A fascinating book arrived at our office the other day. Like Shells on a Shore is a collection of photographs and short texts by a Swiss diplomat, Simon Geissbuehler. The photos, especially, are lovely and evocative testimony to what is left of the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries of northern Moldavia, a region embracing parts of modern Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. Here, in the southern part of the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi world, Jews came into contact with Turks, Romanians, and Sephardic Jews from further south and east. My interest in this part of Europe was sparked in the 1980s when I read Gregor von Rezzori’s fine novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, with its finely nuanced nostalgia for the old ways of life in the city of Czernowitz/Chernivtsi in Bukovina/Ukraine. There are many photo books on Eastern Europe’s decaying and half-forgotten Jewish cultural heritage, but Geissbuehler’s non-professional shots are memorable for their mournfulness and solemnity. Some of these structures and cemeteries are of great cultural value, and yet many are hardly known, such as the cemetery in Vadul-Rascov, Moldova, pictured on this page.
A recent exhibition comes at this question of the cultural heritage of half-forgotten and semi-alien minorities from a different angle. For “Routes of Disappearance: Jewish and Roma Memory of Transnistria,” researchers Jozef Markiewicz (Warsaw), Anna Abakunova and Georgii Abakunov (Dnipropetrovsk), and Romani activist Zemfira Kondur of Kyiv gathered oral histories from Jewish and Romani present or former residents of Transnistria, or Transdniester – the eastern part of the territory Geissbuehler scoured for Jewish sites. Photos and documentary evidence of their lives and of the devastation that came down on both the Jewish and Romani communities during World War II – a tragedy often marginalized by the people who live in those areas now – were displayed in Chisinau, and the organizers planned to bring it to several cities in Ukraine and Poland.
I applaud this effort to link together the memories of two “stateless nations,” but wonder how much empathy each has for the other. The positive side, from the standpoint of reconciliation and rebuilding, is that Romani suffering during the war is now often mentioned in the same breath with the Jewish Holocaust. I hope this exhibition can travel further and the oral histories be published in book form, and that Geissbuehler’s book finds a major publisher.