Commercial roads crossing Stefãnesti
Military history of the area
The Town’s State in the 17th Century
Jewish sources on Stefãnesti
The socio-economic context of Jewish settlements in Moldova in the 16th and 17th century
Stefanesti in the 18th and 19th century
The 20th century
The town and its inhabitants
Art of Stefanesti
The town of Stefãnesti is located in the eastern part of present-day Botosani County, along the Prut and Baseu river valleys. Its history was marked by a considerable number of invasions. It was destroyed and rebuilt time and again. The last destruction, which followed the evacuation of the Jewish population by the Romanian authorities, was during World War II. It seems as though history could not have provided a more emblematic place for a Jewish community. The community of Stefãnesti has come to symbolize, in a paradigmatic manner, the universal condition of the Jews.
It is still not clear when Stefãnesti became a town. What is certain is that Polish writer Jan Dlugosz (1415 – 1480), one of the first to mention its existence, speaks, in his chronicle Annales seu cronicae incliti regni Polnia , about the ‘villa Stepanowcze’/the village of Stefãnesti, which was located somewhere next to the spring of the Baseu River, in a valley crossed by an important commercial route leading to his country.
Another author to mention Stefãnesti was Balthasar of Piscia. While in Suceava, he wrote, on September 16th, 1476, about the Tartars who ‘fell upon the town of Stefanesti’ . Between Dlugosz’ and Balthasar of Piscia’s chronicles, Stefãnesti seems to have evolved from the status of a village to the rank of a market town. It was during this period of urbanization that Stefãnesti became a target for its first invaders, as the market town underwent a strong economic development, favoured by its special geographical position.
Here are some of the roads that intersected in Stefãnesti, with their historical names: the ‘Thieves’ Road’ , first attested in 1492, which started in southern Iasi and ran along the Baseu Valley, to Lipscani. Today this name does not say much, but in the past the town of Lipscani was very significant. The merchants of Lipsca (Leipzig), known as ‘lipscani’, sent their envoys there, hence the name of the place. In the 16th and 17th centuries the roads of the Romanian Principalities were extremely unsafe. Rabbinical responsa and foreign travellers’ accounts of the time abound in stories with crimes committed by robbers and, very often, by ‘people in the service of the ruler’ themselves. Many of the rabbinical texts related to the Principalities refer to agunot. They describe cases of Jewish women who asked rabbinical courts to release them from their marital obligations, given their husband’s death or long disappearance, in order to be able to get married again. The frequency of agunot in the Romanian Principalities, as well as the presence of terms related to stealing methods in the very name of commercial roads, testifies to their total unsafety. On the other hand, the fact that such responsae were requested by rabbinical courts in Poland shows that there were no Jewish communities in Moldova strong enough to have their own rabbis and well established rabbinical courts.
Another commercial route, crossing the area from East to West, was the ‘Soroca road’. This was the route the invaders from the East, mainly Tartars and Cossacks, favoured for raiding Moldova in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The third important commercial route was the ‘Hotin Road’, sometimes called the ‘Camenita Road’, which linked Lemberg, Camenita, Hotin, Iasi and Galati. This road followed the North-South axis, connecting the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Apparently the road was ‘opened to traffic’ on October 8th, 1408, based on a treaty signed by Alexandru cel Bun with the merchants of Lemberg.
The fact that these commercial routes were called ‘sleahuri’ (originally a Polish word) is not without relevance. They testify to an important influx of Polish merchants, closely followed by Ashkenazi Jewish merchants. This information results from the corroboration of a couple of documents. The first such document comes from the Electorate of Branderburg. In the summer of 1546, the king of Poland complained to ruler Petru Rares that ‘merchants are no longer able to trade in Moldova, or at least cross it towards Turkey, because they are robbed, thrown into prisons or even killed at Your Highness’ order.’ We know this refers to Jewish merchants, and not (necessarily) Christian ones, from a Jewish source (a responsa) dating one year earlier. In Rabbi Ioel Sirkis’s work Responsae Bait Hadas, in answer 82 of 23 Tevet 5305 (1545), there is a testimony (in Yiddish) sent to the rabbinic court in Mezibuj, on the murder of a number of Jews, at the order of the ‘ruler of Moldova’. The existence of such practices is further proved by a document issued by the Chancellery of Sigismund August of Lithuania, in 1545, in which he complained to the Moldovan envoys that ‘Turkish, Armenian and Jewish traders who come to His Highness’s reign, the Great Principality of Lithuania, with their merchandise, complain that every time they bring fine Turkish horses for sale in Poland, and Your Lord catches them on their way through Moldova, He sizes the horses, and does not let the merchants take them to Poland’. It seems that the second reign of Petru Rares (1541-1546) abounded in incidents associated with trading caravans crossing Moldova.
But these external trading routes that met in Stefãnesti were not only subject to plunder and abuse from the authorities. A document issued by Stefan Tomsa’s Chancellery in Iasi, on December 10th, 1613, in Polish, allowed the ‘Polish nationals, be they Poles, Rutenians, Armenians or Jews, to travel with their merchandise on the Czernowitz, Hotin and Soroca Roads, but nowhere else, so as to avoid loosing their merchandise’. Besides mentioning the Jewish traders, this deed issued by ruler Stefan Tomsa in fact guaranteed the freedom of travel and the protection of the trading caravans crossing Moldova from the North and the East.
The last medieval commercial route to cross Stefãnesti was the ‘Botosani Road’. It is in connection to this route that we find one of the first attestations of the Jewish merchants’ presence in Stefãnesti, around 1640. At the time, a group of Jews happily chose to leave Stefãnesti for Botosani, under pressure of the imminent arrival of Bogdan Chmelnitzki’s armies.
It is important to mention that the ‘Thieves’ Road’ and the ‘Botosani Road’ were internal routes. The former was the dissemination route of merchandise from Central Europe (Leipzig) to Moldova, while the latter was used to collect Moldovan goods (grain, livestock, skins, wines) for export.
The town’s development was boosted when Iasi became the capital of Moldova. Stefãnesti became an important stop on the Lemberg-Camenita-Hotin-Iasi-Galati route, which was part of the commercial road linking The Black Sea to The Baltic Sea. In 1520, 1598 and 1620 the existence is mentioned of several floating bridges on the property of local boyars. The first attestation of a stone bridge located on the ruler’s domain and linking the ‘Soroca Road’ with the ‘Botosani Road’ dates from 1630.
We know that during the reign of Petru Schiopu, in 1591, in Stefãnesti there was a royal mill. Other mills were located south of the town. As for the town’s religious life, Deacon Trifan Korobeinicov of Moscow mentions the existence of three churches in 1593. The presence of craftsmen is mentioned in a document dated March 15th, 1614, which speaks of a certain ‘Avram Meserciul’. This name, as well as the proximity of a village called Avrameni (‘Avram’s family, his descendants’) testifies to a Jewish presence in the area and its probable segregation. There is no locality called Avrameni near Stefãnesti today, which supports the hypothesis that the place was more of a ghetto within the town or, at most, situated in its immediate proximity, mainly populated by Jews, which was then engulfed with the town’s expansion. The toponym ‘Braharie’ as well as the existence of a second half of the 17th century deed mentioning a certain ‘Alecsi the brewer of Stefãnesti’ indicates the presence of some breweries in the area.
Stefãnesti appears on a series of maps dating from that period, which confirms its importance. Thus, the market town is rendered on G. Reichersdorff’s map of 1550 by three towers – ‘a privilege’ only few localities enjoyed. It is also mentioned on a 1579 map of Europe. On the 1596 map of Domenicos Custos it appears under the name of Stepanutze. In 1600 Heidenstein sets it among Moldova’s ‘oppida notabiliora’ , alongside Botosani, Roman, Bacau, Bîrlad, Tecuci and Hîrlau.
As for the possible date of the first Jewish settlement in central Moldova, which comprised Iasi and Stefãnesti, M. A. Halevy suggests the year 1540, taking into account Martin Bielski’s ‘Kronika Polska’, which mentions a number of ‘Proselyte Jews from Poland’, i.e. Poles converted to Judaism, who sought refuge in Moldova for fear of persecutions. Nevertheless, apart from the responsae and other random texts, very few documents are available on the existence and activities of Jews in Moldova. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were no censuses. The first official demographic statistics only appeared in 1774, and it referred exclusively to the number tax-payers.
