Sunday, December 07, 2008

My Grandmother's Shtetl: Teleneşti and Orhei

My Grandmother, Bunye "Betty" Tsarevcan, was born in Teleneşti, in the Republic of Moldova in 1893. In my family's history, of course, we always knew the place as Bessarabia. My Grandfather was born in Criuleni, which he knew as Krivilyany in Yiddish. On Di Naye Kapelye's last CD "A Mazeldiker Yid" I included a track of her telling the story - in Yiddish - of how her grandfather, a rich textile merchant, had to send all the way to Iasi to hire the Lemesh family of Klezmer musicians for my great-Grandmother's wedding festivities. She began her tale with the words "We're from Teleneşti... we're not from Orgeyev." And so, I had to see Teleneşti, not so much for myself, since I have seen a more small muddy Moldavian towns over the last fifteen years than I care to count, but to, somehow, close a circle. My Father and my Uncle Eli are the last of their generation, those that were raised on their parents' stories of the Old Country, told in a rich Bessarabian Yiddish dialect with absolutely no nostalgia and no desire to ever return, stories of unfortunate arranged marriages and poverty and broken marriages and pogroms and World War One and Bolsheviks and finally the epic of escape. But as Bessarabians, my father's generation always maintained a natural curiosity - "What is it like in the place our parents came from?"
It is a natural curiosity. Among Jews in the USA, the "Old Country" is fading into a dim mythological realm, divorced from the reality of first person stories told by those who were born on the land. When I grew up, however, most of the people I knew who were my grandparent's age were emigrants from Europe, people who spoke Yiddish as their first language. As emigrants, they had left a lot of their family behind in the old county, and although attempts were made to keep in touch, history had other plans. Some connections were kept, but World War Two and the Holocaust intervened - and whatever connections survived were strained by the Russian occupation of Bessarabia after WWII. Still, Moldavia is where we came from, where Moshe Onitskansky (Cohen) and Betty Tsarivcan met and married, and at family gatherings the talk always drifted back to "I'd like to visit there sometime." But nobody ever did. Ever. It was the frigging Soviet Republic of Moldova, a place chock full of Red Army military industrial zones that was practically off limits to foreigners until 1990. Then the Other Europeans project set up a field trip for music research in Moldova, and Alan Bern invited me. So I became the first member of my immediate family to return to Bessarabia since 1923.
While Alan Bern, Zev Feldman and I were in Edinets, we talked about how strange it was for us (all Bessarabian Jews) to come back and find a sense of ccommunity and continuity - when we said "Our families came from here!" local people in Moldavia understood that we felt we had somehow come home. That sounds normal, but for a diaspora Jew it isn't. We didn't have large networks of relatives in the US - we had immediate family, and then a series of friends and landsmann who substituted for kin. Relatives were something you had lost in the fog of 20th century European history - politics, pogroms, emigration, the Holocaust, aliyah to Israel. At best you had a half-remembered list of names and villages. But way back in your mind, you knew you actually had a place... there was a map... there was a reality.Jewish-American literature doesn't have the sense of family and place you find in William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County stories or Peter Matthiessen's South Florida or even Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon - we depended on the mythologies of I.B. Singer or the diluted Anatevka of Fiddler on the Roof as a substitute for the actual experience of having been there. And so the urge to go is that much stronger. And there are still a lot of Jews in Moldova. Real Yidn! Efim Chorny and his colleague Susan Ghergus are Moldavian Jews who choose to stay in Besarabia, who don't want to leave, and they have made something new and alive out of Jewish culture in Moldavia, as music teachers and performers of Yiddish music in the band Klezmer Alliance. (Photo below: Diana Ghergus, Susan Ghergus, me, Zev Feldman, Yiddish singer Slava Farber, Alan Bern, and Efim Chorny in Kishinev.)Efim and Susan were essential to Alan Bern's Other Europeans Project focus on Bessarabia and acted (alongside Marin and Diana Bunea, and trumpet virtuoso Adam Stinga) as our guides and hosts in the Republic of Moldova, and - amid the million things they had to worry about - they organized a day trip for Fumie and myself to vistit the shtetls that my Grandparents came from. Through them we were able to hire Volodya, a professor of Mathematics at the University, as a driver for the day (full Professors in Moldova make about US $100 a month, so extra work is always welcome - and the man was a damn good driver on those back roads!)That's downtown Orhei, also known as Orgeyev and - in Yiddish - as Uriv. Orhei is famous for several things, among them it's roads - which suck. The other is it has a famous insane asylum. In Moldova, when you ask somebody "What? Are you from Orhei?" it means "Are you crazy or what?" It also has a small but still functional Jewish community and Synagogue. When I was growing up in New York, Orgayev was a place that was more important to us than, say, Chicago or London. Orgayev Jews maintained a landsmanshaft - a Jewish regional welfare society - that was based around the burial society of Orgayev Jews in New York. When you die, you get buried alongside other Orgeyev Jews, and the society maintains a cemetery out in Long Island to this day. My family are pushing up the daisies there and will continue to do so happily till... These regional "Burial Societies" (Zev's family were active in the Edinets society) actually functioned as social networks and insurance companies, and had monthly meetings which were mainly get-togethers and fund raisers with klezmer music, dance and food. My grandparents are the couple in the second row on the left, next to the mirror, at an Orgeyver Society of New York's meeting sometimes in the early 1950s.All that good will, effort, and nostalgia for the memory of... Orhei. In New York. In the 1950s. Who would have guessed? On the day I visited, Orhei... it was a cloudy day in late November. No town looks great on a cloudy day in late November. I need to make a visit in June or September (when the wine harvest is in...) Orhei actually seems to be a pretty happening small regional town, although a century ago Orgeyev county was a much larger regional administrative unit, which included much of the central Bessarabian area including Teleneşti and Criuleni. From the main road we saw some Jewish cemeteries there, but since we had to visit Criuleni we didn't spend an awful lot of time there. About a half hour north of Orhei is Teleneşti , which lies about ten kilometers off the main road. Downtown Teleneşti is not much to speak off... asking around, I found that no Jews live there today, and as far as I know, my Grandmother didn't live there long either, having been sent to live with an Aunt in Orhei as a child. I asked some of the local folks if they had heard of the family name - none had. It has been a long time, after all.We had coffee and a knish, and a friendly local man led us to the Jewish cemetery in his car. I've been to a lot of old Jewish ceneteries in Romania - the ones in Moldavia are known for the ornate carved grave stones, often featuring symbols such as the two hands held in the sign of the priestly blessing, denoting that the deceased was a Cohen, or perhaps a shelf of books, denoting a scholar.In Teleneşti there are a number of stones shaped as trees, implying that the tree of life had been cut by the hand of God.Overgrown graveyards are the normal state of affairs in eastern Europe - there isn't a lot of money for upkeep of the graveyard, although the area with the most recent graves - those dating back to the 1940 until a few years ago - is kept tidy. I didn't find any stones with the name Tsarivkan, but I couldn't escape the novel feeling that everybody buried here is, essentially, a relative of mine.The stone I was hoping to find is the grave of my Grandmother's own mother, ornate even by the over the top standards of Bessarabian funerary art.If it was in Teleneşti, it may have fallen down or become overgrown. Chances are it may be in one of the two Jewish cemeteries in Orgeyev. I'll have to check the next time I visit Moldova.


