Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


JDC reports excellent relations with both Chabad and the Orthodox Union. It has assisted the Chabad school in forming its own hesed group.

68. A separate discussion was held with Inna Belyakovich, the local director of Kharkiv Hillel, another group that receives support from JDC. Hillel was established in Kharkiv in 1997 and has its own center in a small building attached to the Chabad school.

Initially a gathering place for graduates of the Chabad day school, Hillel now has about 100 members between the ages of 18 and 24 from 12 universities and other post-secondary institutes across the city. Over 40 of these students are activists. Some Jewish students in Poltava and Sumy are also involved.

The Kharkiv Hillel organization appears to interact more intensively with a Jewish day school, i.e., the Chabad school, than other Hillel associations in the transition states with which the writer is familiar. Hillel members are active as advisors to several extracurricular endeavors in the school, including a puppet theater, dance group, and the school hesed. The alumni ties of many Hillel members to the school as well as the location of the Hillel center in a building attached to the school are critical factors in this relationship. Kharkiv Hillel members also are active participants in JDC programs for Jewish elderly, such as delivery of food parcels to seniors in their apartments and organization of kabbalat Shabbat and holiday celebrations at Hesed Maalot and in warm homes.

Hillel members assumed a leadership role in the organization and imple-mentation of a JDC family camp for 20 families during the summer of 1997. Many of the families and Hillel participants continue to gather to celebrate Jewish holidays together, including Rosh Hashana and Chanukah.

Kharkiv Hillel hosted a two-day seminar in early 1998 that attracted Hillel members from Kyiv and other cities to learn about Pesach and the conduct of Pesach seders. Hillel members then led seders in the hesed, for the ghetto prisoners group, and in several small Jewish population centers. They hope that a group of American Hillel members will join them in 1999 for such Pesach activity.

In response to a question, Ms. Belyakovich and a Hillel student who had joined the discussion said they anticipate that many Hillel members would leave Ukraine in the near future to build new lives in Israel, the United States, or Canada. In the meantime, they said, Kharkiv Hillel was a second home for Jewish students. Many members had developed new friendships in Hillel.

Responding to a question about the likelihood of Jewish student participation in more than one Jewish student club in the city, Ms. Belyakovich and the Hillel member responded that two other such groups existed, one at Sochnut and the other at the Israel Cultural Center. Neither was familiar with the student club at the Israel Cultural Center. They believed that the large size of the Sochnut club precluded the type of close personal relationships that they cherish at Hillel. Further, they noted, whereas Sochnut student activities are planned by Sochnut staff, Hillel members themselves plan their own activities in Hillel. Hillel members feel that they "own" Hillel, that they can express their own personalities in Hillel, and that they have more opportunities to be creative in Hillel than is the case in other Jewish student groups.


69. The writer entered Moldova at the border crossing closest to the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy. By pre-arrangement, the crossing was accomplished with the assistance of the Jewish Agency. Klava Shlyakovskaya of the JAFI office in Chernovtsy accompanied the writer to the border, assisted with processing, and even chatted with Victor Fisher, the JAFI shaliach in Moldova, who had come to the border from Kishinev. The border crossing was accomplished with a minimum of bureaucratic hubris.55

Seven days later, the writer crossed back into Ukraine en route to Odessa. This journey was more complex as it required passage through the Transdnistr area (also called Prednistrovia), the left bank of the Dniestr River. With ethnic Russians constituting the majority population, local Russian nationalists and supporters from Russia declared an independent republic (Dnistr Moldovan Republic) in 1992 in response to strong Moldovian nationalism following Moldova's declaration of post-Soviet independence in 1991. The Russian 14th Army currently occupies the territory, which has become a haven for organized crime. The best road between Kishinev and Odessa passes though this area, necessitating several border crossings and attendant displays of national sovereignty. Traversing the various checkpoints may require as much as six hours.

The journey was facilitated by the Joint Distribution Committee. JDC has significant experience in the crossing as its two large offices in Kishinev and Odessa constitute a single JDC regional administration, thus generating JDC traffic between them. Traveling in a JDC car with a JDC driver, the trans-border passage required about an hour.

70. Moldova is a republic bounded on the north and northeast by Ukraine, on the southeast by the Black Sea, and on the south and west by Romania.

