First posted on Wednesday, 25 February 2015

As part of my quest for Romanian shepherds who migrated to the east, I found out that one of them had settled in what is now south-west Ukraine.

Lambrovka is a village of some 120 households in the broadly undulating steppe of south-west Ukraine. If that sentence sounds authoritative, it’s misleading. I haven’t actually been there, and am relying on the few photos and an internet satellite view to give me a picture. Judging by them, Lambrovka looks like thousands of other east European settlements lost in the steppe: it’s got rows of single-storey houses, each with its own sheds and a rectangle of land at the back, built around a framework of straight roads. That’s only a superficial view because like the region it belongs to, Lambrovka has fascinating stories to tell. And those stories are not only about its past but concern the present, too.

Since the time of Ottoman rule (1484 – 1812), the region in which Lambrovka lies has been known as the Budjak. The name comes from a Turkish word for borderlands. It’s appropriate because the Budjak is almost completely cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Dniestr Estuary and is surrounded on its other sides by Romania, Moldova and about 200 kms of Black Sea coast.

Covering roughly the same size as Northern Ireland or half the area of Vermont, about half a million people live in the Budjak. About half of them are Ukrainians, while the rest are mainly Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans, Albanians and Gagauz (Turkish Christians). It was probably always thus: a quick tally of tribes and races that have lived here over the past five thousand years brings together a sparkling array of names: Phoenicians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Thracians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans, Pechenegs, Bulgars, Tatars, Genoese, Jews, Germans, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Albanians and Romanians. There are surely others.

If you’re touring the Budjak, there’s plenty to see without getting lost in its farmlands. You could start with the whacking great Genoese/Romanian citadel at Bilgorod-Dnistrovskii (aka Cetatea Alba and Akkerman) on the Dniestr Estuary, and head west to the pretty town of Izmail for the remains of a magnificent Turkish bastion. In Izmail you are on the northern edge of the Danube Delta, one of the world’s great nature reserves, and even if you weren’t tempted to cross the border into Romania, you could spend a happy day or two in the riverine towns of Kilia and Vilkove.

Lambrovka can’t compete with these beauty spots, but I was interested in it for another reason. It was one of the places which offered work to shepherds who migrated east from Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. Many of the graziers concerned came from a group of villages in southern Transylvania called Marginimea Sibiului. Dating from around 1870, this pastoral diaspora spread right across southern Ukraine into the northern Caucasus and beyond. One of the families I was tracing had landed in Lambrovka. Their name was Ciorogariu and they came from the Marginimea village of Tilisca.

They arrived in the Budjak during a period of massive upheaval.  At the time, this corner of Europe belonged to the Romanian region of Bessarabia which more or less corresponded to the present-day Republic of Moldova. Bessarabia was about to be swallowed by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, but when the young Ion Ciorogariu settled there with his parents in the early 1930s, his capital city was Bucharest not Kiev.*

During our conversation at his Tilisca farmhouse in October 2007, the 77 year old Ion told me he had spent eight or nine years in ‘Lambroca, somewhere west of Odessa, not far from Borodino’. Lambroca was one of several variants on Lambrovka’s name (see ** below for some others). It had been a happy time: he said he went to the Yiddish School (which is odd since my research shows there was also a Romanian school in Lambrovka), and that he had many Jewish friends (he called them jidani). Ion claimed he spoke Yiddish better than Russian. He could not remember any words, but his face lit up at the memories, and he showed us a photo of his eight year old self wearing a double-fronted, Russian style coat and an astrakhan collar and hat.

