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The Economic and Legal Life

Translated by Sheli Fain


Within the boundary of Moldavia until 1812

In order to understand the economic situation of the Kishinev Jews it is necessary to study the legal/ political conditions of the community at that time. In this chapter these conditions are presented together.

Kishinev was established in the 15th century and was a small village on the Bik (Bǎk) River banks. Kishinev is mentioned first time in a proclamation of Duca Voda in 1666.

The rulers of Moldavia and Bessarabia accepted Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 18th century in order to develop the commerce and the manufacturing, thus instilling new life in the economy. The Jews were excluded from the laws of the land. In 1720–1750 the Jews were mainly working on leased lands (arendasi), were merchants (horilca) and were allowed to establish their homes on lands owned by the boyars. The Jews were not allowed to buy agricultural lands, but they could buy plots of distant government lands to build factories and shops.

The development of the Jewish community in the 18th century was slow and insignificant. In 1774, 150 families lived in Kishinev and only in 1806–1812, during the Russian–Turkish war, the borders with Poland and Ukraine were opened and a large number of Jewish people came in. The Jewish population of Kishinev grew in the 19th century even though Kishinev was still a little town and not an urban centre. The change came when the Russians annexed Bessarabia.


Under Russian rule (1812–1918)

Kishinev was ruled by Czarist Russia for 106 years. At the beginning of the Russian rule, Kishinev was under a continuous development and consequently the Jewish community grew. The Russian government established Kishinev as the capital of Bessarabia by a decree of General Bakhmatiov, the Governor, on 29 of April 1918 and was approved by the Czar. Bessarabia enjoyed liberal policies toward the population in general and the Jews in particular, especially because the Czarist regime wanted to

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appease the local Moldavian population who did not like the new regime and showed signs of revolt. The regime introduced a series of measures to improve the taxation and exempted the population from the obligatory military service until 1874, thus giving the population a chance to continue with their normal lives and as a result assured healthy economic relations with Moldavia. The Jews enjoyed the same rights they had under the Romanian regime. The General Bakhmatiov Decree assured that the Jews have the same commercial, agricultural and civil rights as the rest of the population (although there were some differences). N.D. Gardovsky writes in his book[1] that the rights the Jews enjoyed in Bessarabia were unique compared with the rest of the Russian Jewry. This attitude encouraged the growth of the community and its development. The Jews developed the commerce, the trades and became established. The fact that the Jews of Kishinev and the rest of Bessarabia were free from military service until 1874 contributed a lot to the growth of the community.

This quiet period did not last too long, even though the Czarist regime accepted the Bakhmatiov Decree. A worst change of direction took place in the following ten years leading to the suppression of all national liberties. Bessarabia was included into the jurisdiction of Greater Russia and this caused a deterioration of the situation of the Jewish community. In the 1860s, the problem of the Jewish presence in the city was addressed in a law prohibiting Jews to live within a distance of 50 km from the frontier and an order was given to deport all the Jewish population from the border areas. This law caused a lot of suffering to the Jews of Kishinev and was used as a tool of discrimination by the authorities. According to this law the Jews were forbidden to live in Kishinev if they were not registered there before 17 October 1858 and if they did not own real property.[2] This decree forced the Jews out from the economy. Even the Jews who received permission to remain in the city were subjected to strict controls by the police that was checking often

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A famous merchant in Kishinev in the 1880s

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for compliance. It was enough to find a misspelled first or last name in a document and that person would be expelled. A method of bribes postponed the immediate execution of the order, but at the end the Jews were deported.

Starting in 1880, the government added other constraints to the “50 kilometers” decree. This time the restrictions were directed to the Jews who came from abroad. Since the 1850s, 1860s the Governor of Bessarabia and Odessa District encouraged the trade with Austria and Romania. The Jewish merchants were given permits to reside in Kishinev (or other towns) for one year in order to conduct business and open factories. Sometimes these permits were extended due to the business requirements. The foreign Jews were exempt from military service the same as the local Jews of Bessarabia until 1874. The privileges enjoyed by the foreign Jews influenced the local Jews to seek citizenship of Turkey, Romania, Austria, etc. in order to remain in Bessarabia and conduct their business under fewer constraints. The fear of “abductors” who captured the Jewish children for the army also caused the Jews to seek foreign citizenship. The number of foreign citizen reached the thousands and later the government took advantage of that.

