Jews in the Region of Moldavia

by Anna Suchenek, AEGEE-Warszawa

A little bit of history...

The first sign of Jews in Rumania are the tombstones dating from early times (around 100 C.E.).
The Jews may probably have come as merchants or in other capacities with the Roman legions which garrisoned the country from 101 C.E.
The second wave of immigrants spread through Walachia (this is a Rumanian principality founded around 1290) after they had been expelled from Hungary in 1367. There were also some refugees from Spain. Since Walachia was on the trade routes between Poland and Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire many Jewish merchants traveled through Moldavia, the second Rumanian principality in the northeast founded in the 14th century. Some settled there and were favorably received by the rulers of this principality. At the beginning of the 16th century there were Jewish communities in several Moldavian towns such as Suceava or Jassy. More intensive waves of Jewish emigration resulted from the Chmielnicki massacres 1648-49.
From the 18th century the Moldavian rules granted special charters to attract Jews.
Among the privileges offered was the right to be represented on the local council. The Jews were also encouraged by the landowners to found commercial centers.
After the annexation of Bukovina in 1775 and Bessarabia in 1812 the Jews from those countries preferred to move to Rumanian Moldavia where they were not harassed by the authorities. From an early date one of the main components of anti-Jewish hatred in Rumania was commercial competition. In the 16th century the sovereign of Moldavia ordered the banishment of the Jews on the grounds that they were ruining the merchants. In the Danube harbors it was the Greek and Bulgarian merchants who incited riots against the Jews. Greek Orthodox Christianity shaped the first codes of lows which proclaimed Jews as heretics and forbade all relations with them.
But the real trouble for Jews began in 1821 with the first strings of Rumanian independence and unity. From 1835 to 1856 Walachia and Moldavia were protectorates of Russia, through whose influence anti-Semitism increased. Jews were forbidden to settle in the villages and to establish factories in towns. Also the citizenship was denied to Jews.
The peace treaty which concluded the Crimean War in 1856 proclaimed that in the two Danubian principalities all the inhabitants should enjoy religious and civil liberties and occupy political posts. Only those who had foreign citizenship were excluded from political rights. Despite of the fact that the leaders of Moldavian and Walachia Jews fought for the abolition of the discrimination against them ,only native Jews were granted suffrage in the local councils. Jews who were foreign subjects still could not acquire landed property. Political rights were granted to non-Christians but only parliament could vote on the naturalization-but not a single Jew was naturalized. At the end of 19th century hundreds families, harassed by humiliating regulations were forced to leave the villages. The Rumanian government reiterated that the Jewish problem was an internal one so the interventions of Great Britain and France had no effect.
Although at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 which finalized Rumanian independence there was made the grand for civil rights to the Jews, after the Congress other anti-Semitic measures were introduced. Their aim was to create the anti-Semitic atmosphere before the debate on the modification of the article concerning Jews naturalization. It was decided that the naturalization of the Jews would be carried out individually, by vote of both chambers of parliament. The situation of Jews continued to grow worse ad worse. They were forbidden to be lawyers, teachers, stock brokers, they were not accepted as railway officials, as officers.
Both major political parties in Rumania were anti-Semitic. Under the pressure of increasing persecutions accompanied by an internal economic crisis in 1900 a mass emigration of Jews began. Up to World War I about 70.000 Jews left Rumania.
Following World War I Rumania enlarged her territory with the provinces of Bukovina, Bessarabia and Transylvania. In 1918 the Rumanian parliament passed an act concerning naturalization but with many complicated procedures.

