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BESSARABIA , region between the rivers Prut and Dniester; before 1812 part of Moldavia, with several districts under direct Ottoman rule; within Russia 1812–1918; part of Romania 1918–40; returned to Russia 1940, and together with the Moldavian Autonomous S.S.R. became the Moldavian S.S.R. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the state of Moldova was established.

Up to 1812

From the 15th century onward, Jewish Sephardi merchants from Constantinople frequented Bessarabia while using the trade route which crossed the length of the territory, connecting the countries of the East and the Black Sea shores with Poland. Later, Jewish merchants from Poland also began coming to Bessarabia. Some of them settled there, thus laying the foundation of the first Jewish communities in northern and central Bessarabia; in southern Bessarabia Jewish communities were found already in the 16th century. By the early 18th century, permanent Jewish settlements had been established in several commercial centers. Toward the end of the century, relatively large numbers of Jews were living in most of the urban settlements and in many villages. Their number was estimated at 20,000 in 1812. The legal status of the Jews in the part of Bessarabia under Moldavian rule was similar to that of the rest of Moldavian Jewry. They were organized in autonomous communities subject to the authority of the ḥakham bashi in Jassy. In the parts under Ottoman rule they were subject to the same laws as the other communities under this regime. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jews in Bessarabia mainly engaged in local commerce and liquor distilling; some traded on a considerable scale with neighboring countries. In the villages main occupations were leasing activities and innkeeping. In the cultural sphere, Bessarabian Jewry during this period was not advanced. The most prominent rabbis of the early 19th century were *Ḥayyim b. Solomon of Czernowitz, rabbi of *Kishinev, and David Solomon *Eibenschutz, rabbi of Soroki. Jacob *Frank exerted an influence from Podolia, and Khotin became a center for Frank and his adherents. Toward the end of the 18th century, Ḥasidism penetrated Bessarabia.


After the Russian annexation in 1812, Bessarabia was included in the *pale of Settlement, and many Jews settled there from other parts of the Pale. The Jewish population, mainly concentrated in Kishinev and its district and in the northern part of the region, grew from 43,062 in 1836 to 94,045 in 1867 (excluding New Bessarabia, see below), and to 228,620 (11.8% of the total) in 1897. Of these 109,703 (48%) lived in the towns (of them 50,237, or 22%, in Kishinev), 60,701 (26.5%) in small towns, and 58,216 (25.5%) in the villages. They formed 37.4% of the town population, 55.7% of the population of the small towns, and 3.8% of the village population. Regulations governing the legal status of the Jews of Bessarabia after the annexation were issued in 1818. In conformance with the Russian pattern, Jews were required to join one of three classes: merchants, townsmen, or peasants. All their former rights were confirmed, while the existent Russian legislation concerning the Jews did not apply, since Bessarabia had autonomous status. The regulations even expressly authorized Bessarabian Jews to reside in the villages and engage in leasing activities and innkeeping, in contradiction to the "Jewish Statute" of 1804 (see *Russia). Because of this regional autonomy, the Jews of Bessarabia were spared several of the most severe anti-Jewish

decrees issued in the first half of the 19th century. By 1835, when the liquidation of Bessarabian autonomy began, the "Jewish legislation" then promulgated in Russia was equally applied to Bessarabian Jewry, although the prohibition on Jewish residence in border regions was not enforced in Bessarabia until 1839, and compulsory military service until 1852. In the second half of the 19th century, the restriction on Jewish residence in the border area assumed special importance for the Jews of Bessarabia. According to the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1856), a territory in the southern part of the region was allocated to Romania, and many localities, including Kishinev, now fell in the border area. The restrictions were not strictly enforced and thousands of Jews settled in this region, although decrees of expulsion were issued in 1869, 1879, 1886, and 1891. Of these the most severe and extensive was that of 1869. Expulsions of individual Jews also became frequent. The Jews in New Bessarabia – the area incorporated within Romania by the Treaty of Paris – shared the fate of the other Jews in the country. The anti-Jewish riots which broke out in the towns of this region – *Izmail, Kagul, and Vilkovo – in 1872 aroused both Jewish and non-Jewish public opinion in Europe, and diplomatic intervention was enlisted to alleviate the position of the Jews. When New Bessarabia reverted to Russia in 1878, the Jews who were then recorded on the Romanian tax registers were permitted to remain there. The "*May Laws" of 1882 severely affected Jews in Bessarabia as a considerable proportion lived in the villages, and frequent expulsions ensued. In 1903 a frightful pogrom broke out in Kishinev. The wave of pogroms in 1905 swept Bessarabia. Three towns and 68 other localities were struck and 108 Jews were murdered. The damage was estimated at 3,500,000 rubles. The 1917 Revolution in Russia brought civic equality for the Jews of Bessarabia.

