Before its too late

An effort is under way to photograph every tombstone of the departed Jews of Moldova.

A gravestone at Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery vandalized with a swastika (photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
A gravestone at Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery vandalized with a swastika
(photo credit: JULIE MASIS)
SERGHEY DANILIUK is not Jewish and can’t read Hebrew. He doesn’t have any ancestors buried in Jewish cemeteries and the only Jews he ever knew were his neighbors who immigrated to Israel when he was a child. Yet, for the last two years, he’s been traveling around Moldova photographing Jewish cemeteries, camera and axe in hand.
A computer repairman with a photography hobby, Daniliuk comes from the town of Causeni (Kaushany), which used to have two Jewish cemeteries until they were both destroyed.
“Jews used to make up half of the residents in Causeni,” Daniliuk, tells The Jerusalem Report, “but now there is not a trace of them left. They were doctors, teachers. I think it’s very unfair that they were forgotten.”
Daniliuk is working on a project, which aims to photograph every tombstone at every Jewish cemetery in Moldova and make the pictures available online. The project is spearheaded by Yefi m Kogan, a Moldovan-Jewish immigrant to America who is also originally from Causeni.
Though only a few Jews are left in Moldova, the Jewish cemeteries remain.
Some are overgrown with weeds, some have become pastures for goats, and some have just about reverted to the forest.
“Every year, we can read fewer and fewer inscriptions on tombstones,” Kogan tells The Report. “When I learned that the cemeteries are disappearing, I realized that this work is urgent.”
There used to be many synagogues in Chisinau (Kishinev), but currently only one remains open daily, supported by the Chabad Hasidic movement. Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Abelsky – who can’t speak Russian, which does not help him connect with the local Jewish community –says that about 300 or 400 people come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, but no more than 30 show up on Shabbat. Abelsky, an Israeli, who is in Moldova on a temporary assignment, says the community is looking for a Russian-speaking rabbi.
There are also two Jewish schools in Chisinau and a large Jewish cultural center with a Jewish museum, and organizations that provide activities for children.
Irina Shihova, a senior researcher at the Moldova Academy of Sciences, tells The Report that according to the local Jewish Cultural Center’s estimates there are 10,000 Jews in Chisinau and about 5,000 elsewhere in the country. Many of them have partial Jewish ancestry, she adds. According to the government census of 2004, however, there were fewer than 4,000 Jews in Moldova, when the total population was 3.38 million in this small country, nestling between Romania in the west and Ukraine to the east.
A headstone in the Chisinau Jewish cemetery commemorates a person who lost his eyesight as a result of the Kishinev pogrom of 1905.
The name Kishinev is associated in the Jewish collective memory with the pogroms that took place there in 1903 and 1905, in which some 70 Jews were murdered. In response Chaim Bialik, who was to become Israel’s national poet wrote his masterwork, “In the City of Slaughter”, about the perceived passivity of the Jews in the face of the mobs.
AT LEAST two gravestones have black swastikas daubed across them. Nonetheless, this cemetery is the best maintained in Moldova, where 100 years ago Jews made up 37 percent of urban residents – almost half of the population here in capital.
Apart from echoes of the pogroms, the old Chisinau Jewish cemetery has a sinister history. The doors and walls of the abandoned synagogue located in the cemetery are scarred with the impact of scores, if not hundreds, of bullets. Look closely and you will see that some shots were fired from inside, others from the outside.
It is unclear who the victims were, but the perpetrators are believed to have been Romanian fascists who occupied Moldova during the war.
In the 1950s, urban planners converted the old part of the cemetery into a public park with a playground and tennis courts. They broke up the old tombstones and used the pieces to build a wall for the remaining part of the cemetery. In a few places, fragments of Hebrew words can still be read.
In his battle to preserve Moldovan Jewish heritage, Kogan notes that there are about 70 Jewish cemeteries in the country, some 20 of which have already been photographed at a cost of $15,000. It will cost about two or three times more to photograph the rest.
Once the tombstones are photographed, the images are analyzed to decipher the faded inscriptions. Kogan recently hired a specialist to digitally remove swastikas from the photos of 12 gravestones from Tiraspol.
He says it wouldn’t have been appropriate to put the pictures with the swastikas on the Internet. The Hebrew inscriptions are then translated and all the information is entered into an online database.
Daniliuk relates that he stops in villages to inquire if there is a Jewish cemetery in the vicinity. Some cemeteries take one day to photograph, others have taken many trips, with overnight stays. At times, he has to cut branches away just to clear the path to the next grave. In some places, the only choice is to hop from gravestone to gravestone – and even so, a wrong step can result in injury.