Stefãnesti thus knew a certain commercial and craftsmanship development in the 16th and 17th century, even though it’s geographically favourable trading position was at the same time the source of most of its misfortunes. According to various chronicles, Stefãnesti was one of the most often invaded localities of Moldova. Almost all invasions from the East used Stefãnesti as the crossing point of the Prut River. For instance, most of the times, the Tartars used the ‘Soroca Road’ for their quick incursions, crossing the Prut River at Stefãnesti.
In June 1476, when ruler Stefan Cel Mare/Stephen the Great was leading his armies in southern Moldova, in the attempt to prevent Mohamed II from invading the country, ‘the Tartars invaded the town of Stefãnesti and took many of its notables prisoners.’ In September and October 1506 and in June 1509 the town was plundered by the Poles. A year later, in April-May 1510, the Tartars came again , only to return in 1513, when the armies lead by Beti Ghirai, the Khan’s son, burned down Iasi, Stefãnesti and Dorohoi. In 1518, the Tartars lead by Khan Albu attacked once again on the ‘Soroca Road’, in Stefãnesti, where they were taken by surprise and defeated by the army of Stefan cel Tanar/Stephen the Young, on August 9th. Twenty years later, in 1538, the Tartars tried to cross the Prut River again, at Stefãnesti, but they were defeated by Petru Rares’s forces. In 1572 a fight broke out between Bogdan Lapusneanu’s armies, supported by the Poles, and ruler Ion Voda’s forces. On September 1st, 1595, Zamoyski’s Polish army proclaimed Ieremia Movila as the new ruler, at Stefanesti, but not before burning down the town. Between December 16th and December 19th, 1607, a great battle took place here between Constantin Movila, supported by the Poles, and his cousin, ruler Mihai Movila. In 1616, Stefan Tomsa, with the help of the Turks and Tartars, destroyed here an army of Polish and French mercenaries. In 1650, a Tartar-Cossack raid burned down the town again. Three years later, Gheorghe Stefan’s army was mobilized here to help the Poles fight the Cossacks led by Bogdan Chmelnitzki’s son Timus. The Cossacks, however, surrendered in Suceava before any battle had taken place. We also know that in 1686 and 1691, Jan Sobieski’s armies stopped in Stefanesti during their anti-Ottoman campaigns.
The 17th century brought great changes to the town, especially as a result of the turmoil in Ukraine. If in 1612 Tomasso Alberti depicted Stefanesti as a large town with 2,000 houses, which made Romanian historian Constantin C. Giurescu state that the place must have had a population of 10,000 inhabitants, by 1657 the Swedish Conrad Iacob Hiltebrandt would note that ‘the town was largely in ruin’ and ‘was crammed with Jewish refugees’. In 1684, in his Polish Poem Miron Costin calls the place town (miasto), which might indicate that Stefãnesti had been rebuilt. The Jews’ exodus to Moldova – invoked by Hiltebrandt as well – was a result of the annexation of Eastern Ukraine by Russia and the persecutions perpetrated by Bogdan Chmelnitzki’s Cossaks (1595-1657) at the time.
Chmelnitzki was the leader of the Cossacks’ and Ukrainian peasants’ uprising against the Poles in 1648. A year before, he had fled from the Polish area (where he had been imprisoned) to find refuge with the Cossacks on the Niper River (in Zaporozhye). He formed an alliance with the Tartars in Crimea, obtaining a series of military successes against Poland. In 1654 he subdued the territories under his control to Russia, after having initially considered Ottoman or Swedish sovereignty. The unrest east of the Nister River had a great impact on Moldova’s life, through the Cossack-Tartar invasions and Jewish migration.
A testimony on Moldova’s condition in the second half of the 17th century is given by Paul of Aleppo. He succeeds in drawing an interesting fresco of the age, which includes Jews, Cossacks, Moldovans, Greeks and Turks. ‘Meanwhile a great misfortune befell the Turks and the Jews, and the Cossacks tortured and plundered them (…); the Moldovans themselves suffered, perhaps even more. As for the Jews, they were thrown into prisons and tortured night after night, it is said, to reveal their wealth.’ Thus, one of the reasons behind the Cossacks’ actions against the Jews (and not only) was simple plunder and swindle. As for the Moldovans’ attitude towards Jews and other minorities, the following fragment gives us an overview: ‘Muslims and Jews appeared in public fearlessly, while Greeks did not dare leave their houses, because of the great resentment between them and the local inhabitants.’ This text is somehow prefiguring the future Fanariot era.
Paul of Aleppo relates that by mid 17th century almost entire Moldovan trade was in the hands of the Jews, who had expanded their commercial relations as far as Germany. They exported mainly agricultural products and imported fabrics and silks. The Jews also initiated the jewellery trade, and remained the only ones to deal with it. Paul of Aleppo also mentions that the Jews were bankers, money changers and sellers of alcoholic liquors, and their number did not exceed 12,000.
As far as Jewish sources explicitly referring to Stefãnesti in the 17th century are concerned, there is an attestation by Rabbi Meir Ghedalia from Lublin, which appeared in Venice in 1618. The work contains a few testimonies taken by the rabbinic court of Bar in 1613 and sent to the rabbinic court of Lublin. Witness Itzhac ben Mordechai states: ‘I was in Wallachia (Moldova, a.n.), in the town of Stefãnesti, and there was a Jew from Bar who pointed out to me a man passing by and told me he was the murderer who had drowned the two Jews of Priluk, one of them being the official Zalman (…)’. This testimony, corroborated with the deed of 1614, which certified the presence of a man called ‘Avram Meserciul’ in Stefãnesti, and with the existence of toponyms like Avrãmeni, confirms without doubt that there was a Jewish presence in this town, at least at the beginning of the 17th century. We can thus speak of four centuries of uninterrupted Jewish presence in Stefanesti.
A second attestation of Stefãnesti in Jewish sources can be found in a work by Rabbi Ioel Serkis, Bait Hadas (Questions and answers), comprising documents from 1600-1640, which presents Iosef bar Semuel’s account of Bogdan Chmelnitzki’s offensive in Moldova. ‘I was in Wallachia (Moldova) with Haim, Ithak bar Selomo’s son-in-law, of Crasni, in an inn in Stefãnesti, at the time of Hmil (Bogdan Chmelnitzki)’s terror. There we got scared and left for the Hospodar (the ruler) and his Wallachian and Polish troops, who were in the field half a mile away from Botosani (…)’.
We can conclude from this fragment that a number of Jewish traders had been taken by surprise by Bogdan Chmelnitzki’s army while they were travelling on the ‘internal’ route Tg. Frumos (Crasna) – Stefãnesti – Botosani. At the same time we find out that in 1640 (most probably, as this is the upper limit of the book’s chronology) there was at least one Jewish family living in Tg. Frumos.
Most of the Jewish sources referring to the 16th and 17th century are rabbinical texts related to the disappearance of Jewish merchants while travelling on Moldova’s roads. This alone testifies to the unsafety of the country’s trading routes. Foreign tradesmen were plundered by brigands or by the authorities themselves. The economic precariousness of the principalities sometimes pushed the rulers to take such violent measures. Just like in the case of some western countries (England, France, Spain, etc.), certain rulers who had borrowed money from Jewish usurers preferred to have them killed rather than pay their debts. In Wallachia, the best known example is Mihai Viteazu’s action of 1593. This is the account of Marco Vinieri, the Dodge of Venice’s envoy to the Romanian ruler’s court, given on November 29th, 1593: ‘The ruler gathered all his creditors, Turks, Greeks, Jews and others, asked for their deeds, and had them killed by his guards’ swords, prepared in advance for this purpose.’ The same event is mentioned by Baltazar Walter of Silesia, who places it on November 13th, 1593: ‘ac more sidi propria dedetis semper Hebraeis omnibus,’ mentioning that the Jews behaved with dignity, according to their tradition. This action was emulated in Moldova by Aron Voda, who killed 19 Sephardic Jews together with the rest of the Turks of Iasi in 1594. It seems that the ruler had accumulated debts worth one million ducats, an amount which could not be an exaggeration, if we took into account the interests accumulated by the ruler.
Nevertheless, there was no mass eviction of the Jews, and no anti-Semitic rhetoric supported by the church or any other interested groups to exert pressure on the political authority with regards to the Jews. It seems that in a letter issued on January 8th, 1579, Petru Schiopu announced ‘the eviction of Jews’ from Moldova, but the document actually refers only to the Jewish-Galician cattle traders who used to avoid the Moldovan fairs organized in the border areas in order to enter the country and buy their merchandise directly from the peasants and the boyars, thus avoiding the taxes imposed by the rulers. This was not a discriminatory sanction, as it only targeted a certain category of Jews. It was rather a protectionist one, in today’s sense of the term. Instigations and religion based murders only appear in the 18th century, especially in the Galati harbour, mainly during the Christian Orthodox Easter. However, most of the sources agree that these manifestations were a result of the town’s Greek traders’ envy of their Jewish competitors.