During the 19th century, the economic structure of Bessarabian Jewry remained basically unchanged. In their old occupations Jews played an important role within the agrarian economy of the region. An increasing number of Jews entered agriculture, and between 1836 and 1853, 17 Jewish agricultural settlements were established in Bessarabia, mostly in the northern districts, on lands purchased or leased from Christian or Jewish landowners. There were 10,859 persons living on these settlements in 1858; 12.5% of Bessarabian Jewry were farmers, and the region became among the largest and most important centers of Jewish agriculture in Russia. There were 106,031 dessiatines (276,283 acres) in Jewish ownership in 1880 (representing 2.5% of the arable land in Bessarabia) and an additional 206,538 dessiatines (557,652 acres) leased by Jews. In time, especially after the application of the "May Laws," most of the settlements were liquidated. According to a survey carried out by the *Jewish Colonization Association (ica) in 1899, there were 1,492 families (7,782 persons), of whom 53% were landowners, on the six settlements still in existence. Of these families only 31.5% were engaged in agricultural work. The land in Jewish ownership also diminished. In 1897, 7.12% of the Jews in Bessarabia were engaged in agriculture; 26.81% in crafts and industry; 3.65% in transport; 2.34% in commercial brokerage; 39.53% in commerce (of these 58% engaged in the trade of agricultural produce); 8.9% as clerks or employees in private enterprises, domestics, daily workers, or unskilled laborers; 4.9% in public or government services or the liberal professions; and 6.75% in miscellaneous occupations. The 22,130 Jews engaged in commerce constituted 81.2% of the total number of merchants in the region, and 95.8% of the grain dealers. The proportion of Jewish artisans, mainly tailors, was lower (39%). From the early 1880s, the economic situation of Bessarabian Jewry deteriorated as a result of the frequent expulsions from the villages and border areas, and the agrarian crisis in Russia during this period. Many impoverished Jews emigrated overseas. The principal factor in Jewish spiritual life was Ḥasidism. Many of the village Jews of no marked learning adopted much of the way of life and customs of the Moldavian peasantry. A major influence was wielded by the ẓaddikim of the Friedman (see *Ruzhin) and *Twersky families. During the 1830s and 1840s, Haskalah began to penetrate into Bessarabia. From the end of the 1840s, Jewish government schools were opened in Bessarabia. In 1855 there were six such schools, in *Beltsy, Khotin, *Brichany, and Iz-mail, and two in Kishinev, with 188 pupils. Private secular Jewish schools also began to appear, and from the 1860s Jews in Bessarabia, especially wealthier ones, began to send their children to the general schools. During the 1870s, 30% to 40% of the pupils in some of the secondary schools of the region were Jewish. In 1894, however, 60.9% of Jewish children of school age still attended ḥeder. The population census of 1897 revealed that only 27.8% of Bessarabian Jews above the age of ten could read Russian. After the pogroms of the 1880s, Ḥovevei Zion societies were founded in Bessarabia as elsewhere, the most important in Kishinev, led by Abraham *Grunberg and Meir *Dizengoff. Toward the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, there was some movement toward pioneer settlement in Ereẓ Israel (aliyah). Seven delegates from Bessarabia, of whom six were from Kishinev, took part in the founding meeting of the Ḥovevei Zion Odessa Committee (April 1890). The Zionists of Bessarabia were represented at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 by Jacob *Bernstein-Kogan of Kishinev. Toward the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a line of poets and authors emerged on the cultural scene in Bessarabia, many of whom were to play an important role in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, including Eliezer *Steinbarg, Judah *Steinberg, S. *Ben-Zion, Jacob *Fichman, Samuel Leib *Blank, and Ḥayyim *Greenberg. The chief rabbi of Bessarabia, Judah Loeb *Zirelson, wrote halakhic works.


