As we passed through Romanian Moldova on our search for Bessarabia it felt as if we drove back in time. The roads quickly descended into randomly patched dirt and our pace became slowed as we maneuvered around the main traffic of long carts piled high with hay pulled by giant slow horses.
Too much research can be problematic. This part of the trip was like digging up the forgotten past and what we were digging up was not pleasant, so the more pieces we exhumed, the more withdrawn and moody Dotahn became. So after negotiating with a number of car companies without much luck we ended up calling the man who rented us a car late in the evening while he was having dinner with his family. We needed to get him to write us a letter which would allow us to cross the border into The Republic of Moldova which was directly contradicting the rental contract. Luckily he did not seem to care about contracts and gruffly agreed, so with stamped power of attorney in hand we entered the strange and evidently subjugated Republic of Moldova. The Romanian border guards seemed amused and the Moldovan authorities seemed irritated at our wanting to go into Moldova. We paid a few ‘fees,’ changed some money, signed some documents and were berated by an angry border guard for not paying the road tax which we were supposed to have known about and were on our way.
Dotahn’s grandparents on his fathers side had grown up in a shtetl called Yedinitsy in Bessarabia. This has always been a source of fascination for us as Bessarabia felt like a place only in storytelling as it was not on any maps and had also been erased by history. Bessarabia was taken by Russia in the early 19th century, then Romania in the early 20th Century and was broken up, put back together and broken again in squabbles between Russsia, Romania and the emerging Moldova. Yedinitsy was a predominantly Jewish town and had a rich history of its own despite the consistant changes of the country at large. The history was well recorded in a book entirely in Yiddish, but we managed to find a partial translation online and garner snippets about the life of Dotahn’s ancestors.
We pulled up at the only hotel we could find in Edinet, the town which had replaced Yedinitsy and were greeted by a women who we quickly nicknamed our Russian mistress. She was forboding and sexy and ordered us to sit in a strong Russian accent. We obeyed. She was the only person we encountered in Moldova who spoke a word of English. After checking in we asked our mistress for some lunch and she came to interpret for the waitress in the hotel restaurant. Over an amazing stroganoff we found what looked to be the centre of the old town of Yedenitsy and went in search of any remnants.
The hard truth is that Yedenitsy was erased during the second world war. Dotahn’s grandparents had migrated to Israel, firstly his grandfather Shalom Serebrenik, as a strong believer in the Zionist movement. Who then went back to Yedenitsy for Tahn’s grandmother, Miriam Weitzman. This migration before the war saved their lives.
For decades there was a demonizing of the Jewish people in Romania and despite the fact that they were responsible for building a lot of the society in the way of business and infrastructure they were heavily persecuted. Things were also rough under Russian rule, but when Russia pulled out of Yedenitsy and the Romanian army moved in things quickly turned. The Romanian army along with the non-Jewish population of Yedenitsy slaughtered between 1000 and 2000 of the over 5000 strong Jewish population within the first two weeks. The massacred were thrown into mass graves in the forest, dug by Jews who were then murdered and thrown in with the bodies, making sure these unmarked graves become lost. A lot of the women and young girls were raped and the remaining population were put in concentration camps. Very few survived.
We have heard many stories of the Holocaust over our lives but this was not a movie or a museum. The personal reality of it hit hard and it was difficult to process this information and the complex feelings that surfaced, especially when there is so much disconnection and absence. Although these events happened a long time in the past and is not something to dwell upon, these sort of atrocities make you wonder about what humans are capable of and to question ones own capacity for evil. How can people turn against thier own neighbors? With anti-muslim sentiment growing in Australia and elsewhere and our current treatment of refugees are we not all complicit in atrocities?
Determined to not only visit the place, but to do an artwork as a way of mourning and processing all this, we began to look into traditional burial practices. Looking into concepts of grieving, ritual, identity and about why we hold on to the past.
We walked through the cracked and concrete town, finding no markers of its past. Just the quiet bustle of contemporary Moldovian life, seeming far removed from ours in the west and under a strange communist cloud from Russia.
One thing which was fascinating about Edinet and Moldova in general was the bus stops. Strange soviet relics, each unique and unusual. Emmily tried to wait to see what type of bus would come to such a bus stop, but none ever came. A small girl with blackened hands approached us and tried to talk to us. She was completely bewildered by us taking photos of bus stops and watched us leave still puzzled.
Other suburban details that took our notice were the many wells dotted along the streets and the tangle coloured pipes surrounding most houses.
We walked around most of the town, exploring side streets and the large and quite beautiful park in the centre of town. Life seemed simple and poor, but we saw no signs of abject poverty. We got a lot of strange looks as usual, but people were too polite to stare for long.
After our failure to find a street in town named in memory of the Holocaust we went in search for a site to film our performance/video piece. The absence we felt and observed in town made us decide to film in the forest surrounding it. We had no specific person, place or body to morn. Just the absence of the town of Yedinetsy, disappeared into the woods.
The following morning was thick with fog and the forest was eerie and beautiful. We struggled to find a spot with enough of a clearing and was not covered in spiders. In fact it was like a forest made of spiders. Dotahn was not very happy with having to perform in a den of spiders, but luckily we chanced upon a perfect spot which was just lightly spidered. Although our site seemed remote our filming was interrupted a few times by the odd local foraging for mushrooms. One little old lady even stopped to show us her spoils and indicated her curiosity and confusion with our set up. Without revealing too much about the piece, which needs to be edited, suffice to say it was somewhat cathartic and quite unexpected. We struggled with the ending, but the ambiguity and mess of it seemed to represent a more realistic and complex view of grieving and dealing with history then the neat and tidy wishful thinking of ‘letting go’
Still determined to find some remnants of the past in this town, after more extensive internetting we found a couple of blogs which mentioned a Jewish cemetery which was on a hill just outside of town. After some debating and some driving on roads which our car really didn’t like we found it hidden amongst a corn-field. It was amazing, ramshackle and ruinous with a great view over the town. Overgrown and in disrepair, only those that made the pilgrimage back to bury more recently dead loved ones had maintained a small section. The hard bit was the striking evidence of malicious damage and vandalism which left a sour taste in our mouths. Despite all the atrocity and guilt left over from the holocaust there was still a fear and perhaps even hatred of the Jews.
Luckily there was the cemetery puppy who really wanted to come with us and would not stop playing despite the gloomy mood.
Our travels across the world, both this adventure and our previous one in 2010, have uncovered many explorations into the idea of cultural identity through understanding peoples connection to country, traditions and ancestors. This is a particularly complicated relationship for non-indigenous Australians.
As a first generation Australian, Dotahn has explored his family ties to the countries of his parents, Israel and America, in previous visits in his youth and then returning to introduce his international family to Emmily five years ago. In these two countries Dotahn has found a connection with the traditions of his upbringing and has uncovered a deeper understanding of where his parents have come from and his own cultural identity. However, this pilgrimage into family history was both hard and complex for us both. Dotahn was returning to a place he had no connection to, to grieve for people he had never met and couldn’t even name, to reconcile with a past which is really too horrific to come to terms with.