After 1880, a relentless discrimination of foreign citizen was conducted by the authorities and a large number of foreigners were banished to other countries. The exile and the dire economic conditions that followed caused enormous tragedy. Most of the countries decided that the citizenship of the Jews was not legal and did not grant them residency there. They were barred from entering these countries and many families were left wandering from place to place. The refugees were not allowed to conduct business or work and the children were barred from schools. The situation of the Jewish refugees became most serious during 1889–1891.

Many went to the authorities to declare that the foreign citizenship was fake (they still had their Russian documents), received the punishment of a few months in jail with great joy and got rid of the foreign citizenship.

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A bagel seller on city streets


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The majority of the foreign citizen could not prove that they were once Russian subjects and the suffering just grew. During 1914–1915 many Jews were deported to Siberia and to other places in Russian Asia. For many years families were separated from the loved ones who were in exile.

Despite the decrees, the economic situation of the Kishinev Jews was less difficult than the situation at the beginning of the 19th century. Kishinev was the centre for collection of agricultural products from all over Bessarabia and conducted commerce with Odessa and foreign countries. Kishinev supplied them with wheat, wine, tobacco, fruits, hides, wool, etc. The foreign trade was conducted almost entirely by the Jews. In 1887 the newspaper “Novorosyiski Telegraph” published a report on the economical status of the Kishinev Jews.


A shoe repairman


The property tax registry of the homes and assets of the Jews showed that in 1887 there were in Kishinev 8113 houses and estates valued at 3,949,000 rubles; the Jewish properties numbered 1235 houses valued at 1,167,808 rubles, an average of 945 rubles for a house. The average of the rest of the owners was 404 rubles per house. The Jews received trade permits valued at 52,822 rubles, about 63% of the value of total licenses issued that year.

These numbers show that even if the Jewish population represented only 45% of the population, their real estate holdings was only 27% of the total real property value. 5–7% of the Jewish population that had a very high status compared to the general population were the store owners in the commercial districts

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Alexandrovki, Pushkinskaya, Sindina, Kharlambskaya and the factories owners located on the outskirts of the city.

Based on these facts, the Jews were considered rich, but in fact the large percentage of the population consisted of modest craftsman and small merchants.

To answer to the accusations that the Jews are very rich traders and profit from the exploitation of the Christian neighbours, the Ha–Melitz of 1887 published this table showing that the Jews were craftsmen, artisans and workers.

  Profession Helpers Apprentices
Tailors and seamstresses 228 475 193
Hat makers 45 65 13
Hides and pelts workers 7 12  
Lingerie seamstresses 27 234 91
Cotton manufacturers 15 19  
Shoes and belts makers 266 486  
Leather workers 30    
Embroiders in silver and gold 25 17  
Painters 17 20  
Bookbinders 25 20 10
Typesetters 10    
Master builders and painters 29    
Photographers 1 2  
Watchmakers 23 11 18
Musicians 55    
Toymakers 21 30 24
Cleaners, water carriers, wood cutters 211    
Porters 14    
Cantors, beadles and slaughterers 377    
Copper and tin craftsmen 78 124  
Construction wood cutters 5 14  
Brick and tile makers 12    

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Glaziers and painters 40    
Tobacco workers 1117    
Hair brush makers 4 5  
Candle makers 6 49  
Glue and shoe polish makers 10    
Millers 59    
Fishmongers and butchers 259    
Bakers 103 436 50
Wine, yeast and vinegar makers 514 20 10
Barbers 10   10
Carriages and harness makers 24 76 36
Coachmen and riders 471    
Beauticians 65    
Laborers 1300    
Store workers 1918    
Bathhouse attendants 422    
Total 7506 1925 458

The total of Jewish artisans in Kishinev was 9892.

The beginning of the 20th century brought more suffering and destructions for the Jewish community. The Pogrom of 1903 –1905 shook the economic foundation of the Jewish community and it took many years to recover from the desperation. Thousands started emigrating to over the oceans and started the first and the second Alyah to Eretz Israel.


