In the 15th century, Sephardic Jewish merchants began using Bessarabia (a region that today includes Moldova) as a trade route between the Black Sea and Poland. Bessarabia is the region between the Dniester and Prut rivers. Jews settled in the region, prompting a growth of communities in northern and central Bessarabia. Jewish communities were found in southern Bessarabia in the 16th century.
By the 18th century, several permanent Jewish communities had been established in urban developments. In the 18th and 19th century, Jews were very involved with local trading as well as liquor distilling.
By the time, of Russian rule in 1812, there was a permanent Jewish presence in Moldova, with an estimated 20000 Jews living in the area. There were 16 Jewish schools with 2100 students and 70 synagogues. The region became a center for both Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In 1836, the Jewish population had grown to 94045 and, by 1897, there were 228620 (11.8% of the population) Jews living in Bessarabia. By the end of the 19th century, the Jews made up approximately half of Kishinev’s population of 125000.
For the first half of the 19th century, Jews of Bessarabia were not affected by the severe Russian anti-Jewish decrees. By 1835, when Bessarabia began to lose its autonomy, Russian anti-Jewish laws began to be equally applied to Bessarabian Jewry. In 1869, 1879, 1886, and 1891 decrees of expulsion were issued to Jews of various cities.
Under the Russian tsarist Empire, during Easter Day, April 6-7, 1903, 49 Jews were killed, 500 were wounded and hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were severely damaged in the attacks that occurred in Kishinev. About 2000 Jewish families were left homeless.
News of the event reverberated throughout Europe, and thousands of Moldovan Jews emigrated. The United States reacted with public condemnations and trade restrictions against Russia. Massacres during the 1905 Russian Revolution, only two years later, resulted in the death of hundreds more Jews in towns across Moldova.
In Kishinev, a second massive pogrom occurred on October 19-20, 1905, in which 19 Jews were killed and 56 wounded in a second attack on the Jewish community. This time, several Jews organized into defense units to protect the community. The famous poem, Be-Ir ha-Haregah (In the City of Slaughter), by Chaim Nachman Bialik was prompted by this second attack on the Jewish community of Kishinev. Overall, the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 had a profound affect on the Jewish community of Moldova, as thousands immigrated to the United States.
Romania took control of Bessarabia between 1918 and 1940. Jewish were permitted to open Jewish elementary and secondary schools with instruction in Yiddish and Hebrew. By 1922, there were approximately 140 Jewish schools in Bessarabia. During this time, there also existed 13 Jewish hospitals and old-age homes. By 1920, the Jewish population in Moldova numbered about 267000. Although, the numbers of Jewish citizens continued to climb, many communities experienced hostility and anti-Jewish harassment. The weakening of the Bessarabian economy also hit the Jewish population extremely hard; however, they received assistance provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee.
The 1930’s marked the peak of Jewish life in Moldova. In 1935, 40 Jewish communities united as the Union of Jewish Communities of Bessarabia.
In 1940, Bessarabia was reclaimed by the Soviets, who promptly sent thousands of Jews suspected of disloyalty to gulags (work camps) or to Siberia.
After the German-led invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Romania re-conquered Bessarabia on July 23, 1941. During this fighting, tens of thousands of Jews died in mass shootings, deportations, ghettos and concentration camps on Bessarabian and Ukrainian territory. A large number of the Bessarabian Jewry was deported to Transnistria or massacred by the Einsatzkommandos. The Jewish community of Kishinev was nearly annihilated, with the Nazis murdering 53000 out of the 65000 inhabitants of the city.
Israel has recognized 53 Moldavians as “Righteous Among the Nations” for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In August 1944, the Soviets gained back the control over the territory. This land became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic with the capital in Kishinev. Following the Holocaust Soviet control, much of the Jewish community of Moldova met with increasing hardships, were forbidden to practice many Jewish traditions.
In 1979, Moldova had a Jewish population of 80100, a decade later declined to 65800, with the majority of Jews residing in Kishinev.