Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visit To Jewish Communities In Ukraine And Moldova
April-May, 1994

This report covers a visit to Jewish communities in Ukraine and Moldova from April 22 to May 5, 1994. The first segment of the trip was as a participant in a ‘mission’ of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to communities served by that organization. The second segment was an independent journey to central/eastern Ukraine after conclusion of the JDC mission; most of one week was spent in Dnepropetrovsk (which the writer has visited on three previous occasions), but side trips were made to Donetsk and Pavlograd.

As reported in Western news media, Ukraine has been in political and economic crisis since its declaration of independence on August 24, 1991. A country of 52 million people (of whom Ukrainians constitute 73 percent and Russians 22 percent), Ukraine inherited much of the former Soviet Union’s best farmland and strongest industrial base. However, its political leaders lack the strength to initiate vital economic reform—and hyperinflation tears at the economic and social fabric of the state. Ukrainian nationalism is a troublesome factor in western Ukraine, and Ukrainian-Russian tension is potentially explosive in eastern regions and in the Crimea.

No definitive study of Ukrainian Jewish demography exists. Most informed observers believe that approximately 500,000 Jews live in Ukraine - perhaps forty percent of the Jewish population of the entire former Soviet Union. According to a 1993 survey by the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut), major Jewish population concentrations are in Kiev (110,000), Dnepropetrovsk (55,000), Kharkov (47,000), and Odessa (45,000).1 Emigration of Jews from Ukraine is greater than that from Russia, both in actual figures and proportionately, and is increasing.

Important differences exist between the Jewish populations of Ukraine and Russia. First, Ukrainian Jews are closer to their Jewish roots because the Holocaust affected them much more directly — nearly every family lost many of its members because all of Ukraine was occupied whereas no major Russian city was captured by German troops — and Ukrainian Jewish migration from smaller towns to larger, more cosmopolitan cities often occurred one generation later than did Russian Jewish migration. Second, although many Russian Jews strongly identify with the dominant Russian culture and are reluctant to leave a milieu in which they feel comfortable, far fewer Ukrainian Jews identify with Ukrainian culture. In fact, the mother tongue of most Ukrainian Jews is Russian, and many speak no Ukrainian at all. Third, economic reform in Ukraine lags behind that in Russia. Fourth, while prevalent in almost all areas of the former Soviet Union, popular antisemitism is stronger in Ukraine than in Russia.

Moldova was known during the post-war Soviet period as Moldavia. Until 1940, the area was part of Romania and was called Bessarabia. It came under Soviet rule in 1940 as a consequence of the 1939 secret pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Moldova declared independence from the USSR on August 27, 1991.

Slightly larger in territory than the state of Maryland, Moldova share borders on its north, east, and south with Ukraine, and with Romania to its east. Its population is 4.3 million, of whom two-thirds are Moldovans, who are ethnically related to Romanians, and 14 percent Ukrainian, 13 percent Russian, and 1.5 percent Jewish (perhaps 40,000 to 45,000 individuals.)

Shortly after the old Soviet Moldavian government proposed in the late 1980s that Moldavian be the official language of the republic, Russians and Ukrainians clustered on the right bank of the Dneister River began agitating for autonomy from Moldavia. Slavs, who constitute about two-thirds of the Dneister area population, proclaimed their own state, which, though recognized by no foreign government or international organization, is known as Pridneistrovia (Transdneister) in 1990. Bloody ethnic fighting erupted in the area in 1992. Transdneister remains a Slavic enclave under the protection of the 14th Russian Army and enjoys a relationship with Russia.

The largest Jewish population concentrations are in Kishinev (30,000 Jews), Beltsy and Tiraspol (3,000 each), and Bendery and Rybnitsa (1,500 each). Tiraspol and Bendery are in Transdneister.


1. Eleven people participated in the April 1994 JDC ‘mission’ to Ukraine and Moldova; nine were lay people, of whom seven were members of the JDC Board of Directors and four were members of the JDC Former Soviet Union Area Committee.2 Ted Comet, Associate Executive Vice President of JDC, and Shoshana Comet accompanied the group. Asher Ostrin, Stuart Saffer, and Charles Hoffman of the JDC Former Soviet Union Area staff were with the group for segments of the tour.

2. Several weeks prior to the beginning of the trip, each participant received a comprehensive briefing book containing information about all of the communities to be visited and about the JDC program and budget for the post-Soviet successor states. Additional written information on local Jewish populations was provided in Odessa and Kishinev (but not in Bendery, which the group visited only for a few hours, or in Kiev).

