MARIO AND TEMMY KREUTZBERGER, VISITING KISHINEV

Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit Upper Silesia, where my parents were born. The area belonged to Germany during the Holocaust, and after the war it became a part of Poland.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit Upper Silesia, where my parents were born. The area belonged to Germany during the Holocaust, and after the war it became a part of Poland.

It was a very emotional visit. My wife Temy, who accompanied me, accepted my solemn promise that later on we would also travel to her parents’ homeland, which they abandoned in the 1930s for the same reasons as mine.

In a similar fashion, the borders had also changed and the former Bessarabia had been divided into Romania, Ukraine and Moldova.

Eight years passed and my wife reminded me, every so often, of the promise I had made to her. Keeping it was not an easy matter. The region had been in constant upheaval and Kishinev, formerly a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, now belongs to the independent country, Moldova. The official language is no longer Russian, and the city was renamed Chisinau in Romanian, its new language.

The problem was that we suddenly decided to leave in four days, as I had no other free time available. We would need a stamped visa in our Chilean passports and we had no idea of where to begin the process of obtaining it. We figured a good start would be to look up Moldova on the Internet.

And there began the difficulties in our story. Moldova has an embassy in Washington and the visa must be applied for in person. I live in Miami and have a very busy schedule, so it was impossible for me to take care of the matter personally.

We looked into the possibility of sending our passports to Buenos Aires, where the only Moldovan Consulate in Latin America can be found. But that turned out to be impossible, as well, as their visa approval process takes a month.

The time difference between Moldova and the U.S. is seven hours, meaning that all business phone calls from Miami have to be made during the early morning hours.

Searching the Internet and making calls, I was finally able to contact the Jewish community in Chisinau where no one spoke English, much less Spanish. In my rudimentary Yiddish I tried to explain the situation to the person on the other end of the line whose Yiddish was also quite rusty. After much effort we realized we were not getting across to each other. I had also left messages at an organization called Friends of Moldova, which I found through a web site.

Meanwhile, my office staff was busy looking for additional information and eventually they were able to find a travel agency in Chisinau. “We’re saved,” I told myself. But the joy lasted only ten minutes: the agency could not make airline, hotel or car rental reservations until we had the approved visas–which are obtained, they said, by invitation only.

As always, I refused to give up and decided to resort to my country’s embassies in Europe. Unfortunately, it was summer time and European diplomatic offices do not open on Friday afternoons.

I failed in my attempt to get in touch with the Chilean ambassadors in Czechoslovakia and Germany but I managed to leave a voice message at the Chilean offices in Budapest.

Saturday and Sunday passed and the tension mounted as we continued our middle-of-the-night efforts to find a solution.

At the office, my staff kept trying. Only 48 hours left and still no luck. On Monday morning we got good news: Celso Moreno, the Chilean ambassador to Hungary, heard my message, made some calls and was assured by his Moldovan counterpart that we would be granted the visas once the passports were presented in Budapest. In addition, as a diplomatic courtesy, reservations were accepted for the best hotel in Chisinau, as well as for a car with a driver and a Spanish-speaking tour guide.

This information was enough to make Temy very anxious. Extremely organized and meticulous, she knows everything about her family history in that land: the port her parents sailed from when they emigrated to Chile in the ’30s, the names of their guarantors, the family home address, etc.

My wife became more excited every minute. The next day, we set off on our trip via Frankfurt and Budapest. The visa process was quick and easy, possibly because it had been requested through diplomatic channels.

The following afternoon we were at the airport in the Hungarian capital, with our two heavy suitcases, aware that we would probably use less than 20% of their contents. There we boarded a small 30-passenger Air Moldova plane, the only flight out to Chisinau.

After flying over Romanian territory for an hour and a half, we arrived at our destination, where our tour guide awaited us with her twin sister. Mijail, our chauffeur for the next 48 hours, was also there.

We were pleasantly surprised by the airport, which was small, clean and orderly. My wife whispered in my ear, almost in tears: “I have butterflies in my stomach. You can’t imagine the emotion I’m feeling. I can’t believe it. Seventy years after my parents left, I am in the place where they were born and fell in love. And I’ll be able to learn more about the rest of the family.”

In Chisinau, on our way to the hotel we saw a bleak, dark city. The streetlights did not work, and that gave way to the first question we posed to our lovely young tour guides, Mariana and Natalia Iatco.

“What happened to the lights?”

One of them answered in an apologetic tone explaining that the government had outstanding debts so the Russian power company had cut off the electricity. The driver, who overheard the conversation, added: “It’s the corrupt government that steals the money and that’s why we’re in the dark”.

