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Translated by Dalya Danish


Every Community and its Unique Fate

For the Jews of Bessarabia, the Jewish community was the heart of everything. It was Jewish tradition and folklore, saturated with longing for liberation since always and until the Zionist movement. But not lost to its life were digressions and aberrations. There this community was etched in history by the pogrom that occurred in 1903, in which tens of single Jews were murdered. ( Until then “small dimensions” was this event compared to what happened years later.) At the time, it infuriated the whole world. The Kishinev pogrom had vast influence on the development of ideas of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the tightening connections to Eretz Yisroel.

T. Herzl declared in one of his speeches that the Kishinev incident was actually a mirror of the life of Yisrael in every corner of the Diaspora. Kishinev became the symbol of Jewish suffering in the time of the tsar. This event was also an important factor in the primacy of the 2nd Aliyah to Eretz Yisroel.

Every community and its unique fate: There are communities whose history and events get to be inscribed for generations. There are large communities which are destined to be forgotten in silence. Before the pogrom, the Kishinev community was among the latter. Even so, in the span of many years, it was a lively Jewish center, creative and original in the life of the Jews of southern Russia. After this, it was also a wellspring of spirituality for all Romanian Jews.

Jewish Kishinev, within it a wide spectrum of institutions and enterprises, was destroyed and ruined during the Holocaust. Jewish Kishinev, which numbered more than 50,000 souls, was felled by the war. Only piles of rocks tell of the ruination. In November 1941, most Jews were sent to the ravines of extermination in Transnistria. In this book we will also bring the testimonies of eye witnesses of the last days of Jewish Kishinev and the cruel liquidation of the ghetto.


The First Steps

The Kishinev historians[1] indicate that the capital of Bessarabia was once a little village on the banks of the river Byk, in the province of Lapusna, established by Veliky, uncle of Stefan Cel Mare.

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Ion Nestor mentions a document from the year 1436, in which it is the first time the village of Kishinev is mentioned. In later documents, (in the year 1576 and also the year 1617) it is mentioned that the village of Kishinev was sold several times to relatives of the king of those times. Only in the year 1666 in document (Ispisoc) of Duka- Vida, Kishinev is mentioned. The historians emphasize that Istrarivadia- Daviza was the one who elevated Kishinev from a village to a little town in the years 1661-1665. It is supposed that in this period approximately the first Jewish traders appeared in this little town. They tried by themselves to put in the foundation for Jewish life in this area.

In the same period, Kishinev was destroyed by Tatars after which it was rebuilt. In the Romanian sources about the discovery of Jews in Kishinev, one must mention the chronicles of Dimitrie Cantemire (1673-1723), one of the important historians and scholars of Romania who wrote about Kishinev as a little town whose population contains Christians, Armenians and Jews. To our sorrow, sparse sources are available to show exactly when Kishinev started to have a more organized Jewish community. According to the above, it is possible to suppose that at the end of the 17th century, the first development of the Jewish community occurs.

In the 17th century, Russian influence was felt all over Moldava and Bessarabia, especially starting in the reign of Vasile Lupu (1634-1653) and after riots Bogdan Khmelnytsky (1648-1649) awakened Jews in the Ukraine. Many escaped towards Bessarabia and Moldava. This influence increased in the days of Peter the Great in Russia until the Prince of Moldava, Dimitrie Cantemire arrived to sign a secret treaty with Russia.[2] In the aftermath of these connections, the number of Jews increased in the area of Moldava and Bessarabia, especially in Kishinev. There is no exact data on the first arrival of Jews to Kishinev. But it is proper to rely on the documents from the middle of the 18th century which mentions Kishinev Jews. The Romanian historian Y.Biano[3] mentions a legal judgement from the year 1742 in favor of the Jew David from Kishinev in reference to stolen goods which requires that the other side pay a penalty and return the goods.

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Also the noted historian Nicolae Iorga mentions in his book “Old documents of Romanian Law”, 2nd volume, page 428, a document which requires Kishinev Jews, in the year 1743, to pay every year, additional Lei to the other taxes applicable to the rest of the citizens in the same place. In the book of the traveler V. Rennes, vol 1, page 83, in the year 1793, he tells of Kishinev, a small town in which were Moldovans, Greeks and Jews.

In accordance with the few documents that have survived – the Jewish community of Kishinev has existed for about 250 years. In comparison to other communities in Bessarabia such as Akkerman, Lapusna, Khotin, etc.… which have documents that indicate they are over 500 years old. Kishinev is considered a young community in this region. Even so, it succeeded mainly in the last century – to develop and establish highly valued Jewish projects. The chronicler of the history of Jews in Bessarabia, A. Leon, indicates based on the codex of Chevra Kadishe that in the year 1773, there were no more than 144 families.

