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President Speaks out for Jews in Moldova, Known for Deadly Pogrom

April 22, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In Jewish memory, the city of Kishinev is closely linked to a terrible pogrom.

But the pogrom, whose 100th anniversary was marked earlier this month, is only a part of the city’s Jewish past and present.

Forty-nine Jews were killed and more than 500 injured on April 6-7, 1903 — the first day of Easter — when angry mobs ran through some of the city’s poorest quarters.

The violence was prompted by false rumors of a Christian child allegedly killed by Jews for ritual purposes.

It took authorities two days to order the military to stop the violence, creating the impression that the pogrom was organized by the Russian regime that ran the area at the time.

The pogrom shocked the international community and caused American Jews to rally in support of their brethren in Russia. It also sparked increased Jewish immigration to the United States and Palestine.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin spoke on April 7 to dozens of Moldovan Jews and foreign guests who came to the Skulyanka Park in Kishinev to commemorate the pogrom’s victims, many of whom were buried in the old Jewish cemetery that once existed here.

“To us this is a very important lesson,” Voronin said at the memorial meeting, which included the unveiling of a monument to the victims.

“Although it happened during a different regime, still it happened on our soil, and it is crucial to come to an understanding of why this became possible,” he said.

Semyon Shoikhet, a local architect and president of the association, designed the modest monument — a granite cube and a wall next to it with inscriptions in Romanian, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew.

The 1903 pogrom wasn’t the only tragedy local Jews faced in the last century. Another wave of pogroms in Kishinev and other towns of Bessarabia, as Moldova was known throughout much of its history, took hundreds of Jewish lives during the Russian Revolution of 1905.

During the Holocaust, close to 100,000 Jews of Moldova — a Romanian province between the two world wars that was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 — were killed in ghettos and concentration camps by the Nazis and their Romanian allies, often aided by local collaborators.

But the 1903 pogrom still symbolizes Jewish suffering in Moldova.

Local Jews can show guests a section in the old Kishinev Jewish cemetery where some victims were buried.

Next to the human victims, there is a grave containing dozens of Torah scrolls that were desecrated. Jewish customs require that ruined Torah scrolls be buried.

Some locals believe non-Jewish citizens hardly know anything about the pogrom.

“When you ask people if they know what the Kishinev pogrom is, chances are they know nothing,” says Lyubov Shurmanova, a librarian at the Manger Jewish Library run by the community. “Perhaps now that our president has spoken about it, more people will know.”

In fact, Moldova’s leadership has never been more outspoken in its support of the Jewish community than earlier this month, when Voronin delivered two speeches in front of Jewish audiences, unconditionally condemning anti-Semitism and promising his support in the fight against xenophobia.

The nation of 4.5 million people has lurched from crisis to crisis since it became independent in 1991.

Recently rated the poorest European nation by some international institutions, the country has seen violence and a short civil war in 1992-1993 that led to the de facto separation of its eastern part, known as Transnistria.

The economy has stagnated over the past decade because of a lack of natural resources and foreign investment.

The Jewish community numbers about 20,000, down from more than 80,000 a decade ago, due to massive immigration to Israel and other countries.

The community operates an array of educational, religious, cultural and welfare institutions. Yet some Jewish activists argue that the community keeps a low profile.

“Jews don’t want to get involved in politics here,” said Robert Zapadinsky, one of the pioneers of the post-Soviet Jewish revival in Moldova, who now is publisher of the country’s largest independent Russian-language weekly.

The strong show of state support during the pogrom’s commemoration was quite unusual for Moldova. Some feel this was done to win political and business support from Jews who are important members of the business community.

One Jewish business leader told JTA that Jews control as much as one-third of Moldova’s economy.

Among the places of interest to visiting Jews, locals list some Jewish-owned businesses that are operated by former Moldovans who now live in Israel. Among these are a grand shopping mall called Eilat and a bar called Carmel.

Zapadinsky, who is one of Voronin’s most outspoken critics, said authorities need to prove they understand what it means to fight anti-Semitism and increase tolerance.

“When there is real anti-Semitism today — such as cemetery vandalism — these occurrences are being routinely blamed on hooligans,” he said. “No one ever explains why these hooligans never touch Christian cemeteries.”

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