OTACI - After just half an hour the little blue tour bus painted
with smiling dolphins died with a smell of something burning, leaving Matthew
Bronfman stranded next to a muddy field somewhere in rural Moldova.
was a surreal start to what was shaping up to be a surreal occasion: the son of
one of America’s most powerful and wealthiest Jewish families returning to his
ancestral village in a remote border region of Eastern Europe’s poorest
In 1889, Bronfman’s great-grandfather Ekiel packed up his family,
including his son Samuel, a couple of servants and a rabbi, and left Otaci, a
largely Jewish town in Bessarabia, a far-flung province of the Russian
They settled in Canada, where Samuel went on to make a vast
fortune and establish a family dynasty that at one time controlled the world’s
largest alcoholic beverage company. Otaci, meanwhile, went through a turbulent
history and became part of Romania, then the Soviet Union and finally
independent Moldova, lately known as the country with the world’s highest per
capita alcohol consumption.
“After 123 years the family has come back to
visit our roots,” said Bronfman.
The family had fled persecution and
pogroms. Now Bronfman, a prominent New York businessman, a major investor in
Israel and a noted Jewish philanthropist in his own right, was being received
with great honor. A police car driving down the center of the bumpy two-lane
country road forced oncoming traffic off the asphalt to make way for the
replacement bus barreling along on its three-hour journey north.
stopped outside Otaci City Hall, where passengers were greeted with “Heveinu
Shalom Alechem” blasted at full volume. After the entourage danced a quick hora
under the somber gaze of a statue of Lenin, Bronfman was given the traditional
offering of ornate challah-like loaves of bread and blood-red wine sloshed into
Otaci's mayor awarded Bronfman the title of honorary
citizen, placing a bright red-and-gold sash across his chest.
“It is a
unique honor for me to be able to come back to the birthplace of my grandfather
and the home of my great-grandfather,” Bronfman said at the ceremony.
its height in 1910, Otaci had more than 7,000 Jews. Many of them and their
descendants were killed in the Holocaust. The rest immigrated to Israel and the
United States following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now the town is
inhabited mostly by ethnic Ukrainians and the Roma, or gypsies. This was clear
from the crowd of about 100 spectators, who apart from a handful of elderly Jews
was comprised of puzzled-looking babushkas and scruffy gypsy children who
followed curiously as Bronfman was taken on a tour of the nearby synagogue that
burned down in an accidental fire a decade ago.
"It’s a little surreal to
come here to Otaci,” he told JTA afterward. “But I was very moved by the turnout
at City Hall and to see the size of the synagogue here. It was very impressive;
there was clearly a big Jewish community.”
Perhaps because of the obvious
sincerity of all involved and the realization that what had been a thriving
Jewish community for centuries was no more, the day - which at times had veered
toward the bizarre - finally managed to strike a more poignant note.
the Jewish cemetery, Bronfman searched the forest of weathered tombstones
looking in vain for the family name. (It is assumed that like many, the name was
changed or corrupted during the move to the New World.) Standing in a field of
wild strawberries and mushrooms, a rabbi recited Kaddish next to an old
“I wasn't really expecting to find [a family
grave] here, but it’s still the place of my ancestors, so saying Kaddish was
important to me,” Bronfman said.
The journey was not just a personal
odyssey for Bronfman but also the culmination of a seven years of involvement in
Limmud FSU, an organization that brings Jewish learning to the Jews of the
former Soviet Union. In 2005 Bronfman was at the World Jewish Congress with his
father, Edgar, in Spain when he was approached by Limmud FSU founder Chaim
Chesler, who wanted to bring him on board.
"He told me that we would come
to Otaci and Soroca when the time was right and we would celebrate the roots of
my family," Bronfman said.
Bronfman is now the chair of the international
steering committee for Limmud FSU, which on Sunday held its first conference in
Moldova with more than 400 participants.
After Otaki, Bronfman went to
nearby Soroca, which is believed to be the birthplace of his great-grandmother
and is still home to a small Jewish community. He visited the local synagogue
and laid a wreath on a memorial for 6,000 of the town’s Jews who were massacred
in a nearby forest by the Nazis.
For Bronfman, the return to his roots
had crystallized one thing: how fortunate his family had been to have been able
“get out early enough to be able to create a better life for
“My grandfather really wanted to be Canadian and so, perhaps,
he heard more stories than we ever did about what life was like here. And in a
very real way he did not want to repeat that life,” Bronfman said.
the ceremony, the day again turned surrealistic.
Bronfman was taken to
meet Baron Artur Cherar, a bushy-bearded leader of the local Roma and the
self-styled gypsy king, who was supposed to talk of the common persecution of
the Jews and gypsies by the Nazis. Instead the baron, who speaks a little
Yiddish, took Bronfman past an old limousine in his garden that he said belonged
to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, and into his mansion to show him his
extensive porcelain figurine collection. He even let Bronfman hold two of
They came downstairs and Cherar played his accordion while Bronfman
and the Jewish group swayed, arm over shoulder, and sang the Yom Kippur litany
"Avinu Malkeinu." They danced another hora and were joined by the baron’s wife
in a whirl of aprons and flashing gold teeth.
Bronfman acknowledged that
his day had not gone exactly as envisaged.
“But everybody is happy," he
said, "and that’s good.”