Until the end of the 18th century, the political situation in Bessarabia didn't permit the development of the Kishinev Jewish community. Study of the history of this community brings us to the inference that the peak of prosperity and growth was in the 2nd half of the 19th century – not from only a numerical aspect but also economic and cultural aspects.

In the table shown below it is possible to see the increases and decreases in the numbers of the Jewish population in Kishinev from the first emergence of this settlement.


Year Jews % Total
1773 540 souls 7.0
1847 10,509 souls 12.2
1867 18,327 souls 21.8
1897 50,537 souls 46.0
1910 52,000 souls 42.0
1930 42,000 souls 38.0
July 1940 75,000 souls[4] 50.0
1947 5,500 souls 6.5


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Like many communities in Eastern Europe, the 19th century brought prosperity and flourishing to the Kishinev community. The annexation of Bessarabia to Russia in the year 1812 and the close connections with Russian Jewry were a valuable change in the life of the Jews in this region. The bastion of closed Jewish religious life in Bessarabia was opened, which was tied until 1812 to the rabbinate in Iasi. In the period after this annexation, an attempt was made to push further the Haskala in the midst of the Jewish multitudes. In the year 1838, under the reign of the Prince Voronezev in Novo-Russia especially Bessarabia, the first Jewish cultural school was opened with the support of the government.[5]

Justifiably, it is possible to mention, that from the 40's of the previous century, started an era of awakening in the development of the first social streams in the midst of the Jews of Kishinev.

The conflicts between groups of Maskilim and Kishinev Hasidim are reflected in the writings of “Hamelitz” starting in the year 5624. Though the tension was also felt in other corners of the life of the community. This wellspring streamed new blood into its arteries. The Jewish group that had been under the reign of the Hasidic stream, absorbed for the first time, sounds of new reality of other dynamics and awakening.


Ruralism and Urbanism

Over time, Kishinev became a spiritual and economic center for the Jews of Bessarabia. In Bessarabia, in that time, the Jewish agriculture influenced the image and character of Jewish Kishinev. This mutuality didn't stop until the last days of Kishinev. The deep thinker can see the ruralism which accompanied the Jewish urbanism in Kishinev. Simplicity, devotion, faithfulness and sometimes primitive traits of humans are as if formed from lumps of the black earth of Bessarabia. The Chernozem were sunken in the character and soul of the Jews of Kishinev from the certain bind of insularity which was preserved even as it transferred to a big and busy metropolis.

But the rural traits didn't delay the advance of the Jews of Kishinev. Over the generations we are witness to continual unrest, sometimes without emphasizing the rest of the dimension.

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Not only did Hasidim and Maskilim find an echo in their conflicts, but also in the attempts of other groups, such as the attempt of the way of the religious reform which had in its time ruffled public opinion emphasized the public tension of the Jews of Kishinev.

Kishinev “the village” did its share, not only in our national movement but also found its place in the midst of the revolutionary workers' movement. Maybe only a few know that Kishinev Jews were not delayed in advancing the movement and spirit of freedom that blew over many of the Oheli Yisrael in Kishinev, starting from the middle of the previous century.

For 200 years Kishinev had been lacking large industry. It was crowned with surrounding vineyards, gardens and extensive fields. A large number of Kishinev Jews were given to leasing and working fallow fields. But with all the “rural traits” they did not suffer cultural stagnation. Many felt the need to discover themselves under the blanket of the Torah. They took care that at the head of their group would be one of the great rabbis of their time. This explains the fact of officialdom in Kishinev of famous rabbis as early as the middle of the 18>sup>th century. Among them were Rabbi Chaim Chernovitzer, Rabbi Aryeh Leibush Melnezhot, Rabbi Moshe Mosbran, and others. It was known that in their zeal, the Jews of Kishinev fought to keep Rabbi Y.L. Tzirelson as their chief rabbi. The first generation bequeathed to the next after them, the thirst to know and the strong will to widen their horizons. Below the level of consciousness was a sense of delay compared to others. That pushed many to join the social movements which stormed the Jewish public in the 19th century, more than most, the Zionist movement and especially the Zionist workers' movement. That was to the younger generation like a vital and nourishing dew. There was no lack of digressions and periods of slack. But, in summation, with the addition of line to line for completion of the spiritual image of the Jews of Kishinev, it is possible to say, without fear of exaggeration, that the spirit of freedom and progressive nationalism prevailed.

It is important to remember the fact that for tens of years, Kishinev was a place of exile in tsarist Russia. Sent there were mainly accused and suspected revolutionaries from progressive movements. The existence of exiled revolutionaries in Kishinev served, in most cases, as a seed for unrest. This era of exiled revolutionaries in Kishinev did not pass without marked notice among the Jews of Kishinev. But also, the exiles soon found encouragement and sympathy for their activities. Not a few of them knew well the image of the Jews of southern Russia. These Jews with their innocence and devotion left a withered impression indelibly on many of them.

