On the eve of the Second World War, Ion Antonescu, the Nazi dictator and leader of Romania, declared that the land on the east side of the Dniester river would be known at Transnistria. Not long afterwards, the 4,163 square kilometer area became the “Auschwitz” of Romania and was the killing ground for most of the Jewish population of the country. Transnistria is landlocked and borders Bessarabia (that is the rest of Moldova, for 411 km) to the West, and Ukraine (for 405 km) to the East. It is a narrow valley stretching North-South along the bank of the Dniester River, which forms a natural boundary along most of the border with the rest of Moldova.
Today Transnistria is a secessionist territory which, since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1990, is known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) or Pridnestrovie, and has a population of some half a million. The Republic of Moldova. as well as most of the rest of the world, does not recognize the breakaway province and considers it to be part of Moldova. Most Transnistrians also hold Moldovan citizenship, but there are many with Russian and Ukrainian citizenship
Transnistria is a presidential republic with its capital in the city of Tiraspol which has about 160,000 inhabitants. Its president is Yevgeniy Shevchuk who won the presidential elections on a classic Communist platform in 2011. In Kishinev I was told that relations between Transnistria and Moldova are sensitive although evidently Moldova is considering granting independence to the secessionist state. There are those who claim that Transnistria is involved in arms dealing although this is denied. What cannot be denied is the strong Soviet- like Communist influence throughout the country. When we crossed the frontier into Transnistrian territory, the border police took our passports away and spent a considerable time checking them. Alongside the roads are subterranean bunkers which concealed Russian tanks during the war. The road to the capital was lined with houses and businesses reminiscent of Russia in the Soviet era. The independence of the small nation is dependant upon the military presence of some 1,200 Russian soldiers. We stopped by a local school. Outside flew national flags and in the courtyard, a large statue of a soldier in the heroic style with his hand uplifted. In the main square of Tiraspol is a big statue of Lenin. Opposite the parliament building was a large election poster featuring Vladimir Putin. The accepted currency in the stores is rubles and kopeks.
As far as can be ascertained, about 2,000 Jews live in Transnistria today, most of them working in the free professions, and there is a synagogue. Before the war the area had a Jewish population of about 300,000 souls. Tens of thousands were slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppe and by German and Romanian forces. When Transnistria was occupied in Summer 1941, it was used for the concentration of the Jews of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and northern Moldavia who were expelled on the direct order of Ion Antonescu. Most of the Jews who survived the mass killings carried out in Bessarabia and Bukovina were deported to Transnistria by the end of 1941. Also deported to Transnistria were political prisoners and Jews who had evaded the existing regulations on forced labor. The total number of deportees was apparently 150,000, although German sources put the figure at 185,000.