In Chişinău, a tiny Jewish community tries to save its history from oblivion. Half of the ancient capital of Bessarabia used to be inhabited by Jews. One day, in April 1903, the nightmare of pogroms started. Before the Nazis, even before the Shoah, it was in this forgotten city that the century of hatred began
The maze of streets behind avenue Stephen the Great is an outdoor market. A bazaar, but without the charm of oriental bazaars. This is just dust and confusion, broken sidewalks and drums of detergent imported from the Ukraine. Substandard goods from China and pieces of meat resting on the cement counters. The sun cannot fade the labels. Sunny days are the coldest. Today it is colder than twenty below zero. Vegetables are closed in caskets of wood and glass, kept warm by rows of candles. They look like votive altars of a vegetable deity.
Then there are the people, the Moldovans, who have to save every single leu to make ends meet and shop here rather than at the supermarket. The elderly line up along the wall, holding a handful of potatoes or a bunch of cabbage in newspaper sheets. They stomp their feet on the ground from the cold. They travel all the way to the bus terminal, where drivers scream the names of places never heard, anonymous dots on the map of one of Europe's least known countries.
I have been looking for Habad Liubavici street for a long while. It must be around here, but I cannot find it. I ask, but no one can point me to the street where the last synagogue in Chişinău is located. Meanwhile, I have gotten lost between the goods of Piaţa Centrală, the colours of the labels and price placards written with trembling handwriting. The sky is getting darker.
Where it all began
At the beginning of the 20th century, the capital of Bessarabia – the historical region which coincides with today's Moldova and part of Romania and the Ukraine, around the delta of the Danube – counted 70 synagogues and a dozen Jewish schools. And they were always full. Roughly half of the inhabitants of Chişinău were Jews, the calendar of Jewish holidays marked the city's life, and Yiddish was the second language after Romanian.
It could not last. The shock wave of modern antisemitism was accumulating across Tsarist Russia, fuelled by a series of beliefs culminating in the publication of the false Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The tsunami of hatred struck with unprecedented vehemence on Chişinău between April 19th and 20th, 1903, with the first great pogrom of the 20th century, and then again in 1905.
The machine of absolute evil had set in motion, and it would not stop until the decimation of the Jewish population with the arrival of the Einsatzkgruppen, the Nazi death squads that bloodied the entire Eastern Europe.
The century of the Holocaust began here
The sun has gone down behind the low buildings and the darkness rising from the sidewalks is only pierced by the headlights of the car. The public lighting has not yet been turned on, or there is just none. Again, I ask an old man in a fur hat, but he doesn't know about the street, nor the synagogue.
Between two detergent shops there is an alley surrounded by sticky darkness, a dark silent as the womb of a mother. It is the only diagonal street in a grid of orthogonal ones, it rips the mesh of the map like a cut in a net. I try not to slip on the ice while I am guided by the glow of three large windows on the ground floor. The sunset celebrates the end of the Sabbath.
Time of the celebration
There are no more than fifteen of them. They break the bread, drink the wine. The rabbi repeats his amèn as a chant older than the world itself. I do not understand why we still see the differences between the three great Abrahamic religions and ignore the common matrix, the binder that makes the phrase "clash of civilizations" meaningless.
Rabbi Avrhom is a huge man, broad and strong like a walnut sideboard. He wears a heavy, black overcoat, 19th-century style, and the shtreimel, the traditional fur hat of the Ashkenazi Jews. He looks like he is donning a German Shepherd curled up on his head. While the faithful approach under the ark for the candle ritual, he keeps himself a little aside and moves from side to side, as if controlling the celebration like a director or a choreographer, without actually taking part. "Are you a Jew?", he asks softly. "No", I reply. "And are you really interested in the Jews of Chişinău? I did not think that people in Italy would want to know about us, it's nice to hear". He chuckles and leaves again.
There are very few Jews left in the Moldovan capital, and even fewer take part in religious life. They belong to the Chabad community, a current of Hasidism born in Belarus in the 19th century. Almost all emigrated over the 20th century, mostly to America, where the community has today its main centre.
Zushe lives in New York. "Brooklyn", he specifies. His thin beard, falling on his fluffy pink cheeks, makes him look older than he is. He is the connecting link with the Chabad house, as religious centres in America are called. "Activities here in Moldova are financed by the community in the United States, not by institutions in Israel. Little by little we restored the synagogue, the school, and the cultural centre. We needed everything, even the copies of the Torah and the sacred vessels".
Zushe flies to Chişinău a couple of times a year. Since distance helps to see more clearly, his point of view is less provincial, so to speak, than that of his fellow Moldovans. When I ask how he gets along with the inhabitants of Chişinău, he shrugs: "You know, here people think about surviving, they do not have time for existential problems". Yet, relations with the Orthodox Church and creeping anti-Semitism, fuelled by ignorance and poverty, are more concrete than existential issues.