During all this time there was no situation of oppressed popular masses revolting against the Jewish ‘oppressors’ of oppressors’ representatives, as was the case with the uprising of the Ukrainian serfs led by Chmelnitzki against the Polish landowners and the Jewish leaseholders who represented them. This was due to the relatively low number of Jews in Moldova in the 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries we have, on the contrary, many documents whereby either the ruler (the state) or certain boyars exempted from taxes the Galician Jews who wanted to set up new boroughs or to settle down in already existing towns, to boost commerce and craftsmanship.
Although the 16th century was marked by a chronic political instability, which generated a certain uncertainty on the commercial routes, plunder – whether committed by rascals or the authorities – was not the main characteristic of the Moldovan trade system. We know of many villages that disappeared because the villagers left following crimes perpetrated by locals or rascals against the Jews. The identification of a dead Jew on the property of a village was very harshly punished, so the peasants usually tried to get rid of any incriminatory evidence. They either moved the body or buried it. Such situations, and the subsequent investigations launched by the authorities, are mentioned in the rabbinical responsae dealing with the agunot.
In case a village was considered responsible for the death of a Jew (whether the inhabitants had killed him with the purpose of taking his goods, or he had been found dead on the village’s land), the villagers had to pay a big fine, called dasegubina , which usually consisted in livestock. If they refused to pay the fine, the inhabitants were banished and their houses demolished. We know that such a fine was imposed on the village of Bagulesti in 1654, leading to many disputes between the peasants. Nowadays this village no longer exists. Another case is attested in Wallachia, where Mircea Ciobanul imposed on the village of Vianul a fee of 40,000 aspri. That village no longer exists either. But in the 17th century, mostly during the reign of Vasile Lupu, the internal social and political situation stabilized a little. This period partially coincides with the unrest in the Ukraine and the Jewish emigration. The Jews who arrived during this time were socially (but not religiously) assimilated and brought an important contribution to the development of trade and craftsmanship in the area.
In conclusion, we can state that in the 16th century Moldova was mainly a transit territory. We also know that at the end of the century, the Jewish bankers of Constantinople had important commercial interests in Moldova, getting involved even in its politics. Thus, Alexandru Lapusneanu regained his throne after the removal of Despot Voda as a result of Iosef Nassi’s intervention. Nassi had the monopoly of Moldovan wine and Polish wax and honey for the Ottoman Empire. Galician archives mention other important Jewish merchants who owned businesses in Moldova: Haim Cohen and Abraham Mosso (in 1570-1571), Nahman Tor (in 1573-1575), Abraham Gambais (in 1585-1586).
In the 17th century, Moldova turned from a transit territory into a place where Jewish traders, especially the Ashkenazi ones, had permanent storehouses, stable markets and export sources, particularly with the help of their compatriots already settled in this area. Gradually, the Ashkenazi Jews imposed themselves, ahead of their Sephardic coreligionists, the Armenians (who had been trading in Moldova for a longer time) and the Greeks (who had penetrated these markets quite recently). As already mentioned here, the Ashkenazi Jews’ industrious abilities made them very popular with the representatives of the court and the big landowners.
The testimonies on the Jewish presence in Moldova begin to abound in the 18th century. This period was the most favourable for the Jewish immigration in Moldova. Many boyars, willing to develop commerce or crafts on their domains, founded market towns where Jews received fiscal facilities. This attitude would only change in the second half of the 19th century, when the national construction policy of the new Romanian state finds itself in conflict with national minorities, including the Jews. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Jews became Romania’s main political problem. Their emancipation, invoked by the progressive intellectuals in the revolutionary programs of 1848 and requested by the European Powers at the 1879 Berlin Congress, was only to be solved in the 20’s of the 20th century.
The Jewish population has increased in the 18th century, as we even have a president of the Moldavian Rabi Law Court originated from Stefanesti, in the person of Rabi Todris, father of the rabi Matatiahlu Calman. As we have said before, a very first census has taken place in Moldavia in 1774, although it only recorded the ones paying the taxes. On this occasion, three Jews are being registered in Stefanesti at the craftsman (in Romanian ‘rufeturi’) heading. A second argument would be The Book of the Incomes Belonging to the Inhabitants of Stefanesti (1793-1819) – in Romanian Catastihul de venitul Stefanestilor (1793-1819) – which certifies the presence in the year 1798 of 198 ‘Christian, Armenian and Jewish small shops’, out of which 71 were Jewish (according to the data resulted from the corroboration with the 1801 document, as it is presented below). This document shows us that the Jewish people held the monopoly when it came to beer (the custom of the ale house), for which they were paying a tax of 32 kilos of sugar to the hatman C. Paladi. They also had the right to sell spirits, but not wine. Yet, there was an exception for the kosher wine.
The beginning of the 19th century provides us with two extremely important inventories (catagrafii) regarding the Jewish population from Stefanesti. The former is dated the 6th of October 1801, thus having a significant relevance for the century that had just ended. It completes in a very inspired manner The Book of the Incomes Belonging to the Inhabitants of Stefanesti (Catastihul de venitul Stefanestilor) from 1798. We find out the fact that the Jews who lived in Stefanesti were included in ‘the guild of Jews’, being divided, due to reasons concerning the revenue, into three categories: families owning a booth (71), families that did not own a booth (49) and Jewish people who granted inns on lease in the neighbouring villages (11). Therefore, in Stefanesti there were 131 Jewish families who paid the taxes, let us call them bourgeois, altogether with whom there certainly existed numerous ‘proletarian’ families, few of them being also mentioned in the inventory – out of which some were living with wealthier families, thus not having their own residence.
If each of the bourgeois families was made up of five persons on an average, it results a number of 655 persons. To these we can add a number equal at least of persons who did not held industrial or commercial enterprises. Consequently, without any exaggeration, we can assert that in the year 1801 there were at least 1300 Jewish people in Stefanesti. From the corroboration of the 1801 census with that Book of the Incomes from 1798, there follows a pretty balanced depiction of the town. Therefore, the Jewish owned approximately 71 booths, while the rest of 120 belonging to the Moldavians and the Armenians. The Jews weren’t by far in the situation of ‘suffocating’ the town’s economy, nor were they in the disagreeable posture of alcoholically poisoning the population, since the only monopoly they held concerned the beer, as they were even kept under restraint when it came to wine. Hence, the vision of the Moldavian towns full of Moldavian peasants drunk because of the evil Jewish publicans who monopolized the alcohol commerce for occult purposes, a vision ‘disseminated’ by Romanian authors such as Slavici or Alecsandri, is not accurate in the case of the Stefanesti town and, we daresay, in any other case. But the pre-eminence of the alcohol commerce in that period’s Moldavia offers important information to us regarding that time’s social situation.
The 1801 inventory provides us with an image accurate enough when speaking about the occupations of the Jewish paying taxes. Approximately half of the 71 Jewish commercial and industrial enterprises of the place – concisely characterised in that period as being ‘booths’ – were busy with producing and selling horilca (an alcoholic refined drink), the other workshops and shops producing and/ or selling hats, linen, cloth, ‘Bruges goods’, clothes manufactured by the local tailors, food products, beer, salt, tobacco, glass, candles, spindles, etc. The fact that a feredaus is also mentioned also indicates the presence of a public bath in the locality. There are also enumerated two bookbinders. Thus, we must assume the fact that there were enough private libraries, which could justify the existence not only of a single, but of two bookbinders in the town. In 1801 there also existed a dohtor (doctor) named Marcu, two ‘ceausi’ , two hahams and a Rabi called Aaron. Based upon this (last) information, I.Caprosu and Gh.Punga conclude the fact that there were two synagogues at the beginning of the 19th century.
As for the names of the Jews from the census, they are mainly specific to the Ashkenazi Jews. There are also situations of Romanian names, in which case the inventory explicitly mentions the appellative jidov (Jew) after the name, in order to avoid any misunderstanding. Here are some examples: ‘11. Iancul jîdov’ (Iancu the Jew); ‘69. Ilie jîdov’ (Ilie the Jew). The long-standing co-habitation with the Romanians is being also confirmed by a series of Romanian appellatives added to the first name of some of the Jews: Iosop Mititelu (the 6th position), Moscu Margineanul (the 19th position), Cerbu Hurtojini (the 32nd position), Leiba Bobulescu (the 33rd position), Herscu Todireanu (the 42nd position), Herscu Sapoteanu (the 44th position), Leiba Rosu (the 46th position). We also note the fact that in that time, in Moldavia, there didn’t exist a modern state, having a coherent administrative politic when it came to the population. Hence, in most cases, the name of a certain person designated what nowadays would be the first name, the forename or the „Christian name”. What now represents the surname was at that time either a nickname, or an occupation, or an individualising characteristic.