Sometimes, he says, an inscription touches him so much that he has to stop his work for the day. Once, he says, it was a gravestone on which he read, in Russian, “To an unknown woman.” Another time, he found a piece of a Jewish tombstone in a ditch near his hometown. The only part of the inscription he could make out was “killed tragically.”
“I thought about this person’s fate. First he was killed tragically, and now a piece of his headstone is here in a ditch and I stumbled on it only by accident,” he says sadly.
In the village of Zguritsa, which was once a Jewish settlement, a portion of the burial ground was recently cleared to make way for a cow pasture. No one was left to protest – for not a single Jew remains in the village.
The rest of the cemetery is now the domain of tall weeds and a pack of wild dogs.
The Jewish cemetery of Briceva (Brichevo) was also transformed into a cow pasture. In Briceni (Brichany), the Jewish cemetery is so overgrown that Daniliuk describes it as being “in the forest.” In the towns of Lipcani and Basarabeasca (Bessarabka), fires recently broke out in the Jewish cemeteries. “If no one looks after a cemetery, a fire can happen,” he notes.
“As I took photos in Bessarabka I was afraid to even sweep the leaves off the stones because I could see how the inscriptions were about to crumble,” Daniliuk says.
Once, he got lost in Lipcani and stopped to ask directions to the Jewish cemetery. “I’m the last Jew of Lipcani,” the man answered.
“How did you find me?” As Daniliuk takes pictures, he has many questions. He is particularly intrigued by why, at practically every Jewish cemetery, there are some graves apart from the rest, usually near the fence that marks the border of the cemetery.
With these questions, he turned to Shihova, the researcher at the Moldova Academy of Sciences who is writing a book about the country’s Jewish cemeteries.
Like Daniliuk, she doesn’t know Hebrew, but she can tell you quite a bit about Jewish burial traditions.
THE GRAVES near the fence, she explains, are probably for burial of the priestly kohanim, because, according to tradition, kohanim are not permitted to come near the dead, so graves of kohanim are usually located near the fence, in order to allow the family of the deceased to attend the funeral from the other side of the fence. (By the way, Rabbi Abelsky, a kohen, when asked about Jewish cemeteries, responds that he knows nothing about them, since he hadn’t been to any.) Describing the various Jewish tombstones, Shihova explains that sculptures of trees with broken branches, from the end of the 19th century, symbolized children’s graves, or the burial places of those who died before their time. The images of fl owers with broken stems signify the same.
Roses symbolize the idea that learning has no limit –like a rose that has more petals hidden inside. Fish on gravestones usually signify the Torah because “a Jew without the Torah is like a fi sh without water,” she notes.
The lion signifi es Jerusalem, or it could be placed on a stone because a person was named Leiba, Leon or Leonid. If the Star of David is depicted on a 19th or 18th century gravestone, it is because the deceased was named David, Dovid or if his purported ancestry went back to King David, she says, because the Star of David was not a common symbol in Judaism until the 20th century.
Candlesticks symbolized a woman’s grave. The meaning of some other images is not clear. For instance, Shihova is puzzled by the images of unicorns she has seen on some graves.
The tombstones at Moldova’s Jewish cemeteries go back to the 18th century and maybe even the 17th century, according to Shihova – and it’s interesting to observe how they have changed over time. Traditionally, she explains, men, women and children were buried in separate parts of the cemetery. In northern Moldova, there was a custom of the son carving his father’s headstone and there are some stones that bear proof of having been clumsily made by those who were not professionals, she says.
Traditionally, gravestones carried only the date of death (in Hebrew letters), the fi rst name of the deceased and his or her father’s name – but not the family name or date of birth.
“That’s why using gravestones in genealogical research is very diffi cult,” she says.
But with the establishment of Soviet rule (most of Moldova was integrated into the Soviet Union only in the 1940s), Jewish headstones became fi rst bilingual (in the beginning, Russian was written on one side of the stone with Hebrew on the other), and later Hebrew vanished altogether.
Nowadays, the Jews of Chisinau are no longer buried in the Jewish cemetery, but in one common city cemetery. “There are Jewish sections – but I think some Jews are also buried with the others,” Shihova notes.
“It’s incredibly interesting. Jewish cemeteries are what remain of the community. It’s a rich heritage and it needs urgent study because it’s being destroyed,” concludes Shihova.
To learn more about the project to photograph the Jewish cemeteries of Moldova, visit Bessarabia/Cemetery.html