Crucifix against Menorah
In 2009, the city government agreed to erect a big hanukkiah – a menorah with nine arms used in Chabad rites – in the city centre. However, the Orthodox faithful saw it as an affront to their Christian Moldova. A procession paraded through the city centre in the wake of a priest brandishing a large wooden cross. They sang hymns and waved banners praising Christ. The priest himself pulled down the hanukkiah with a hammer and planted the cross in its place, while the faithful made the sign of the cross. The pieces were then placed at the foot of the nearby statue of Stephen the Great, king of the great Moldova, said the priest, "who defended our country from all kinds of Jews".
The fact is, the coexistence of different religions is still far from being a given. Although the authorities were quick to replace the hanukkiah, hardly a day goes by without swastikas and SS symbols being deleted from the facade of the synagogue. Moldova boasts the unenviable title of poorest country in Europe, and poverty and ignorance are the breeding ground for fundamentalism, including Christian.
A forgotten place
Nothing shows better the blanket of oblivion that has settled on the Chabad community than the old Jewish cemetery. As is easy to imagine, it is hard to find. It occupies a hill just outside the centre, somewhere around via Milano. You need to get on your feet and look for it, as there is no point in asking around, not even the taxi drivers. I walk for a good half hour along a crumbling wall. I'm sure the cemetery must be beyond it, but I cannot find the entrance. I am tempted to climb over, when I see an opening in the middle of the parked cars. It is more of a gap, there is nothing solemn about it, except for the iron gate. Inside, the tombstones are bared by the roots of trees or covered with climbing plants. Some graves are in pieces, everywhere is abandonment and death.
The victims of 1903 are not here. They were buried elsewhere, but in the sixties the Soviets went there with bulldozers and made a park. The memory had to be erased.
The first pogrom was unleashed by a hoax. The Bessarabets, a Russian-language newspaper, published the news of a young Christian killed for a non-existent Jewish ritual, the blood libel. It was enough to sparkle a thirst for blood that blinded the people. Jews were hunted down house by house, women and children were stabbed in their beds, the rabbis killed on the street with sticks, synagogues burned, homes looted.
No one – not the police, not the authorities – did anything to stop the hatred that flowed like adrenaline. And no one was punished. Since that day, fear became part of the life of the Jews of the East, because it was clear that the fury against them was ready to burst at any time without need of justification. For 600 times the word pogrom was used in the Russian empire, sometimes an excuse was enough, sometimes not even that.
The guardian of the cemetery – I had not even seen him – approaches me menacingly. There is no one besides me in the midst of 20,000 graves. "What are you looking for?" His tone is justified, he is just doing his job. The graves were desecrated more than once, vandalism is common. "No one ever comes here", he explains, "the place is abandoned to itself. And to the dead". Then he drags his feet back along the path toward his hut, on a hilltop with sweeping views of the city's chimneys. They smoke.
To Tel Aviv and back
The Mall Dova plays with words. It is the only Western-style mall in all of Moldova, but without the queues at the checkout and the rush for the sales. The glass and concrete building stands out among the muddy streets.
The signs of global brands hang silent on the polished marble gallery, and shop assistants are not certainly swamped with work. In a room stolen from the shops there is an exhibition organised by the Israeli cultural centre.
Some photos of Tel Aviv share the white walls with Israeli flags. The beach of Jaffa with its surfers and the skyscrapers in the background stride beyond repair with the dullness which impregnates the city outside. "Yes, it looks like a mirage", says Zalman, "but actually many of those who emigrated to Israel have been returning in recent years. Even there the welfare state is not what it used to be, while here you can always get a kitchen garden. Settlements for immigrants are now placed in the poorest areas of the country, far from the beaches of Tel Aviv. Many do not last long and prefer to return from the desert where they were born and lived".
Chişinău is not an easy city, but it is the best place in the country for those who have the right cards to play. In the Crème de la crème boulangerie there is no need to elbow your way to a table, but there is no lack of customers. There is a kind of natural selection by the right column of the menu. The fittest guy parks the SUV on the sidewalk right outside the entrance. He's wearing Italian clothes and has a full set of electronic gadgets with an apple on the back. The venue could not have a more appropriate name.
Back to the synagogue, I am now impressed by the peace and quiet waiting just round the corner from Market Street. A shop the size of a phone booth sells trinkets not even worth of a flea market. I try to take a picture, but the man hiding behind a stack of old shoes chases me away.
It is Sunday and the prayer hall is empty, apart from the guard at the entrance and two children scurrying to and fro. Then Zushe appears from a side door that opens onto the rabbi's house. He greets me as if we were old friends, I tell him a bit about my explorations, the cemetery, and the state of neglect many graves lie in. "We need to take care of the living first. And then, there are not many relatives left of those who were buried there".
In his words I recognise a pragmatism perhaps belonging more to the Anglo-Saxon culture in which he lives than to the one this land is soaked in, fatalistic and spiritual. Because the gilgul, the vortex of the souls violently torn from bodies, keeps spinning on Chişinău with the force of a tornado invisible, but too powerful for us not to feel the sparks that it releases. Perhaps it is also the duty of the living – the survivors – to end their wandering, starting with cherishing memory.