In the 1820 census entitled in Romanian Jidovii hrisovuiti ai tîrgului Stefanesti (The Recorded Jews of the Stefanesti Town), there are mentioned on the whole 70 families paying taxes. But their occupational area is larger than the one existent in the anterior inventory. Altogether with the activities indexed in the 1801 census, there also appear professions such as silk weavers, stone masons, the ones selling manufactured goods, check weighers, tax collectors, porters, undertakers and silver smiths. The Rabi is now called Sulim, and there are three hahams: Iancu, Iosep and Zelman.
The market town has undergone a powerful economic crash in 1812, when Basarabia has been annexed by the Tzarist Empire. On this occasion, a series of Jews from Stefanesti have crossed the river Prut and established in Basarabia. This is how we can explain the diminishing in number of the Jews recorded in the interval between the 1801 and the 1820 census. There is also a relevant document emitted in 1832 when speaking about the town’s economic decline. It refers to an address sent from Costachi Conachi to Teodorachi Grecinsky, the tenant of the Stefanesti estate and town. The simple reading of the name Teodor(achi) Grecinsky offers an indication regarding the Phanariot period – which had recently ended – and the practices typical for its representatives. Here’s the text belonging to Costachi Conachi: ‘The merchant Jews from there have come to me with petition, complaining for the fact that you have closed their trades for three weeks now and that you have asked for a tax that they cannot pay, when after the situation that the market town is facing at the moment, what it should be done is cutting from what has been paid before, not rising the payment and also because there isn’t anything that have in that market town but these alcohol business (the right of selling spirits) and if these are taken from them, then they will also be forced to leave the place and abandon the town and so on and so forth.’
On the one hand, this excerpt reveals the lame condition of the market town lacking the economic contribution of the neighbouring Basarabia region, and, on the other hand, the Phanariot-like practices performed by some of the estate tenants. The Greeks, who have migrated extensively to Moldavia in the time of the Phanariot regime, sharing the same religious beliefs with the Moldavians, have been assimilated relatively fast into the native society, unlike the Jews, who have preserved their specific difference. Grecinski is representative for the Greek origin of an individual, the same as Botezatu (The Converted), for example, indicates a Jewish origin.
Vidomostia (the list of taxes) dated in 1834 offers to us little information regarding the Jewish tax-payers who lived in the town of Stefanesti. There were 21 tailors, one gardener, one haham, two carters, three fur caps’ manufacturers, one horse-dealer, one glassmaker, one bookbinder, two apple-sellers, one baker, one water-carrier, one shoe-maker, one carver, one innkeeper, 40 merchants.
From a 1845 census we find out that the Jewish Stefanesti comprised 52 merchants, 47 craftsmen, 7 ‘other professions’, 8 without having a job, 20 needy aged people and 26 widows. The market town’s decline in the interval following the loss of Basarabia is evidently present. In 1801 there have been in Stefanesti more Jewish merchants and businessmen than 44 years afterwards.
The beginning of the 20th century provides us with somehow more detailed data regarding this locality. Marele Dictionar Geografic al Romîniei (The Romania’s Great Dictionary) , published in 1902, was mentioning the existence in the commune of Stefanesti of 55 ponds and 12 pools, six steam mills, 21 water mills, a mill drawn by horses, three wind mills, a factory of leather tanning, a factory producing candles, one producing soap and two limestone quarries. The town’s industry also comprised tailoring, shoe-making, carpentry, wheel-making and forge workshops. Cereals, cattle and wine were sold just the same. Also, in 1920, there had been a chemist’s, a hospital, a telegraph office and a factory which produced brandy made out of grapes.
More detailed data regarding the Jewish population residing in Stefanesti is being offered to us by a Jewish author, Iehuda Evron-Nachberg, a native who migrated to Israel, where he wrote a brilliant monograph of the town, especially valuable by means of its subjective commentaries, through its ‘inside’ knowledge of this Jewish stetl’s realities. According to him, in 1910, the town had 2883 Jews. In 1930, the number of the Jewish population reached a value of 2361, in 1941 it was 1462, and in 1947 870 , whereas at the present time there isn’t any Jew left in Stefanesti. The last burial performed in the town’s graveyard is dated 1984. The constant decrease of this town’s/ stetl (in Yiddish) can be explained as being a cause of migration. Stefanesti has been one of the important Zionist Moldavian centres, this activity being also encouraged by the religious personalities from the town, such as the Rabi M.A. Friedman.
As for the atmosphere from the first half of the 20th century in Stefanesti, we have Iehuda Evron-Nachberg’s priceless testimony. The Yiddish, altogether with the massive presence of the Hassidic Jews, many of them disciples of the well-known Rabi Friedman, have given to the stetl a powerful native colouring. The town was the destination of the Hassidic pilgrim groups on a regular basis. Being a sort of nexus on the North-South and the East-West routes and at the same time accommodating the court of a Hassidic Rabi who encouraged the Zionism, the town has become one of the crystallization points of the migration towards Palestine and the whole world. Here could be often met groups of halutim (pioneers), came to be given the blessing on their way to Eret-Israel, young people most often accompanied by their tearful relatives. Since it was a Hassidic centre, bigotry was a commonplace practice there. The religious conflicts came one after another. The aged Jews, who were more traditional-like, were seldom clashing with the younger and enterprising ones, who were less interested in respecting or even approaching the religious precepts which laid ‘the foundation’ of the traditional Jewish lifestyle.
As a result of one of these disputes the intervention of the Rabi Friedman has been requested. Some bigot traditionalists have complained to the Rabi about the not-so-pious young men who made up the Hachsara organisation from Stefanesti. The Rabi analysed the thoroughness of both parts’ reasons (the ‘wise’ religious old men and the lay Zionist young men), offering to them, as a conclusion, the following parable: ‘In the Holy Temple from Jerusalem there was a spot, called the Saint of the Saints, where none was allowed to enter but the Great Priest, and even him was not allowed to enter but once in a year, on Yom Kippur. But when the Saint of the Saints was being under repair, the working plasterers were entering and coming out whenever they needed to. So does the country of the ancestors need to be rebuilt, and the masons do not have to be necessarily Great Priests.’ Here we find ourselves introduced to the realm of the Hassidic stories, written down beautifully by Martin Buber or Ellie Wiesel, but, this time, not on the magic land of the ancient Galitsia, but in our picturesque contemporary Moldavia. By means of a simple Hassidic ‘tale’, the Rabi manages to justify from a theological viewpoint the necessity of a ‘laic’ migration to the Holy Land, at the same time speaking ironically about the claims of the contemporary ‘Great Priests’.
Sundays and Thursdays were fair day, occasions for the stetl to be full of peasants from the neighbouring villages, come in order to sell their agricultural products and buy various manufactured goods. The intense economic life has given to the town of Stefanesti, in the first half of the 20th century, the appellation of Moldavia’s ‘beehive’. This life dynamism, from all its aspects, is being attributed by some to the religion’s influence, and, especially, to the one belonging to the Rabi Avraam Matitiahu Friedman. The Rabi had inclusively become a commercial and financial warrant regarding the seriousness of his community’s members. After his death, in 1933, the town has become the destination of an intense Jewish and – amazingly – Christian pilgrimage, as they came to pray and place notes at his tomb. This mass phenomenon has a correspondent in the manifestations occasioned by the Saint Parascheva’s dedication day in Iasi. Of course that such a Hassidic ‘holiday’ – or, better say, commemoration – was improving the town’s economic situation.
Stefanesti symbolised, as many other localities, the insertion of the modern lifestyle into a traditional community. Let us listen to Iehuda Evron-Nachberg when speaking about the encountering of the traditional with the modern in Stefanesti: ‘You were witnessing the transformations brought up by the modern era: the car and the lorry were replacing the cart; the bus was making the coach grow out of use, the electricity was throwing out the oil lamp, and instead of the Petromax placed at the top of the pillar, which came up and down by means of a handle, there appeared the electric bulb; the radio was then present in order to complete the information provided by the newspapers.’