kiss said...
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Anonymous said...

Hey, I am from Telenesti. I would like to tell you that I share your feelings about the Jewish cemetery. It is indeed painful to see it so.

Larry said...

We seem to be neighbors. My paternal grandparents came from Orhei, and my grandfather's original family name was Malovater. I have been doing some genealogical work, and I found your words fascinating. How nice to know that Orhei is so well known for its insane asylum!

Anonymous said...

My Great Grandmother (GG) was from Bessarabia..I have no other information about that...what region, when she was born...her parents names, how long she lived there. I do know my Nana (grandmother) was born in Pinsk Belarus so perhaps (GG) married a man from Belarus and moved there...or she moved there and met him there.

It is so sad how so many of our records are wiped out now. If antisemites had their way they would completely rewrite history and I feel they are attempting to do that. With all the antisemitic sites and blogs out there...and they are set up so no one can reply to them or refute their comments. Impressionable antisemites in te makeing are digesting all that BS as if it is fact!

Blessings...fellow Bessarabian Jews!


My Mother's father's side was from Ukraine. I visited their a few years ago and I do know just what you mean when you say you felt related to them

Efaristo said...

My grandfather came from Telenesh when he was around 5 years old. He came to Argentina first and then passed to Chile, where we live until today. His last name was Wurgaft. He always talked about Telenesh, Tefesh and Rezina as the places where the family came from.

Anonymous said...

My grandparents, uncles and my father, the youngest of five children, lived in Telenesti. They came to Brazil in the years 1920 where my grandfather worked as a shoemaker. His name was Codish Zaclis.
People say that "Zaclis" means horse stealer in roumanian. Is it true or is it just a joke?
I enjoyed your post very much.

Anonymous said...

My great grandmother, Rivka Sikernetsky and her five children, Morris, Max, Eva, Fanny, and Sam, all came from Costesti, Bessarabia, and they had relatives in Telenesti.

Thank you for posting your photos and blog about Bessarabian Jews. I love that you had the courage to go back there. I'm thinking about it, but for now am happy to peruse your trek. Thanks so much! Margaret

Merav said...

Hi Bob,
my family is from Telensti and only recently I discovered that my grandfather had a brother who was murdered with his whole family in Telenst and read about the excecutions in Telensti in 1941. Have you seen any mass grave there? I would like to go there to visit but don't know what to look for.

dumneazu said...

Hello Merav: I didn't notice any mass grave or monument, and I was there with members of the Kishinev Jewish community who would have pointed such a thing out. If you need information the Jewish Community Center in Chisinau is your starting point. They speak mainly Russian and Hebrew, some can manage Romanian, English, and Yiddish.

Robin said...

Great article.
I have a book project with the french embassy in Moldova about the pre-war jewish history of Bessarabia / Moldova. Could you please contact me ? I don't find your email adress. I give you mine: