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Tomasz Horbowski

The World That Fades Away… The Jews of Bessarabia

These cemeteries lost among Moldovan villages and synagogues left on their own are like shells on a shore, mute witnesses of life no longer here. It is an opening of the book authored by Simon Geissbuhler, a Swiss diplomat who, fascinated by the history of Eastern Europe, decided to document the remaining traces of Bessarabian Jews.

Cmentarz Żydowski w Vadul-Rashkov nad brzegami Dniestru; autor: Simon Geissbuhler

Jewish cemetery in Vadul-Raskov on the banks of Dniester; author: Simon Geissbuhler

Simon Geissbuhler, a Swiss diplomat and historian who currently lives in Warsaw, told me that since his youth he had been interested in the history of Eastern Europe and, in particular, of Jews inhabiting these territories. “It was a fascinating subject”, he emphasised. “But over time the pace of my life increased – I became a diplomat and somewhere on the way I forgot about fascinations of my youth”. Everything changed several years ago, along the route between Budapest, where Mr Geissbuhler worked at that time, and Winnica, his wife’s hometown. He made a stopover in a modest town place on a borderland between Romania and Ukraine. It was Radauti [Romania]. “We went for an evening walk for some sightseeing. Then, suddenly, I saw an enormous church. I came closer and saw not a church but a synagogue. It was really huge. At that very moment I understood how many Jews must live here if they needed such a great building. And so once again I found my fascination in the history of Jews living in this region. I also noticed how sparse the literature on this subject is and, what is important, realized that their traces are disappearing. Soon nothing will remain…”.

That’s the story how Mr Geissbuhler found his vocation at the Romanian-Ukrainian border and started documenting history of Bessarabian Jews – to touch the remaining fragments of their lives. “I felt it was my duty”, he simply said. Though he also admitted that for a historian “being the first” is in a way an irreplaceable feeling. “But I will not write yet another book about Auschwitz. But the subject of Bessarabian Jew… There is still much to discover”.

So I asked about these Bessarabian Jews – who were they? Who are they now? “It is hard to imagine today”, Mr Geissbuhler began his story, “but at the turn of the 19th and 20th century Jews accounted for 10 percent of the Bessarabian population. Shtetls – encountered also in Poland – were common in this region. These traditional towns with predominant populations of Jews were full of synagogues, Jewish schools, hospitals, shops. And Chisinau, was a city inhabited in 40 – 50 percent by Jews, who had significant functions in social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual life. It is worth mentioning that the Jews of Bessarabia were the frontier Jews, for right here, on the coasts of the Black Sea, the “Shtetl-land” ended – in the territories of present Moldova and Romania we could find southernmost shtetls”.

While reading Mr Geissbuhler’s book about northern Moldova, I couldn’t help feeling how sad the story was – there was no one who took care of Jewish cemeteries or protected abandoned synagogues. It is hard to believe in the reality so much without hope. The whole content of the book is limited to pictures and numbers – the former illustrate cemeteries gradually fading away and the latter show how many Jews lived in their neighbourhood.

Żydowski cmentarz w Orhei; autor: Simon Geissbuhler

Jewish cemetery in Orhea; author: Simon Geissbuhler

“What I wanted to show in my book”, said Mr Geissbuhler in response, “are the Jewish traces in Bessarabia”, emphasising the fact that they are “objects – cemeteries and synagogues – not people”. To the author, it does not signify death but quite the opposite: “Paradoxically, they do mean life, showing Jewish communities of the region. It would be splendid if Moldova’s citizens saw in the Jewish history a part of their own past, traditions and identity”, Mr Geissbuhler put a strong emphasis on this sentence. “May they not be associated with something negative, but rather with a positive side: multiculturalism of these territories and their diversity – something that, sadly, is a thing of the past. It would be good if Moldova’s citizens and authorities discovered that the culture and history of Bessarabian Jews are a part of their own heritage. Unfortunately, only a very few share this point of view”.

