The word Kishinev is infamous in Jewish history because of the horrific pogroms that took place there in 1903 and after, and which in turn, led to a heightened interest in Zionism and a home for the Jewish people. Now, 109 years later, the Jewish world returned to the city in strength with the holding of a Limmud FSU Conference for Russian speakers in early June 2012, with more than 500 participants.
The sour smell of red wine permeates the soil of Moldova – the land that was once known as Bessarabia. A silent reminder not just of the victims of the Holocaust, but of the Baal Shem Tov who trod this soil, and of the strains of Moldovan folk music which has a link to the melody of the Israeli Hatikva.
It is to Ataki (Utatz) a small town, 250 kilometers from Kishinev (now Chisenau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova), (once Kishinev,) that Matthew Bronfman, the chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee has come to explore his family roots, together with a group of Limmud activists. It was here that his grandfather, Samuel Bronfman the founder of the Seagram liqueur empire, was born.
Here in Ataki was born Samuel’s father, Yehiel. His wife, Matthew’s great-grandmother Mindel Golda, was born in the nearby district capital of Soroki. The congregational record book of births and deaths are incomplete, unlike many others in Eastern Europe, and therefore to establish facts one has to plough through endless records and documents.
The problem was confirmed by Yuri Zagortza who researches the fate of the Jews of Moldova and Transnistria. He has set up a small organization called Na Morira (“Eternal Life” in Romanian) who try and track down sites where Holocaust victims were buried. They began in two small villages, Wolodyn and Bylstein, linked by a road on which many Jews were murdered including several who had been hidden by Zagortza’s grandparents. At a talk at the Limmud FSU Conference he was hopeful that he could recruit help and funds in his mission of commemorating the Jewish victims and their fate. Eastern Europe is not exactly full of such institutions devoted to commemorating the Jewish dead.
The mayor of Soroki, Ukrainian-born Yelena Bondarenko receives Bronfman with the traditional bread and salt ceremony. Outside the town hall hundreds of people wave in greeting. One of them turns to me and asks, “Has he come to help us?”
We arrive in Soroki after Matthew Bronfman has received the honorary citizenship of Ataki. Here in Soroki, we visitd the mass grave of the thousands killed in the area as well as a memorial to those Jews murdered but who have no place of burial. Accompanied by Mayor Bonderenko, we visited the cemetery, where the founder of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler, recited kaddish at the memorial to the 6,000 dead. The mayor said that voices can be heard again today which remind her of those dark times and it was vital not to forget.
In Soroki today there is a handful of Jews and a tiny community center. One of the young people takes the initiative and shows us a Torah scroll that had been concealed in the earth by non-Jewish neighbors and returned to the Jewish community after the war. There is a minyan on Shabbat and a synagogue which is apparently full to overflowing on Yom Kippur.
As a part of the Limmud FSU celebration, a gala event was held with a special tribute to the Bronfman family and its origins in Bessarabia, now Moldova. Matthew Bronfman was deeply moved by the event and a short documentary film produced by Limmud FSU on the family’s origins. “I am American, my father is Canadian and my ancestors are from Moldova. It is up to you to try and determine what are my origins,” he said to the participants.
Bronfman told the audience that when his family reached Canada in 1891, Great-Great Grandfather Yehiel informed his 16 year-old son, Samuel, that was going to run the family hotel business in Western Canada. The family owned a bar, with a few bedrooms for rent above it. It did not take very long for Samuel to realize that he was making a much higher income from the bar, than from the hotel rooms. The distance from that realization to his buying the controlling interest in the Seagram liquor business was very short. Matthew Bronfman said, “During all the years of building up his business, Grandfather Samuel did not forget for one moment his Jewish origins, and he devoted much of his time to Jewish philanthropy through the foundation he created.”
“My father, Edgar, was involved in Jewish public life for decades and was for many years President of the World Jewish Congress. He was once asked on a popular American television show what was his main regret. His response was, ‘In business you can make good or bad decisions which are reversible but in education, you cannot take back a wrong decision. I regret that I did not give my own children a sufficiently Jewish education.’”
“Following in my father’s footsteps, one of my guiding principles is that education is the supreme value and it is incumbent upon us as opinion makers and with financial strength to invest in education. Whether you are wealthy or poor, you should always bear in mind the precept of Hillel the Elder, ‘Go and study.’ And that is what I am doing. This is the seventh consecutive year that I am involved in Limmud FSU, which opens a door to young Russian-speaking Jews of any religious persuasion or background, and without changing in any way their way of life.”
“One of the things that came into my mind during the visit to Ataki was wonderment that my Great-Great Grandfather had the prescience to foresee what was in store for the Jews. He uprooted himself together with his wife and four small children, a maidservant and the local rabbi and emigrated to Canada. In so doing he saved his whole family and those that followed in his footsteps from certain destruction.”