Capital city of the Republic of Moldova. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, Kishinev (officially, Chişinău; Yid., Keshenev) was in the principality of Moldova (Moldavia), which was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1818 and called Bessarabia. In 1918–1940 and 1941–1944 it was in the Kingdom of Romania and, in 1940–1941 and 1944–1991, it served as capital of the Moldavian SSR. The earliest documentation of a Jewish presence dates to the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Jewish winemakers, Kishinev, ca. 1905. Photograph by Kondratski. (YIVO)
By 1774, Kishinev was home to 540 Jews, representing 7 percent of the town’s population. A burial society was founded in 1774 with 144 members. Zalman ben Mordekhai Sharogrodski was Kishinev’s first rabbi, and in 1812 Ḥayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer laid the foundation for the Great Synagogue. During the same period a Jewish hospital opened, and in 1838 a Jewish school with a secular curriculum was started on the initiative of local maskilim. In 1858, the Jewish educational system included two state secular schools, a private school for girls, and 46 heders. A Hasidic yeshiva, one of the first in the south of the Russian Empire, functioned from 1860.
Kishinev was a multiethnic city where Jews lived next to Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, Germans, Armenians, Greeks, and Roma. During the nineteenth century, the Jewish population rose from a small percentage to almost half of the city’s inhabitants: in 1847, there were 10,509 (12.2 %); in 1867 the numbers had increased to 18,323 (21.8%); and in 1897 to 50,237 (46.3%). In 1897, 22 percent of all Bessarabian Jews were living in Kishinev, where Jews had come mainly from Ukraine and Belorussia, attracted by economic opportunities.
Data from the Jewish Colonization Society (ICA) show that in 1898, Jews owned 29 of Kishinev’s 38 factories, 6 of the 7 steam flourmills, 5 of the 7 plants for curing tobacco, and 4 of the 5 printing presses. Most of the employees in these enterprises were also Jewish. The same source indicates that 2,470 Jews traded in agricultural produce, more than 1,000 worked in the garment and textile industries, 850 were teamsters and coachmen, and more than 500 were seasonal grape pressers and harvesters.
Many Jews lived in poverty. In 1898, two separate welfare organizations joined to form the Society in Aid of the Poor of Kishinev. From 1886, a group of Ḥoveve Tsiyon members, led by Me’ir Dizengoff, functioned in Kishinev and from 1897, a group of Zionists was headed by Yakov Bernstein-Kogan. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had become a major center for Yiddish and Hebrew printing and journalism. Among Yiddish newspapers and periodicals were Dos besaraber lebn, Erd un arbet, Undzere tsayt and Der yid. In 1912, the Russian Zionist weekly Evreiskaia khronika was published there.
Le-Metim ‘al kidush ha-shem be-Kishinov (Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev). E. M. Lilien. 1903. Illustration for Maksim Gorky’s Sbornik (Miscellany), St. Petersburg. (Image courtesy O. Litvak)
On 6–7 April 1903 and 19–20 October 1905, two major pogroms occurred in Kishinev. The first was preceded by a series of vicious antisemitic articles in the local newspaper Bessarabets, in which Jews were accused of a lengthy variety of crimes. Among the authors were the editor Pavolachi Krushevan (who was later active in spreading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and agents of the local secret service. Before Passover 1903, the newspaper accused Kishinev’s Jews of the ritual murder of a Christian child. Though it was shown that the child had not been killed by Jews, a violent mob attacked them anyway, killing 49 people, maiming 586, and destroying 1,350 Jewish houses and 588 shops. Local authorities and Russian police were incapable of stopping the pogrom. Some of the perpetrators were tried by the Russian courts but received just light sentences.
The horrors of the Kishinev massacre raised protest and sympathy among the Jewish and non-Jewish public in Europe and the United States. Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s poem “Be-‘Ir ha-haregah” (In the City of Slaughter) and the Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko’s story “Dom trinadtsatyj” (House No. 13) depict the tragedy. Russian intellectuals and clergy, among them Leo Tolstoy and Maksim Gorky, published condemnations of the crime. The Kishinev pogrom remains in public memory as a symbol of Jewish suffering in tsarist Russia.
Immediately after the tsar’s October 1905 Manifesto, 19 Jews were murdered and 56 wounded in the second Kishinev pogrom. Jewish self-defense groups put up resistance to the violence. In this period, Jewish emigration was increasing, particularly to the United States and Argentina: between 1902 and 1905, the number of Jews in Kishinev dropped from approximately 60,000 to 53,000. By 1910, there were 52,000 Jews living there.