Moldovians consider themselves descendants of the Romans, i.e., not Slavs. The official state language is Romanian. Between 1812 and 1917, Moldova was under Russian rule. It proclaimed independence from Russia in 1917 and joined Romania in 1918. The territory was seized by the Soviet Union in June 1940 under the provisions of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. It was retaken by German and Romanian troops in July 1941, and was recovered by the USSR in August 1944. Romania has always considered Moldova to be a Romanian province.

Moldova declared independence from the USSR on August 27, 1991. As was the case in other former Soviet republics, its early actions were influenced strongly by resurgent local nationalism that many residents of Russian and other ethnic groups found threatening. Apprehension about the future course of Moldova was especially strong in the Transdnistr area, which had been been part of Soviet Ukraine before World War II and was transferred by the USSR to Soviet Moldova after the war. With a majority Russian and Ukrainian population, Transdnistr served Soviet needs in diluting the ethnic Romanian majority population in Moldova. Soviet policy dictated the establishment of the most advanced sectors of Moldovan industry in Transdnistr and the placement of Moldova-bound oil and gas pipelines through the Slavic-populated region.

A Russian-dominated Dnistr Moldovan Republic was de-clared in the area and seceded from Moldova in 1992. (See shaded area on map in eastern part of Moldova.) Armed conflict erupted between Mol-dovan security forces and Russian-controlled Transdnistr Republican Guards before se-cession. After secession, the latter were joined by the Russian 14th Army and Cos-sack volunteers from Ukraine and Russia. Russia has de-clined to withdraw the 14th Army, citing a lack of housing for troops in Russia.

71. Moldova, together with adjoining segments of Ukraine, is often known in Jewish history as Bessarabia, the entire area between the Dniestr and Prut rivers. Jews have lived in the region -- where they were prominent as merchants, traders, and craftsmen -- since the end of the 14th century, During parts of the 19th century, as many as 230,000 Jews lived in Moldova, perhaps one-third of the population in small towns and close to one-half of the population of Kishinev. The country was a center of both Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Widespread impoverishment and pogroms during the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to large-scale emigration. The most notorious pogrom occurred in 1903, apparently with the support of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, led by Vyacheslav Plehve.56 The attack occurred on Easter, April 6 and 7, spurred by a blood libel campaign in a prominent newspaper. According to official statistics, 49 Jews were killed and another 500 were injured. Material losses from property destruction and looting were enormous. About 2,000 Jews were left homeless. Another pogrom occurred on August 19, 1905, in which 19 Jews were killed and 56 were injured.

Perhaps 300,000 Jews lived in Moldova on the eve of World War II. The number of Holocaust victims is difficult to determine due to inconsistent territorial nomenclature among Romanians, Soviet authorities, and Nazi occupying forces. Slightly more than 95,000 Jews lived in Moldova in 1959, a fairly large number of whom are believed to be postwar migrants from southern Ukraine.

72. Following heavy emigration over the last 20 years, the contemporary Jewish population of Moldova is about 30,000. Perhaps 25,000 of the 30,00057 live in the capital city of Kishinev (Chisinau, in Romanian). Concentrations of about 1,000 Jews live in Beltsy, Soroky (Soroca), Bendery (Tighina), and Tiraspol.

Two rabbis serve in Moldova: Rabbi Zalman Abelsky of Chabad has been in Kishinev since the early 1990s and is the Chief Rabbi of Moldova, and Rabbi Moshe Budilovsky arrived in 1997. Rabbi Budilovsky, who is associated with Aguda, is admired among Kishinev Jewry for his outreach efforts and willingness to work with all segments of the Jewish community.

55. The occupants of an automobile directly behind the car of the writer were less fortunate. They appeared to be Romany (gypsies) and were subjected to various forms of harassment.
56.  Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve (1846-1904) was one of the most reactionary figures in the regime of Nicholas II, the last tsar. Plehve was also an instigator of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.
57. About 12,000 Jews lived in or near the Transdnistr area (in Tiraspol, Bendery, and Dubossary) at the outbreak of hostilities in the early 1990s. Some were caught in the crossfire and casualties occurred. The Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee, together with indigenous groups, mounted an evacuation operation that brought many Jews from the region to Israel. However, some preferred to return to their places of residence from evacuation centers in Odessa and Kishinev.

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