Of traveling in Moldova, Jewish cemeteries, vanished worlds and photographs

Usually Christian is the author if this blog. Recently he gave me the opportunity to write about my impressions of the journey we just had together in Moldova. I am thankful to have a place to publish my thoughts.

Traveling through a country with a task – visiting all those remnants of Jewish culture – is a wonderful way to approach a land like Moldova, or Ukraine or Romania as we did in the years before. And I am quite grateful for the chance to learn more about the Jewish life, that has vanished, and about the Holocaust.

As a German I am obliged to learn as much as possible about the holocaust anyway. One aspect of the holocaust is well known in Germany, the children learn in school about it. This aspect is the death camps run by the German occupation army, camps built to kill as many Jews as possible by means of forced hard work, starvation and of course the gas chambers. There is – it might be cynical to say so – an industrial aspect in this. The death camps were meant to kill as many Jews as possible with the minimum of effort and means.

Traveling with Christian revealed another aspect of the holocaust. Jews in the eastern part of Europe, in Galicia, Bucovina and Transnistria were often killed by the local police, by the local army cooperating with the German occupation forces, and they were often killed by hand. There was – I am cynical again – a kind of handicraft aspect to this killing. Soldiers, policeman, neighbours often shot every single Jew by hand. You have to imagine this: You go to one Jewish man or woman after the other, look into his or her eyes, see the panic and fear, and then you pull the trigger and see this man dying. What in the world let you do this? Within the limited capacity of my mind I cannot imagine someone to do this at all, but to do this even twice is inconceivably, and I think the first woman, or at least the first child, that comes up before you, will make you stop. But I know, those people did not stop. And I still wonder why.

Everyone in Germany knows about the death camps, and Germans often wonder, how a whole nation, or the majority of them, could allow this to happen, or at least looked the other way. Thinking in Germany about the Holocaust usually means thinking about the perpetrators. What is not known is what is lost, what was destroyed. I had to go to eastern Europe to learn about the Jewish culture there, about the shtetl life, about all the literature, music and folk tales that vanished with the genocide. So I finally startet not to think about the perpetrators, but about the victims.

Visiting all these cemeteries with Christian means spending many hours in places of death and I am faced with the constantly fading memory of the people buried there. Gravestones can break, topple over, they get eroded by rain and ice, and eventually all that is left is a stumble of stone in the lawn. We in a western society might mourn about the loss of information, the loss of knowledge about the man buried under such a stumble. You will never know his name, his whereabouts, we will never learn about his life. From a more eastern point of view this might come next to what is called nirvana, that means reaching a kind and graceful “nothing” is the ultimate goal.

Being in all those Jewish cemeteries I encountered the photographs of the deceased. As in Christian cemeteries people often attach photos of their relatives to the gravestones. And you will find all kinds of photographs: of young men, old woman, of children that died too early, you see photos of young man full of energy, in their best suits, willing to give all this energy to build up a worthwhile socialistic society. You see photos of young woman, good looking, dressed to be attractive. You find carelessly photographed passport portraits. Some photos where obviously made shortly before the death of the photographed. You find woman with worn-out faces, faces that have seen too much labour and worries. Faces of men who saw the failure of a large socialist utopia. Faces obscured by illness and the knowledge of their approaching death.

And you see photos in all states of decay. Some of them look like they were made yesterday. Some are faded to white due to a faulty photographic development. Some frames are broken, not all of them over time. Some are destroyed with intent. People often believe that Jews – remember, Jews are always rich and greedy and want to take their riches with them into their graves – hide their gold behind those photographs. So intruders smash the picture with a hammer, only to find nothing behind it. You have to imagine this: You smash a hammer into the last remaining photograph of a deceased man, woman or child and you destroy the last picture of this person. Who is capable of doing so? And besides, it should have gotten around by now that there isn’t anything to find behind those photographs.

Not all the people, whose photos are displayed on the tombstones died at old age. Some of them were children, some in their teens, some in their twenties. You often wonder, what made them die so early. Some reached an old age, and all of them did not know how much time they had in their life. I also don’t. Seeing thousands of those gravestones reminds me ever so often of the limited time I will have. And that makes me look at every single day I am given with a wake attention. And I am wondering what kind of memories will be left of me. Who will remember me after ten, fifty or hundred years. And do I wish that someone remembers me after a hundred years? Or might I find some consolation in the thought that being erased from the memory of men means somehow getting near to this nirvana nothing, that some people consider a bliss.

Thank you for reading and following me to this point.


11 thoughts on “Of traveling in Moldova, Jewish cemeteries, vanished worlds and photographs

  1. Touching and poignant, and very meaningful to me who has roots in Bessarabia (my maternal grandmother was born in Soroca). I too visited a few years ago and continue to stay in touch with the Soroca Jewish community. Thank you!

    • I will be traveling to Moldova in Sept. to continue my ethnographic research I have been doing in Eastern Europe among the former and present and former Jewish communities since 1981. Some of the best klezmer music and Yiddish songs came from Bessarabia. Thank you for your research and thoughts.

  2. Thank you. I often wonder how the individual German persons feels about what happened. I truly appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Achim: you are obviously a very courageous and principled man. I admire you for wanting to go much further than just learning about the Holocaust in school. Your thoughts about the victims and how they died as well as about the mindset of those who executed them reveals your deep humanity. Thank you very much.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge and wisdom with all of us so eager to find connection with our loved ones. May g-d bless and keep you well for 120 years.

  5. There is an old Jewish cemetery in Comrat, Moldova, about 100 km south from Chisinau. I know that 10 years ago it was in a very bad shape. It would be really great if on your next trip, you can photograph the last remaining tomb stones to preserve a memory of people who had lived there. There are still old houses standing, although, majority of the Jewish population repatriated now.

  6. you really help restore ones faith in humanity, with the horrible world news and the rise of anti everything, it is a real tonic to read your considered and caring piece. Thank you so much

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