able to exist without the youth force that
is the most active in the Zionist movement in the cities.
At the end of the Congress all the parties decided to work together for Eretz Israel and to retain their individual freedom regarding all other political and social issues. The General Zionists and the Tzeirei Zion pledged not to established coalitions with other parties, especially with the ones that were against the Zionist ideas.
It was decided to organize the local councils on an equality basis. Engineer Mordechai (Mark) Ilitch Gottlieb was elected chairman of Keren Kayemet l'Israel.
During the Congress the delegates heard that Zeev Jabotinsky was sentenced by a military tribunal to a prison term of 15 years and other 19 people were sentenced to 3 years each because they participated in the Jerusalem Jewish Self Defence group during the riots of NabiMussa holiday. The Congress decided to protest this decision at the Government in London.
It was also decided to: 1) Open secret registration for a Bessarabia brigade of the Jewish Legion, and 2) Ask the board in London to facilitate the establishment of the Jewish Legion in order to defend the Yishuv (the Jewish population).
These decisions were sent to a special council for further discussions that will lead to their implementations.
The First Congress of the Bessarabia Zionists had a great resonance among the Jewish public and to the national defence of the Kishinev Jews. It established the foundation for the creation of the Zionist Federation and all its factions and encouraged all organizations to implement the nationalcultural aspiration and to work towards the construction of Eretz Israel. The Zionist movement took an important step away from groups with divergent social and political ideas and marched forward to its progress.
The important events at the beginning of the Romanian regime facilitated the unification of the Jewish community and its consolidation as a national minority and the
foundation of the national movement with its spiritual cultural aspect.
Barely has the Jewish community of Bessarabia recovered from the annexation to Romania in 1918 that many problems requiring immediate solution appeared on its agenda. The Jewish population came out of the lengthy war and the transition period to the Romanian rule impoverished and broken. The expulsion of the Jews of Bucovina from the Austrian front area at the beginning of the war, the loss of lives during the war, the savagery of the retreating Russian armies when the Romanian front collapsed after the October Revolution, the annexation to Romania and the suffering imposed by its regime, the loss of money due to the collapse of the Russian currency all these caused deep wounds in the Jewish population souls. The economic crisis destroyed human lives and the many aid and support institutions had to limit their activities and even fold. The separation from Russia also meant that organizations such as OPE (Society of the Dissemination of Culture) and EKO (Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers) ceased to exist.
The American Jewish organization The Joint that was established during the war to help the Jews of Eastern Europe was forced to came to assist the Jews in this area. The leaders of Poalei Zion in America sent Baruch Zukerman, the first Joint envoy, to Bessarabia in May 1919. Due to his influence as representative of this big American organization, he succeeded to get a permit to mobilize the former members, elected in 1918, in order to repair the public organizations and restart their activities.
A central committee lead by Dr. BernsteinCohen was established with half of the membership from the Zionists and half from other non political groups. The committee approved at the all Bessarabia meeting on December 12, 1919 the election of a representative and a stand by representative from each district.
The Joint representatives and the local committees had passionate discussions about the distribution of the funds for education and at the end Zukerman decided to allocate 2/3 of the budget for education. The managers who came after him refused to implement this decision and opted to give individual help to the needy. In fact, this decision only deepened the dependence of the individuals on handouts. Only after many interventions, Zukerman's decision got implemented and from the 300 thousand Lei budget for Kishinev 100 thousands were allocated for institutions and 100 thousands for food, clothing and shoes for the students.
The author does not want to go unto more details about the Joint activities. This is all detailed in special publications. The author wants to underline the great work of the Zionist representatives and especially the contribution of the Chairman, Dr. BernsteinCohen in Kishinev and the province. They were the first to volunteer and they were the backbone of the humanitarian work. The Committee functioned for two years (September 1919 to August 1921), after that the Joint employed special representatives without any connection to the local public committee. After that the local committee participated
in the relief work for the Ukrainian refugees.
