Monday, December 5, 2011

Ghosts in Soroca

Guest post by Brock Bierman


Walking ghosts are precisely what went through my mind when I first saw the Soroca Jewish Cemetery in 1997. Tucked away in a half residential and half commercial sector on the outskirts of Soroca, Moldova, this Jewish Cemetery was the first eastern European graveyard I had ever seen. Closer inspection of the gravestones revealed incredible inscriptions, finely carved pictographs and a fine attention to detail. Although I did not understand the language engraved on the stones, I could see that extraordinary craftsmanship and love were etched on each and every one. 
Soroca Cemetery Entrance
The cemetery itself was not easy to get to, but most locals we talked with seemed to know where it was. After about a three hour drive from the capital city of Chisinau we arrived in the downtown area of Soroca, only to spend another 30 minutes navigating the nearly impassable roads to the Cemetery Gates. In 1997 the roads were indescribable in American terms and it was hard to believe they could have been used for any sort of transportation.
Road Conditions in 1997
My Great Grandfather, Abram Birman, left Bessarabia (now Moldova) sometime after the October 1905 Pogrom. According to my research, he arrived at Ellis Island on the 6th of June 1906 with his wife and five children (including my grandfather Samuel). Before I visited Moldova, I knew little else about my Birman forbearers other than what I could find in US Census or immigration records.  
Matzeivah
According to the 1897 Russian Census, a time when Abram would have lived in Soroca, the total population was 15,351, of which 8715 were Jewish, almost 60% of the population. Today I hear that there are less than 100 Jews still living in Soroca. The oldest operating synagogue in the country, built circa 1802, is still active.


My time was limited in Soroca during my first visit, strictly a day trip. When you consider the time of year and how short the days are in the winter, I had less than an hour to spend with my research. Peering through the lens of my camera as I started to document my visit, it was an eerie feeling to look upon the crowded field of history. The gravestones seemed to be slowly marching toward me, yearning to tell their story.


Surrounded by a six foot stone and concrete wall, this cemetery seemed to weather the test of time, but it was clear that sections of graveyard, where stones had once marked the passing of ages, had disappeared forever. "They were used to build roads, buildings and even some nearby drinking wells," my guide told me through the translation of a local passerby who had come to see what we were doing. "What a shame," my guide uttered back, as we walked the sacred grounds together.


My guide, a 20 year old Moldovan man from Chisinau, had never visited a Jewish cemetery, and frankly speaking, did not know much about Jewish history. He seemed genuinely interested with my quest to research for my roots and offered his assistance in the future.


That was my first trip to the Soroca cemetery in Moldova, but certainly not my last. During a visit in 1999, I was fortunate enough to find a Jewish family who helped me with my research. In fact, they even allowed me to stay at their home. I met them during a visit to the Jewish Synagogue and they opened their hearts as well as their home and in return they asked for only my friendship.
Host Family in Soroca in 1999
Later, several of these family members helped me document the Soroca cemetery, since they read and spoke Hebrew.  Life was hard in 1997 and conditions remain extreme. Today, average annual salaries are less than two thousand dollars and even educated professionals make less than five thousand dollars a year. The young man who had helped me during my first trip had moved to Romania in 1998, however, he was able to help me find a new guide, Larisa Shakirov, who I continue to stay in touch with today.


Over the course of the next two years I corresponded with my new Moldovan friends as they worked to document every stone in the graveyard. In the end, 1618 total grave markers were recorded for posterity. This family eventually immigrated to Israel sometime shortly after this project was completed and I have not heard from them since. Their help, guidance and friendship helped me complete a recorded listing of those buried in cemetery. Without their help, none of this would have been possible.
Soroca Cemetery 1999
In 2002, I took a position at the US Agency for International Development as the Chief of Staff for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia.  Without getting into too much detail, I stayed very active with my research and soon became very involved in all things Moldova through my work at USAID.  I also stayed in contact with my friend Larisa and her family, making several additional trips over the coming years. Most recently, I started a project to transcribe the information obtained nearly ten years earlier. 


After contacting JewishGen and connecting with Nolan Altman, he was able to retain the volunteer efforts of several translators who helped us transcribe every recorded entry in my Soroca Cemetery listing. This listing will be made available to the general public later this month through JewishGen’s Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR).


This October, in an effort to even better document the Soroca cemetery, I started a new project to photograph and plot out every gravestone in the entire cemetery. The cemetery is still in about the same condition as it was in 1997, however the underbrush has taken over some of the land and it will take time to clear. Larisa's son Max is now helping me with my latest efforts and I am hopeful to have this project completed early in 2012.  
Soroca Cemetery - Today
Please keep a lookout for follow up information or you can contact me directly through brock@civicancestry.com for more information. Lastly, it is my hope to better document Jewish life in Soroca and record additional cemeteries throughout the country. Over the coming months, I will be passing along some general research knowledge and ideas through my website, www.civicancestry.com. If you wish to participate or help in anyway, please contact me directly.


A sincere thanks to all those who have helped to make this effort possible and volunteered their time to save our history, without a combined team effort, it would not have been successful.

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