There were at least four commercial branches in the town, which were making an export trade with three continents. The cattle trade was performed by the Weiner/ Vainer family. The animals were embarked from the Trusesti railway terminal and brought from there to the Constanta harbour, and further on embarked for the Western Europe or even Palestine, which at that moment was under British administration. Many of these caravans’ attendants were halutims, who are Zionist pioneers, who – as Iehuda Evron-Nachberg said – used this cheap means of transportation, economising not only the tickets, but also the certificates imposed by the British authorized agents, which were difficult to be obtained.
The cereals trade destined to the Western Europe was being performed in the 30s by two firms, one belonging to Avraam Grisaru, Leon Goldstein and others, and the other one belonging to Ely Schapira , Moritz Rabinovici and others.
There were also two businesses that dealt with egg exportation towards Germany, led by Avraam Blumenfeld and Strul Schaechter. We also have in mind the fact that such a business has also existed in the Jewish community from Tg. Frumos (the mediaeval Crasna), a town which has made the subject of our previous research.
There were also exported skins of young lambs for the USA, by means of a firm from Cernauti, which had representations in Stefanesti.
As for the rectitude of the Jewish sellers from Stefanesti, we shall recount the following happening. During the eviction from the summer of the year 1941, when Stefanesti has been declared a ‘Judenrein’ area, and the inhabitants have been moved to Sulita, a German soldier has pointed his gun towards Ioina Vainer, a cereal seller, wanting to shoot him. At that very moment, between the German and the victim interposed the priest of the village, Constantinescu, who thud saved the Jew’s life.
The perfume commerce represents an important indicator for the degree of sophistication of the urban life in Stefanesti. Such a firm belonged to the Goldenberg family, who was also the main support for the Hevrat Tehilim synagogue; another one belonged to the Tiporas family.
The town also had over 20 manufacturing shops, among which there was a biting competition. The clients were picked form the street by the boys selling in the shops, sometimes cunningly enough. There existed a true negotiations’ ritual, which included formulae such as: ‘Come off it, master, give me more, you Christian’ or ‘You have asked me such a price that I cannot even count’ with the retort: ‘My brother, in our business it is not the head that counts, but the bag’.
There were also approximately ten haberdasher’s, few flour deposits, which usually belonged to the mill-owners (Ely Schapira owned the Hanesti mill, and Saiche Schwartz had the Ciuciulea mill), ironmongers, two lime storages, glassware and pottery shops, tobacco, stamps and newspapers agencies, a factory producing candles (the Stern family), one producing salami and sausages (Izidor Bernisteanu), two brick factories (Sloima Cunas and Iosel Abramovici respectively), an edible oil factory, a power station, cow breeding farm and one for butter-processing (all belonging to Moritz Abramovici), a leather tanning workshop (Smil Boldur), a wool dye works (Ely Meirovici) and a spinning mill (belonging to the Basarabian Jew Berman). Also, there were three siphon factories, one belonging to Iosab Cohn, another to Lupu Herscovici and Mendel Margulis, and the third to Strul Damideanu – the founder of the Haoved the Zionist movement. This information is being offered to us by Iehuda Evron-Nachberg and they sometimes come as an extremely detailed completion to the information existent in the ‘Romania’s Geographic Dictionary’. The data offered by Evron Nachberg offers a division according to the criterion of nationality (which is not accomplished by the ‘Geographic Dictionary’ and covers a period of time which comprises the interwar period, the war with its adventures and few years from the beginning of Communism (until 1947, when the author moves to Israel). Evron-Nachberg comes back two times in the Communist Romania, in order to record the huge changes suffered by his locality as a consequence of Communism and the Jews’ massive migration.
The Jewish tailors from Stefanesti were famous, some of them remaining in the local memory until nowadays. The best-known has been Idel-Leib-Bercovici. It is told that once, a client had been unsatisfied, because he had to wait for three months in order to have a suit made. In order to embarrass the tailor, the client tells him: ‘How come you need three months to make a costume, when God only needed six days for creating the world?’ The tailor answers him: ‘My dear, look how this world looks and see also the beauty of the suit I had made. Is there any place for comparison?’ This incident reminds us of a story immortalized by Bruno Schulz, entitled ‘The Dummies’. In his childhood, the author had been fascinated by the tailors’ skill, by their ability of creating, as compared to the divinity’s attributes.
There should also be enumerated shoe-making, carpenter, and joiner’s shops, the hairdresser’s and barber’s shops, the cafes and the confectioner’s, the photo studios, etc. All these make up the picture of a Jewish town which was very dynamic from the economic standpoint.
Jewish Stefanesti contained also a series of representatives of the liberal professions: approximately 20 physicians, 6 dentists, 7 engineers, 7 chemists, few teachers, painters and artists. On such a background there couldn’t develop a cultural life the same as intense. Due to the confluence with the Romanian rural world and with the Hassidic traditional Jewish element, the stetl’s cultural life has had a special dynamics. And yet, before describing the cultural life, we’ll need to emphasize the religious life, which, altogether with the economic development, constitutes a second pillar upon which a genuine urban and cultural life could be built up in Stefanesti.
The town’s religious life and not only was decisively marked by the presence of the Rabi Avraam Matitiahu Friedman. He managed to change Stefanesti into one of the most important Hassidic centres from the South-East of Europe, as Baruch Teriscatin considers.
A.M. Friedman has been the grandson of the Rabi Israel from Rujin, who was the grand-grandson of DovMeir from Mezritis, the successor of Bal Shem Tov , the founder of Hassidism. Hence, the Friedman Rabis belong to an important Hassidic dynasty: the Rujin one. A.M. Friedman is born in 1848 or, according to other sources, in 1849, in the town of Otek from Russia. Due to the persecutions which were common to those days’ Russia, A.M. Friedman’s father, the Rabi Nucham Friedman migrates to Romania together with all his family. Avigdor Ben-zvi offers an extremely concrete reason for the coming of the Rabi Nucham to Moldavia. The Russian authorities ‘could not stand the fame that these Rabi was having among Christians (...)’. This detail regarding N. Friedman and the Christians’ respect towards him is difficult to be verified, but the assertion is entirely available when it comes to his son, A.M. Friedman.
Rabi Nucham, nicknamed ‘der Molech’ (The Angel) had three children: Mattesui (A.M. Friedman), Ghitla and Seiva. He was an expert in the knowledge of Cabbala (the fundamentals of which he also taught to his son), being considered an authority in the sacred texts in general. Seiva has become the wife of the Galati Rabi, and Ghitla the wife of the Sadagura one. Young Mattesui seems to have had a special propensity towards studying, becoming shortly enough initiated into the mysteries of Misna, Talmud and Cabbala. Avigdor Ben-zvi narrates the fact that, after the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of his son, Rabi Nucham had the epiphany that his son will be a ‘barren tree’. Indeed, although he had been married twice, A.M. Friedman didn’t have any children, and at his death he didn’t let any heir for the throne of the Tadik of Stefanesti, his designated successor – that is Menachem Nahum Friedman, the son of one of the Rabi sisters – dying a month before him, on the 21st Sivan 1933. N. Friedman, the father of A.M. Friedman, died on 14 Kislev 5623 and was buried at the old graveyard from Iasi, situated in the Ciurchi neighbourhood, which does not exist anymore, being ‘relocated’ by the authorities in the time of the Antonescu regime. Nowadays the area of the former graveyard is being occupied by a park. There isn’t any memorial plaque in this place.
When he was 21 years old, in 1865 , A.M. Friedman arrives at Stefanesti, where he is appointed Admor – a Hassidic title given to those Rabi who got very close to God by means of their holiness. Here he dedicates all his life to the service of the spiritual interests (and not only) belonging to the community. During his leadership there hasn’t been any turmoil among the members of the local Hassidic community, nor between the Romanians and the Jews. Stefanesti seemed to be a sort of ‘blessed space’. We do not have any conflicts between Romanians and Jews not even during the uprising which took happened in 1907, let aside the absence of the ordinary chicaneries which were periodically organised by the Romanian authorities because of patriotism: expulsions, accusations regarding ritual murders or poisoning the peasants with alcohol, etc.
As for the unrest which troubled the Jewish community, setting in opposition the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionists, an interesting testimony for his mediator capacity has been presented above.
The Rabi was remarkable due to a special optimism when it came to the human condition, which was not very justified in a period overwhelmed with anti-Semitic conflicts. He used to say over and over again – especially with occasions which opposed the two parties (the rich and the poor or the Jews and the Romanians) that “all the people are brothers, but they are afraid to hug each other”. When a rich Jew – as a retort to the pressures that referred to the setting up of a numerus clausus in the Universities, as well as other chicanery – wanted to pay less the Christian employees than the Jewish ones, when asking for the Rabi piece of advice he got as an answer the request not to commit discrimination. The Rabi was also a great nature-admirer. Ever since childhood he used to spend every day few hours amid the landscape surrounding him. He used to ask from his disciples to love nature, since ‘God loves it too.’ Thus, we have a sui-generis ecologist in the person of this Rabi from Stefanesti.