“What government?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter. The democrats didn’t do a thing and now we’re back to the same communists we had before.”

“And which government do you prefer?”

“The truth is that we don’t know how to live as capitalists. We have a lot to learn and that takes time. Of one thing I am sure: I don’t like Russians,” he answers.

A strange confession as over 50% of the population still speaks Russian.

We arrived at the hotel, where it was darker than in the streets. There were no bellboys, either, so we had to carry our own heavy luggage. We were greeted by a sleepy, laconic and unpleasant receptionist. We filled out the registration card, which asked for more information than would be required on an FBI application, and then we were handed an enormous key dangling from a piece of wood. The room we were given, #404, is good, with air conditioning, classic furniture and a double bed. Temy looked around nostalgically at the decorations in the room, while she whispered: “It’s the same little glasses. We had a display cabinet just like that one at home.”

It was 11 pm. The temperature was almost 900 F.

In spite of the late hour, my wife was more awake than ever, and the only thing she didn’t want was to sleep. So we went to the restaurant that was still open to taste some typical dishes. Our guides and chauffeur, all hungry, joined us. Without looking at the menu, Temy asked for borscht, the soup I ate so often at her house before we got married.

The arrival of the dish provoked an explosion of repressed feelings and my wife’s tears flowed generously as she said over and over, “Just like my mother used to make.”

After an intense emotional moment filled with plenty of tears and not enough soup, we decided to visit Chisinau at night.

The driver suggests we go to the Opera Palace where one of his family members is celebrating a wedding. Romanian music, doinas and a performance by a group of gypsies reminded us of weddings in Chile, where Jews who had emigrated from this area of the world listened, danced and sang to these same rhythms.

Temy recorded every detail with her new, tiny video camera. She wanted her sisters and family to experience every moment of this trip.

It’s 2 am. With a wide smile on her lips and her soul filled with music and emotion, my wife decides it is time to end the day.

We sleep very well and rise early to visit the city, which surprises us with its cleanliness and the kindness of its people. We are also impressed with the dignity with which they bear their poverty and simplicity.

We visit City Hall, a beautiful, well cared for building; the Government Palace; the Arc of Triumph and the parks that my mother-in-law and father-in-law were always talking about. Then the city’s main street, the hotels and a small festival in a plaza. Everything is recorded by the video camera that never stops.

We were still missing the most important part: Pushkin 37, the house where my in-laws lived. There was the old building, showing the signs of time. The door that was closed 70 years ago stood as a silent witness. Since the time that the Muchnick Rosenblum family decided to move away and find a place where they would be loved, respected and have opportunities.

Because Israel and Sara never had the chance to revisit their memories, their daughter Temy felt the weight of their story on her shoulders and in her heart. I found her sobbing and trying to hide her face with her hands. It was like closing the circle of persecution and pain after so many years.

The hours passed and emotions escalated. A city with a million inhabitants, where 50 thousand were Jews, and today there isn’t a trace of that culture left. We asked to be taken to places that belonged to the Jewish community and it was quite difficult to find them.

We visited the library, consisting of two small rooms with broken down shelves. Also, a children’s playroom and a small banquet hall for about 20 people.

Later, we arrived at an institution dedicated to organizing activities for senior citizens where supposedly there was an official register of all Jews in the area. But we were told that it only listed those who had emigrated, mostly to Israel, taking advantage of the open borders during the fall of socialism. Today there are only 14 thousand left, most of them living in the capital.

In this country, Jewish life was always persecuted. The biggest progrom in Europe occurred here. Of the 70 synagogues existing at the time, only one is left. By the time the Soviet socialist regimen ended, all activities had been suspended. Chabad Lubavich Street houses, in a dilapidated building, the only surviving temple. The wooden floor has been deteriorated by time. The plush material covering the bima has been worn out by the years. The furniture is broken down. It was, without a doubt, the poorest synagogue I have ever visited. The only sound we could hear was the whispering of a few Yeshiva students praying.

The tour guides then translated a brief conversation between two of the youngsters. This way we learned that the Rabbi was a Russian who had emigrated to Israel, but returned upon the request of his superior to try to restore what little was left of Jewish life here.

We would return to the temple that evening for the minha service, after continuing our visit.

Among the weeds and neglect we saw the monument erected in memory of the thousands of Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Then we visited the cemetery, where my wife had planned to honor her family members who rested there. But what a disappointment! It was completely in ruins; the tombstones were damaged, the walkways were destroyed and everything was covered with dense grass and weeds.

There was no cadastre, no memories. History was disappearing and only the silence of death was left.

The Rabbi, a good-natured man with a long white beard, invited us to sit down while his vivacious eyes looked us up and down. They finally rested on ours as if asking “Nu” what have you come for?

