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Across the Former Soviet Union in Breakway Land, Jews Live Poorly, but It’s Still ‘better to Be Jewi

May 9, 2003
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A visit to the self-proclaimed republic of Trans-Dniester is like a trip through a time machine. Soviet-era hammer-and-sickle emblems and red stars are chiseled into many walls, and Soviet-era collective farms produce the bulk of local crops.

Tiraspol’s central square has a huge statue of Lenin standing atop a marble obelisk, and a local government newspaper sings praise to Soviet strongman Josef Stalin for building a great power that is now gone.

In more than a decade of self-proclaimed independence from the nation of Moldova — itself a former Soviet republic – – Trans-Dniester has cobbled together a society that is a curious blend of Soviet political theory and shady business practices. The republic has a reputation as a safe haven for arms- and drug-traffickers and other semi-legal business operations, an accusation challenged by most here as Moldovan propaganda.

For most people living in Trans-Dniester today — including an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Jews, perhaps one-tenth of the area’s Jewish population of a decade ago — “uncertainty” is the key word to describe the situation.

“Not everything is so bad here,” says Yefim Teitel, the balding 67-year-old chairman of the Trans-Dniestrian Jewish community.

Like many local Jews, he rose to some level of prominence during Soviet times; he was a high-ranking manager in the agriculture sector. And like most local Jews of his age, he survived the Holocaust as a young ghetto resident in the Trans-Dniestrian town of Rybnitsa.

Most Jews fled Trans-Dniester after the revolt against Moldova broke out in June of 1991.

Among those who left for Israel was the family of Semyon Weisman, a pioneer of the area’s Jewish revival who headed the Jewish Culture Society in Tiraspol.

Weisman, a 50-something former agriculture engineer, stayed for two more years to oversee the evacuation of thousands of Jews who desperately wanted to leave the war-torn region.

The civil war unleashed rampant nationalism that fortunately, Weisman says, did not result in any large-scale violence against the Jews that have long been numerous in this part of Eastern Europe.

Even after the large-scale emigration, there is still a Jewish presence in Tiraspol and half a dozen other communities. The towns of Bendery and Rybnitsa each have relatively large communities of a few hundred Jews.

As for Teitel, he now divides his time between a construction business and his small clothing factory.

“You can make a living here,” he says.

His two children, both college graduates, also live in Trans-Dniester. They don’t have immediate plans to leave, he says.

But others argue that the younger generation of Jews has no future in Trans-Dniester.

“What awaits our children and grandchildren here?” pensioner Valery Kazakov, 63, asks rhetorically.

“If you go to college here, who will need this degree issued by an unrecognized state.”

Ira Abramova, 14, goes to the Jewish Sunday school in Tiraspol and makes plans for the future, which she hopes will be elsewhere.

“I want to be a stylist in Moscow, maybe in the United States,” she says. “It’s terrible here, my mom can’t find a job.”

Most locals hold a passport from some other country so they can travel outside of Trans-Dniester. Local passports are valid only inside the republic.

Abramova says she will apply for a Ukrainian passport when she turns 16 — her father is an ethnic Ukrainian.

Despite the apparent difficulties of living in an unrecognized state and despite economic hardships stemming from the republic’s political isolation, many Jewish Trans-Dniestrians say Jews here probably live better than other ethnic groups.

“Out of all ethnic communities, Jews perhaps live best of all,” Teitel says.

Part of the paradox is easy to explain. The small Jewish community receives generous support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs various welfare and cultural programs similar to those in other communities in the former Soviet Union.

“To us, these are two separate states, though the work we are doing in Trans-Dniester is similar to what we are doing elsewhere in Moldova,” says Vera Krizhak, Kishinev-based director of the JDC Moldova office.

The five-year-old Chesed Chana welfare center sponsored by the JDC is located in a tidy two-story building in Tiraspol constructed two years ago with funds donated by a family from Pittsburgh.

Most Jews insist that they have no problems with their non-Jewish neighbors and rarely experience anti-Semitism.

But Alla Lozovskaya, director of the Chesed Chana day care center for elderly and disabled Jews, says some of her clients are careful to make sure their neighbors don’t notice the food packages they receive at the Jewish center.

The two Jewish addresses in town take some precautions to avoid public attention: There is no sign on the Chesed center, and the local synagogue only has a mezuzah in the lobby.

“What’s the use of placing it outside”? asks Shloime Gaubman, the 83-year-old synagogue’s usher and chairman of the congregation. “Someone will tear it off anyway.”

In recent years, the three-story synagogue in Tiraspol was firebombed twice. Gaubman says he removed the mezuzah from the street door after the second bombing, in 2001.

The synagogue regularly attracts a dozen elderly Jews, but doesn’t have a rabbi. The nearest rabbi, in the Moldovan capital, Kishinev, is too old to travel regularly. Gaubman, who for non-Jewish occasions prefers to be called by his Russian name, Lev, says no one in his community can read the original Torah scroll that is housed in a simple wooden closet.

“Still it’s better to be Jewish here,” Lozovskaya says. “You can get some help, and we have an interesting cultural life. No other community here has anything like that.”

She pauses and adds: “One of our Jews who now lives in the United States recently wrote in a letter: You are so happy that you don’t realize how unhappy you are.”

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