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Among the first exiles (1825-7) was the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. In our time, during his residence in Kishinev, he tells also of his first meeting with Jews in the city[6].


The Community Life

At the beginning the path of the Jewish community enveloped obscurity. Starting from the Romanian government era, 180 years before in the year 5533 (1773). The Jewish congregation burial society Chevra Kadishe was preserved. In it was decided which were the internal arrangements of the congregation. It seems that it was the first codex for Jews in Kishinev, who were connected at that time to the Rabbinate in Iasi, the capital of Moldava. The codex treats only the religious affairs and the social relations between the members of Chevra Kadishe[7]. In this it is possible to make a clear assumption that already the Jews of Kishinev tried to appear as an organized congregation. The very fact that Chevra Kadishe imposed its full authority on all Kishinev Jews in the religious needs and determined the regimen of equality in the chance that every member could participate in managing the interests. It proves that already there existed in the city a developed congregation that demanded this internal order. One can regret that details are missing from the life of Kishinev Jews in this era, but it is know that the life of the public was concentrated then mainly around the religious needs of the members of the community. The storm of wars that passed through Moldava-Bessarabia in that era, including the Russo-Turkey war in the years 1806-1812, didn't give a chance to Kishinev Jews to develop their special institutions. In this it is probable that the lack of ministration in every area linked to the special social assistance to the Jewish congregation.

After the year 1812 – the year that Kishinev became part of Russia – there was an extended peaceful period. Little by little, the different institutions of the Kishinev community deteriorated and disappeared. At the beginning of the 19th century, the supporters of the community started to care about, in addition to the religious needs, also the other vital needs especially in the social spheres; so assistance was promised to study Torah for the poor children.

Precisely when the Kishinev community stared to develop and put down roots; the extent of activities expanded, it was overtaken by Russian government decrees. From the 1830s, when the Tsar turned an evil eye on the community causing segregation from the whole society.[8] The decree stated that it was unacceptable to have a regime within a regime. As a result, the Tsar decided to cancel the

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independence of the management of the communities except for the religious needs, for appearance, to allow the Jews to be active in the general life of the selected cities and to promise them government supported education (1840-1844). The destruction of the communities' autonomy actually began at this time, around the year 1839, when they began to decide the levying and distribution of taxes that the community collected from the sale of meat (tax that a Jew would pay for buying kosher meat) and the sale of candles. The law of meat tax that appeared at this same time by the government was a big blow to the life of the community, not only outwardly, also inwardly. The regime would pass the right to sell meat to a lessee, in most cases, after the powerful of the Jewish congregation, who exploited the poor people without mercy and without fulfilling the vital needs of the community. The bitter struggle between the lessees and the members of the community in Kishinev didn't cease for tens of years. There were groups of local rich people who were financed as an advisory committee by the city government and were involved in preventing exploitation by the meat lessees. They would set meat prices at a reasonable level. This we read in Hamelitz in the year 1865, an essay from Kishinev:

“with the will of the enlightened city officials, order was introduced to the taksa (licensure) in meat selling for set prices, in putting the supervision to the kosher faithful: the elderly financier, Mr Yehuda Polinovski; the scholar, Nachman Zidivtski; the famous, Mr Ahron Rabinowitz; the marvelous, Vinberg; Mr Ephraim Teitleman; Alter Gelantiro and Mr Chaim Lerner. Despite the grievance of the tax collector and the meat vendors, prices of meat are steady and reasonable with accurate weights. In this way it is possible and necessary to bring order in all city affairs and to clean up those who would interfere with the law and burden others, as the wishes of the public would be.”

The mode of monetary distribution korovka (Russian candy) (the institution for community affairs management and distribution of money for varied goals) raised a lively debate and caused a constant tension between those who wanted to increase the number of klei kodesh (holy objects) in the community and those who wanted most of the money to go to support the poorer Jews and first of all care for the hungry ones. In Hamelitz from the year 1802 we read a letter from Kishinev:

“…members of the congregation complain about the meat tax, that it is a cursed plague. In place of spending it on important items, it is spend on completely excessive items for poor people. Get four more religious dayanim and other morei zedek. Add to every shochet ten rubles per month. 500 cash rubles were budgeted for a cantor with a choir. For the souls of the starving, the songs of a choir are as kikol hasirim takhat hasir (biblical reference from Ecclesiastes 7:6 to the laughter of fools) .”