The Jewish co–operative movement

The majority of the Jewish population in Kishinev were small merchants and craftsmen. The banks and the lenders took advantage of them by charging high interest rates on loans. The activists in Kishinev searched for ways to ease this situation. The solution was the founding of a credit union for savings and loans for the small businessmen and craftsmen

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that will provide loans with small interest rates. In 1901 the base for the cooperative movement for credit was laid down at the initiative of N. B. Roitman, z”l. In that same period the credit union for loans encountered many obstacles, because, according to the law, the credit union had to have a number of Christians in the management[3]. In order to open such a credit union it was necessary to have a government advisor (statskiy subotnik) who will be the head of the management committee. The city council had some Christian friends, one of them being Karl Shmidt, the mayor, who after a while gave permission to set up the first credit union. The first management team was formed by K. Shmidt, Dr. I. Mutchnik, Dr. I. Bernshtein–Cohen, I. Levinski, M. Bakhman, and A. Richter. The members of the advisory group were I. Frener, G. Potetz, A. Goldshtein, M. Shtirbu and M. Etinger. The secretary was N.M. Roitman. On September 4, 1901 the credit union started operating and, in a short time, it acquired a lot of customers. In 1902 the credit union had 575 members, in 1907 – 3111, in 1910 – 4393 and in 1914 – 5382. The success of the Kishinev credit union encouraged the opening of credit unions in the rest of Bessarabia.

During 1908–1914 the economic situation of the Jewish community started improving. New factories were built and old ones enlarged and the commerce grew, but the onset of WWI put a stop to all the development. The war years were difficult years, but since Kishinev did not suffer war damages, it was possible to easier restart all economic activities at the end of the war. After the war, Kishinev and the entire Bessarabia were annexed by Romania causing new problems for the population and the economy. After more that hundred years under Russian rule the Jews of Kishinev had to live in a new country, under a new regime.


Within the boundaries of Romania (1918–1940)

The annexation of Kishinev to Romania caused a great economic disaster that was felt by all levels of the Jewish population. Kishinev was the centre of collection of all agricultural produce and from here it was exported to Russia and to Europe. The merchants were mostly Jewish. After the annexation

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by Romania, another agricultural country, the need for more agricultural produce diminished. There were added difficulties transporting the merchandise from place to place, due to the lack of trains and in general the political situation worsened. The commerce that was the main income of the Jews of Kishinev encountered difficult conditions. The loans at the banks with high interest rates brought the commerce to a stop. The 25–35% interest caused the increase in prices and weakened the buying power of the consumers. The Jewish merchants of Kishinev were caught in this vicious circle and they struggled to find a solution to continue their business.

The Romanian regime imposed high taxes on the merchants and employed strict and brutal control rules. The merchants told stories about how Romanians collected taxes, how they confiscated the merchandise and in many cases sold the goods at auctions if the taxes were not paid on time.

The awful suffering and the lack of hope for an improvement of the situation depressed many people, especially the ones who were great merchants for many years and now could not fulfill their family responsibilities. The banks pressured, the tax collectors chased relentlessly and poverty and shortages were felt in the beautiful homes of the past. That situation brought many to desperation. A lot of merchants, who were forced to go bankrupt, committed suicide.

Others started to adjust slowly to the new situation. They reduced the expenses, fired the help and worked themselves in the businesses or employed family members. As a result the business owner was tied to his shop and could not go to Iaṣi, Galaṭi or Bucharest to buy new merchandise.

The merchants had to use agents (travelling salesmen) to do the travelling and to buy and sell the goods. Hundreds of Jews entered this business. The travelling salesmen were not subjected to taxes and did not have bank credit. These salespeople came to the store owners in the evening to take orders. In order to save time

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they travelled to Galaṭi or Bucharest during the night. In the morning they were running from supplier to supplier and in the evening they boarded the train with their suitcases full of goods. They took the suitcases in the train with them in order to save on the shipping expenses. To send the goods separately was a big expenditure and a big waste of valuable time. The authorities did not wait long to ban the suitcases with merchandise from the passengers cars. The government controllers started a hunt for the goods and whoever was caught with the suitcases had their merchandise confiscated and had to pay fines. Some gave the extra suitcases to fellow Jewish traveller, but sometimes they were also caught. The Jewish merchants of Kishinev toiled hard to make some money in order to provide a slice of bread for their families.

