Finding my family in Europe’s least-visited country

We’ve pulled up at a church sandwiched amongst houses. This part of the city, with its winding, incredibly narrow, cobbled streets, feels like a village. There’s no trace of the belching Ladas (the ubiquitous Soviet-era car) and noisy trams that jostled along the wide street we turned off a few minutes ago. A few people have stuck their heads out of their windows to watch with interest as our van awkwardly negotiates the hills and tight corners. Taxis don’t come here apparently.

My non-English speaking driver has offered entreaties to my non-Romanian speaking self before rushing into the church. Are we in need of salvation? My driver and I are certainly searching. A woman clad in the typical bright floral headscarf accompanies the driver from the church, gesticulating in all directions. We take off, but have to stop again for directions through this labyrinth. The driver exclaims and I see what has given him reason for confidence and relief. A wall, probably eight foot high, is ahead of us and on it is painted a large Star of David. With a big tip he leaves me, and I’m alone. It is completely still and silent. I guess this is what I was looking for.


Kishinev, Bessarabia, 1905. A part of the Russian Empire. Jews are permitted to live here. Permitted. It is an uneasy existence as a Jew in Kishinev: newspapers are openly anti-Semitic, restrictions bind Jewish life directing the whats and wheres and hows. Then, the tenuous permission is suspended.


I’ve had this madcap impulse to return to my family’s zero hour – where it all began – and say ‘thank you for leaving’ for as long as I’ve known their story. I realise the dodgy logic of this: “thanks for getting out of here. I just came back to say that”. To go there and say, yep, this is pretty grim. You made the right call, even if that call led to a life of dislocation, tragedy, otherness, hard, hard, hard work. If you hadn’t left, your descendants almost certainly would not exist.

So here I am. I’m in my grandfather’s birthplace. A city that has passed through Russian, then Soviet rule since his departure, the history noted in the change of its name from the Russian Kishinev to the Romanian Chisinau. But what seemed like a noble quest when I set off to visit Europe’s least visited countryhas now lost its romanticism. . I feel a little bit daft, awaiting my emotional epiphany here in the silence on a beautiful summer’s day. Maybe those family history shows have a heart-wrenching soundtrack playing in the background to help those emotions swell. Or maybe that’s why they use celebrities – they’re better at switching on the emotions than normal people are.


The Russian Empire in 1905 is a volatile place. 1905 is the beginning of the end. It could have been a sudden collapse, but the Tsar’s reforms assuaged the ferment enough for the end to drag on another twelve years. But in 1905 people are angry and uncertain and they turn upon the Jews. Violently. These attacks are called pogroms. There are many of them across the Russian Empire. But some of the very worst are in Kishinev. The attacks are ferocious. They are described as savage, as slaughter. The bodies pile in the streets. A family by the name of Barenboim decide that now might be a good time to leave.


I used to like to drink milk with my dinner. I was eating sausages at my father’s cousin’s house. I wanted milk with my dinner like I was used to, so Mum scooped me up with my plate and deposited me outside, in the furthest corner of the yard. Well this is odd, I thought, as I enjoyed my sausage and milk picnic, oblivious to the meaning behind my mother’s pragmatic solution of how to serve milk and meat together in a Kosher household.

I knew it was odd that I had a Zeda, not a Poppy or a Nonno or a Grandad. He was Russian, I’d say, proud of the exoticism. I was 9 when Zeda died. I was alone standing under a tree in a cemetery on a hot Brisbane day when over came the kind of family who say “you were just a baby when I last saw you! I bet you don’t remember me”. Sorry, my baby memory was pretty poor. Then: “Have you had your Bat Mitzvah yet?” Umm what? I mumbled that I didn’t know and they left me alone. I began panicking, am I not allowed here if I haven’t had a Bat Mitzvah? I remember seeing my brothers and father gripping their rarely-worn yarmulkes to their heads; eventually they borrowed hair pins from me. Tiny hats and bobby pins. Stones instead of flowers. Unfamiliar writing that apparently bore my name. Even decades later, I remember the tension I felt that someone so familiar to me was being farewelled in a way I did not understand, for if this was a part of him, it must be a part of me. And it was a part that I needed to know better. It was the reason us Barnbaums were here after all.


They fled, Yitzhak and Rivkah and their brood of small Barenboims. They fled from Kishinev to Harbin, China. How far. How impossibly far. They waited for certainty. They waited two years until some family were accepted by Argentina. They were accepted by Australia. How impossibly far. They boarded a boat for the bottom of the world, hoping that distance from home meant distance from persecution. They disembarked at Brisbane where their name was recorded as Barnbaum. How impossibly far.


How do you pay tribute to people who have been all but eradicated in a country that has no desire to remember they even existed? That’s what has brought us to the gate of Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery: a place so forgotten that one must be looking for it to even see it. In a city that once had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, this is nearly all that is left of Jewish culture.

I knew it would be overgrown and in ruins – after all, the community that mourned those buried here exists in too small numbers to tend these graves – but this is like Jumanji. Vines clutch every tombstone. Wildflowers and trees grow unchecked. Paths are impossible to make out. I am in complete silence and completely alone. I am frozen with fear, with the surge of panic I feel facing how determinedly forgotten these people – my people? – are; of how scary and precarious the place looks. In a terrible way, it is incredibly beautiful. My earlier cynicism gives way to agonising sadness that all these people are so forgotten; that a community as large as this could disappear.

The day I left Australia I scuffed around in the garden looking for a rock worthy of travelling so many miles to be laid as tribute. A star rock, if you will. But, as it transpired, my garden was mysteriously bereft of stones with a certain je ne sais quoi so to Moldova I have carried a rather uninspiring collection of pebbles. Stones in Jewish culture represent the permanence of memory and I look for somewhere to place them (I’m awaiting the sort of divine intervention I don’t actually believe in to tell me where). By the rear wall of the caved in synagogue, I raise my camera. Through the view-finder I see something my eye couldn’t: a grave scarred by a swastika. I can see the graffiti has been scrubbed, but the paint clings to the engraved Hebrew words. It is on this grave that I leave my stones. I will not forget. You are not forgotten. This place is not forgotten.


This strange little family from a strange little country lived, as refugee families often do, a life of extremely hard work, sadness and a fair bit of confusion: like when their first enterprise was to grow pineapples, not knowing that the first crop takes some time to yield – more time than they had money to wait.

My Zeda lived until 92. I knew him as an elderly man who emanated kindness, patience and wisdom, and who was never without a book in his hands. A gentleness and intellectualism that belied a hard life doing hard manual labour. I know him through the beautiful furniture he made, that filled my grandparents’ house and now fills mine and my brother’s. All beautifully hand-tooled. All with secret compartments for hiding money for that next emergency. I feel a stab of pain for what horrific memories or fears he must have had to build those safe places. When we emptied the house after his death, we found thousands of dollars hidden over an entire lifetime. He just wanted to protect us, I guess. To know we’d be ok. So that’s what I said, kneeling with my hand on the cold, stone of a ruined synagogue in the middle of a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Europe’s least-visited country: it was worth it. We’re ok. We exist. And we remember.

Image: Supplied by author


Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.

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