CHIȘINĂU (ro) / KISHINEV (ru) / KESHENEV (yid)

Chișinău has a long and rich Jewish history. In 1774, a ḥevra kaddisha (burial society) was founded in the town with a membership of 144. When Chișinău (Kishinev then) became the capital of Bessarabia under Russian rule it developed dashingly swiftly, becoming a commercial and industrial center, and many Jews moved there from other places in Russian Pale of Settlement. In 1816, the Great Synagogue was built – today we know only the place it was located – and in 1838, the first Jewish secular school was opened. From 10.509 (12.2% of the total population) in 1847, the numbers of Jews in the city grew to 50.237 (46,5%) in 1897. At the close of the 19th century most of the Jews were engaged in commerce, handicrafts, and industry.

Chișinău was the seat of the Bessarabian headquarters of several Jewish institutions, which included the Jewish Colonization Association, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (after World War I), and the American Joint Reconstruction Foundation. Yehudah Leib Zirelson, the chief rabbi of Chișinău and Bessarabia (from 1909), founded a yeshivah here. There were also Jewish schools with instruction in Yiddish and Hebrew, and a Tarbut school. In 1898 there were 16 Jewish schools in Chișinău with 2.100 students; 700 Jewish students attended general schools.
The name of Kishinev became known to the world at large as a result of two pogroms: in 1903 and 1905. The first, inspired by the local and central authorities, took place during Easter of 1903, when a blood libel spread like wildfire. Public outcry throughout the world was aroused by the incident and protest meetings were organized in London, Paris, and New York. Under the pressure of public opinion, some of the perpetrators of the pogrom were brought to justice but they received very lenient sentences.

On October 19–20, 1905, riots broke out once more. They began as a protest demonstration and deteriorated into an attack on the Jewish quarters. On this occasion, some of the Jewish youth organized itself into self-defense units. The two pogroms had a profound effect on the Jews of Chișinău. Between 1902 and 1905 their numbers dropped from around 60.000 to ~53.000, many immigrating to the United States and the Americas, while many more left after the second attack.

Romanian rule, which lasted for 22 years (1918–40), made some improvement in the condition of the Jews, who were still harassed by official and unofficial antisemitism. However, their numbers increased through the arrival of waves of refugees from the pogroms in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War.

By German-Russian agreement, in June 1940 Russia annexed Bessarabia. During the year of Russian domination, all Jewish institutions were closed down. In May-June 1941 the authorities arrested, imprizoned and exiled to Siberia all who were defined as enemies of the regime: these included the activists of the various Jewish movements and the wealthy Jews.

On July 17, 1941, Chișinău was occupied by German and Romanian units, who entered it together with units of Einsatzgruppe D. The massacre of Chișinău’s Jews began immediately, and by the time the concentration of Jews into a ghetto was completed, about 10.000 had been slaughtered. The order to establish a ghetto and to wear the yellow badge was issued by the Einsatzkommando unit 11a, which from time to time took a number of people out of the ghetto and killed them. The Romanian gendarmerie acted similarly. On Oct. 4, 1941, deportations began to Transnistria, the first group containing 1.600 persons. After this, between 700 and 1.000 Jews were deported daily, the last group leaving on October 31. Many of the deportees were robbed and murdered on the way to the Dniester River, while mass murder took place on the banks of the river, carried out by the Romanian gendarmes and German soldiers. In Transnistria Jews were sent to various camps and ghettos, where two-thirds of them died from epidemics, hunger, and exposure.

In 1947 there were 5.500 Jews in Chișinău. The official census of 1959 reported 42.934 Jews in Chișinău; in 1970 the Jewish population was estimated at approximately 6.000; and in 1998 it was put at around 21.000. Today the Jewish community of Chișinău is small but vibrant, many Jewish organizations are acting here.

The Jewish heritage in Chișinău is rather widely presented. We can see here several buildings of the prewar number of more than 70 synagogues (mostly rededicated or abandoned), a building of the famous r. Zirelson’s yeshiva, a cemetery, a former Jewish hospital, former Zionist offices, several monuments commemorating Pogrom and Holocaust etc.

You can walk around the Jewish Chișinău virtually, using the audiowalks (audiowalks.trans-history.org/chisinau) created by Maghid in cooperation with Centropa (www.centropa.org) and Büro für Erinnerungs Kultur (erinnerungskultur.de). Or come in person to see with your own eyes!

[email protected]maghid.org

© Jewish Heritage Moldova (Maghid NGO) Research, Education, Guiding