His Stefanesti residence ‘had become a pilgrimage [place] for all the poor, the rich, the ill, the hopeless, all [the ones] suffering from bodily or soul illnesses (...). Jews or Christians, peasants or land owners, workers or proprietors, children or old people, sane or sick they came to the Rabi.’
A.M. Friedman came to Iasi every year, with the occasion of Hanukkah, and he stayed there for about a month. He owned a (Hassidic) court in this town, which bore his name, situated somewhere in the area called Tg. Cucu. One of the reasons of this annual visits had to do with the commemoration of his father (at the Ciurchi graveyard), but his presence was also justified by the existence of a great number of followers in the Moldavian capital. We also know about him the fact that he had travelled twice abroad, once to Odessa and the other time to Otek (Russia).
The Rabi also had the fame of making wonders. There were also a lot of stories circulating about him. The putting an end to a pestilential epidemic is also attributed to him, when he performed a religious ceremony at the local graveyard. The Romanians were constantly appealing to him, making for his fame to continue for a long time after the last Jew left Stefanesti, and even after the digging up and the removal of the bones belonging to the Rabi from the local graveyard.
There are many confessions about the Romanians who came as pilgrims to the Rabi in order for him to solve their various problems. B. Tercatin and Iehuda Evron-Nachberg tell us about a character named Grigore Lupascu, whose children were all dying. Overstepped by the ineffectiveness of the ‘modern’ medicine and after he had uselessly made the tour of all the monasteries, he decides, following the insistence of a Jewish friend, to make a try with the Rabi. A.M. Friedman gives to him a very ordinary piece of advice: ‘Pull down your house, as it has been built upon an evil place and erect another one, far away, and everything will go well’. The advice proved to bear fruit, and our man had three children again, who also had a brilliant future, becoming professors at the University and others. The narrative is significant, as it exemplifies a practice which existed among the Romanians.
Rabi Friedman had died on a Saturday night, in the summer of 1933, on the 21st of Tamuz: July, according to the Julian calendar. It is told that at his burial there had been over 50, 000 people. Every year, on his death date, the Rabi was commemorated at the graveyard, an occasion for thousands of people to meet. In the case which covered his tomb there were dozens of thousands of notes – grievances written in Hebrew or in Yiddish. He was exhumed and then inhumed again in the graveyard from Nahlat Ithak, Tel Aviv. The ceremony was performed by the then Romanian chief-Rabi, Doctor Moses Rosen, in October 1968. The followers form Israel of the Rabi commemorate even today the Admor’s death day in this new graveyard. There are also many who come in other days of the year. But he is simultaneously worshipped in some other place, in some other country, by people having a different religion: in the locality where he was a Rabi. Here the Romanians continue to burn candles and place notes, asking for the Rabi to intercede with God in their favour. A. M. Friedman is the last Jew who persisited in not leaving Stefanesti, or, better said, who wasn’t let to leave. He is vivid in the memory and the hopes of a community which he properly led, beyond any ethnical-religious differences.
After the Rabi’s death, the communal Rabi Iosef Brayer had opened an Iesiva bearing the name “Beit Avraam”, in his own yard even. This one had been closed after the loss of Basarabia. The next Hassidic Rabi was Eshel Hager. Thus, A.M. Friedman had been the last in his line. The Rujin dynasty also had representatives in Galitsia, Bucovina and Moldavia, the most important Moldavian centres being Sadagura, Stefanesti, Boian, Pascani and Buhusi.
The communal Rabi coexisted with the Hassidic Tadic. We know that, between 1897 and 1905, the communal Rabi from Stefanesti had been Bezazel Zaev Safran, born in 1867, in Pomaru, Galitia. Alexandru Safran, his son, was the Romanian chief – Rabi in the period of Shoah, and after the setting up of Communism in Romania, he was a Geneva Rabi. Al. Safran, altogether with W. Filderman, the chief of the Jewish communities from Romania, have had an important role in saving a part of the Jewish Romanian community during the second World War. B.Z. Safran becomes prime-Rabi of the Bacau community in 1905. At his recommendation, he is succeeded in Stefanesti by the Rabi Mordechai Dov Brayer, who was born in Rujin. After his death, his son, Iosef Brayer, who had been a loyal Zionist, becomes the Rabi of the community. He migrates in 1947 to the USA, where he becomes a Rabi in Bronx, New York, at the Tiferet Avraam Matitiahu synagogue, which was built in the memory of A. M. Friedman. Eventually, he arrives in Israel in 1964 and is the initiator of an unusual project: the one of transferring the bones of the Friedman Rabi and some of his disciples to Israel. This transfer had taken place in 1968, while the Communist regime was in bloom.
With a population of 3, 000 Jews, the town of Stefanesti had 10 synagogues. Three of them were situated in the very yard of the Rabi, the most important of them being Kloiz. In the centre of the town, next to the Law Court and opposite the Change Credit Bank and the Orthodox Church there was the Hevre-Gah Synagogue (Gmilat-Hasadim). The other six synagogues were in the Eastern part of the own, along the Baseu brook: The Great Synagogue (in the neighbourhood of the Christian cemetery), the tradesmen Synagogue, the psalms Synagogue, the Sloima Wolf Synagogue (entitled this way after the name of its founder), the tailors Synagogue and the Smuel Mose Synagogue (entitled after the name of its founder). In 1979, during Iehuda Evron-Nachberg’s last visit in Stefanesti, there wasn’t any synagogue left.
Rabbi KLOIZ's Synagogue
One of the effects of the encounter between Hassidism and Zionism in Stefanesti has been the practicing on a large scale of the Hebrew language. The teacher Hana Eizenstain had created in Stefanesti the first kindergarten in the Herbrew language, teaching this language simultaneously at the Israelite-Romanian school called Narcise Leven. Moreover, she organized courses of Hebrew language for adults within the Zionist movements. She had adopted the Eliezer Ben-Iehuda system of teaching – “Hebrew as a sole language”, not using any other language. After her leaving, the Hebrew courses had been taken over by the Steinhaus teacher from Rascani , a place which is now on the territory of the Moldavian Republic. Another promoter of the movement for learning Hebrew in Stefanesti was Sulim Rabinovici. This linguistic competence acquired in Stefanesti had become very useful altogether with the ‘aliaua’ (the migration) of the majority of authors to Israel.
At the beginning of the 20th century there had been two movements in the town: a Zionist one (Aurora) and a Communist one (Luceafarul). Each was endowed with a library, having book stocks in the Romanian, French, German and Russian languages. But the Communists’ movement also included intellectuals who were not Jewish. During wartime, the Communist Jews from Stefanesti had been deported to the concentration camp from Tg. Jiu. The activity and the cultural struggle have managed to unite the Jewish population from Stefanesti, transforming it into a powerful community, providing it with a powerful sense of identity, which other communities lacked.
Although it was a tiny little town, the theatre was one of the inhabitants’ constant preoccupations. The performances were taking place either in the Binder Hall,
in the hall belonging to the school Narcise Leuven or in the town’s public garden. The shows were organized by companies of professional theatre who were on tour (Jewish or Romanian companies), or, more often than not, by the Zionist youth movements. The Jewish repertoire included plays by Shalom Aleichem, Itzik Manger, Avraam Goldfaden, M. Ronetti-Roman and others. The Zionist movements’ repertoire, among whom we could note authors such as Macabi, Gordonia and C.R.S, included plays having a patriotic range of themes. After the war, a lot of plays were presenting topics from the period of Shoah. The theatre which did not have a Jewish specific character comprised plays by Caragiale, Moliere, Racine and others.
In time, the seventh art, the cinema, had also imposed its presence. Usually, the cinema shows were being organised in the hall owned by the school Narcise Leuven, and then in the hall of Wolfsohn, placed on the road to Iasi. The most appreciated productions from the film era had Charlie Chaplin as their protagonist. The one to whom the initiative of introducing the cinema in Stefanesti belonged was Idel Clecner.
The industry of the local entertainment also included few orchestras, the repertoire of whom included what we could call today “klezmer music”. The most important orchestra was Macabi. Also, for the pretentious ones, unsatisfied by the performances of the local orchestras, there were automatic and electric gramophones and, later on, radios.
