Bessarabia. Boundaries shown are ca. 1914.

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Historical name of the region between the Dniester and Prut Rivers and the lower reaches of the Danube. Today, most of Bessarabia is in the Republic of Moldova, with northern and southern districts in Ukraine. Before 1812 it was part of the Principality of Moldova and its southernmost district, Budzhak, was under direct Ottoman rule. Bessarabia was within the Russian Empire from 1812 to 1918, though from 1856 to 1878 Budzhak was under Romanian rule. Between 1918 and 1940 Bessarabia formed part of Romania; from 1940 to 1991 it was in the USSR.

The earliest reference to Jews in Bessarabia dates from the fifteenth century. Polish rabbis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mentioned a rabbinic court functioning in Akkerman (Ukr., Belgorod-Dnestrovski; Rom., Cetatea Albă). In 1812, when the area came under Russian rule, some 20,000 Jews were living in Bessarabia. As the new region had autonomous status, restrictive tsarist legislation was not initially applied. At that time, 60 percent of Jews lived in towns and 40 percent in villages. They were engaged in commerce, inn keeping, distilling, and agriculture as well as in the leasing of flourmills, fisheries, and forests. Jews retained the civil rights they had had prior to Russian rule—including residence in villages and leasing activities that were prohibited to Russian Jews under the “Jewish Statute” of 1804. 

Jewish Population of Bessarabia 

With time, as the regional autonomy of Bessarabia came to be limited, tsarist legislation was authorized. Prohibitions on Jewish settlement in border regions were applied in 1839, and compulsory military service was imposed by 1852. Nevertheless, Jews began to stream into Bessarabia from the Ukrainian and Belorussian areas of the Pale of Settlement, attracted by more favorable economic prospects and relatively greater freedom. The Jewish population increased from 43,062 in 1836 to 228,620 (representing 11.8% of the population) in 1897. In that year, Jews constituted 43.2 percent of the population in towns and 7.2 percent in the villages. Antisemitic acts were common, as were periodic pogroms.

Many Jews took up agriculture in the nineteenth century. Favorable climate, fertile earth, and a plentiful water supply were beneficial for its development. Between 1836 and 1853, Jews established 19 agricultural settlements in Bessarabia, among them Aleksandreni (1837), Briceva (1836), Capresti (1853), Dombroveni (1836), Lublin (1842), Marculesti (1837), Valea-lui-Vlad (1836), Vertujeni (1838), and Zgurița (1851). In 1858 there were 10,858 Jewish farmers in Bessarabia, representing 12.5 percent of the Jewish population. However, after the introduction of the May Laws of 1882, which prohibited Jewish settlement in villages, most of the colonies were disbanded; in 1899, only six remained. By 1897, the percentage of Jews engaged in agriculture had fallen to 7.1 percent. Another 26.8 percent worked in industry and crafts, 39.5 percent in commerce, and 4.9 percent in services or liberal professions. Jews constituted 81.2 percent of all merchants and 95.8 percent of all grain dealers in the province.

Hasidism began to spread in Bessarabia in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The first Hasidic court was founded by Aryeh-Leib Wertheim (d. 1854) in Bendery (Tighina). Another was established in Vad-Rashkov. Later, groups of followers of the tsadikim of the Friedman dynasty of Sadagora and of the Twersky family appeared. A yeshiva was opened in Kishinev in 1860, attended by 280 students. In 1898, a total of 60.9 percent of Jewish children were studying in heders. The ideas of the Haskalah were disseminated in Bessarabia from at least 1839, with the opening in Kishinev of one of the first Jewish secular schools in tsarist Russia. By 1855 there were six such schools: two in Kishinev, the others in Khotin, Beltsy (Bălți), Brichany, and Izmail. In 1897, however, only 27.8 percent of local Jews over the age of 10 could read Russian.

Jewish farmers plowing a field with equipment provided by ORT, the Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia, Bessarabia, 1927. (YIVO)

Zionist ideas started to spread in Bessarabia very early on; consequently, Bessarabian Jews were among the settlers in Palestine from the 1880s. In 1890, seven delegates represented Bessarabia at the founding meeting of Ḥoveve Tsiyon in Odessa. Yakov Bernstein-Kogan was the Bessarabian delegate at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Several Hebrew writers were active in Bessarabia during this period, including Yehudah Steinberg and S. Ben Zion (Simḥah Alter Gutmann).

During the Romanian period (1918–1940), an atmosphere of state antisemitism was pervasive, although the government—bound by international treaties on minorities—was obligated to grant Jews some civil rights. Jewish political party organizations were active. A network of Yiddish and Hebrew schools and two teachers’ seminaries were established. In 1922, there were 140 Jewish schools with 19,746 pupils (105 of these were Hebrew schools, with 16,456 pupils). Because Romanianization was the state policy, many of these were converted into Romanian schools by 1922. The wide network of social welfare institutions included 13 hospitals with homes for the elderly, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and associations that assisted the ill in 25 locations. The Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) maintained eight branches.

