A Visit to Transnistria

Breaking bread with the last Jews in Transnistria

by Nathan Roi

I recently took part in the first-ever Limmud conference for Russian speakers in Kishinev, the capital city of Moldova. For the final part of the conference I traveled for two hours by car to Transnistria, the region also referred to as “the valley of death.”

I was accompanied by Yoram Dori, a senior advisor to President Shimon Peres; Chaim Chesler, chairman of Limmud for Russian speakers; Alexander Kegelski, Russian-language spokesman for the Israeli Police; and a few other Israelis, who came to get a close-up view of the only region in Europe, which still preserves its communist character.

Transnistria flag on a school building

Our car stopped next to the border crossing into Transnistria. The officers at the entrance to the region wore green-red colored uniforms. The region’s red and green flags, featuring a hammer and sickle, flew over the nearby office buildings. Army armored cars hid beneath camouflage nets in surrounding bunkers. These vehicles are meant to maintain the ceasefire declared here in the nineties.

Transnistria does not have a sea outlet. It is situated between the Bug and Dniester Rivers, surrounded by Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine. Its local currency is the Transnistrian ruble. The soldiers speak Russian, although the locals also speak Romanian and Ukrainian.

The entrance to the region shows no signs of the terrible murders that took place there, but the very mention of the place brings tears and deep pain to Romanian Jews. During World War II hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were murdered here.

This “land of exile” had dozens of concentration and death camps. Jews were brought here by force from all over Ukraine, Romania, Bukovina, Serbia and the Dorohoi region. Entire families, including children and elders, were burned in pits. Some were shot to death several at a time in one sidelong sit in order to save on bullets.

An outdoor gym shows no trace of the past

150,000 to 300,000 Jews are estimated to have been murdered in the region by fascist Romanians, headed by Ion Antonescu. Nazi Germany had transferred power to them, and they wished to prove to Adolf Hitler that they could cleanse Romania of its Jewish population.

Writer Aharon Appelfeld, a survivor of Transnistria, spent the years of 1941 to 1944 in the region. He described the “old-fashioned methods” used in the death camps. “They killed people by shooting, starvation, [and] freezing cold,” he recalled in the documentary “Transnistria, the Hell,” directed by Zolton Terner. A clip of the film can be viewed here.

Almost all of Appelfeld’s literary works shift between the pre-Holocaust period and his distant, repressed memories of the Holocaust (both apparent and non-apparent). In the documentary, he said that no adults survived Transnistria; the survivors who lived to tell their stories had been children between 1941 and 1944. Appelfeld was one of those children.

Dan Pagis was born in Bukovina (his father was born in Kishinev, Serbia). He is a talented poet, and a survivor of Transnistria. He does not discuss his life in “hell” as a young child with his mother and family (his father had traveled to Israel), but a slice of his Holocaust memories is expressed in his famous poem “In the Sealed Railway Car”:

Here in this carload
I, Eve,
with my son Abel.
If you see my older son
Cain, the son of Adam,
Tell him that I

For years, the Israelis steered clear of discussing anything related to this dreadful country. Until the sixties, when a memorial book publicized Transnistria’s death camps, the survivors called the region “the Romanian Auschwitz.”

The “Land of Exile”

The road taking us from the border check point to our first stop in the city of Grigoropol passed through farmland. We were told that the region is actually located in the Moldavian Republic, where the Limmud conference took place. Its population is about half a million, 300,000 of which are Slavs and Russian speakers who have links to the communist Russia of old. Though Transnistria is part of Moldova, it wants the Moldavian state to recognize it as an independent geographical region.

All the soldiers we met on the way were part of the Russian garrison comprising at least 1,200 soldiers. One of them even asked us to put away our cameras. As we passed through the large city, we saw a fortress from the Middle Ages, which is now an army camp for Putin’s soldiers.

Though the Jewish Agency for Israel is not active here, the Chesed fund managed by the Joint Distribution Committee provides financial support, which arrives through Kishinev. About two thousand Jews live in Transnistria. Every senior citizen of Jewish descent living there is eligible for assistance. The per capita income is even lower than in the neighboring Moldova, where the average monthly salary is two hundred and fifty dollars.

A Jew who wishes to leave the region in order to visit the United States must travel to Kishinev by car and then fly in a small plane to Bucharest. Every citizen has Moldavian citizenship, which lets him travel, but if he wishes to return home to Transnistria he must cross the border checkpoint between Moldova and Transnistria.

It is impossible to speak about the thousands of Jews who currently live in the place formerly known as “the Auschwitz of Romania,” since they are likely to be offended.

A Transnistria “shop” with prices in rubles

In Grigoropol, the old-fashioned stores display price tags in rubles. The city still has a huge statue of Lenin, a monument commemorating the war heroes of World War II, and houses built in the style of Soviet Constructivism, as well as those built in the times of Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

In the eighteenth century, the Russian empire annexed the region. Since then it has been the land of exile far removed from Moscow. Prisoner of Zion Ida Nudel was sent to the city of Bendery after she was accused of hooliganism and Zionist activities. Limmud’s teaching staff tried to locate her apartment, but was unsuccessful.

It is difficult to visit this region without having someone following you.

Historical Background

In 1988, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika policy, Moldova adopted Romanian as its official language, replacing the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin letters. The Slavic minority in Moldova pressed for equal status for the Russian language, as well as protection from the newly official Romanian language.

Moldova did not unite with Romania, but with the Moldavian party’s victory in 1990, the Slavic minority demanded independence from Transnistria. In September 1990, when Moldova was still a part of the USSR, Slavic leaders demanded independence from the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic.”

Even though Gorbachev rejected the separatist region’s declaration of independence, 90 percent of the residents voted in a referendum for a continued relationship with the USSR.

The Transnistria Parliament building with statue of Lenin outside the entrance

Relations between Moldova and Transnistria started to intensify with the arrest of Igor Smirnov, who became the head of the Transnistrian government at the end of 1991, leading to fighting between Moldova and Transnistria.

Moldova declared independence in 1991 and eventually received official recognition from the USSR and other countries. Then in 1992, Moldova sent troops into Transnistria. The separatists fought back,supported by the Russian 14thArmy.

The region has several memorials dedicated to the soldiers and officers from Transnistria who were killed in battle, including several in the square in Grigoropol.

The battles between Moldova and the separatists came to an end, and a ceasefire was declared in July 1992, leading to Russian recogniton of Moldova. At the same time, Moldova recognized the expanded autonomy of Transnistria. The Russian army retreated from Transnistria in 1997.

Transnistria show signs of communist USSR in every corner. At the entrance to the open theater in Grigoropol were Soviet arcade games that have not yet been used by the public. The theater screens communist-themed movies. In the courtyard of the movie theater stands a statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, surrounding by monuments of war heroes.

In the capital city of Tiraspol

Transnistria’s parliament building, in the capital city of Tiraspol, features the usual statue of Lenin as well as a huge portrait of President Putin across the street.

photos courtesy Nathan Roi