Lambrovka was founded in 1927 as an agricultural experiment, inspired by a philanthropic German-Jewish baron called Maurice de Hirsch. In 1891, de Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA or ICA) to help Jewish people who were being persecuted in Russia and Romania. He wanted to give them the means to emigrate – to Argentina at first – but the impracticalities associated with the wholesale resettlement of millions of people persuaded him to pour funds into projects where they already lived. Maurice de Hirsch died in 1896 but the JCA resettlement scheme continued, not only in Russia and Bessarabia but also in Canada and Palestine. A Palestinian branch of the Jewish Colonisation Association (PICA) was created in 1924 by the banking millionaire and leading Zionist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. PICA acquired Palestinian land for collective farming schemes similar to the one Ion’s father must have known in Lambrovka. Inadvertently, I had run across a cause of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Ion mentioned that the village was part of a special project but he did not say that Lambrovka grew famous because of its vines. A correspondent on JewishGen’s Bessarabia forum came up with some links. One of them led to a wine-making company called Chateau Grona (motto ‘Life is too short to drink bad wine’). Grona is owned by a Jewish family from Odessa who have rehabilitated Lambrovka’s neglected vineyards. The family trades under the name of Agroyug. Following that lead I found a news report from December 2014 which says Agroyug is hoping its wines will enter the Dutch market this year, taking advantage of Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. Returning to the history page on Grona’s website, I read this:
‘In the 20 years of the twentieth century ICA… created Jewish agricultural commune on the territory of the then Kingdom of Romania. The commune became the prototype of the modern Israeli “moshav”. In 1926 French agronomists visited almost all of Bessarabia looking for the best areas for viticulture. They chose a site near the town of Kaushan, which they named “the ideal plot”. The land (about 60 acres ) have been redeemed , and in 1927 “in an open field” the Lambrovka village was created. The Fund built 52 houses, a winery, and a dairy farm. Around the village, the 52 hectares of vineyards was laid down. Then the Fund moved to Lambrovka 52 Jewish families from nearby villages and towns in Bessarabia. Each family received a property of 1 hectare vineyard, cow and sheep 6. French agronomists and winemakers were managing the project. The winery was provided with the latest equipment at that time. In just a few years Lambrovka became one of most prosperous villages of Bessarabia and its wines were supplied all over Europe including France. In 1937 (sic) the area was annexed by the Soviet Union, but the Jewish community continued to exist until the beginning of World War II. The entire population of Lambrovka was evacuated to Central Asia, and after the war the colonists did not return to the village, moving mostly in the U.S. and Israel.’***
(According to Wikipedia, the Budjak was not annexed in 1937, but was assigned to the USSR in the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, and became part of the Ukrainian SSR the following year. But the political chess game in which Bessarabia/Moldova has played pawn to various larger powers is eye-crossingly complicated – an article in The Economist from January 2015 says that the Budjak changed state hands nine times in 200 years, and it may still not have ended, if you take account of recent moves to make the Budjak independent – so to mention this may be splitting hairs.)

In eastern Europe, farming was not a traditional Jewish vocation because Jews were often not allowed to own land. Apart from Ion’s memory, and the links provided by JewishGen and its contributors, my sources were limited and slightly contradictory: one said the Lambrovka project began in 1932, another implied that the village was not established on virgin soil and that somebody had been living there, or at least working the land, already.**

Ion said his father had moved to Lambrovka from Tilisca, their Carpathian Mountain home, ‘several years’ ahead of his marriage (to another Tiliscan). In his words it sounded as though his dad had settled there long before Ion was born. But to a young child, a single year can seem like aeons. Ion told me they lived in a ‘nice farm house’, and that Ciorogariu Sr. raised not the traditional, hardy Turcanas that flourished in the Carpathians, but Karakuls. A black breed, also known as Astrakhans, Karakuls were imported from Asia. They were mainly raised for their skins. The lambs were killed at a few days old, while their coats were still curly, and their soft little fleeces became the collars and hats that were all the rage in those days. It’s likely Ion’s father’s animals belonged to the colony: a list of its assets for the mid-1930s shows Lambrovka owned 500 Karakuls. But there was no mention of a Mr. Ciorogariu or his family.

It all fell apart when war was declared. Looking back, it seems miraculous that Lambrovka’s colony existed at all. During the 1930s, hell-bent on creating the ‘perfect’ Communist society, Stalin deliberately starved most of Ukraine’s farmers to death. He then turned his murderous attention to Poles and Jews. But when Nazi Germany entered ‘the bloodlands’ (as historian Timothy Snyder calls the territory between Berlin and Moscow) persecution came from the west as well. The Ciorogarius decided it would be safer to run. Packing their children into their horse-drawn cart, Ion’s father and mother did a midnight flit. They sold their horses at the railway station and caught a train north to Chisinau (now capital of Moldova). Ion’s father was thrown in prison for two months, but the family escaped back to Transylvania relatively unscathed.

