Moldova: First Survey of Moldova Jewish Sites Released
by Samuel D. Gruber
(All photos courtesy of Igor Teper and U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad)
Few countries in Central and Eastern Europe have as rich a Jewish history and collection of Jewish history sites as small Moldova, nestled in between Romania and Ukraine. Long a crossroads of cultures, modern Moldova today, however, is little known and rarely mentioned. Jewish communities and Jewish heritage sites in neighboring countries garner more attention and more tourists, though most of the Jewish sites in the region are starved for funds for basic maintenance, let alone restoration. Seven years ago the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, of which I was Research Director, teamed with the Joint Distribution Committee to identify, document and survey as many Jewish historical and Holocaust-related sites as possible within a year.
Rybnitsa, Moldova. Memorial to the Martyrs of Rybnitsa Ghetto, dedicated 2004.
The survey was carried out by Igor Teper. I collated the information and edited the report which has now been put online at the Commission website. Since I oversaw the survey, edited the report, I take the liberty of quoting one of the sections I wrote, a summary of the history and condition of Jewish Monuments in Moldova (Report, pp. 6-8)
Jewish Monuments in Moldova
(excerpted from Jewish Heritage Sites and Monuments in Moldova (Washington, DC: US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, 2010).
Prior to the Holocaust, the area that is present-day Moldova was home to a thriving Jewish culture that built and maintained a large number of community buildings for religious, educational, and charitable purposes. In addition, there were many Jewish cemeteries throughout the country serving Jewish communities. The second half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries witnessed the greatest growth of organized Jewish institutions and that is the period from which most surviving buildings date. These include synagogues and community buildings such as schools, hospitals, and old age homes. Some of these institutional buildings are the Jewish sites that have survived best because the facilities have been most easily adapted and reused by successor institutions, often providing services similar to the original.
The destruction wrought during the Holocaust, when German and Romanian occupiers destroyed many synagogues and other Jewish sites, was severe. Further destruction continued during the nearly half century of Soviet rule when scores of buildings were either demolished outright, or were destroyed over time by neglect; and when hundreds of buildings were confiscated by the state and adapted to new uses. It is only in the past several years that efforts have begun to identify all these sites. One important reason is to negotiate the return of many community properties to the Jewish community, or to arrange for proper financial compensation for many others which are not easily returned.
Before the Second World War, there were more than 70 synagogues and prayer houses in Chişinău. Most of these and other communal properties have been inventoried by the Joint Distribution Committee as part of an ongoing effort separate from the survey this report concerns.
The purpose of th[is] survey, which was carried out over a period of one year, was to collect as much information as possible over the location and condition of historic Jewish sites in Moldova – particularly what might be called “sites of memory” – those places where the lost Jewish culture and its destruction can be most closely encountered and best remembered. These places especially include former synagogues, extant cemeteries, and Holocaust-related sites, such as places of execution, mass graves, and post-Second World War commemorative monuments.
Most cemeteries were founded in the 19th century, though there are a few older ones, including the important sites of Dubosari, Lipcani, Markuleşti, Nisporeni, Orhei, Otachi, Rashkov, Rezina, Teleneşty, and Zguritsa. The cemeteries of Chişinău and Bălţi are very large – approximately 100 hectares each – and each probably has more than 20,000 graves. These are the largest recognizable and self-identifying Jewish sites in Moldova. Some Jewish cemeteries, such as Ungheni, are adjacent to, or part of, municipal cemeteries. Some cemeteries, such as Markuleşti, are in very bad condition.
Many older cemeteries still preserve scores – and even hundreds – are beautifully carved gravestones. All have carved epitaphs and many include distinctive decorative reliefs, including favorite motifs of paired rampant lions, the blessing hands of the kohanim, menorahs and rosettes. These carvings are the most typical examples of Eastern European Jewish folk art, and are related in form to other traditional craft representations – particularly those of synagogal wood carving and synagogue and domestic paper cutting. While many stones have been stolen or destroyed in the past half century, the Commission’s survey shows that many survive – unrecorded and also unprotected. Photographs of many lost carved stones survive in the in the work of David Goberman, who recorded Jewish cemeteries in the region during the 1950s and 1960s.
The newer cemeteries have many more graves, and the monuments at these sites are often more ornate and include multi-stone constructions which combine horizontal and vertical elements. Cemeteries also contain other elements – metal fences around graves, remains of pathways, and in some cases the remains of pre-burial halls where the body of the deceased was prepared for burial, and where mourners could gather to prayer.
There are few surviving pre-Second World War synagogue buildings, and the most impressive, the Baroque-style synagogue at Rashkov, is in ruins. The 18th century synagogue of Zguritsa still stands, but is in poor condition. Other, more recent synagogue buildings, when they could be identified, were also found to be in perilously bad condition. The small former synagogue in Gershunovka was transformed into a school during the Soviet period. It is now abandoned, neglected, and in very bad condition.
Chimishliya, Moldova. The Jewish cemetery occupies an area of about 2,000 square meters and contains around 250 extant gravestones. There is also a monument to the victims of the Holocaust. More than half of the stones are toppled or broken. The oldest stones date from the 19th century. The site’s only protection is a broken wall; it has no regular caretaker.
Vandalism of Jewish cemeteries has continued to be a problem in Moldova, although it appears that there are fewer incidences now than in the 1990s. The worst recorded vandalism was in Tiraspol, capital of the Transnistria breakaway region. In April 2001, the synagogue was attacked with pipe bomb, and then again with a Molotov cocktail in 2004. Also in 2004, the cemetery was the target of vandals who painted 70 gravestones with anti-Semitic graffiti. Local authorities were not helpful in the aftermath.
There is evidence of vandalism in nearly all the Jewish cemeteries in Moldova, but it is impossible to know exactly when and why this was carried out. Most often, destruction seems random, or to be related to the theft of stones – presumably to be reused elsewhere are either re-cut gravestones or for construction material. This is a situation that has been common throughout all of Central and Eastern Europe for many years. It is hoped that the identification, description and photography that was part of the Commission’s survey will help to control this vandalism, and will also provide basic information about protective and conservation needs at many sites. Already, more cemeteries are being regularly cleared of trash and overgrowth. While this does better expose many sites – including historic gravestones – for both visitors and potential vandals, it is generally believed that the effort to care for long-neglected cemeteries helps to inform local communities (Jewish and non-Jewish) of the value of these places, and encourages local people to better monitor the sites.
According to the Stephen Roth Institute, several Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated since the period of this survey. In early May 2006, 11 gravestones were broken at the Jewish cemetery in Bander, and other cases were reported in Tiraspol, Soroca and Orhei. Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic insults were painted on some graves. The number and location of the execution sites and mass graves of Jews from the period of the Second World War is still being researched. Often, the location of these sites is known only to a few elderly residents, who either personally remember the events, or who heard of them in the post-war period.