The situation of the craftsmen and artisans, even though it had its own crisis, was more stable. Because there was no great industry, the numbers of artisans and craftsmen grew. Many learned a trade because they did not know the Romanian language or because they could not practice their profession due to lack of permits. The productivity improved due to the use of electricity and machinery and the merchandise was well appreciated by the population. The credit unions provided assistance by giving short term loans for purchasing the necessary machinery. During 1922 – 1930, the credit unions approved loans of 38 million lei in Bessarabia. The Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) allocated 200 thousand dollars to help the credit unions. During 1928–1929, the cooperative organization supplied machinery to the artisans and craftsman, who represented 30–35% of the union membership. This assistance during the economic crisis assured the existence of many Kishinev Jews. There were some attempts to buy and provide supplies for the shops in order to bypass the high retail prices, but this effort did not last long.

After the annexation by Romania, most professionals found themselves in a dismal situation due to the lack of knowledge of the Romanian language. This was especially felt

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by the lawyers, teachers, etc. The judges in the Kishinev courts discriminated against those who did not know Romanian. This situation produced a vacuum in many professions and caused many Jews and Christians from Romania to come to Kishinev to replace the locals. The customers also appreciated the professionals who knew Romanian. For the next ten years new waves of professionals with university diplomas from Bucharest, Iaṣi and Czernowitz came to Kishinev for jobs. During 1932–1938 hundreds of professionals were looking for work while the job market became limited, thus causing great unemployment.

Because there were a limited number of jobs in commerce and the manufacturing could not absorb the work force, the clerical jobs in the government were not open to the Jews and factory work was practically unavailable, the youth of Kishinev opted to get a higher education at Romanian universities

The only serious economic sector open in Kishinev was the tobacco industry. At the beginning, the tobacco industry employed many hundreds, but after the tobacco industry was nationalized, the Romanian government banned the Jewish workers from the factories.

The narrow economy in Kishinev caused great disappointment among the Jewish parents who thought that a university diploma will be the ticket for a better life for their children. With the growing number of university graduates and the economic crisis, the Jews of Kishinev had a large rank of “proletarians with diplomas.” The graduates, who worked 3–4 years for the diplomas during the “Cuzists” (Fascists members of Cuza Party) oppression, were now looking for any work, part time or full time.

The economic crisis of 1930 influenced many to consider Alyah to Eretz Israel, even thought the economic news from Eretz Israel were not very encouraging. The youth, many of them with university diplomas, started to immigrate to Eretz Israel. A smaller number considered going to the United States and to Latin America.

The political situation created by the Romanian regime also persuaded the Jews to leave. With the rise of Hitlerism in Europe, fascism thrived in Romania. The “old” Cuza looked conservative compared to

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his disciple, Codreanu, the founder of the Iron Guard (Garda de Fier) who created an environment of tyranny and persecutions toward the Jews. The anti–Semitism virus penetrated even the so called democratic parties. When Alexandru Vaida Voevod, head of the National Peasant Party (Partidul Taranist), left the party, he approved anti–Jewish laws. He claimed that the Jews are foreigners and the government should take measures against them. He supported the decision of Numerus Clausus (closed numbers) against the Jews in all sectors of life.

The anti–Semitism spread to the court of King Carol II, even if he had a Jewish lover, Magda Lupescu.

In 1937 Octavian Goga and Cuza formed a government which adopted anti–Semitism as official government policy. Although this government lasted only 40 days, the anti–Semitism continued to flourish after its fall.

The situation of the Jews of Kishinev worsened and panic struck the community. For many years Jews were not afraid to go to city hall or other government office and now the situation changed. It seemed that friends of Cuza were sprouting from the ground, the very same people who were friendly to the Jews yesterday! The commerce entirely halted. An anti–Semitic newspaper, “Christian Romania,” appeared in Kishinev published by the Cuzist Negru and the Priest Ciocan, and that resembled a lot the “Bassarabetz” of Krushevan.

A group of Christian lawyers requested to have a numerous clauses for the Jewish lawyers in Kishinev.