However the impulse for action should, as Mr Geissbuhler heavily underlined, appear at grass roots level – from the locals. It could mean no complicated tasks, just simple things: cutting grass or tidy a cemetery. Basics. He admitted with regret that during his travels through northern parts of Moldova tracing the forgotten past of Jewish citizens, he had met no one who had taken as simple actions as taking care of the Jewish traces. “People were very nice and always helpful, showing cemeteries and synagogues, but nothing more. They might subconsciously feel that something is not quite right. When we were visiting Vadul-Raskov,[in Moldova] a man who led us to, probably, the most beautiful Jewish cemetery – a gigantic one, situated on the Dniester bank – told us straightforwardly: we are sorry that we neglect it and pasture our horses here”.

During our conversation we agreed that perhaps what is needed is an outside inspiration. Mr Geissbuhler’s words lack an accusatory tone, for, as he admitted, “I am aware of the fact that those suffering poverty and fighting for survival does not put protection of Jewish cemeteries among their priorities”. Yet on the other side, “I had a very sad experience when once during our visit in a Romanian school, a history teacher told us that she had never seen a Jewish cemetery located 150 meters from the school. 150 metres! She said that without an ounce of embarrassment: ‘I have never been there’. And it is such a simple thing to do – take the youngsters and tidy up a little bit, nothing big”.

Żydowski cmentarz w Vadul-Rashkov; autor: Simon Geissbuhler

Jewish cemetery in Vadul-Raskov on the banks of Dniester; author: Simon Geissbuhler

So I asked if perhaps it is time to let these places become the past. For is a synagogue where nobody sings psalms praising the Almighty is still a synagogue? The reply was: “I met Jews in Romania and Moldova who openly told me: look how few of us remain. There is no need to commemorate these places – there are no communities who could take care of them. And in a way I can agree with them. But the problem I see is the fact that no one is interested in even documenting that heritage. For instance, in Romania – let it be 20 synagogues and 5 cemeteries – nobody, or almost nobody, is even interested. And in 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, these building will just disappear”.

So perhaps it is the problem of the tough past, I asked, for it is hard to confess to one’s sins, especially when it could result in dire consequences. “I think that the responsibility for the Shoah shared by locals leads to the situation when the subject of Jewish presence in this region is practically absent – no one teaches about it in schools. Romania took an active part in these events – ca. 300,000 Jews were became war victims in territories under the control of the Romanian state and army, with an active assistance of local communities. But if we went in Romanian streets and ask by-passers, hardly anyone would acknowledge these facts. Why? Due to the fact that it has not been taught at schools. And it is not a pleasant part of Moldova’s history – to be jointly responsible for the Shoah… It is hard to plead guilty”.

In March 2012, 15,000 pages of documents from 50 trials of those accused of war crimes against Jews held in Soviet Moldova after the Second World War were placed in the Museum of Holocaust in Washington by Iurie Leanca, the Foreign Minister of Moldova. “We must show a great respect to the tragedy that took place on our lands”, said the head of Moldova diplomatic service, “in order to make certain that the lesson will not be forgotten”. This month, the first documents came into sight, touching this extremely sensitive issue of a joint responsibility. Perhaps it is the beginning of a discussion on the subject of Jewish presence in Moldova. At least, it is step towards the right direction.

————————————————————–

Simon Geissbuhler (born 1973): a diplomat and historian, studied in Brno and at the Yale University; since 2000 he has worked for the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs – between 2007 and 2010 was a deputy ambassador in Bucharest and since 2010 he has served as a vice ambassador in Warsaw. Mr Geissbuhler is the author of books and albums on the subject of Bessarabian Jews: “Like Shells on a Shore. Synagogues and Jewish Cemeteries of Northern Moldavia” (2010), “Spuren, die vergehen. Auf der Suche nach dem jüdischen Sathmar/Satu Mare” (2010).

Read more: Moldova: Bessarabian Jews – A Story of A Brazilian

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Translated by KD 

Tomasz Horbowski, rocznik 1985. Absolwent Studium Europy Wschodniej na specjalizacji Europa Wschodnia/Azja Centralna i Papieskiego Wydziału Teologicznego "Bobolanum". Spędził rok w Kazachstanie na stypendium naukowym w Ałmaty. Pracuje w Centrum Informacyjnym dla Władz Lokalnych w Mołdawii. Idealista z urodzenia, przekonania i wyboru.