For the inhabitants of Stefanesti, the subscription to the Zionist publications was almost a duty of honour. They had subscriptions to daily newspapers such as Renasterea (The Resurrection), Mîntuirea (The Redemption), Unzer Zeit (Vremea noastra, in English “In Our Time”), and to the weekly papers such as Bar-Kohva, Copilul evreu (The Jewish Child), Deir Omar (Ciocanul, in English “The Hammer”), Speranta (The Hope), Hasmonaea, but also to the Romanian newspapers. In Romania from those days there was a Zionist publishing house, called Bicurim (in Romanian Trufandalele, translated in English as “The Masterpieces”), where there had been published authors such as Simon Dubnov, Hirsch Graetz, Theodor Loewenstein-Lavy, A.D. Gordon etc. The Bicurim books were automatically delivered in the libraries of the Zionist movements’ library from Stefanesti. Hence, culturally speaking, the members of this community were far from being isolated.
In 1930, Stefanesti had been visited by Nahum Socolov, the president of the World Zionist Organisation , who held a conference in the hall of the Great Synagogue. He remained deeply impressed by the level of knowledge when it came to the Hebrew language in Stefanesti, asserting that here “even the stones whisper in Hebrew”. The leader of the Romanian Zionist Movement, Drul Brezis, considered Stefanesti as being the “Romanian Tel-Aviv”. The Zionist movements were organizing conferences on a regular basis, where they used to invite personalities from various domains. These manifestations were not only aiming at the indoctrination, but also at the edification of a general knowledge among the inhabitants. All these activities had been forbidden by the Romanian authorities, who came more and more anti-Semite after the loss of Basarabia, in 1940.
The unusual Zionist fervour from Stefanesti is the consequence of several factors. Probably the most important had been the fact that Rabi A. M. Friedman, as well as his nephew, N. Friedman – the young Rabi, dead unfortunately before the one whom he was meant to be the successor of – has supported the Zionism. This was something unusual among the Hassidic followers. A.M. Friedman has contributed to the colonization of Israel not only indirectly, by supporting the migration, but also directly, buying at the beginning of the 20th century a terrain in the Ahuza neighbourhood from Haifa. At the same time, the Rabi Brayer has also been a promoter of Zionism, managing at an old age to remove even the mortal remains of the Rabi Friedman to Israel. This initiative of the Rabi Iosef Brayer is a unique fact in the history of Zionism.
Another factor which contributed to the crystallization of Zionism has been the anti-Semitism of the Romanian authorities. Until the beginning of the Communist regime, the Romanian authorities have been extremely “tolerant” when it came to Zionism. But the Communists have gradually changed their attitude towards Zionism, as they even sent to prison a series of the movements’ leading figures. A third factor of Zionism in Stefanesti – as Iehuda Evron-Nachberg considers – has been constituted of the activism performed by the Hebrew teacher Hana Eizenstein. Persuaded by her, many other leading intellectuals of the town have adopted a Zionist orientation. We should also add to this list the local Zionist organisations, which constituted an effect and a cause at the same time of the Zionism in Stefanesti.
The first Zionist organization from town, that is Gordonia, was founded in 1930 by Ruhal Ghertz and Beny Timen. Gordonia was a far-reaching one, as it had over 100 branches on the Romanian territory, out of which 50 were in Basarabia and Bucovina. The Stefanesti subsidiary was one of the 15 which also functioned in the period situated between 1945-1949 and in this last interval the names of Mose Grisaru, Haim Grisaru-Ghersony and Iosola Hafner-Mîndru stand out.
Stefanesti also had a sportive Zionist movement, which is the Macabi. This organisation had been founded in Turkey, in 1894, expanding afterwards in the majority of the countries where the Jews lived. Macabi Stefanesti had been founded in 1923 and was known especially for its football team. At the Macabi competition which took place in 1935 at Tel Aviv, Stefanesti had two representatives, Mina Segall and Tuly Cotter.
Any stetl had its picturesque characters, and Stefanesti was no exception to the rule. As an example, the prototype of the corrupt was embodied by a Romanian policeman, nicknamed Zwei lei, due to the daily tax he was asking from the Jewish sellers. The type of the skinflint was represented by a Romanian innkeeper, whose greediness was famous. She did not refrain from stealing from the Romanians and the Jews alike. ‘Should we have such a merchant from among the Jewish population, it would have been said that this is how the Jewish tradesmen are, but, since she’s not Jewish, it was told that this is how lady Petculeasa is like’, says Iehuda Evron-Nachberg.
Generally speaking, the relationships between the Romanian population and the Jewish one were pretty cordial and they were even helping each other frequently. There were even ‘business partnerships’, as the one existing between the Chiaburu family and the Shulim brothers and between Smil Bodoaga and Petruta Balan respectively. There were few Romanians in the village and, consequently, fewer anti-Semite. The most frantic ones were the brothers Tanasa and Niculaie Poduta.
The Jews used to take part to the Romanian celebrations, such as Easter or Christmas. During the winter holidays, the Jewish population received Romanian carol singers, some of these carol singing choirs, conducted by psalm readers or teachers, being considered by Jews as ‘splendid’.
A picturesque character among Jews was also the doctor Terletky, originally born in Basarabia, a very good diagnostician, but only in the first part of the day, when he could be found sober. He was a travelling physician. He used to book a room at the cheapest hotel from town, were he was expected each morning by the clients, with whose money he used to get drunk in the afternoon. He was always accompanied by a dog, and the children would gather in groups and shout behind him: ‘Tarletky the crazy man!’ But this physician had an unusually kind heart. ‘There were even children who asked money from him; due to a painfully unconscious kindness, he used to get rid of his last penny until the next day, when he got again his payment from the patients who used to track him and wait for him at the hotel to wake up.’
Among the personalities born in Stefanesti, probably the most important one is the painter Stefan Luchian. As for the Jewish population, the most famous names are the one of Solomon Regal, who translated into Yiddish the poetry of Mihai Eminescu (the Romanian national poet) and the poet from the Ardeal province George Cosbuc; Avraam Levenbarun, a deputy in the Israeli Parliament; the comedian Iacov Bodo; the poet Shaul Carmel, the nowadays leader of the Romanian Writers Organisation from Israel; the physician writer Dorel Sor; the painter Moritz Manes; Menachem Mendel Brayer, a teacher of Jewish sciences and a doctor in clinical physiology at the University Iesiva from New York; Meir Ithak Brayer, the director of the Har Etzion Iesiva from Ierusalim; Iehuda Evron-Nachberg, the author of an excellent monograph about Stefanesti, and many others.
In 1941, the Jewish population of Stefanesti , which comprised approximately 750 families, is being evicted by the Romanian authorities to the locality called Sulita, situated at a distance of approximately 40 kilometres. They were forbidden to carry anything but hand luggage. They arrive at the destination after two days when they only travelled at night, so as not to make inconvenient the reshuffle of Romanian and German military forces. In Sulita they are being put up by the Jewish families from there. Later on, the Jews from Stefanesti ‘arrived in Botosani, grieved, downhearted and oppressed. Stefanesti had been bombed and destroyed by the fights which took place, on the outbreak of the war, between the German and the Soviet armies.’
During the eviction from Sulita, the Romanian authorities intended to exile to Tg. Jiu all the Jewish men aged 18 – 50, but this arrangement is being postponed due to the intervention of Iancu Boldur with the Police Chief from Botosani, a mayor born in Stefanesti, who finds a compromise solution: taking hostages. Consequently, the Rabi Iosef Brayer, Gherson Reines, Samy Lehrer and Iancu Facler are being kept by force indoors at synagogue on the Elisabeta street from Botosani.
The Jewish men who were able to work have been mobilized, beginning with 1940, for the ‘compulsory work’, laying out and taking care of the roads (in winter time), digging ditches and generally doing any work imposed by the Romanian authorities. Afterwards, most of the men capable to work have been banished to the work camps from Dobrogea and Transnistria. Some have been taken out from the work camps from Transnistria and exiled to the Vapniarka concentration camp. Among these there were Moritz and Kiva Facler, Hana Nadler, Zeilig Dadi, Ihiel Schaechter, Iosef Croitoru, Hers Weintraub, Mose Pantofaru, Rahmil and Smil Ciuraru, Favis Rabinovici, Grisa Noehovici, Herman Milstein, Mose Papucaru, Aaron Weiner. Many of them didn’t come back anymore.
The dramas from the time of the Second World War are numerous. The first have taken place in 1940, simultaneously with the withdrawal of the Romanian army and administration from Basarabia. Max Pitaru-Leibovici dies stricken by the butt stock of the Romanian soldiers who were withdrawing. Iehuda Evron-Nachberg recounts how, in 1940, Olga Gafencu, the wife of the local tax collector was yelling that they were doing ‘a good job’ to the policeman Delescu, whom, along with two other policemen were abusing ‘the betrayer’ Ghisy Rosenberg, for the fault of ‘giving away’ Basarabia to the Russians.