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)
Jews suffered further during World War I, when the retreating Russian armies looted their homes. After 1918, during the first years of Romanian rule, the Jewish population increased when refugees fled pogroms in Ukraine. The Romanian authorities harassed Jews, subjecting them to official discrimination. Jewish communal and cultural life, however, was thriving, with the presence of a Hebrew kindergarten, several Hebrew and Yiddish schools, a yeshiva, a teachers’ seminary, a network of political, cultural, and youth organizations, and the central office of the Zionist Organization of Bessarabia. Several Yiddish newspapers were issued in the city, including Undzer tsayt (1922– 1932).
In the 1920s, 77 synagogues and prayer halls functioned. Yehudah Leib Zirelson, chief rabbi of Kishinev and Bessarabia from 1909 to 1941, founded a yeshiva there, and although he was a founder of Agudas Yisroel, he supported Zionism, and also served for a short time as mayor of Kishinev. In 1922 he was elected deputy to the Romanian parliament, and was a senator in 1926. In 1940–1941, during the short period after the Soviet takeover, Zionist organizations were disbanded and thousands of Jewish national activists and wealthy Jews were exiled to Siberia, though Yiddish culture was supported in the forms of schools, theater, and publications.
In the first days following the German attack on the Soviet Union, many of Kishinev’s 70,000 Jews became victims of the intensive aerial bombardment of the city. Thousands escaped to the east. The returning Romanians showed no mercy to Bessarabian Jews, considering them to be Communists and Russian sympathizers. When the Romanians entered Kishinev on 16 July 1941, they staged a pogrom that continued for several days, and then established a ghetto with more than 11,000 prisoners, some of whom were murdered in the following months; indeed, 837 Jews were executed at the city cemetery. On 4–31 October 1941, the remaining Jews were deported to Transnistria in several groups, followed in May 1942 by the last 200 Jews who were hiding in the city. Few Jews from Kishinev survived the camps.
After the war, the Jewish population numbered 5,500. Survivors who had lived in smaller towns before the war and returned from evacuation in eastern areas of the USSR resettled in Kishinev. By 1959 there were 42,934 Jews in the city, 43 percent of whom declared Yiddish to be their mother tongue; in 1970 there were 49,905 (14% of the population). Two-thirds of them emigrated in 1970–2004, mostly to Israel. In 1989, 35,700 Jews were living in Kishinev, and in 2003, more than 15,000 (about 2% of the population). During the postwar period, a synagogue continued to function, but part of the Jewish cemetery was converted into a marketplace in 1958 and later the entire cemetery was closed. In 1969–1970 young people, most of them returning from university studies in Leningrad, initiated Zionist activities. In 1970, and again in 1971, Kishinev was the site of two highly publicized trials of Zionist activists.
In 1988, religious and cultural life started to be rebuilt. Among various institutions operating in 2004, there were three day schools, a museum, a library, and a burial society. Several Jewish newspapers appeared, starting in 1989: Menora, Nash golos (Undzer Kol), Istoki, and Khaver. In April 2003, a joint Moldovan-Israeli conference was convened to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Kishinev pogrom. The Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin unveiled a monument commemorating the pogrom. Nevertheless, occasional antisemitic acts continue to occur: in 1999 a Holocaust memorial was desecrated and in 2002, some 50 tombstones in the Jewish cemetery were destroyed.
Among the many acclaimed Jews connected with Kishinev have been the Zionist leader Yakov Bernstein-Kogan; the Israeli parliamentarian and founder of Bet Yehude Bessarabia (1971) Yitsḥak Korn; the Russian Israeli poet Dovid Knut; and Yiddish writers Yankl Yakir, Yankev Shternberg; and Ḥayim Yassky.
David Doron (Spektor), Geto Kishinov: Ha-Pogrom ha-sofi (Jerusalem, 1977); Ya‘akov Goren, ed., ‘Eduyot nifge‘e Kishinov, 1903: Ke-fi she-nigbu ‘al yede Ḥ. N. Byalik ve-ḥaverav (Tel Aviv, 1991); Edward H. Judge, Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom (New York, 1992); Iakov Kopanskii, Dzhoint v Bessarabii: Stranitsy istorii (Kishinev, 1994); Yitsḥak Korn, Yehude Kishinov (Tel Aviv, 1950).