I told him, in my broken Yiddish, about Temy’s interest in learning more about her roots.

He looked at my wife with kindness and, in perfect Yiddish, said: “People here know nothing about their faith. Some lost it, others moved away. We are only left with six Yeshiva students, one kosher kitchen and one mikvah that a few women come to.”

He added: “Our biggest source of pride is two schools that serve 200 families but unfortunately you will not be able to visit them because they are closed for summer vacation.”

I took the opportunity to ask: “What is life like here nowadays?”

“This is a poor country and our people are having a very bad time.” Showing me a photograph, he added: “This is the president of Moldova, who came to visit me and offer his help. It must have been the first time a government authority visited a Jewish place.

We have many, many needs. The Almighty sent me here and I know He will help me succeed.”

Besides all the destruction and neglect I’ve described, the only things left here are the wishes of a Rabbi, a dilapidated synagogue with a congregation of 50 people who attend the Sabbath, and 14 thousand poor and scattered Jews.

That night, in a typical restaurant in Chisinau, among Barenikes, Blintzes, Pilmenie and so many other dishes that were set before us on the table, we decided to say goodbye to the pain and the memories, drinking a toast to my in-laws and family. We had mixed feelings, although my wife was nonetheless comforted by what she had experienced here. With traditional music and several “noroc” (the Romanian equivalent of the Jewish “lahaim”), we were closing an important chapter in Temy’s life.

The next day, the last one of our trip, we visited the subterranean wine cellars in Circova, a tourist attraction destined to promote Modolva’s wine industry, property of the state. We toured the impressive tunnels filled with thousands of bottles, ending the visit with a tasting session.

While we sampled the wine, something happened that is worth mentioning.

We were sharing the table with other tourists and a government official in charge of investments who was accompanying a French visitor. Many “noroc” were said. When we were about to say goodbye to the official, he asked the reason for our visit to his country. Through our interpreter I told him about my in-laws and how they had emigrated from Chisinau to South America.

Having had a few drinks, his inhibitions were weakening, so he began to tell me an amazing story. What I could understand in Romanian, added to the Spanish translation given by our guide, helped me to be able to repeat it in English to the French tourist. It was a crazy mix of languages, made possible thanks to the wine of Circova.

“This person next to me is my childhood friend. His last name is Janucka,” said the official.

“In the difficult years, my father, a doctor, hid my friend’s family in our home. They were there throughout the war and when the conflict ended, the children of both families continued being friends. Shanuka and I are like brothers.”

He paused while taking another sip from his sixth glass of wine, and added: “Not all of us were bad guys here.”

I don’t know if it was the wine or the many toasts we drank, but that moment was very emotional for everyone, and it was recorded for posterity on Temy’s camera.

It was like regaining confidence in the human race… knowing that in spite of all the horrors that exist, there is always a chance for a better tomorrow.

From there we went directly to the airport. The drive and the fresh air helped relieve the effects of the wine tasting. However, once we were alone after saying goodbye to our guides, and were left without any diplomatic help, we experienced a reality that made us relive old times.

Just having the date changed on our boarding passes took more than half an hour. When passing through security, we were practically asked to undress, and then another official tried to inquire, in unintelligible English, about how much money we had on us. He repeated the word “dollar…dollar.” I showed him a small bundle of bills and he took us to a military officer who wanted to know where we were traveling and for how long–something that is never asked of a tourist leaving a country.

After that we had to pass other inspections, where we were checked over and our passports were read in detail. Then another person continued to read and inspect our documents. We were nervous by now, as time was passing and we were afraid to lose the only flight out. Finally, with an unpleasant attitude, we were handed our boarding passes. The past was still present here.

Our flight back was on the same small plane we had arrived on, and during the trip I began writing these lines. I am sure that many people are unaware of the reality I have described, but I believe there is a great opportunity to help lift the spirits of those who, although humiliated, neglected and torn from their faith and traditions, can once again feel pride in their race.

Many times, in different parts of the world, I heard about Kishinev, Bessarabia, a place whose native children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, scattered throughout the planet, are all connected to its history. Perhaps this writing can serve as an incentive to others who, like my wife, want to honor the memory of their deceased parents and family members.

There are many who, with a small effort, could make a difference in changing the events that took place and that are taking place right now. Minutes before leaving our house, at the beginning of our trip, we received a call from the institution we had found on the Internet: Friends of Kishinev Jewry, 635 Empire Blvd, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Phone: (718) 756.0458. Fax: (718) 467.0098.

Maybe, knowing this story and learning of my experience, you can help change things. You, reader, have the same opportunity I had.

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