After the incorporation of Bessarabia into Romania in 1918, the Jews there automatically received Romanian citizenship, in accordance with the commitments of Romania under the Treaty of Paris. However, as a result of the Nationality Law of 1924, many Bessarabian Jews who could not fulfill its requirements were deprived of Romanian nationality, and defined as aliens. According to a census taken in 1920, there were 267,000 Jews in Bessarabia. As in the other parts of Romania, they encountered popular hostility, anti-Jewish measures and suspicion on the part of the government, and petty administrative harassment. In 1938, 21,844 Jewish heads of families in Bessarabia were deprived of Romanian nationality (according to official statistics). The economic situation of Bessarabian Jewry also deteriorated. The separation of the region from its former Russian markets, the drought which struck Bessarabia three times during this period, the world economic crisis, and the government's policy of exploitation, all resulted in a severe crisis in the agricultural economy. Assistance from abroad was provided principally by the *American Joint Distribution Committee and ica. The savings and credit cooperatives set up before the war supported by ica also played an important role in this period. In 1930 there were 41 savings and loan banks operating in 39 localities with a membership of 30,202, i.e., two-thirds of Jewish breadwinners in Bessarabia. Of these 12% were farmers, reflecting the development of Jewish agriculture in this period. At the time of the agrarian reform in Bessarabia (1920–23), between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews received 7 to 10 acres of land each – altogether approximately 120,000 acres were cultivated. In Bessarabia agriculture as a Jewish occupation ranked second after Ereẓ Israel. In 1935 about 3,000 families cultivating a total of approximately 20,000 hectares were supported by ica. Two new agricultural settlements were established with assistance from ica. Under Romanian rule, Jewish communal life flourished and leadership revived. A number of political parties, prominent among them the Zionist movements, were active, as well as other organizations.

The first conference of Bessarabian Zionists was convened in 1920 in Kishinev, and a central office for the Zionist Organization of Bessarabia was set up in Kishinev. On the basis of the minority treaties signed by Romania, a ramified network of Jewish elementary and secondary schools with instruction in Yiddish or Hebrew was established in Bessarabia at the beginning of Romanian rule. In 1922 there were 140 Jewish schools with 19,746 pupils (105 giving instruction in Hebrew with 16,456 pupils). A teachers' seminary was established in Kishinev. However, by the end of 1922 government policy changed. Many of the schools were deprived of their Jewish character and converted into Romanian schools. By 1929–30 there remained 64 Jewish educational institutions in 30 localities (15 kindergartens, 37 elementary schools, 11 secondary schools, and one vocational school) with 6,381 pupils and 312 teachers. Social welfare institutions in Bessarabia during this period included 13 hospitals, a sanatorium for tubercular patients, societies for assistance to the sick in 25 localities, 13 old-age homes, and four relief institutions for children. From 1923 the *ose society was also active in Bessarabia where it maintained stations in eight localities. After the entry of the Red Army into Bessarabia on June 28, 1940, life for the Jews of Bessarabia was gradually brought into line with the general pattern of Jewish existence under the Soviet regime. On June 13, 1941, a comprehensive "purge" was carried out throughout the region. Thousands of Jews – communal leaders, active members of the Zionist movement, businessmen, and persons suspected of disloyalty to the regime – were arrested and deported to internment camps or exiled to Siberia.

[Eliyahu Feldman]

From 1941

The first Soviet occupation of the area lasted from 1940 until the beginning of hostilities between Germany and Russia in June of the following year. Romania was an ally of Germany. Bessarabia was reconquered by German and Romanian troops by July 23, 1941, and remained under Romanian authority until August 1944, when it was reoccupied by the Russians. Central and northern Bessarabia, as well as a narrow strip on the west side of the Dniester, became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic with the capital in Kishinev. When Bessarabia was reoccupied by the Soviets, only a few Jews were still alive. The great majority had been massacred by the Einsatzkommandos of Einsatzgruppe D, and by the German and Romanian soldiers, while others were deported to *Transnistria, where more than half of them died. Many of the deported Jews preferred to slip back into Romania, and from there to leave for Israel.

For further information on the Holocaust in Bessarabia and subsequent events, see articles on *Russia and the various towns. For the period after the breakup of the Soviet Union, see *Moldova.