During the two years of the Central American Distribution Committee, the Joint gave 7,742,140 Lei and 252,882 Lei were raised locally, a total of 7,995,052 Lei that was allocated as follows: Kishinev district 2,985,865 Lei, Soroca district 922,270 Lei, Khotin district 822,486 Lei, Orgheiev district 725,290 Lei, Beltz district 719,438 Lei, Bender district 420,367 Lei, Ismail district 203,830 Lei, Kahul district 176,591 Lei to a total of 7,540,669 Lei (1,100,000 Lei where allocated to help the Ukrainian refugees). Allocation for the operational expenses was set at 454,383 Lei. Total 7,995,052 Lei.
The civil war that followed the October Revolution became a war between bands of criminals and robbers, who turned their rage and brutality against the Jewish population of Ukraine. The riots spread destruction and ruin and thousands of Jews were massacred. The brutality shook the world public opinion and it became known as the greatest massacre in Ukraine. Thousands refugees started to flock to the Dniester frontier with the hope that they will be saved by crossing the river, into Bessarabia, which was recently annexed by Romania.
When epidemics broke up because of the famine and the crowded conditions, the suffering grew even more and the cries for help became louder.
The Jewish community of Bessarabia was shocked by the dire situation of their brothers across the river and immediately offered to help. In October 1919 an official Committee for Refugee Relief was set up in Kishinev (The Minister for Bessarabia Affairs, Pan Halifa gave the permission to Rabbi Tzirelson). The Committe members were Rabbi Tzirelson, Dr. BernsteinCohen, Chairman and Advocate Kenigshatz.
The Committee was set up to raise funds for the victims of the riots in Ukraine.
All across Romania emergency fundraising were organized and more than a million and a half Lei were collected, together with lots of clothing. Unfortunately they were not allowed to transfer the goods across the border. The committee sent a personal request to the King of Romania when he visited Kishinev on May 20, 1920, but the request was not granted. Romania, not very secure about its future in Bessarabia, was worried about any conflicts with the new regime and about infiltrations by the Bolsheviks from across the river. In January 1920, the manager of the Joint in Bessarabia, put his life in danger and assisted by Officer James Baker, who received permission to travel to the Ukraine, transferred half a million Lei to the KamenetsPodolsk community. This money was received from Scotland for the victims of the war in Bessarabia, but the community decided to give it to their brothers in Ukraine. In the second half of 1920, the activists from Kishinev Ben Zion Belzen and Asher Zelig Shochetman (Eligur) transferred a large sum of money to the MoghilevPodolsk community, but the majority of the funds were saved in Bessarabia until the refugees made their way across the border in the summer of 1920. Then, the fundraising increased in Bessarabia and around the world. In AugustOctober 1920, the Joint allocated 1,100,000 Lei from the money dedicated to the war victims in Bessarabia to help the refugees. Around the 5681 (1921) Pessah holiday a special tax was imposed on the sale of Matzot and the money was used to distribute free Matzot and other food items to more than 15,000 refugees. In Kishinev this tax raised about 359 thousand Lei.
The towns at the Dniester border also took care of the refugees and provided legal help. In order for the refugees to reside in the town or villages of Bessarabia and not be arrested by the police, it was necessary to arrange for them identity cards. This campaign was called Bletleh leaves because of the special shape of the documents). Community activists visited many towns, especially Bricheva and Edinetz where it was possible to buy these special goods.
Second Row Middle from right to left: 12. Unknown, 3. D. Shwartzman, Vice Chairperson, 4. Helena Babitch, Chairperson, 5. F. Lipson, treasurer.
Upper row, standing: 1.Unkown, 2. M. Roitman, 3. H. Goldshtok, 45. Unknown.
|Photograph no. 5:The Kishinev Ukraine Committee: Matzot distribution to the refugee near the Dniester River, Bender, Spring 5681 (1921)|
From left to right: 12. Unknown, 3. Shlomo Hilleles, 4. Unknown, 5. Solomon Fisher, 6. Dr. J. BernsteinCohen, 7. Helena Babitch, 8. Tzvi Shechetman, 912 Unknown, 13. A border guard
After a few days the community activists returned carrying these Bletleh, the identity cards, with the name and the photo of each person. This way the refugees were sent away and the place was prepared for the next group.