Refugees in a temporary shelter, Kishinev (now Chişinău, Moldova), ca. 1914–1917. On the wall is a poster for the Holland America Line, one of the steamship companies that carried European emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. (YIVO)

By 1920, there were 267,000 Jews living in Bessarabia. Although they were granted Romanian citizenship in 1918, legislation redefined many of them as aliens in 1924 and in 1938. Between 1922 and 1937, four Jewish representatives were elected to the Romanian parliament, including Rabbi Yehudah Leib Zirelson (Agudas Yisroel; first as a deputy, then a senator), Michael Landau (Zionist), and Natan Lerner (Bund). As with Romania as a whole, the economic situation of Jews declined dramatically because of repeated drought, separation from the vast Russian markets, and the world economic crisis. Jews received some assistance from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). In the interwar period, of the more than 30,000 clients of Jewish cooperative credit banks, 3,600 were farmers—Bessarabia was second at the time only to Palestine with its numbers of Jewish farmers. Two new agricultural colonies were established with the assistance of ICA during the Romanian period. Emigration to Palestine and other locations increased as well.

In 1930, Jews of the province numbered 205,000 (representing 7% of the population), and when the Red Army entered Bessarabia in June 1940, the number of Jews was estimated as even higher. The Soviets enlarged the borders of the new Moldavian SSR by including it in the territory of the so-called Moldavian Autonomous SSR that they had created in 1924 on the eastern bank of the Dniester (in 1939 this area had 37,035 Jews). The Soviets suppressed Jewish political and cultural institutions, creating instead new Communist and Yiddish ones. Thousands of wealthy and Zionist-affiliated Jews were arrested and deported to Siberia. The German and Romanian armies attacked on 22 June 1941. Jews who understood the danger tried to flee, mainly on foot or in horse-driven wagons, under an intensive Nazi air bombardment of the roads. Some succeeded, but many were intercepted by the invaders. General Constantin Voiculescu, the military governor of Bessarabia, ordered the incarceration of Jews in ghettos, where thousands were murdered. The deportation on foot of 75,000 Jews to Transnistria began in September 1941. Mass executions were perpetrated in Bogdanovka, Berezovka, and other places. Only a third of the deported Jews survived Transnistria. In all, some 100,000 Bessarabian Jews perished during World War II. 

Number 3 in a series of panoramic views of Kishinev. (A Yiddish note on the back of the photograph explains that the pictures are to be mounted together “under glass in a cardboard frame” to provide a sweeping panorama of the city.) (YIVO)

In 1959, Bessarabian Jews numbered 95,200 (3.3% of the population)—consisting mainly of families that had returned from evacuation. About half of them called Yiddish their native tongue. In the postwar atmosphere of anti-Zionist, antireligious propaganda and state-sponsored antisemitism, Jews were unable to rebuild their institutions. The authorities closed synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In 1970, 98,072 Jews lived in the Moldavian SSR (2.7% of the population). With the start of mass emigration to Israel, the number of Jews began to decline: there were 80,100 in 1979 (2%), and 65,800 in 1989 (1.5%). In contrast to many other Soviet areas, Bessarabian Jews went to Israel—in 1989, 4,304 arrived there; in 1990, 12,080; in 1991, 17,305; and altogether from 1989 to 2003 approximately 42,000.

With the demise of the USSR, Jewish national life was revitalized: synagogues opened in all localities with a noticeable Jewish population, as well as libraries, newspapers, a theater, a music group, three day schools in Kishinev, and Sunday schools in Bălți, Bendery, and Tiraspol. In 1992, during the civil war stemming from the proclamation of the separate Moldovan republic of Transnistria, the Jewish Agency arranged the evacuation of Jews from dangerous areas. By 2000, there were no more than 20,000 Jews in Moldova, 15,000 of them in Kishinev (Chişinău); 2,500 in Tiraspol; about 1,000 in Bălți; and the remainder located mainly in Bendery, Soroca, Rybnitsa, Dubossary, Comrat, and Orhei.

Suggested Reading

Jean Ancel, comp. and ed., Documents Concerning the Fate of Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust, 12 vols (New York, 1986); Yitsḥak Korn et al., eds., Entsiklopedyah shel galuyot, vol. 11, Yahadut Besa’ra’byah (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1971); Theodor Lavi et al., eds, Pinkas ha-kehilot: Romanyah, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 1969–1980); Miriam Weiner, Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova: Pages from the Past and Archival Inventories (Secaucus, N.J., and New York, 1999).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1000, Rose Schwartz, Papers, 1940-1974; RG 1001, Joseph Kessler, Papers, 1935-1979; RG 1028, Bessarabian Federation of American Jews, Records, 1940-1950; RG 1029, National Council for Bessarabian Jews, Records, 1950-1972; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Rumania, , 1836-1945; RG 335,2, American Joint Reconstruction Foundation, Records, 1920-1939; RG 33, Territorial Collection (Vilna Archives), Records, 1778-1939; RG 495, Samuel Ephraim Tiktin, Papers, 1930s-1940s; RG 832, First Soroker Bessarabier Mutual Aid Society, Records, 1910-1950s.