One can emphasize here that those wanting to increase the mechanism of klei kodesh put too big a burden on the gaunt body of the community. There was almost no consideration as to a mutiny and they continued on their path. This was the situation in most of the Jewish communities in Russia

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In the year 1880-90, with the emergence of varied social movements in the Jewish thoroughfare, the drastic question of character and planning was raised in the community, the Zionists, the Bund and the Charedim (ultra orthodoxy) – everyone made many efforts to control the community, to be the sole institution that reigned over the internal affairs of the Jewish congregation. This struggle was reflected in the life of the Jews of Kishinev. But, as long as the Tsarist regime existed, there was no room for change in the life of the community because the regime refused to give up any authority and did not permit the claim that collecting the taxes for the special Jewish institutions should be done with a progressive tax which obliges the whole population. Because not a few were recently evading paying the meat tax and it ended that these taxes were levied indirectly on the masses whose economic situation was dire. The principal demand from those who wanted to change the image of the community was, to promise free elections, in order to give it a democratic character and to free it from the burden of the financiers.

The year of the Russian Revolution, 1917, hinted at the big opportunities also in the sphere of establishing a democratic community. The Jewish public in Kishinev was already alerted to rush toward these changes. The democratic community that was selected after a short period didn't continue for long. In the next 20 years, until the holocaust, it was in a constant struggle establishing and competing with itself – without a durable result – all the public forces that were in Kishinev.


The National Character

Jewish Kishinev felt itself from the first establishment, as an inseparable part of the whole nation. The feeling of national solidarity always resided in the Jews of Kishinev. National troubles were also their troubles. Kishinev was the first Jewish community in Russia that thanked Moses Montefiore for his work and loyalty toward saving the Jews of Morocco. Following is a version of a letter from the Jews of Kishinev to Montefiore and his enthusiastic response:

“In the 26th day of the month of Adar Shani in the year 5624 (April 3, 1864) Kishinev

Long live our master, crown of our head, glory of our people, Sir Moses Montefiore,

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From a far land, came your brothers, from the land of Bessarabia, the city of Kishinev, to thank you and bless your name for all the benevolent and charitable deeds for your people in those days at that time. Saving them from sorrow and turning their mourning into celebration and happiness. We heard all this and our hearts were very happy. And our brothers said to us: please take in your hands a blessing and please bless our master for all his benevolence and charity for his bountiful compassion and gentle heart. And this is the blessing which today we blessed him in our name and the name of our congregation: Baruch Atah Le El Elyon, Adon Ram V'Nisah; (Blessed art thou to highest God, Lord high up above) On you the heavens will look, from the heights his sign, he will watch over all your deeds and will reward you for all you did. Grace and kindness will follow you. Honor and glory will be your crown. For the length and years of your life, blessing and peace and all the gifts of the heavens will give you our God as we ask and request of him. And you Moses, man of our God!. Being master of your brothers and redeemer of your people and their lives many times and be a blessing in all the land. We, your brothers, sons of Jacob, love you. Remember we will remember you in all the days of our lives and also your deeds. That which your do every day is etched on our hearts and those of our seed and after us will remember forever. Amen.”

(the Rabbi and 3 sages of the city signed their names and after them city dignitaries)

Moses Montefiore answers:

“With the help of God here, the holy congregation of London, Monday, 12th of Nisan, 5624 (April 18th, 1864)

Long live the honored Rabbis, and leaders of the Kishinev Jewish Congregation

The blessing which you have brought us in the name of all our brothers who settled in your midst is liked by myself indeed. Because I heard of your good reputation and your souls' desire for Torah and fear of God is mighty. I knew that your hearts are loyal and with God therefore I didn't come to say to say today grace from on high and to tell of goodness (here the command by the regime in all the places of his government).------and now our heart carries unto our God in heaven and thank him and bless all the good he does with us to keep alive the souls of our brothers. Thus gave the Lord and thus he will continue to have mercy on the rest and say among the nations how great is God to do for our people. These are the sayings coming from Moses Montefiore.”


The Beginnings of Zionism

In the years of the 1780s, it was already felt the fervency in the midst of the Jewish intelligentsia in Kishinev against the cosmopolitan strains of the Haskala against assimilation that tried to instill into the midst of the flock, the false belief in misleading solutions to the problems of the Jews. This viewpoint was strengthened by the wave of pogroms which flooded the Jewish neighborhoods in those days in Russia. A bitter argument broke out in that period between this side and their enlightened opposition. We find the echo of the struggle in the newspapers:

“ After the events in which we were disillusioned of the great euphoria of the Haskala…. We saw and proved that we are not worldly, but Jews, so soulful ones decided to open up to a different way: different education, Judaism, Jewish history and Hebrew language. There is between us a connection

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some how. They were sure that the Haskala will fill all the land with ideas and then the Jewish question would be moot. ‘and a wolf would live with a lamb’. But this would take many generations. The deluded believed that the Jews had mission in the world, to be a torch to light the way for the nations. The truth was that the nations do not want our illumination and give us a struggle because of this. Which is shameful is to bless oneself in one's heart that one is an honored guest, while being shown the door. But it is also not correct to announce that we don't need the Haskala. This is the ploy of desperation. We need the Haskala, not for others but for ourselves. We don't want to stay ignorant and not up-to-date. But at the beginning of every wise saying is a Jewish one. The first sentence is in the Hebrew language. In our work of Tikkun Olam we shouldn't forget our world full of light, grace, splendor and awe inspiring reverence.”[9]