3. The group convened in Vienna for a direct flight to Odessa on Austrian Airlines. The itinerary was Odessa - Bendery - Kishinev - Kiev. (Odessa and Kiev are in Ukraine; Bendery and Kishinev are in Moldova.)


4. Although many observers accept the Jewish Agency estimate of the Odessa Jewish population of 45,000, some other responsible specialists believe that as many as 70,000 Jews live in the city. Prior to World War II, the then Odessa Jewish population of approximately 180,000 (one-third of the population of the entire city) was engaged in various crafts, wholesale and retail trade, grain export, banking, and the liberal professions. Odessa was an important center of Jewish education, Zionism, and Hebrew literature.3

Anti-Jewish pogroms occurred in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, and 1905; approximately 300 Jews were killed in the most severe attack, in 1905. Perhaps 80,000 to 90,000 Jews managed to escape Odessa during World War II, some fleeing by sea, but more than 100,000 were murdered, many by Romanian troops working with German forces.

5. Recent Jewish emigration from Odessa has been substantial. A large proportion of Odessa Jewry reflects the dominating cosmopolitan nature of this international seaport and prefers to remain in the city or to resettle in the United States or Germany rather than in Israel.4

6. A JDC delegation visited Odessa in 1988, identifying the city as one of its primary development sites. Stuart Saffer became resident director of JDC operations in Odessa in 1991, the first JDC resident representative in the post-World War II (former) Soviet Union. He has since been succeeded by Beata Dorin. The JDC representative in Odessa is responsible for JDC operations in all of southern Ukraine.

In an introductory meeting for the JDC mission group, Mr. Saffer reviewed the scope of JDC activities in the post-Soviet successor states. The mandate of the agency is to “work with the [Jewish] community in four areas to help them help themselves” -- Jewish religious observance (all denominations), Jewish education (from preschool through university and adult classes), Jewish culture, and welfare. Additionally, JDC assists local Jews in reclaiming Jewish property (such as synagogues, hospitals, etc.) seized by Soviet authorities.

7. The 1994 JDC mission visited a number of programs supported by JDC noted below. Additionally, the group saw the JDC office and warehouse, a site for a future Jewish (Chabad) kindergarten, the remnants of the one functioning synagogue in the city,5 and the Jewish Agency office. Igor Merkoulenko led a tour of Jewish Odessa, the group enjoyed a Shabbat meal with Jewish community leaders, and the Migdal Or musical theater staged a presentation for the delegation. The JDC group heard about: the summer and other camps operated by the Jewish community, a Tali day school that may open in the near future, a Jewish dance seminar held in the city, and efforts to reclaim Jewish communal property that had been confiscated by Soviet authorities.

8. A clear effort has been extended to re-connect Odessa Jewry with its pre-revolutionary history. Wherever applicable, contemporary organizations have assumed the names of predecessor groups, such as the Gemilus Chesed society, the Beseda [Conversations] club, and HaMelitz, a Jewish newspaper.

9. The Jewish Cultural Society, headed by Felix Milshtein, holds title to a community center building that houses the Jewish Cultural Society, the Israel Information Center (Lishkat haKesher), the Migdal Or Jewish Musical Theater, the Ghetto Survivors and War Veterans Association, classrooms, and a community library.

A restaurant is currently under construction in the courtyard of the Jewish community center building. It will operate as a commercial facility in the evening and as a free dining room for needy elderly during daytime hours.

1.See Baruch Gur, The Jewish Population of the Former Soviet Union: An Empirical Analysis as of Mid-1993, Situation Paper No. 6 (Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency for Israel, 1993), pp. 4-7. Unless otherwise indicated, the Gur study is the source for Jewish demographic statistics that appear in this report.
2. Neither the chairman of the committee nor any of its six co-chairmen participated in the tour. (The chairman had intended to go, but canceled for health reasons; one of the co-chairman had expressed interest, but subsequently decided to go on another JDC mission that includes one of the former Soviet republics in its itinerary.)
3. Between 1880 and 1917, the Odessa Jewish population was the second largest in tsarist Russia, following Warsaw, which was then within Russian borders.
4. Two Jews from Odessa -- Eduard Hurwitz and Volodymir Plotkin, both representing the Inter-Regional Bloc of Reform -- are among the four Jews recently elected to the 450-seat Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.
5.  The major portion of the structure collapsed in June 1992.

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