[Theodor Lavi]


Die Judenpogrome in Russland, 1 (1910), passim; 2 (1910), 5–37; N. Sharand, A Dritl Yorhundert Yidisher Kooperatsyein Besarabye (1934); J. Starr, in: jsos, 3 (1941), 57–80; Besarabyah (Heb., 1941), essays; A. Ettinger, Im Ḥakla'im Yehudim ba-Tefuẓot (1942), 110–70; Sh. Hillels, in: Shevilei ha-Ḥinnukh (1943), 3–16, 67–73; idem, in: Ha-Tekufah, 30–31 (1946), 786–806; Z. Scharfstein, Toledot ha-Ḥinnukh be-Yisrael ba-Dorot ha-Aḥaronim, 3 (1949), 248–59; M. Ussishkin, in: Pirkei Besarabyah, 1 (1952), 32–50; Al Admat Besarabyah, 3 vols. (1959–63), essays; E. Feldman, Toledot Ha-Yehudim Be-Bessarabia ba-Me'ah ha-19 (1970); idem, in: He-Avot, 12 (1965), 102–20; idem, in: Zion, 30 (1965), 206–33; Vol. ii of the Enẓiklopediah shel Galuyot (1971) is devoted to Bessarabia.


views updated May 23 2018


The region of Bessarabia lies between the Prut and Dniester Rivers and constitutes the rump of what is today the Republic of Moldavia. Although the historical region of Bessarabia stretched to the coast of the Black Sea, southeastern Bessarabia is presently incorporated in Ukraine.

The region formed part of the broader Principality of Moldavia, which first emerged as a distinct area of rule in the fourteenth century. This territory was brought into the Ottoman sphere of influence in 1538, following conquests led by Süleyman the Magnificent. The region was allowed a measure of self-government until 1711, when Constantinople appointed Greek-speaking phanariots to govern the region more directly.

The first clear, political separation between Bessarabia and western Moldavia (now incorporated into Romania) came with the Russian occupation of Bessarabia in 1806. This move precipitated a six-year war, after which the victorious Russian Tsar Alexander I was able to formally annex the land between the Prut and Dniester Rivers from the Ottoman Empire.

After a short period of relative autonomy from Moscow, Bessarabia underwent a process of Russification, and the use of the Romanian language was barred from official use. The 1871 shift in Bessarabia's status from that of imperial oblast to Russian rayon saw further restrictions on cultural and political autonomy in the region.

Due to significant immigration following the annexation of 1812, Bessarabia had become culturally cosmopolitan by the end of the nineteenth century. However, the region was an economic backwater; literacy remained very low and, despite the presence of some small-scale industry in the region's capitalChis¸inauthe area remained largely agricultural.

The collapse of tsarist rule during World War I enabled elites drawn from the Bessarabian military to act on growing nationalist sentiments by declaring full autonomy for the region in November 1917. Romanian forces capitalized further on the confused state of rule in Bessarabia and moved in to occupy the territories lost to Russia in 1812. A vote by the newly formed Bessarabian National Council saw the region formally unite with Romania on March 27, 1918.

During the interwar period, Bessarabia formed the eastern flank of Greater Romania. This period was characterized by an acceleration of public works, which combined with agricultural reform to stabilize the region's economy. However, the significant minority populations (Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Turks) suffered under Romanian rule and were denied basic cultural rights, such as education in their native tongues.

The clandestine carve-up of Europe planned under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939 implied that Germany had no interest in Bessarabia. This afforded the Soviet Union an opportunity to retake the region. In June 1940 the Soviet government issued an ultimatum to Romanian King Carol II, demanding that Bessarabia and northern Bukovina be brought under Soviet control. Although Carol II acquiesced in this demand, Romania's alliance with Germany during World War II saw the land return to Romanian hands. Control was again returned to the Soviet Union following the collapse of the Axis. The six counties of Bessarabia were then merged with the Transnistrian region, east of the Dniester, to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Although Bessarabia dominated Soviet Moldavia geographically and demographically, communist elites from the Transnistrian region enjoyed the majority of political weight in the republic, due to their membership in the Soviet community since 1917 and the presence of a significant pro-Russian, Slavic minority. With Soviet industrial development concentrated in Transnistria, a growing socioeconomic divide emerged between this region and Bessarabia.

The collapse of Soviet rule and declaration of Moldavian independence in 1991 was followed shortly thereafter by a declaration of Transnistrian independence from the Republic of Moldavia. Although unrecognized, Transnistria remains tacitly independent in the early twenty-first century, leaving Bessarabia as the sole region under the control of the government of the Republic of Moldavia.

See also: moldova and moldovans; ukraine and ukrainians


King, Charles. (2000). The Moldovans: Romania, Russia, and the Politics of Culture. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

John Gledhill