This group was not diminished in simple discussions, on the contrary, it started realization of its goals. At the same time, it organized a Hebrew language society. At the founding assembly participated Dr Y. Bernstein-Cohen, Dr Mutchnik, Dr Grinberg, Dr Efrati, Attorney Yosselvitz, Pharmacist Perlmutter and others. The goals of the society were as follows:

  1. Education of children in Jewish spirituality.
  2. Appointment of Hebrew teachers for language, history and religion in public schools.
  3. Extension of Hebrew language in schools.
  4. Establishment of Hebrew literature.
  5. Periodic meetings for continuing education in Jewish history and knowledge.
  6. Establishment of special schools for Hebrew language and literature.
This movement spread rapidly in Kishinev and its influence grew. In these groups were concentrated a significant part from Hovevei Zion. They were joined by all those who didn't lose their national essence, instead a transitional cultural gloss based on illusions and daydreams.


The Reaction Against the Pogroms

Life in the Kishinev community was full of suffering which continued without any letup. Outside the city only the 1903-5 pogroms were noticed. Closeup the easing of life in the community was underestimated, which the instigation against it was non stop between the era of the Tsarist regime to the days of the Romanian regime. Many were the attempts at pogroms that were only stopped at the very last minute. In most of the cases, the pogroms were deterred and the rioters themselves saw the courage of the convictions of the Kishinev Jews to respond actively to every attack. Even though, the regime immediately called out the army to repress every organized uprising from the Jews. Not many know that also in the year 1881, the year of pogroms in many cities in Russia, Kishinev also stood to be

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assaulted but the rioters left after being shamed thanks to courageous self defense by the local Jews. Dr Bernstein-Cohen wrote interesting details about this.[10]

“People of Kishinev were prepared for the appearance of the rioters. Eminent businesspeople---Abraham Grinberg, Dinen, Kupervaser etc.… established a fund to bribe the regime that will prevent the pogrom despite the permit that it received from above. Jewish butchers were sharpening their knives and cleavers, in order to repel the attack as soon as it broke out. In all Bessarabia, in the cities and the towns, strange persons wandered about in civilian and army uniforms. They called themselves “Tsar's envoys” and they asked the farmers, especially the Christians, to sign in the name of the village communities on the edicts, to throw out the Jews and to butcher them in case they won't agree willingly to leave the place…. Even so most of the Moldavians did not subscribe to this 'advice' so 'devotees' were brought from distant places. Groups of coarse townspeople, brutes from the commune of Uriul (It was immediately noticed from their appearance that they were outsiders); supported and invited by the 'rulers'. They were getting drunk in the taverns until they were out of their minds. And here on Sunday, the first day, a large group of Orlovians went to the market, toward a line of butcher stores, one of them so drunk that he entered the butcher shop of Noah Kutchener, struck with an iron club on the table and yelled: ‘Zhedova! Come, butcher, give your prutot (pennies)! ’ At the same time his friends burst into the neighboring butcher shops. A struggle ensued. Noah Kutchener stared at the gentile a look of negation, took his sharpened axe and brought it down on the head of the rioter. His skull split, the Orlovian collapsed and breathed his last. The rioters rushed to his aid but the butchers attacked them. They struck them and pushed them into the slaughterhouses (not to the police). It took a lot of work for the police to free them and send them off on the train that same night with escort of guarding soldiers, in order to cover up the proof of the dirty business. Noah Kutchener, who found a radical solution to this painful question, disappeared in a day (after a while he arranged a trip to America). For a long time public opinion was interested in Noah Kutchener who saved the Jews of Kishinev from their first pogrom; it was generally understood that all the residents of Kishinev celebrated for many years and remembered with feeling of thanks, the names of the heroes and their families in this episode, the only one that was wise and proper. After 30+ years in April 1903, the terrible pogrom broke out whose results were 49 killed and hundreds of wounded Jews. About the reaction of the Kishinev Jews to the acts of the pogrom, there is indistinct knowledge.

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Maybe because of that: N. Bialik, after his visit in the year 1903 in Kishinev, publicized his “In the city of killing” and in this way imprinted on the Jews of Kishinev, the stamp of cowardice and lack of national and human honor. This awakened heavy resentment among the national Bessarabian youth who were convinced that Bialik was not just in this harsh judgment.