The Jewish feared for their lives in this unsafe situation that did not change when the government of Goga and Cuza fell. On February 24, 1938 the new Romanian Constitution approved the totalitarian dictatorship of the King and ordered the dismantling of any democratic institutions and opposition political parties. At the King Carol's initiative the “National Renaissance Front” was founded and all the power was transferred to the king. The Prime Minister, Miron Cristea, who was also the Patriarch of the Romanian Church and a fierce anti–Semite, declared that he will eliminate all foreigners from Romania and will implement the removal of the Jews from Romania. He relentlessly practised the anti–Jewish policies of Goga and Cuza.

In the same time there was a serious disagreement between the King Carol and Codreanu regarding the Iron Guard's activities and when King Carol outlawed the Iron Guard, the Jews felt somehow hopeful. This incident was so serious that Codreanu's people (the Iron Guard) assassinated the new Prime Minister, Armand Calinescu, in order to send a message of protest to the King.

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The King did not back away and he arrested Codreanu and hundreds of his followers. Codreanu was killed in jail. His followers were sentenced to death and the King ordered that their bodies be hanged in central places in cities and towns in order to deter future rebellions. When the Jews saw that some of Codreanu's supporters were hanging in the city centre, they hoped that the persecutions will stop. Very soon their hopes disappeared and they realized that the hate for Jews is bigger than any disagreements between the Romanian political parties.

The Minorities Law, passed in 1938, gave some rights to the minorities but excluded the Jews entirely. As a result of this law, the authorities started to review the citizenship of the Jews especially the ones from Bessarabia, Bucovina and Transylvania. As a result about 200,000 Jews were forced to prove their citizenship and the people who could not prove that they lived in Bessarabia before March 7, 1918, would be deported within the next 3 months. Fearing deportation, the Jews of Kishinev started looking into documents to prove their citizenship and neglected all other activities. Engineers, lawyers and other professionals were fired from work and licenses to sell alcohol and tobacco were cancelled. In November 1938 the merchants union in Kishinev removed from their list all people who lost their citizenship. In July 1939 the government introduced heavy taxes for the people without citizenship.

Starting in 1938 all Jewish institutions were outlawed, the Yiddish schools closed, the Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers closed and the Jewish parties banned. The Jewish leadership was dispersed and all ties with the rest of Romania were cut.

In those terrible days of the winter of 1938, Rabbi I.L. Zirelson convened at his home all representatives of the Jewish institutions and parties. It was decided to form a committee of four – Rabbi Zirelson, Shlomo Berliand, Carol Shteinberg and Yitzkhak Koren that will give legal assistance regarding citizenship and revoked citizenship to the community.

They had some results regarding this problem, but the political tension

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and the worries did not end. The fascist Bucharest government did not stop for a second the anti–Semitic policies and the Jews lived in great fear. The situation of the Jewish community at the start of WWII was appalling and the future was grim. This was the situation of the Jewish community of Romania and among them the Jews of Kishinev when the Soviet Russian army crossed the Dniester in June 1941.

When they arrived in Kishinev, the Soviet regime decided to allow all citizen of Bessarabia to return to their original places. The Jews of Kishinev who were scattered all over fascist Romania decided that this is an occasion to return home. Thousands came back to Kishinev form Romania and from the small towns in Bessarabia.


Social institutions

Kishinev community life history is not completed without mentioning the numerous social institutions that were founded by the enthusiastic and dedicated activists. These institutions were organized to help the people in need and played an important role especially in the time of oppression and poverty suffered by many households.

The institutions were organized to support the community as follows: material help for the very poor, a low–cost meal at community kitchens, care of the orphans, old folk homes, medical assistance and vocational training. The organization “Somekh Noflim” (Supporting the Destitute) helped many people get back on their feet by providing low interest loans.

In order to meet the demands, the institutions increased in number and their activities and commitment were immensely recognized by the community that found itself in a strange land under a tyrant regime that did not care for them a bit. In 1935 the budget for the Jewish Community institutions was 3 million lei, just a third of the budget of the 10 million needed for all social activities. The rest of the money had to be raised by the social institutions. The social institutions workers and volunteers run day and night from house to house, from store to store in order to raise funds for these institutions. Sometimes the dedication of the works was not well appreciated, but

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there were many in Kishinev who dedicated their entire life to the social work. The social workers also assisted the thousands of refugees who came to Kishinev from the Ukraine. They helped the victims of the famine in Bessarabia during 1925–1926, 1928 and 1935 and set up a centre to feed the starving.