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  1. Ethel Menhart says:

    Hi, I was purusing on the internet for info on Jews from Bessarabia; my grandfather’s family, surname, Honig, came from there…and ultimately migrated to New York (at turn of the century)……thank you for researching that area and what happened to those Jews who lived on the most southern shetls…..thank you very much; yes, I suppose the lack of interest in the history of the Jews of Bessarabia, is due to the fact; that, in acknowledging them, the locals would also have to acknowledge what happened to them during the Shoa……and the mass guilt and recollect would like to be forgot…….but, we must remember, so such a deed never happens again; I will read the book and purchase it; I always wanted to go to Italy, never realized that Moldova, is where it all was; and would like to visit Moldova, too……now that I know………..

  2. Artur Kacprzak says:

    It is nice to see Eastbook.eu is used to contact people and finding their ways to answers. Great to a witness of such moments.

  3. hugo cavendish says:

    Thanks very much for very interesting article on Bessarabia’s Jews.
    My own father was born in Briceni/Brichany in the far north west of Moldova which at that time was part of the Russian empire. It is interesting to see that Brazil was a popular migration destination following the infamous 1903/05 Kishinev pogroms. My family came to London, but other family members went to the US and Brazil. I
    I shall try to get your book in the UK. I look forward to reading it!
    All good wishes.

  4. Gloria Wolfson says:

    just kind of stumbled on this site. I’ve been trying to trace my father’s family and have been somewhat successful–I can place them in Secureny and Brichany in the late 1800s and early 1900s. My father and his family left Brichany in 1921.

    This mentions a book, could you give me the bibliographical reference?

    Thanks

    Gloria Krupnick (spelled Crupnic in Moldava) Wolfson

  5. Karolina Demus Karolina Demus says:

    Like Shells on a Shore: Synagogues and Jewish Cemeteries of Northern Moldavia
    Simon Geissbühler
    Publisher Projekt 36, 2010, Bern
    ISBN: 3033025668 and 9783033025660

  6. Jaynie Taylor says:

    Dear Mr. Geissbühler –

    A blessing on your house!

    I was thrilled to find this web page and to learn about your book. My (maternal) grandfather and grandmother Laban Fichman and Ester (Lundin?) Fichman reportedly came from Bricheny/Britchany in NW Bessarabia. I have almost no information about their life there.

    They emigrated from Bessarabia to Recife, Brazil circa 1916 where Laban became “Luiz,” and they then had five children: three boys and two girls. All five children graduated from college. The three sons graduated from medical school as well. What a jump in one generation!

    My own parents actually met at a local Jewish community dance in 1943 during WWII when my father was a young US Navy Lieutenant and only one of two Jewish naval officers aboard his ship, which docked in Recife. When they “courted,” my parents had a “duena” to chaperone them!

    My Dad returned from the war in 1945 and graduated from Yale in 1947, before bringing his soon-to-be bride home to Connecticut.

    I’d be thrilled to see a copy of your book or to correspond with any Fichmans or other Bricenis whose families may have lived in or come from Briceni/Britchany around the same time [1900-1925] and emigrated to America or who also emigrated to Recife and became members of the Jewish community there.

    A blessing on your house! (you deserve to hear that twice! smile.)

  7. Janis Tanner says:

    I was fascinated with your pictures of traces of the Jews in Bessarabia. I am researching my husbands family and all I got from the ship manifest is Grodinsk. It seems to have been an area in Bessarabis. Have you run across the this place name, Grodinsk?

  8. Michele Jackson says:

    Thank you so much for the information you posted here. My family came from Yedenetz, Russia…which my cousin was able to trace to being Bessarabia. My heart broke to see the cemeteries so neglected, but thank you for caring to try and keep the Bessarabian Jews alive. I will soon be looking for your book and I to now want to visit where my family once was. By chance, do you know any routes that families took when they immigrated to the US. We know our family settled in Connecticut, but can find no record of entry into the US. Thank you for your time, and thanks again for caring for our ancestors.
    Sincerely,
    Michele

    • Howard says:

      Michele,
      My father’s family was from Yedenitz and also settled in Connecticut. My wife and I traveled to Moldova and saw the conditions of the cemetery. The early family took a ship out of Odessa, went through France and Ellis Island. If you look at the Ellis Island web site, you might find references to your family.
      Stay well.

