BĂLȚI (ro) / BELTSY (ru) / BELTZ (yid)
(Not to be confused with Belz in Ukraine!)
Bălți is the second largest city in Republic of Moldova after Chișinău (Kishinev) and is unofficially called “Moldovan Northern Capital”. The plot for the future settlement was established in 1766, and in 1779 the first Jewish merchants came here, been invited by the Turkish local authority. Therefore, the Jewish community, officially established few years later, was among the founders of the city. By the end of 19th century, 10.323 Jews constituted 56% of the Bălți population. The Jews of the city set up flour mills and candy factories, food, alcohol, soap, candles and cotton wool enterprises. Bălţi was the largest sunflower-oil producing center in Bessarabia; the oil was exported to Western Europe and even overseas. The energy station in the town was owned by a Jewish family.
In the mid-19th century, Bălţi had one synagogue, a hospital with 15 beds, a few batei midrash and some cheders, which were later upgraded and began to receive regular support from philanthropists. At this time, Jewish state schools also began to operate in Bălţi, at the initiative of the Russian authorities that endeavored to integrate the Jews into the general population. At the end of the 1860s, some Jewish children were attending the regular (non-Jewish) schools, and many of them were sent to private tutors to learn Russian, German and math.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a Talmud Torah was set up in which 100 disadvantaged children studied. The philanthropist Halperin donated a building from his estate to house the Talmud Torah (as well as one for the hospital, and one for a public bathhouse). Besides Jewish studies, the Talmud Torah taught Russian and math, and later, even vocational training. By the turn of the century, a Jewish school in the town began to place secular education at its forefront, with Torah studies integrated into the syllabus.
After the Russian Revolution, educated Ukrainian Jews fleeing the pogroms in their towns and cities fled to Bălţi. They joined the local Jews, creating an integrated and diverse community. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bălţi went from a town of batei midrash to a thriving city of secular Jewish culture. Two Talmudei Torah were turned into Jewish secular and Zionistic schools. A private boys’ school taught general professions to the wealthy children. A clinic and pharmacy were added to the Jewish hospital, and a charitable Bikur Cholim organization provided medical care to the infirm poor in their homes.
At the end of the 19th century, a crushing drought hit the region. Despite the declining economic situation and emigration overseas, the number of Jews in the town on the eve of WWI numbered 14.000.
In 1918, the Government of Romania absorbed Bessarabia into its borders, dissolving the community councils, in violation of its commitments in the peace treaties drawn up at the conclusion of WWI. Only in 1928 did the Jewish community receive permission from the Romanian authorities to renew operations. It held democratic elections to choose a leadership and was awarded a state budget in addition to the levies it managed to collect from the community and donations from philanthropists.
Due to the important role played by the Jews in the town’s economy, the Romanian authorities took steps in keeping public order and endeavoring to contain antisemitism in Bălţi. The Jews were the majority in the town, and in a number of cases a Jewish militia was successful in reining in antisemitic outbursts. The authorities were convinced that the Jews of Bălţi were not drawn to communism. However, despite all of this, a number of serious incidents of antisemitic violence took place in the 1920s, including instances of murder. By contrast, liberal and Christian members of the population included local Jews in municipal matters, and the head of the church in Bălţi even donated money to the Jewish community and its institutions.
In the interwar period, Bălţi flourished and the financial situation of its Jewish population improved. The Jews set up factories for agricultural products and a chain marketing Moldovan agricultural produce overseas. They also developed the town’s banking facilities and established a “Bank of Loans and Savings,” turning it into a powerful center of trade and industry.
The improvement in the economy allowed the Jews of Bălţi to establish educational, cultural, support and religious systems. Among the social services set up was a Jewish hospital, old age home, help for the poor and training for underprivileged children. These institutions were aided by the “ORT” and “OSE” organizations, as well as by a number of philanthropists. Many of the educated and wealthy youth went to Western Europe for university studies. Some returned to Bălţi, where they worked as doctors, pharmacists, engineers or teachers in the Jewish schools.
The global economic depression of the mid-1930s brought down the price of grain considerably. The Jews were blamed for this, despite the fact that their income, based on agricultural trade, was so badly damaged. Consequently, the community and its institutions were badly hit. With the annexation of Bessarabia to the USSR in June 1940, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, the Jewish community was shut down by the Soviet authorities.
Before WWII, there were 15.000-20.000 Jews in Bălţi.
Bălţi had many synagogues, batei midrash and prayer houses, including those established by the first Jews in the town at the end of the 18th century.
The most dominant religious stream in the Bălţi community during the 19th century was Hassidism. The town had a number of Hassidic courts. The followers of the Rebbe from Sadagura established a beit midrash in Bălţi.
Most of the rabbis of the town came from major Torah institutions across Lithuania. The rabbinical court judge (dayan) Rabbi Israel Yoffe lived and was active in Bălţi, alongside world-renowned cantors, such as Nisi Balzar, Fusman and Aharon Gomaniuk. They would teach the youth of the town to love song and cantillation, many of them traveling to the US to become famous cantors.
Today Bălți has a small but vibrant Jewish community. We could see here a huge overgrown but scenic Jewish cemetery dated back to late 18th century; a rededicated building of the synagogue, that was functioning semi-clandestine till 1970s, and the new one, bought a bit later for the money Jews clubbed; Holocaust memorial, etc.
© Jewish Heritage Moldova (Maghid NGO) Research, Education, Guiding