The Jewish Hospital

One of the most important Jewish institutions in Kishinev was the hospital. The hospital was founded in 1820 and was located in a modest building far from the city centre on Nikolaeski Street. This hospital did not get any funding from the municipality and the entire burden for its operation was carried by the Jewish community. A large amount of money came from the charity boxes that were in each house and money was collected before the women lit the Shabbat candles. A budget was allocated to run the hospital but it did not meet the needs. At the beginning of its existence this hospital was not well used and sometimes it even stayed empty.


The building of the Jewish Hospital in Kishinev


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This situation turned sometimes into a joke in the community[4]. In 1828 one of the rich land owners announced that he wants to visit an empty hospital without sick people, with empty rooms. The director of the hospital panicked, but at the end he found a solution. He went to the old market and gathered a large number of poor people, paid them 75 cents each, told them to lie in the beds and pretend they are sick. They immediately got better when the visit finished! Even at its beginning, this hospital played an important role in the Kishinev community. It also assisted people from other communities outside Kishinev who needed medical treatment.

In 1826 the management of the hospital asked the city to help them find another building or at least to repair the existing one. Even if the city doctors recommended a new building, the city refused this request. This fact was published in the pamphlet marking hundred years of Bessarabia under the Russian regime (1812–1912).

The municipality's lack of support caused a great financial burden on the hospital management who did the impossible to keep it running. The following people were in the management board of the hospital in 1840: Meier Hirsh Kogan, Shaul Gelbiner, Manya Shwartzman, Leib Kofrinda, Zalman David Eisres. They dedicated their time to fundraising and to promote the importance of the hospital in the community.

In 1844 when the mutual aid societies (korobka) were started among the Jews and it was decided that part of the earnings will go to maintain the hospital, the situation did not improve. Only in the 1870s there was an improved, because the hospital got recognized by the city council as an independent institution. The city council appointed a new management board selected from the best activists and property owner: Abraham Greenberg, A.D. Danin, Dr. Grosman, Abraham Belnek and his brothers. The chief physician was Dr. V. L. Bernshtein, a highly trained physician and a specialist in his profession. This board largely improved the hospital.

In 1860 an old folk home was opened next to the hospital.

An important development of the hospital happened when

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Dr. M.B. Slutzky joined the staff on October 1877, became chief physician a few years after and served as chief more than 50 years. The hospital's development became the main purpose of his life. He wanted to build a new building, bring in new technology and develop the ambulatory care. These plans turned to be a continuous struggle. In 1897, 3 new buildings were erected and this became the greatest event in the life of the city and of the Jewish community. The board at that time had the following members: the chairman was M.A. Blumenfeld (the son of Rabbi Blumenfeld), G.N. Kogan, Sh. I. Lifshitz, Dr. Sh. Muchnik, I.P. Ridel and M.L. Pokelman. When Blumenfeld passed away in 1900, Sh. I. Lifshitz was elected in his place.

In 1935 there were 200 beds in the hospital and 60 beds in the old folk home. That year they had 2756 inpatients and treated 14446 in the ambulatory care. 76% of patients did not pay any hospital fee. The budget for 1935 was 3,600,000 lei, the community contributed 1,110,000 lei and the rest came from donations and fundraising. Despite all the financial difficulties the hospital had given care to the sick, the wounded, the old and the pregnant women. This institution functioned more than 100 years until the annihilation of the Kishinev Jewish community.



  1. N.D. Gardovski: Economic Laws for Jews (Russia) Part 1, Petersburg, 1886, page 258–260 Return
  2. I. G. Orshanski: The Russian Legislation Regarding the Jews (Russia), Petersburg, 1877, page 356–374. The author reprinted the article from the journal Novorosyiski Telegraph: “The Deportation of the Bessarabia JewryReturn
  3. M. Shvarand, Dritel Iarhandert Yiddishe cooperatzie in Bessarabie (1901–1933) (Thirty Years of Jewish Cooperatives in Bessarabia), Kishinev, 1934, page 5–12. Return
  4. A. Leon, Chapter 7, page 17 Return

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