Although the Rumanian government continued to assert that the Jewish problem was an internal one, the great powers at the peace conference in Paris decided to include guarantees in the peace treaty. After hard bargaining, not without renewed threats on the part of the government, the naturalization of the Jews was introduced in to the constitution 1923, thus also confirming the naturalization of those from the newly annexed territories who would otherwise have been threatened with expulsion. Nevertheless there was a great difference between the lows and the way in which they were implemented in practice; the civil service, the magistracy, university chairs, and officers' corps remained closed to Jews.
Growing social and political tensions in Rumania in the 1920s and '30s led to increase in anti-Semitism. In 1929 a paramilitary organization called "Iron Guard" was founded, it had an extreme anti-Semitic program.
After Hitler come to power in Germany in 1933, the large Rumanian parties also adopted anti-Semitic programs. At the universities students of the "Iron Guard" prevented their Jewish colleagues from attending lectures and the academic authorities introduced entrance examinations which led to a decrease in the number of Jewish students. In other professional corporations no Jews were elected to the board; they were prevented by force from participating in the elections.
Germany financed a series of publications aimed at fastening an alliance between the two countries and removing Jews from all branches of the professions and the economy. German penetration into the Rumanian economy increased as the Nazis moved eastward with the Anschluss of Austria, the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the occupation of western Poland at the outbreak of World War II. A number of Rumanian politicians agreed to serve German interests in exchange for directorships in German-Rumanian enterprises, and German always demanded the removal of Jews in the branch involved. In the summer of 1940 Rumania succumbed to German pressure and transferred Bessarabia and part of Bukovina to the Soviet Union, northern Transylvania to Hungary, and southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria.
When the Rumanian army retreated from those areas, its soldiers murdered many Jews, particularly in northern Bukovina and Moldavia. Rumania was not invaded by the German army but it become a satellite of Nazi Germany. The first result of this was the conciliation of Rumanian citizenship for Jews, a measure taken by the government , which included members of the "Iron Guard".
In 1940 the government of Antonescu which included ministers from the ranks of the "Iron Guard" declared a Nationalist-Legionary State. The "legionary police" was organized on Nazi lines. The reign of terror reached its height when Jewish industrial and commercial were handed over to the members of the "Legion" under the pressure from the "Iron Guard". The "Iron Guard" attempted to carry out its anti-Semitic program in full in 1941. "Legion" carried out a pogrom on Bucharest Jews: their homes were looted, shops burned, many synagogues were desecrated.
A period of relative calm after Bucharest pogrom permitted Rumania Jews to gather strength after the shock of the violence.
When war broke out with the Soviet Union, the Rumanian and German armies were scattered along the banks of the Prut river in order to penetrate into Bukovina and Bessarabia. The soldier's advance through Bessarabia, Bukovina and the Dorohoi district was accompanied by massacres of the local Jewish population.
Then Jews were concentrated in ghettos (in the cities) or in the special camps (if countryside). German killing squads or Rumanian gendarmes copying the Germans, habitually entered the ghettos and camps, removing Jews and murdering them. There were also deportations to the region called Transnistria.
In 1941 there was a change in governments policy toward Jews. It would permit Jews deported to Transnistria to emigrate to Palestine.
Only 57% of the Jewish population under Rumanian rule during the war including the Jews of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina survived the Holocaust.
We can not forget about the Jewish resistance. The congress of the Jewish Party in Rumania decided to join the anti-Nazi boycott movement, disregarding the protest raised by the Rumanian press and anti-Semitic groups, but the union of the Rumanian Jews (U.E.R.) did not participate in the campaign.

At least the two movements agreed and representatives of both Jewish trends established "for the defense of all Jewish rights and liberties".
When Rumania broke with Nazi Germany and entered the war on the side of Allies, Rumanian Jewry had been considerably decreased as a result of the Holocaust and it was about to decrease even further through emigration.
The decisive factor in the life of Rumanian Jews after World War II, however, was the political regime in Rumania, which exercised its authority over the community life of Rumanian Jewry, determined the structure of its organization, and limited its aspirations. For a few years after the abolition of the monarchy Rumania closely followed the line dictated from Moscow. This situation continued until the end of the 1950s when the first signs of an independent Rumanian policy began to appear. It also left mark on Jewish community life. The situation of Rumanian Jewry always had a special character. Even in the days of complete dependence on Moscow, when the tools and institutions of national Jewish identity were destroyed and expressions of Jewish aspirations was repressed, Rumanian Jewry was not compelled to be as alienated from its national and religious identity as were the Jews of the Soviet Union.

...and a little bit of culture...

Since most Rumanian Jews were of Polish or Russian extraction, their religious and cultural traditions were similar to those of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Hasidism was particularly widespread in the Moldavian province, in such towns as Stefanesti, Bahusi, Adjud, Foscani.
In 1857 the first newspaper in Rumanian and French was published "Israelitul Roman" - whose function was to fight for equal civil rights for Rumanian Jewry.
After World War I there was published a daily newspaper in Rumanian which stood for the idea of a Jewish political party and sharply attracted the tendencies of assimilation circles. The number of Jewish journalist grew between the two world wars, some of them became chief editors of the great democratic papers.
In 1886 a society for research into the history of Rumanian Jewry was established.
Although the society ceased activities after four years, the scholars continued their work. They have published 19 volumes containing the history of Rumanian Jewry. A museum, a library and archives for the history of Rumanian Jewry was founded in Bucharest.
Although the language of Jewish population was Yiddish, the language of Jewish writers and poets was Rumanian.
The Jewish press after the World War II was fairly large, the most important one was "Mantuirea".
In Jewish contribution to Rumanian literature, art, and music, the influence of the memories of the Jewish milieu was felt. Among the writers who wrote in Yiddish were for example Jacob Groper. Well known Jewish musician was Alfred Mendelshon.
The only Jewish cultural institution was the Jewish theater in Bucharest, established in 1948.
One thing which is very interesting is the image of the Jew in Rumanian literature. In popular tales the Jew was said to be damned for having rejected the Christian savior, and Rumanian folklore added anti-Semitism to theological antipathies by describing Jews as agents of the Devil, covetous of Christian blood, money-grubbing and cowardly. The roots of Rumanian anti-Semitism were basically those found elsewhere: religious prejudice, economic competition, and chauvinistic xenophobia.


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