We recently had a wild and uncategorizable experience while exploring Chișinău. Not 200 meters from our apartment building lies a huge, sprawling cemetery. We knew it was there, and we had even stepped inside its gates briefly right after we arrived in this country. But last week we decided to back and explore. What we found was sad, moving and profound.
Discovering the Cemetery
It might be best to walk you through our own discovery process. We entered the cemetery with no intentions or pre-conceived notions. Honestly, we wanted a new space to check out, having already explored most of the parks within walking distance.
It started innocently enough…
We walked through the metal gates and initially found the place to be nothing like American cemeteries. The graves were stacked quite closely together – so close that walking between them was difficult. The gravestones were mostly in Hebrew, but also some Russian. This was all well and good until after the first 30 feet or so, when we realized that nature obviously wants to reclaim this cemetery.
And yet, initially we were not alarmed. Although the overgrown plants were an obvious sign that the cemetery was not well tended, it almost seemed like a circle of life kind of thing. And despite the disarray, we felt peaceful walking among the gravestones.
But our feelings changed as we walked…
Unfortunately, we changed our opinion drastically the farther we ventured. Yes, we came across areas that had obviously been cleared of plants and debris. But those areas were a small percentage of the overall area. What did we see in the rest of the cemetery? It’s something we can’t even really describe and our cell phone pictures don’t do justice. Not only cracked and toppled headstones, but entire graves were rubble.
And this nearly destroyed cemetery is not just some forgotten relic of history hiding in a corner of the city! In fact, some of it is still in active use. We saw headstones dated from 2018 as well as burial plots that were lovingly cared for. It was disturbing to see maintained graves surrounded by piles of broken stone and and concrete. And all of this just a minute’s walk from our door.
Realizing our own ignorance
We walked around in disbelief, not knowing how to process it all both mentally and emotionally. We know very little about Jewish culture and burial practices, but we know less than nothing about the history specific to the Jewish population in Chișinău. Was the state of this cemetery due to a sad forgetfulness over many years? Or was it something more sinister and tragic than that?
Learning a little about Jewish Traditions
For example, we found a large monument in a corner of the cemetery. At the base of the monument we saw a hole with what appeared to be garbage scattered at the bottom. On further inspection, though, we noticed that many of the papers had Hebrew writing on them. If the writing had been only Russian or Romanian, we would figure that it was the result of littering and disrespectful visitors to that place. But writing in Hebrew? Was this some sort of burial tradition we didn’t know of?
If you are familiar with Jewish tradition, you might be aware that what we were seeing (or what we think we were seeing) was a grave for religious writing. Jews consider the name of God sacred, even the written name. So when a copy of the Torah falls in disarray, -or even religious magazines or written music music for that matter – it is buried in a grave, just as a human body would be buried.
We also found a larger building, with rusted doors and crumbling walls. After peering inside, Daniel thought it might have been a synagogue, based upon the structure of staircases within. In a well-maintained cemetery we would expect a plaque to explain the historical significance. Obviously, here there was none.
There is a deep and complicated history here
We had so many questions come to mind as we walked through the cemetery. But they can all be summed up in, “How could this happen???” When we returned home, we immediately turned to Google. If you are especially interested, there are other blog posts with eerie photos that are higher quality than ours. The posts are not hard to find. We, however, wanted historical facts to explain what we saw. Various internet sources described the following history:
Chișinau from 1900 – 2000
There was a large and established Jewish population in Chișinau at the beginning of the 1900s. In 1903 and 1905, there were two massacres (pogroms) of the Jewish population fueled by anti-Semitism and misinformation. Despite these sad events, a large Jewish population remained in Chișinău at the beginning of WWII. During the war, Romania (along with the Germans) occupied Moldova and facilitated all the atrocities that we know well. [You can follow this link to a page with a more detailed, but still brief history of the Jewish population in Moldova.]
Following WWII, Moldova became a part of the USSR, and as such, religious freedom was limited. Much of the remaining Jewish population (albeit a mere fragment of what it was before the 1940s) left during this time. I found an interesting article in Balkan Insight that ties some of the Jewish history in Chișinău to the present.
“Moldova lost most of its Jewish population in the previous century, due to the Holocaust, the Communist repression and the emigration to Israel. That is why, in a country where they represented one third of the population, Jews now account for less than one per cent of the population. One might think that Jews never lived here, but it is an important part of our history we should be aware of so that we can move forward.”Shomshon Daniel Izakson, Rabbi of the Jewish Community in Moldova.
Chișinau from 2000 – present day
Of course we could have guessed that there was tragic history in Chișinău linked to the Holocaust. But what about in recent history? Why has no one already transformed the cemetery into a monument? It seems that disregard for the sacredness of a cemetery and even blatant anti-Semitism continued to exist in recent history. In 2002, two teenagers destroyed roughly 50 tombstones during Passover. A judge deemed their crime was not motivated by anti-Semitism. Then in the 2010s, an unlicensed logging company inadvertently destroyed more tombstones when felling trees in the cemetery.
So what about today? It sounds like the Moldovan State is finally spearheading a project to restore the cemetery and establish it as a national landmark. From what we can see, they are making some progress. But that is not to say that I am hopeful about the completion of the projection. As we have shared before, Moldovan politics are notorious for unfulfilled promises due to lack of funds.
And what is more – much of the damage is irreversible. For example, as mentioned, our current apartment borders the cemetery. We have a suspicion that our complex, as well as the adjacent park and tennis center could possibly have been built over parts of the cemetery. It’s unsettling that such a terrible part of the history of this city could be ignored, monetized, or destroyed in the span of a few generations.
What to do with the emotional fallout of our visit?
We don’t often walk through cemeteries or contemplate the meaning of death and remembrance. Honestly, modern American life tries desperately to separate itself from death. However, we found a certain sacredness in burial. It feels like something holy or different than normal everyday places. The scientific part of our brains knows that these graves are just decomposing matter made of molecules and compounds. Eventually, dust returns to dust and even a tombstone can be sitting on a simple plot of earth. But burials and cemeteries are more for the living than the dead. It is how we handle our grief and keep ourselves rooted in the past.
Lingering in the sadness for a moment
We felt a strong sense of tragedy walking through a cemetery that had seemed forgotten. The one place on earth where these individuals could be remembered had been ignored and disrespected and even violated. It hit doubly hard knowing that the people being forgotten had been despised and hated during their lives as well. Further complicating the fact is that Moldova is a country barely able to take care of its living population, much less take care of its memorials.
Addressing the legacy of collective guilt
Leaving the cemetery we felt the fragility and transience of our own existence. Hopefully, we can have meaningful relationships with the people we care about in this life. This may leave an impression or impact beyond the course of our own lives. And maybe those people will put beautiful tombstones on our graves and passersby will wonder who we were. But the fact of the matter is that the people who remember us will one day die. Our tombstones will crack and fade. Maybe even the cemetery will be re-purposed as a 10 story condominium with a marble foyer that needs constant cleaning. Ultimately, everything could be forgotten.
Which is why it’s so important to remember, to pass on the memories that we have, to write a blog post that gets lost in the recesses of the internet, to carry the burden of collective guilt for what humans have done and continue to do to each other.
In the United States our collective guilt is centered around the history of blatant racism and the insidious systemic racism that exists today. In Europe we find much collective guilt associated with the Holocaust. Although the burden of America’s collective guilt its heavier on our shoulders than European guilt, in the end it is all the same guilt with different flavors. And it is important to learn how to deal with it as individuals, as societies, and as humans.