In 1940, Hungary annexed northern Transylvania. Although Tilisca lies in the south of the region, after King Michael’s 1944 coup turned Romania to the Allied side against Nazi Germany, the Russian army invaded most of the country, carrying out brutal raids in Transylvania (because of its German population) before the Moscow Armistice was signed in September 1944. Four years later, Romania’s own, vile form of Communism would take hold but maybe the Ciorogarius enjoyed a few years of grace before political darkness fell again.

Ion made his living as a hatter. He showed me the wooden formas for shaping the shepherds’ traditional sapka, a tall astrakhan cap, and let us try some of his old ones on.

When Hitler’s army – and the Romanians – invaded Bessarabia in 1941, Lambrovka’s Jewish farmers fled to Russia. None of them returned. I appreciated something of the terror created by the Soviet and Nazi regimes when travelling by train across Romania in 2013. During a long, sleepless, freezing night in a couchette without bedclothes or heating, I noticed a frail elderly woman sitting up on the opposite seat, which she had not turned into a bunk. To withstand the cold, she had simply pulled her coat more tightly around her shoulders, and her face wore an expression of great serenity. Whoever she was, she was not bothered. In the morning, my friend and I asked how the woman had managed to survive such a dreadful ordeal. She gave us a ravishing smile and said, ‘This wasn’t so bad; I’ve been through a lot worse. When I was two, my parents fled from the Nazis in Bessarabia. They were retreating from their defeat at Stalingrad, and burnt everything in their path. My parents had no choice: they left all our possessions behind except our horse and cart, they put us inside it, and drove us to Bucharest. It took six weeks.

After the Nazis’ retreat, Lambrovka became a Soviet collective farm. In the 1950s, it fell into neglect until its recent revival as a privately-owned vineyard. Vlad Bliumberg, CEO of Chateau Grona group, told me he hopes to bring sheep farming back to the village.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

My work on Romania’s migrant shepherds received a huge filip with the 2009 publication of a collection of memoirs, ‘Oieri margineni in Crimeea si sudul Rusiei’ (‘Sheep farmers of Marginimea Sibiului in Crimea and Southern Russia’), which was edited by Toma Lupas, an ex-mayor of one of the Marginimea villages. The book is wonderfully fresh and moving and it is full of information, but it still leaves a lot of stories untold or even more tantalisingly, half-told. Ion Ciorogariu’s tale is not included, but even with the ones who are, I’m fascinated to know more about their lives. The Romanian book mentions shepherds who lived alongside Cossacks, shepherds who were bewitched by Caucasian sirens, shepherds who went to Moscow to plead for their fellows, shepherds who were deported, starved, murdered, shepherds who hoarded gold roubles and escaped with their loot stitched into belts and linings… There is one shepherd who took to the road so keenly that he ended up in Japan (though admittedly not as a shepherd), and others who having fled the Soviet terror, made it safely across the Atlantic to the USA.

* Although the region had a new name, the Moldovan Democratic Republic, and its own government, or Council of Directors General, in Chisinau.

** Lambrovka’s other names. According to the JewishGen website, it was also known as Lambrivka [Ukrainian], Lambrovca [Romanian], Lumbravka, Gofman, Gofmana, Fol’vark Gofmana, and Ungravka.

*** Lazar Vereta, son of one of the Lambrovka cooperative’s founders, told me that the village actually dated from the early 19th century. At the time when the Jewish colony was being established, Lambrovka belonged to a Bessarabian-German landowner. He sold 1000 hectares to the JCA which set about building houses for 53 families, and some additional agricultural buildings. The colony was up and running by 1932. Its inhabitants had to repay ‘large loans’. Lazar says that Lambrovka’s sheep were managed by ‘shepherds from neighbouring villages (or from Romania as in your case).’ The shepherds did not practice transhumance.

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