    • Audrey says:

      My father’s family came from Yedinitz, too. His name was Rosenthal, pronounced Roizentool. They left in 1926 for Canada. I’m not sure what European port they left from, but they travelled from England and landed in Quebec City. If anyone has more information on Yedinitz I would appreciate it.

  9. Lauren Ashleigh says:

    My relative in Australia has been unlocking our family history, and we know they come from Bessarabia Khotin. I will send her a link to your web site, she will be very interested.

  10. Jory Noble says:

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for the wonderful work you are doing! My grandmother lived in Kishinev with her siblings and parents and after the pogram of 1903 or 1905 (it was her earliest memory) they fled to Novoselitz where her father (H. Friedman) still had family. They immigrated to New York a few years later. My Grandfather grew up in Hotin and immigrated to New York also. His family name was Pollack. Jacob Pollack was a member of the Bessarabian Young Mens Society all his life. I have wanted to know about their ancestors but I can never find records! I don’t read Hebrew, Russian or anything but English. I want so much to remember them. I will look for your book. Your kindness in remembering their lives is so wonderful and I thank you from my heart.

  11. phil beyman says:

    my biological father (i.e.” sperm donor” ),William Louis Beyman, who aboandoned my Irish Catholic mother before my birth in Nov 1941 , hailed from Bessarabia and migrated to Canada probably in ca.1905 with his older brother;then wound his way down to LA where he survived as as a travelling shoe saleman and horse player of small distinction….any info would be appreciated..I have a few photos,etc and would gladly share……

  12. Debra says:

    I am glad I found this site I have been trying to trace my family line and so far I got to 1882 Yetta Lieberman daughter of Abraham Lev Lieberman born in Lita or Originally in Lithuania/Litwa/Litva/Lita, Grodno guberniya was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, connected with Poland, and then annexed by Russia.http://www.jewishgen.org/belarus/info_history_of_grodno.htm
    Yetta married my Great Great Grandfather Ruben Bronstein son of David Bronstein and Yetta Kupitai
    so it is nice to find these connection Thank you…Debra

  13. Elana Goldstein says:

    I just found this page- my mother’s parents both supposedly came from a small town in Moldova called “briceni” (not sure of the spelling). The last name was either Handelman, or Gandelman. I would like to g e more info on the Jews of Bessarabia- I have traced one great grandfather , Wolf Handelman to when he left Europe. Not sure if there’s any records left on Jews who lived there in the mid nineteenth century.

    Elana Goldstein

  14. How wonderful to have found this article. My grandson is researching his ancestry. My Mother’s family came from Khotin, Bessarabia. The family name is Drutman. Minnie, my Grandmother had five children. Luis, William and Joseph were born in Khotin. My Mother Ida and Uncle Nathan were born in the United States Please tell me by e mail how I may purchase your book. I can’t tell you how valuable this resource would be to my family. Thank you for doing this for us. Shelly Solomon

  15. Yvette Merzbacher says:

    Dear all and especially dear Mr. Geissbühler,

    I am so happy to read your posts and to know that I am not the only one trying to find information about family in Bessarabia. I was born in Peru as well as my father. He was the only one born there. His name was Arturo (Aron) Bronstein. He was the son of Elias (Joel) Bronstein and Elise (Lise) Coifman. Since I was a child I wanted to know more about my family but my grandfather did not wanted to tell any stories about his life back in Europe. It is a mystery which I try and need to find out since my teenage days. I only have some names like he was the son of Leib and Dinah (Fraifeld) and I think he was born in Zaicani. He had a sister, Olga, who lived in Sao Paulo and a brother, Salomon, who first emigrated to Uruguay and then to Brazil. But I have no idea of how many children they were or any more info. The same with my grandmother. I know she was born in Yedenitz to Asher or Usher and Lea Coifman (Cohn) and that she had 2 brothers, one named Aron who died in Brasil. I would love to have your book and I would love to know where can I find more information about family records or a guide to show me places around these areas in Bessarabia and to help me find old records. I would love to read your book too, Mr. Geissbühler. Hope to hear from you all soon!!
    Yvette Merzbacher, Zurich

  16. Inna Vayner says:

    Thank you so much for touching this topic. We opened a facebook group for Jews whose ancestors came from this region. The group members research their ancestors and work towards preserving the history for future generations. https://www.facebook.com/groups/Bessarabian.Moldavian.Jewishroots/

  17. Beatriz says:

    I can’t believe I found this site! My father just found his father’s birth certificate. He was born in Khotin (as Judas Podkámen becoming Joffe Podcameni when arrived in Brazil) in 1904. It is so good to find other from same place…. No words to describe my emotion right now; the remaining ones are a close family of my father Mauro), 2 daughters( Leticia and Beatriz), 4 cousins (Maria Pia, Georgiana, Ana Paula and Gabriela) and respective sons/daughters (7 in total). Great to meet and learn more.