“ And now you brought with you to all the hiding places,
latrines, pig styes and all their fecal
places and you saw where were the concealed
your brothers, sons of your people and descendants of the Maccabees
scions of lions who in ‘merciful father’ and seeds of ‘saints’
20 souls in a hole and thirty thirty
and my honor will be increased in the world
and my name will be sanctified by many
escape of mice attempted
hiding of fleas concealed
and they died the death of dogs
that where they lie”

The guilt was seen by many as not established, after they took into account the given conditions of the Jews of Kishinev in those days. Dr Bernstein-Cohen wrote in his memoirs:

“At 4 o'clock, the defense units were surrounded by the police and army, their weapons were taken away and they were sent to large yards and from there as prisoners so the police could protect them. Allegedly because of the public anger and riots, as they apologized later from the governing forces.”

That same evening, the pogrom broke out and the rioters were free to perform their deadly acts. In these conditions, one cannot blame the defenseless Jews. If only a possibility of self defense by the Jews of Kishinev prevailed, the rioters , without a doubt, would have been repelled as in the days of Noah Kutchener and his friends in the years of the 1880s. But against a standing army and organized rioters from the Krushevan group under the aegis of the Tsar from Petersburg, there was no possibility of defense. The Prince Orosov who was appointed immediately after the 1903 riots as governor of Bessarabia, blamed the tsarist government with inciting the pogroms and wrote in his memoirs[11] that the Jewish defense prepared weapons, although primitive, against the rioters.

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In almost identical conditions the pogroms resumed in 1905. But, after this, for about 35 years, when the government did not organize the riots in a direct way and relied on merely private initiative, not one attempt succeeded by the rioters. The Jews of Kishinev were always ready to stand on their own. After Bessarabia became part of Romania, the antisemites' movement did not hesitate even for a moment. There were no lack of Romanian Krushevans, but not enough to cause riots. It seems that the grandson of Noah Kutchener scared them. In the winter months of the year 5688 (1927-8) when the Cuzist students organized riots in the cities of Romania, there was also open incitement in the anti-semitic newspapers in Bucharest and Iasi. The rioters were forced to overlook Kishinev despite much grumbling, because it was a known truism that the Jews would put up a strong defense.


The Ukrainian Refugees

The years 1919-22 were bloody years in Ukraine where whole Jewish communities were cut down at the hands of the armies of Petlura, Denikin and other gangs. Many more were victims of starvation and disease – a stream of refugees reached Bessarabia, after they crossed the border over the River Dniester in great danger, with the hope of continuing away to Eretz Yisroel and the United States. After the first hundreds passed peacefully over the river and rushed many to the border to be saved. Most of them were broken in spirit and lacking everything. The Jews of Bessarabia met them with a true spirit of brotherly love and presented them with assistance to the best of their ability. Many thousands continued to the center, to Kishinev, that there they hoped to find more contacts and care focused on their needs.

Jewish Kishinev was the first to face the responsible question: how to help and assist, to direct and guide the many fellow refugees? Despite the difficulties that the Jews of Kishinev themselves faced in those years, which came at the end of the war. Poverty and suffering still prevailed in thousands of bereaved families, orphans, widows lacking in arrangements and shattered from the war. There was a need to organized help for the war wounded. Heavy was the burden and great was the responsibility. At the onset, the aid agencies from abroad tried to make a clear separation between aid to the war wounded and that of help for the refugees. But the Kishinev businesspeople did not deem it right to discrimination among kinsfolk and among the needy families. Because of the stance of the “Junt” two separate committees formed: one Ukrainian committee for assistance to Jews hurt by the pogroms, at the head was Dr Yakov Bernstein-Cohen and the other to help the Jews hurt by the war. At this head was N. Aharonovitz.

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The Ukrainian committee concentrated all the best of the Jewish public-spirited citizens in Kishinev:
in addition to the chairman were: Helena Babitz, Y. Sinilevitz, N.M. Roitman the Shochet, V. Alexandrovitz (who was killed in the year 1941 in the Kishinev Ghetto), D. Schechter, L. Trachtenberg and the author Shlomo Hellas who resides today in Israel and many others. Rabbi Y.L. Tzirelson donated his large share to the aid organization.

When a group of Kishinev business people decided to care for the Ukrainian refugees, they weren't satisfied with just knowing the situation from the arrivals into Bessarabia, but decided also to send a special delegation to Ukraine – in the year 1919 – Benzion Balzan and Shochetman (Aligon) so as to check on the situation and assist the departure organization.

In the development of the aid strategy, there was a need to get a permit from the Romanian government and also to arrange easements in the entrance of refugees to Bessarabia. The Ukrainian committee in Kishinev decided to send a delegation to Bucharest comprised of Dr Y. Bernstein-Cohen and the Senator Alexandri who had good relations with General Averescu. The efforts of the delegation came to fruition. The Prime Minister General Averescu permitted the entrance of the refugees to Bessarabia for 3 months. Up until the pogroms of Denikin and Petlura stopped it. It was in the great interest of the general to make a humanitarian gesture toward the refugees, in order to create a good impression on different factions in Europe. He imposed on Dr Y. Bernstein-Cohen that he would make sure that his kindnesses would reach the ears of those factions in Paris, London and other places.[12]

Anyway, the refugees had their passage eased because of this saving act, because not a few were sacrificed in the hour of need when they were went back from the middle of the journey. The accepted strategy in those cases was matan b'seter (anonymous gift) and was used this time and many Jews crossed the Dniester and escaped the Ukrainian hell.