The Jews of Bessarabia and especially the ones from the Northern region (Khotin, Beltz, Soroca) and from the centre (Orgheiev, Bender, Kishinev) dedicate a lot of work helping the refugees from the Ukraine. There were still occasions when refugees were killed, drowned or robbed by the locals and the soldiers. The people who helped the refugees cross into Bessarabia worked in very difficult conditions because they had to deal with the nonJewish locals in the villages and on the other hand they had to deal with the Romanian border guards. One officer named Morarescu, who, even though he gained millions from the refugee business at the border area near Vertugeni and Ataki, did not hesitate to order the massacre of a big group of refugees.
A City Committee was elected in Kishinev in December 1920, lead by Senator I. Sanilevich, to take care of the increasing refugee problem. They also set up a Women Central Committee lead by Helena Ab. Babitch, Deborah Schwartzman, vice chairperson and Mrs. Lipson, Treasurer. The following Zionists were among the most active in the refugee relief operation: Leib Alexandrovsky, BenZion Beltzen, Shlomo Berliand, Advocate Michael Landau, Rabbi Zeev Rozenfeld, Tzvi Shechter, BenZion Flanderer and others.
When the situation of the refugees concentrated at the Dniester border worsened at the beginning of January 1920, Dr. BernsteinCohen went to Paris and London to raise public awareness of the world Jewry and to call for practical action to reduce the plight of the Ukraine Jews. Even the British and the Polish consuls in Bucharest
were asked to intervene in favour of finding a solution to the refugees.
These efforts turned no practical results and the refugees ignoring all the dangers crossed the border. Again, it was necessary to find a solution for the refugees to remain in Romania together with all the native Bessarabians who were considered return citizen. Dr. BernsteinCohen went to work again. He was considered a revolutionary and an opponent to the annexation of Bessarabia to Romania, but he took advantage that Marshal Averescu came to power in the spring of 1920 and met with him as part of a delegation lead by the Vice Chairman of the Senate, Nicolae Alexandri from Kishinev and an American visitor who knew Averescu personally. As a result of this meeting, Averescu allowed the refugees to remain in Romania until the massacres and robberies will end or until they can be relocated with families abroad. Averescu knew that BernsteinCohen has many connections abroad and he wanted him to facilitate his attendance at the Second Zionist Congress in London, where he could gather support for his government. He even told that to BernsteinCohen.
At the end of the summer the number of refugees increased and so were the efforts of the military regime in Bessarabia to catch the refugees when they crossed the border or the ones who made it to the border towns and bring them peacefully to stand trial. Many time the army staged raids in order to arrest the refugees and detain them in refugee camps in Romania. The raid that took place during Yom Kippur 5673 (1923) in Kishinev became well remembered. Rabbi Tzirelson had to desecrate the holyday and come to assist the refugees. He met with General Popovici, the military Governor and as a result the refugees were released.
In general the Romanian authorities were open to the requests of the Jewish community regarding the refugees. The local Bessarabia government and the central government of Prime Minister, Marshal Averescu and his Interior Minister were sympathetic to Rabbi Tzirelson's requests and legalized the Relief Committee and permitted the opening of local branches to assist the refugees.
Legal aid was one of the most important aspects of the relief work. Leib Alexandovsky from Mizrachi, a ritual slaughterer and examiner and Advocate Michael Landau from Tzeirei Zion worked as legal advisors to the refugees.
Many more activists dedicate their time to help the refugees:
One of the consequences of Dr. BernsteinCohen's visit to Eretz Israel was to allocate funds from the Joint for practical activities. With the intervention of L. Motzkin to the general manager of the Joint in Paris and of Dr. Goldman, he secured a $200,000 loan for the development of cooperatives in Romania. Half of this money (8 million Liras) was channeled to the Cooperatives Association in Bessarabia.
The Jewish community of Bessarabia consisted of more than 200,000 people who were mostly small farmers, small shop owners, craftsmen and small merchants. They became impoverished and their sources of revenue decreased when Bessarabia separated from Russia.
The small farms did not bring enough revenue for the workers and the droughts that plagued Bessarabia every three or four years made the situation worse.
Most of the people wished to go to Eretz Israel or
to any place where they were given entry visas. When their resources got diminished even old Romania became a possibility, because the economic situation there was superior to Bessarabia.
The mutual loans and savings institutions played an important role in the Jewish community, but they were inadequate because of lack of funds. The Joint distributions were therefore directed to help the cooperatives.
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