Tomasz Horbowski has kindly allowed us to republish an article he wrote for East Book, an online portal about member states of the EU Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) — an interview with the Swiss diplomat and historian Simon Giessbuehler about his work and experiences documenting the traces of Jewish heritage in Romania, Ukraine and Moldova.
Tomasz Horbowski (April 29, 2012)
These cemeteries lost among Moldovan villages and synagogues left on their own are like shells on a shore, mute witnesses of life no longer here. This is the opening of a book authored by Simon Geissbuhler, a Swiss diplomat who, fascinated by the history of Eastern Europe, decided to document the remaining traces of Bessarabian Jews.
Simon Geissbuhler, a Swiss diplomat and historian who currently lives in Warsaw, told me that since his youth he had been interested in the history of Eastern Europe and, in particular, of Jews inhabiting these territories. “It was a fascinating subject”, he emphasized. “But over time the pace of my life increased – I became a diplomat and somewhere on the way I forgot about fascinations of my youth.” Everything changed several years ago, along the route between Bucharest, where Mr Geissbuhler worked at that time, and Vinitsa, his wife’s hometown. He made a stopover in a modest town place on a borderland between Romania and Ukraine. It was Radauti [Romania]. “We went for an evening walk for some sightseeing. Then, suddenly, I saw an enormous church. I came closer and saw not a church but a synagogue. It was really huge. At that very moment I understood how many Jews must live here if they needed such a great building. And so once again I found my fascination in the history of Jews living in this region. I also noticed how sparse the literature on this subject is and, what is important, realized that their traces are disappearing. Soon nothing will remain…”.
That’s the story how Mr Geissbuhler found his vocation at the Romanian-Ukrainian border and started documenting history of Bessarabian Jews – to touch the remaining fragments of their lives. “I felt it was my duty”, he simply said. Though he also admitted that for a historian “being the first” is in a way an irreplaceable feeling. “But I will not write yet another book about Auschwitz. But the subject of Bessarabian Jew… There is still much to discover.”
So I asked about these Bessarabian Jews – who were they? Who are they now? “It is hard to imagine today”, Mr Geissbuhler began his story, “but at the turn of the 19th and 20th century Jews accounted for 10 percent of the Bessarabian population. Shtetls – encountered also in Poland – were common in this region. These traditional towns with predominant populations of Jews were full of synagogues, Jewish schools, hospitals, shops. And Chisinau, was a city inhabited in 40 – 50 percent by Jews, who had significant functions in social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual life. It is worth mentioning that the Jews of Bessarabia were the frontier Jews, for right here, on the coasts of the Black Sea, the “Shtetl-land” ended – in the territories of present Moldova and Romania we could find southernmost shtetls”.
While reading Mr Geissbuhler’s book about northern Moldova, I couldn’t help feeling how sad the story was – there was no one who took care of Jewish cemeteries or protected abandoned synagogues. It is hard to believe in the reality so much without hope. The whole content of the book is limited to pictures and numbers – the former illustrate cemeteries gradually fading away and the latter show how many Jews lived in their neighborhood.
“What I wanted to show in my book”, said Mr Geissbuehler in response, “are the Jewish traces in Bessarabia”, emphasizing the fact that they are “objects – cemeteries and synagogues – not people”. To the author, it does not signify death but quite the opposite: “Paradoxically, they do mean life, showing Jewish communities of the region. It would be splendid if Moldova’s citizens saw in the Jewish history a part of their own past, traditions and identity”, Mr Geissbuehler put a strong emphasis on this sentence. “May they not be associated with something negative, but rather with a positive side: multiculturalism of these territories and their diversity – something that, sadly, is a thing of the past. It would be good if Moldova’s citizens and authorities discovered that the culture and history of Bessarabian Jews are a part of their own heritage. Unfortunately, only a very few share this point of view”.
However the impulse for action should, as Mr Geissbuehler heavily underlined, appear at grass roots level – from the locals. It could mean no complicated tasks, just simple things: cutting grass or tidy a cemetery. Basics. He admitted with regret that during his travels through northern parts of Moldova tracing the forgotten past of Jewish citizens, he had met no one who had taken as simple actions as taking care of the Jewish traces. “People were very nice and always helpful, showing cemeteries and synagogues, but nothing more. They might subconsciously feel that something is not quite right. When we were visiting Vadul-Raskov,[in Moldova] a man who led us to, probably, the most beautiful Jewish cemetery – a gigantic one, situated on the Dniester bank – told us straightforwardly: we are sorry that we neglect it and pasture our horses here”.
During our conversation we agreed that perhaps what is needed is an outside inspiration. Mr Geissbuehler’s words lack an accusatory tone, for, as he admitted, “I am aware of the fact that those suffering poverty and fighting for survival does not put protection of Jewish cemeteries among their priorities.” Yet on the other side, “I had a very sad experience when once during our visit in a Romanian school, a history teacher told us that she had never seen a Jewish cemetery located 150 meters from the school. 150 meters! She said that without an ounce of embarrassment: ‘I have never been there’. And it is such a simple thing to do – take the youngsters and tidy up a little bit, nothing big”.
So I asked if perhaps it is time to let these places become the past. For is a synagogue where nobody sings psalms praising the Almighty is still a synagogue? The reply was: “I met Jews in Romania and Moldova who openly told me: look how few of us remain. There is no need to commemorate these places – there are no communities who could take care of them. And in a way I can agree with them. But the problem I see is the fact that no one is interested in even documenting that heritage. For instance, in Romania – let it be 20 synagogues and 5 cemeteries – nobody, or almost nobody, is even interested. And in 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, these building will just disappear.”
So perhaps it is the problem of the tough past, I asked, for it is hard to confess to one’s sins, especially when it could result in dire consequences. “I think that the responsibility for the Shoah shared by locals leads to the situation when the subject of Jewish presence in this region is practically absent – no one teaches about it in schools. Romania took an active part in these events – ca. 300,000 Jews were became war victims in territories under the control of the Romanian state and army, with an active assistance of local communities. But if we went in Romanian streets and ask by-passers, hardly anyone would acknowledge these facts. Why? Due to the fact that it has not been taught at schools. And it is not a pleasant part of Moldova’s history – to be jointly responsible for the Shoah… It is hard to plead guilty.”
In March 2012, 15,000 pages of documents from 50 trials of those accused of war crimes against Jews held in Soviet Moldova after the Second World War were placed in the Museum of Holocaust in Washington by Iurie Leanca, the Foreign Minister of Moldova. “We must show a great respect to the tragedy that took place on our lands”, said the head of Moldova diplomatic service, “in order to make certain that the lesson will not be forgotten.” This month, the first documents came into sight, touching this extremely sensitive issue of a joint responsibility. Perhaps it is the beginning of a discussion on the subject of Jewish presence in Moldova. At least, it is step towards the right direction.
Simon Geissbuhler (born 1973): a diplomat and historian, studied in Brno and at the Yale University; since 2000 he has worked for the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs – between 2007 and 2010 was a deputy ambassador in Bucharest and since 2010 he has served as a vice ambassador in Warsaw. Mr Geissbuhler is the author of books and albums on the subject of Bessarabian Jews: “Like Shells on a Shore. Synagogues and Jewish Cemeteries of Northern Moldavia” (2010), “Spuren, die vergehen. Auf der Suche nach dem jüdischen Sathmar/Satu Mare” (2010).