The Ukrainian committee in Kishinev stood to act quickly in light of the situation, that within its means, it could not give the minimal help demanded to many. It was decided on that to turn to the Jews of Bessarabia and Romania and to other Jewish communities abroad. The cries of kinsfolk from Kishinev brought waves and generous sums started to stream to the capital of Bessarabia from the Jews of the Diaspora. The Ukrainian committee in Kishinev, which until December 1920 acted also as a central committee for all of Bessarabia, organized all the activity, put together the needed apparatus and concentrated the businesspeople in places in order to carry out the great mission that fate had dropped on the Jews of Kishinev in the presentation of help to many kinsfolk.[13]

[Page 29]

And maybe for greater results, that are not given to be reported, was the atmosphere of brotherly love which accompanied the activities for the Ukrainian refugees. The Jews of Kishinev took in thousands of refugees to their homes. Many people, not only those of means, received the refugee-kinsfolk with great affection and gave them shelter and sustenance.

There was a need to bring the suffering of the refugees before the aid agencies abroad and so was sent Dr Y. Bernstein-Cohen to Paris as an emissary. A window was opened to Jewish philanthropy and it focused interest on the fate of many victims of the Ukrainian destruction. Alarm about the desperate situation of the Jews of Ukraine woke a large response to render aid across the Dniester. Be, even though great exertions were made, there was no guarantee that all the aid that had been sent to Ukraine arrived at anything documented. In addition to the activities of the Ukrainian committee, also the strength of organized refugees cared for their kinsfolk in Ukraine. It was decided by those to send a mission from among them – the writer, Shlomo Hellas and Vy Alterman to the aid conference convening in Prague. At the conference, S. Hellas spoke about the distress of the refugees and about the terrible situation of the Jews of Ukraine and demanded that urgent assistance be sent by way of the Dniester. After a short time, the first transport was sent in that direction but most of it never arrived to the Jews and there was no reason to continue this activity.

A year later, the “Junt” took more responsibility in helping and eased those interested in continuing their journey to Eretz Yisroel and also across the ocean to America. The visit of Vladimir Tiomkin in the year 1921 under the auspices of the aid committee abroad was great support for activity in Kishinev and increased in all of Bessarabia. But as many of the activities of the aid committee increased, so too, increased the needs of supporting the refugees who streamed into Bessarabia. In 1922, the vigilance increased at the borders and almost stopped the passage over the Dniester. In addition, the Romania government started to pursue the refugees, in order to pressure them to leave the country and undertook drastic measures to repatriate them or bounce them from place to place. Difficult times were had by the Ukrainian refugees. The Kishinev businesspeople worked and toiled to overcome the worst of the decree. A huge effort and heavy toll was imposed in order to postpone the decree or at least soften it.

A significant portion of the refugees were able to stay in Romania but some of them were forced to expedite their departure. Also in the years 1922-3 the hardship continued and increased the torture and suffering from the repressive Romanian regime. In these years, an important aid activity was by

[Page 30]

Aika” to end the refugee problem by hurrying up their immigration and mostly it succeeded.

At the end of this chapter, both famous and tragic as one, it is important to note that the Jews of Kishinev were not only donors to the refugees, they also received social and spiritual value in return.

It was of great worth that the stream of Ukrainian refugees arrived then in Kishinev isolated from the Jews of Russia. It brought them to a crossroads. For more than 100 years, they were connected to the Jews of Russia and here, in one night, they were faced with an attempt to follow a new path, independent, to be a center for Jewish spirituality in greater Romania and were forced to show strength and inspiration in order to face these great tasks. In those days it was a blessing, despite the difficult burden, in the large number of the public who were experience businesspeople, writers and educators in the pioneer spirit of the young Jews---which came to Kishinev. Although a large portion of them did not stay long, they still had positive influences. They inspired public works. There were important ones who found a way to stay longer and were, in their deeds, a great blessing to the Jewish community spirit there. From the distance of later years, it seems that the Ukrainian refugees in Kishinev took a large part in widening and increasing the many activities in public life. This mutual help in the era of the Ukrainian refugees is one of the wonderful chapters in the history of the Kishinev community. Justifiably, the Jews of Kishinev remember the days of the Ukrainian refugees as a way station when they stood at the crossroads at the end of the first world war.


Within the Boundaries of Romanian Jewry

With the end of the first world war, significant were changes in the borders of European states. Kishinev, in all of Bessarabia, was included in Romania. The Jews of Romania who were numbered upwards of 800,000 souls, were not a socially united and solidified group. Not only differences in political outlook were between them but also language, culture, behavior and environmental conditions.

At first it was not easy to find a common ground for cooperation between the Jewish experience and disposition, who resided for a long period in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, the Jews of Transylvania and Bukovina and the Jews of Russia and Romania. There was tremendous effort to narrow the differences and to find a common ground between the Jews of Romania. This great mission was filled by Kishinev and the rest of the Jews of Bessarabia in all. Primarily and responsibly, Kishinev brought the traditions of the Jewish national current to the realm of the Jews of Romania. Upright in the claim for political rights, they were an appearance of a minority, proud in their origins.

[Page 31]

This stance brought great loyalty to the Zionist movement which was expressed in the equipping of the Jewish person for self realization, drafting most of the youth to “Chalutz”(pioneer), Hebrew culture and education – all these were a refreshing direction. The Hebrew teacher, a zionist publicist from Kishinev, appeared on the general stage of the Romanian Jews. He brought with him a new progressive, nationalist, Zionist tune. And slowly was Kishinev a main support in the war for zionist national consolidation of Romanian Jews. Many among Romanian Jews saw in this new direction that came from the borders of Bessarabia and Kishinev, tremendous damage to the Jews, that they chose spiritual slavery. Overtly and internally they supported the assimilation stream. Here came the Kishinev Jews and spoiled their party. In the Jewish political arena two trends materialized among the Jews: one that proudly flew the Jewish banner and taught the masses in this spirit. This one concentrated around the Zionist federation and after a number of years, around the Jewish political party. The other side – a bold assimilationist sect and their followers, who organized around “unionya” federation which arose long before the first world war, among the old-time Romanian Jews. These two trends started a fight for the tag: the face of Romanian Jewry. The contribution was great by Kishinev Jewry during this struggle in the years 1918-40, in order to promise victory for the national Zionist trend. As a symbol of the Jewish communal fate in the diaspora, the fact remains, that after 20 years, at the time that the Kishinev community was starting on the path to being the important and independent Jewish center and increase their influence – only that these years of increase were taken away by the days of the Shoah and ruin – overnight the communal and spiritual life which was designated for this community stopped. It was erased by the Nazi-Romanian vandals in the year 1941. The construct of more than 200 years was destroyed down to the foundation. With the return of the Russians to Kishinev in the year 1944, a new chapter was opened in the book of the community sated with suffering and hardship. This chapter does not interface with the past design of community life. The impression of the history of wandering of the Jewish people in the diaspora will be supplemented by the story of the Kishinev community in the last era. Note the development of a Jewish hub there that during generations filled a significant need in the life of the Jewish nation in the diaspora in the struggle for survival and ambition for its redemption.


  1. Ion Nestor: History of Bessarabia (Romanian) Czernowitz, 1923, pgs 146-148. Return
  2. M.Reifer: “Selected Historical Writings” (German), Czernowitz, 1938, page 79. Return
  3. Y. Biano: “Romanian Manuscripts” (Romanian), page 560. Return
  4. On the 28th June, 1940, the Red Army went into Bessarabia. After which thousands of Bessarabian Jews flocked to Kishinev from the cities of Romania, who feared remaining under the pro-Nazi government of Romania which was about to join the war on the side of Germany. Thousands of Jews from the frontier points in Bessarabia and many villages and cities, settled in Kishinev. This concentration came mainly because of huge economic tremors. This large number, 75,000, is an estimate. They didn't stay long. A portion were saved in June 1941 by the Soviet rulers who moved them to far places. Most of the remaining were exterminated during the Holocaust in 1941-2 when the Romanians returned along with the Germans to Bessarabia. Return
  5. A. Leon: Chronicles of the Spiritual and Cultural Development of the Jews of Kishinev (1773-1890) (Russian), Kishinev, 1891. Return
  6. Jewish Chronicle: 1st volume, 1922, Petrograd, essay by D. Zaslavski. Return
  7. See end of book in chapter “documents”, codex of Chevra Kadishe (year 1773) Return
  8. S. Dubnov: Divrai Yomai Am Olam, vol 9, pages 128-134 Return
  9. Kishinev Essay (S.D.) in Hamelitz, 1890 Return
  10. Safer Bernstein-Cohen, edited by Miriam Bernstein-Cohen and Yitzhak Koren, Chapter 3, pages 67-68. Return
  11. Notes of the Governor: Kishinev: see the book of the Prince Orosov (1903-1904) pgs 82-111 Return
  12. Sefer Bernstein-Cohen, pgs 185-190 Return
  13. see chapter “Teudot” (documents) in the reports of the Ukrainian committee in Kishinev (1919-21) Return


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