The father of Shaul Carmel – the president of the association of the Israeli writers having a Romanian origin died after being pushed away from the train by which he was travelling to the regiment where he had been mobilised as an officer for the Romanian army. Moise Friedman had died from the very first day of the eviction to Sulita, due to the exhausting effort. On the occasion of the second banishment for Botosani the one who dies is Iehudit Balan. The cereal-seller Leon Goldenstein is killed on the 29th of June 1941, on the occasion of the Massacre from Iasi. Solomon Seagal is being killed on the 22nd of August 1944, a day before the collapse of the Antonescu regime. The physician Volody Zepelman had commited suicide altogether with his wife and daughters while being deported to Transnistria. Motal Ghertz, one of the founders of the Grodonia Zionist organisation, was killed by the Romanian soldiers from Transnistria in front of Aviv, his son. Others who died in Transnistria have been Haim Calimbar, Velval and Iancu Caruceru, Ely Ceausu, Sendar and Idel Ciobotaru, Dudola Cojocaru, the Goranstein family, Samy Dachas, Aaron Glauberg, Nuta Grinberg, Hers Hascal, Leib Peretz, Leibola Schaechter, Bercu and Moina Suliteanu, Iancu Taranu, Leon and Sabina Bregher.Also, Moina Donayevsky had died on the 9th of May 1945, the day when the Nazi Germany surrendered, as a soldier of the Red Army.
One of the Jews mobilised for the “patriotic” work by the Romanian authorities in the nearness of the front had been captured by the Soviet Army and were deported altogether with their ex Romanian and German butchers to the concentration camps from URSS. This is the case of Fredy Gluck and Iosel Lamfit, who have endured the conditions of the Russian gulag between 1944 and 1948.
In 1945, the inhabitants of Stefanesti were allowed to return home. And yet, only approximately 300 of them chose to come back home. Here it is how Iehuda Evron-Nachberg describes this coming back: “When they returned to Stefanesti, they found the town bombed and even burnt, and what was left had been stolen. The houses which were still intact on the outside were empty on the inside, robbed in daylight by gangs of burglars, against whom you could not defend and because of whom you could not complain to anyone.”
And yet, the community had begun to recover: there have been resumed the commercial connections with the surrounding Romanian villages, there was even built a factory of edible oil, there have been restored two of the ten synagogues (Hevre Gah from the centre of the town and Kloiz from the yard of the Rabi Friedman), the butchery and the graveyard were reopen.
Also, the cultural life of Stefanesti had been taken back, as the reopening of the Gordonia Zionist organisation had been managed, in the house of Strul Butz. Along with this one, there has also been founded another group, called Buselia. Between 1945 and 1947 there were organised theatrical performances on topics that dealt with the Jews’ life from the period of Shoah, and, more often than not, on topics having to do with the life of the halutimi from Eret, Israel. Eventually, due to the Jews’ migration, the locality begins to lose its population. Their place is being taken over by the Romanians and mostly by gypsies. The latter were sometimes residing in the Jewish houses only with the purpose of destroying them, selling their carpentry and the bricks they were made of. Thus, the Jewish identity of the stetl begins to fade away, Stefanesti getting to resemble more and more to the typical Romanian village.
We shall now let one of the Jewish inhabitants from Stefanesti to recount his memories about his first visit to Romania, after the alia to Israel and about the impressions he got on this occasion. ‘After the first wave of emotions, there came the shocks: I’ve felt the first one when I stepped upon the streets from Stefanesti. The streets and the houses, which used to be once full of life, were now deserted and even in a very bad condition. Only few houses have remained intact, among which the Havri-gah synagogue. On the place of the durable houses there were now growing corn, sunflower and weeds. In some of the houses on our street there were living gypsies from Badiuti. All the houses which were sometimes placed on the portion beginning from Herman Goldenberg’s house and up to Goldman’s house have been demolished (...), in order to sell the carpentry, the bricks, the sheets and the window panes belonging to the demolished houses. (...)
The imposing buildings, which also included the Kloiz synagogue from the yard of the holy Rabi, were destroyed, as if they had never existed, and in their place there was maize growing now. The only place we have found intact was the Jewish cemetery. We got close with hesitating steps to the building which covers the tomb of the holy Rabi, whose bones had been transferred to Israel a year before (...).’
Stefan cel Mare Street
The confession above, belonging to Iehuda Evron-Nachberg, is being very touching. And yet it is not the last one; he will come back in ten years’ time, in order to record the awful condition of the town where he was born, to whose symbiosis between traditional and modern he assisted to in the 30s and had splendidly called to mind. The tone he uses to describe the market town on his last visit is totally gloomy. Let us listen to his recount from 1979: ‘On our street there were only few houses left standing upright... ramshackle (...). The Hevri-Gah synagogue did not exist anymore (...). On the main street the houses of Latzres, Smil Stoleru, Feinstein and Schapira were untouched. But instead of the houses which belonged once to Burichovitz, Haiche Leib, Wexler, Huna Weiss, Leib Ghersan Grisaru, Iosal Oring and Surka Cohn there was now a station with tractors and agricultural stock.’
When I first visited the town of Stefanesti, in the year 2005, as I was fascinated by the story of the Rabi Friedman, all that was left here was the Jewish cemetery, which was undergoing an advanced and continuous stage of degradation. Among the tombs, a local go-ahead had cultivated potatoes. The one I’m speaking about is Gheorghe Pop, the very person to whom it has been given the task of protecting the local cemetery, who was living on the premises and was using the agricultural terrain owned by the Romanian Federation of the Jewish Communities, offered in exchange of the protection he was supposed to offer to the last vestige of the Jewish identity that still existed in Stefanesti, that is the graveyard. His calf was laying itself out to pull down with the chain by means of which it was tied the few gravestones that were still standing around it. The guardian hadn’t welcomed me warmly, but by shouting and swearing. Deeply impressed by the experience I’ve underwent in Stefanesti, I’ve rapidly taken the first means of transportation for the civilized world. Then I began to draw the attention of the public opinion by means of the press. But, meanwhile, there appeared other titles which announced destructions in several other Jewish cemeteries form Romania. Not long ago, in the autumn of 2008, few hundred gravestones have even been vandalized in Bucharest, the capital city of our country. This is the framework within whom we are trying to save probably the last relic of the Jewish identity from a painful number of Romanian localities. It is all about cemeteries...
The graveyard from Stefanesti is remarkably beautiful, even in its damaged condition; it does have the charm of the ruins! Its head-stones are extraordinary artistic works, their symbolism is extremely rich, truly fascinating. Stefanesti has been a stetl with a powerful Hassidic identity, which he had kept until the departure of the last Jew. Now this identity is only being reflected in the cemetery.
In the middle of the graveyard there is the ‘mausoleum’ of the Rabi Friedman. Actually, it is all about a modest empty room, built above the Rabi’s ex tomb, and we say ‘ex-tomb’, because his bones were exhumed in 1968 and moved to Israel. Therefore, what we have is an empty room above an empty tomb. Once, as the Romanian chief Rabi Moses Rosen (who is dead now) used to say, this empty room was filled with huge piles of notes on which there were written prayers in various languages: Ivrit, Yiddish and Romanian language. Now, the only ones who still place prayers at the empty tomb of the Rabi are the Orthodox Christian Romanians. We also dared to open some of these requests. Others were open by the chief Rabi Moses Rosen in 1968 and he wrote about them. Here’s a fragment from his testimony: ‘You are wrong if you think that «the house» of the Rabi was empty. On the contrary, it was filled up to the ceiling, full to the brim, but not with funeral wreaths, nor marble ornaments. It was breathtakingly full with a huge heap of small sheets of paper. There were yhousands, dozens of thousands. Who could even count these «Kwitlah» pieces of paper, the letters addressed to the Tadik who is not alive anymore? Who could decipher this manner of writing, these holy letters, drenched in blood and tears? Who has the strenghth to unearth each drama, each suffering, each tragic dilemma which is being hidden underneath the lines of these «small letters» addressed to the Rabi who doesn’t live anymore.’
Today we are trying to call your attention to this. We would like to save the cemetery belonging to one of the most important Hassidic community from the 16th – 20th centuries’ Europe, where there is the tomb of the most important Rabi from Romania. There isn’t anything left. It is our duty not to let the time and the people alter this unique legacy.