31 December 2010

Mein shtetele Belz

The city of Bălţi (Bielce, Бельцы, Бэлць, Бєльці, בעלץ) appears in documents of the 15th century as an important center of horse trade, it's no wonder that its first crest showed a horse's head. Gradually, the city also became a center for craftsmen - blacksmiths, saddlers, chariot-makers, furriers. The Russian Empire, which in 1812 incorporated the eastern part of Moldavia, which then was known as Bessarabia, increased the administrative autonomy of the town that, once connected to the rail network, became a collect center of grain that was transported to Odessa .

Due to the economic development, many Russians, Ukrainians and Jews joined the local population. The number of immigrants continued to grow, especially after the union of Bessarabia with Romania in 1918, because of the influx of refugees across the river Dniester fleeing the Soviet collectivization, the famine known as Holodomor (1932-33) or the secret police of the Soviet communist party (NKVD).

During the 2nd World War the city was severely destroyed and suffered major deportations. First (1940-41), the Soviets deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia priests and Moldavian civil servants working for the Romanian State and then (1941-44), Romanians and Germans deported Jews - who constituted at least half the local population and that were confined to a ghetto - and citizens suspected of supporting the Soviet system. Soviet deportations were resumed between 1945 and 1954.

During the communist regime, the city became the most important industrial center of northern Moldavia, with an almost entirely transplanted population, comprising Russian, Ukrainian and Moldavian peasants.

Bălţi, who was once wistfully evoked in the famous Yiddish song Mein shtetele Belz, in 1928, is today the "northern capital" of the Republic of Moldova, the second most important city in the country and boasting a population of nearly 150 000 people , of which about 400 make up the local Jewish community, currently led by Mr. Lev Bonder.

Photo: Jaime Serebrenic (São Paulo) in front of the only remaining synagogue in Bălţi, May 2010.

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