Around 1900, Bessarabia was part of the Russian Empire. It has also been known as Bessarabia [English], Bessarabiya [Russian], Basarabia [Romanian], Basarabye [Yiddish]. Today it is known as Bessarabia, (Gubernia), Moldova.

A gubernya  is a province which belonged to Russia until 1917, and then became part of Romania in 1918, and then the USSR in 1940. This region includes most of the current Republic of Moldova, and small areas to the north and south in Ukraine.

Bessarabia from 1793 - 1812
Bessarabia from 1793 – 1812

By the Treaty of Bucharest of May 28, 1812, the Ottoman Empire ceded the Bessarabia region to the Russian Empire.  The land between the Dniester River on the east, the Prut River on the west, and the Danube on the south was ceded.

There are many towns in Bessarabia, but I will focus on Kishinev since I found many Feldmans living there.

Founded in 1436 as a monastery village, Kishinev was part of the Principality of Moldavia.

Jews are mentioned from very early in the Principality, but they did not represent a significant number. Their main activity in urban Moldavia was commerce. When Jewish merchants created monopolies, Moldavian rulers sent them back to Galicia and Podolia.

During the 14th–17th centuries, Bessarabia played an important factor in the commerce between cities in southern Poland and ports of the Black Sea, Turkey and Asian countries.  Jewish merchants using the route along Moldova only appear in the second half of the 15th century. For a detailed look at life in Bessarabia, read this article:

Here are a few key facts from that article:

  • In 1774 7 % of the population was Jewish (540 people).
    • In 1812 Kishinev came under Russian imperial administration
    • In 1818 it became the Capital of the Bessarabian district
    • By 1897 there were more than 50,000 Jews or 46.3% of the population
    • In the late 19th century, due to growing anti-Semitic sentiment in the Russian Empire and better economic conditions, many Jews chose to settle in Kishinev.

Jews in the Moldovan rural areas of Bessarabia earned their living by land lease and the sale of liquor. The Jews leased, from estate owners,  and maintained flour mills, fruit orchards, fishing rights, bridges over rivers The Jews of Bessarabia were also craftsmen such as butchers, bakers, tailors who were connected to religious life, and they also ran inns.

Life was not easy, and there were many rules for the Jews at the Beginning of the 19th Century.

  • They could reside wherever they wished in towns or villages within the princedom.
  • Every community was an independent unit paying the authorities a tax on behalf of all its members. The Jews were thus exempt from other payments. The community collected the taxes within its boundaries without the intervention of the authorities. Privileges were awarded by the princes to each community.
  • The Jews of Moldova were organized in a corporation (breastia in Romanian i.e. guild or professional unit). This was true of all middle class urban groups and foreigners who were permanent residents in Moldova. As did other corporations, the Jewish corporation enjoyed a good standing with the authorities as well as judicial and administrative autonomy. Much of the administrative and judicial powers were in the hands of the chief Rabbi of the princedom. The Haham Bashi was empowered to manage the corporation according to customs of the Jewish faith and to judge cases between Jews. Any cases that dealt with the chief clerk of the state were not under his jurisdiction. The Haham also had the right to appoint rabbis and secular leaders in all parts of the princedom. He was permitted to levy taxes from the Jewish community and he had representatives in villages that did it in his name.
  • The lives and properties of the Jewish residents were protected by the authorities in the same way as was done for the others.
  • Jews were free to deal in commerce, retail and wholesale, and practice various crafts.
  • They could own houses and stores in the towns, but they could not have estates, vineyards or other property in rural areas.
  • They were not permitted to lease estates, but they could sell liquor in the villages.
  • Synagogues could only be built with wood at a certain distance from Christian churches. A special permit from the prince had to be obtained. The building could not be different from other buildings nearby.
  • Beginning in 1841 Jews could not hire Christian children or maids younger than 30.
  • Jews could not testify against Christians.
  • Various regulations, mainly canonical in nature, were devised to have as little as possible contact between Jews and Christians and to avoid religious libel.

The Age of Enlightenment brought changes to religious life and by 1855 there were 6 Jewish public schools (as compared to religious schools) in Kishinev. More intellectuals were created. More cultural influence trickled in from Odessa. Some people were leaving the old religious customs of the Hasidim behind and becoming more secular.

By the end of the 19th century Jews were also afraid of being expelled due to new rules and regulations of their life. Persecution of Jews started. The free occupations, still included only a few Jews, except for teaching.  There were only 1,712 Jews who were lawyers, scientists, authors, artists and medical workers.

Many worrisome  articles appeared in the Jewish Press.

  • “Prices are rising and the numbers of the poor are growing – they have no food”. This was written from a village in 1895. Another village is described in 1890 as “…the poverty among the Jews has reached frightening levels”. The correspondent adds, perhaps an exaggeration, “People are dying of hunger”.

The expulsions and the deteriorating economic situation pushed the Jews to leave.  In 1893 the central committee of the Jewish Colonization Association received requests from more than 300 Jewish families from Bessarabia to help them leave Russia.  The main destination was the United States, but others went to Canada and other countries including Argentina and Eretz Israel.