A white tulip. That was the first thing that I received upon landing at the airport airport after almost ten hours of travel. A man with an arm full of flowers presented every woman who passed by the baggage claim carousel with a stem with a warm smile and a “Happy International Women’s Day.”
Along with the celebration of International Women’s Day, Moldova exhibited an unexpected number of familiar symbols; ads for Crocs and MNG flashed by our windows on our drive downtown from the airport. We stopped for lunch at a small but fairly modern looking mall, wittily named ‘Mall Dova,’ which was packed with big-name brands like Swarovski and Swatch. Needless to say, we were surprised; we had heard about the country’s economic situation prior to arriving. Our lovely translator, Julia, seemed to understand our confusion, and she informed us that this was a mall that catered for a very small slice of the population, and that the majority of Moldovans could not afford such luxuries.
Watching the Soviet architecture fade away to be replaced by wide meadows dotted with houses, it is easy to forget the violence that once wracked the serene landscape.
We drove down the unpaved roads into a small village where we met Fr. Desbois and the rest of Yahad-in-Unum’s team for our first interview. We were ushered into the backyard of an elderly man’s home, and sat down on blanket-lined benches to observe as Fr. Desbois began with his questions.
Although we had watched Yahad’s interviews in class before, it was very interesting to see how the line of questioning was structured to encourage the witness to speak. Fr. Desbois asked about the village in the years prior to, and following the war in addition to the actual occupation by the Nazis and Romanians. A shudder ran through my spine when the witness recounted how the local Kishinev party had eagerly burned down the Jewish quarter of the village. I had read testimonials of Jewish survivors from Eastern Europe who often bitterly recalled, “The [locals] were worse than the Germans,” but it was very confronting to hear affirmation of this in person.
We also walked through where the old Jewish cemetery used to be. Weeds now tangled with crumbling tombstones, and children ran around a bonfire playing games. Many of the tombstones, engraved with Hebrew prayers, were gone, taken during the Soviet era to build houses for the locals. Just looking over the vast area that the cemetery used to occupy evidenced the overwhelming loss of the 1000 or so Jews, all annihilated in a single day. There were no monuments preserving the memory of the Jews in the village – it was as though 500 years of Jewish culture had never been there at all.
The sun had almost set by the time we were done. People were shivering as we got back into the cars – and not just from the chill in the air – as we left the village that no longer had any Jews.