    • Sandra Veinstein says:

      My name is Sandra Veinstein, my father was born in Hotin Bassarabia, he was a boy when the Nazis along with the Romanians entered the village, I’m looking for more information about life in Hotin, my father was very young and has few memories. I do not speak English but I can put the translator, I lived in Uruguay, South America, my father is alive and I’m always looking for information
      I hope you can help me
      Thank you
      Sandra

  18. marcos chertman says:

    dear Mr Geissbuhler:Thanks for sharing your experience regarding the jewish presence in Moldova
    My father was born in Yedenitz and left a few years before second worl war to Peru ,most of his family was left behind and I always wanted to go there ,His name was Simon Kertzman(was cange to Chertman ) upon arrival to Peru
    He was able to bring a sister ,her nam e was Pearl Seiner(by her husband)
    I lived In Miami , anhy information that you can provided will be useful,tips as how to reach Yedentiz, contacts to find names of relatives, graves
    My contact is [email protected]
    Thanks for your help,by the way how can I get your book?

  19. dave cohen says:

    my ebtire family cone from chotin. abe rosenberg. the schreibers frank davud….forned chotiner society in th 1950ies.

  20. Ivy Weisman Blumenfeld says:

    To add to these tidbits of information, I remember my grandfather (Joseph Weisman ) and my grandmother (Bertha ) belonged to a Society called (Sp.) Chotener Bessarabia: the leanings were socialist , the cemetery was included, and the camp was somewhere in The Catskills . For children there was a Kindervelt.
    I saw their names listed at Ellis Island. Joseph came in 1898 and Bertha followed 2 years later (In steerage) with a 2 year old and a 5 year old. They moved from the lower East Side of N.Y.C. to Harlem, and then to the Bronx. She was the daughter of the Starista (mayor) of a village Kapot Nakoret (sp.) before she arrived in this country.

    • Stacey Benoit says:

      This is a terrific source of information. My great-grandmother, Mintze Litman came from Briceni and emigrated to the US in 1910 while her sister and two brothers (whose names I don’t know) went to Brazil. I am trying to search backwards to find out her parent’s names and what happened to them. I would love to read your book, Simon. Thanks so much for this article and incredibly sad pictures of neglect and forgetting.

  21. Dora says:

    I was fascinated by Mr. Geissbuhler’s interest and also very sad about his hopes that locals should take care of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. I know that there are good people and bad people in every nation. But there’s also the cultural heritage that makes up a nation. The sad truth is that anti-Semitism is a part of Moldavian culture. I know it from my own experience – I was born there and grew up in Bessarabka (Romanovka), a shtetl in Moldova before moving to the capital to attend the college. I was born long after the war, but my grandparents were alive and I loved listening to their stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Many Moldavian families used to send their children as apprentices to the Jewish craftsmen. These children became part of Jewish families, many of them spoke Yiddish. But when the war started and they learned that it’s OK to kill or rob a Jew they (not little children by this time) were the first ones to go for it. In the nineties, a wave of nationalism took over Moldova, and it was OK again to persecute Jews. Just an example: we had to hire private security to safely get out from our apartment and leave the country. I lived in this building in the capital city Kishinev for almost 20 years. I knew the neighbors personally and they knew me, many of them were guests at my wedding. But nevertheless, as soon as they realized that they’d go unpunished for robbing us they were all set to do it. The history repeats. Am I bitter? Not really, I just can’t comprehend it. The gesture with turning over the documents to US is done only for political and (of course) financial gains. As for the cemeteries, it’s hopeless. Maybe gather all the headstones and build a small obelisk using them in place of each cemetery before they disappear altogether?…