OTACI, Moldova — After just half an hour the little blue tour bus painted with smiling dolphins died with a smell of something burning, leaving Matthew Bronfman stranded next to a muddy field somewhere in rural Moldova.
It was a surreal start to what was shaping up to be a surreal occasion: the son of one of America’s most powerful and wealthiest Jewish families returning to his ancestral village in a remote border region of Eastern Europe’s poorest nation.
In 1889 Bronfman’s great-grandfather Ekiel packed up his family, including his son Samuel, a couple of servants and a rabbi, and left Otaci, a largely Jewish town in Bessarabia, a far-flung province of the Russian Empire.
They settled in Canada, where Samuel went on to make a vast fortune and establish a family dynasty that at one time controlled the world’s largest alcoholic beverage company. Otaci, meanwhile, went through a turbulent history and became part of Romania, then the Soviet Union and finally independent Moldova, lately known as the country with the world’s highest per capita alcohol consumption.
“After 123 years the family has come back to visit our roots,” said Bronfman.
The family had fled persecution and pogroms. Now Bronfman, a prominent New York businessman, a major investor in Israel and a noted Jewish philanthropist in his own right, was being received with great honor. A police car driving down the center of the bumpy two-lane country road forced oncoming traffic off the asphalt to make way for the replacement bus barreling along on its three-hour journey north.
The bus stopped outside Otaci City Hall, where passengers were greeted with “Aveinu Shalom Aleichem” blasted at full volume. After the entourage danced a quick hora under the somber gaze of a statue of Lenin, Bronfman was given the traditional offering of ornate challah-like loaves of bread and blood-red wine sloshed into gold-rimmed glasses.
Otaci’s mayor awarded Bronfman the title of honorary citizen, placing a bright red-and-gold sash across his chest.
“It is a unique honor for me to be able to come back to the birthplace of my grandfather and the home of my great-grandfather,” Bronfman said at the ceremony.
At its height in 1910, Otaci had more than 7,000 Jews. Many of them and their descendants were killed in the Holocaust. The rest immigrated to Israel and the United States following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now the town is inhabited mostly by ethnic Ukrainians and the Roma, or gypsies. This was clear from the crowd of about 100 spectators, who apart from a handful of elderly Jews was comprised of puzzled-looking babushkas and scruffy gypsy children who followed curiously as Bronfman was taken on a tour of the nearby synagogue that burned down in an accidental fire a decade ago.
“It’s a little surreal to come here to Otaci,” he told JTA afterward. “But I was very moved by the turnout at City Hall and to see the size of the synagogue here. It was very impressive; there was clearly a big Jewish community.”
Perhaps because of the obvious sincerity of all involved and the realization that what had been a thriving Jewish community for centuries was no more, the day — which at times had veered toward the bizarre — finally managed to strike a more poignant note.
At the Jewish cemetery, Bronfman searched the forest of weathered tombstones looking in vain for the family name. (It is assumed that like many, the name was changed or corrupted during the move to the New World.) Standing in a field of wild strawberries and mushrooms, a rabbi recited Kaddish next to an old moss-covered headstone.
“I wasn’t really expecting to find [a family grave] here, but it’s still the place of my ancestors, so saying Kaddish was important to me,” Bronfman said.
The journey was not just a personal odyssey for Bronfman but also the culmination of a seven years of involvement in Limmud FSU, an organization that brings Jewish learning to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. In 2005 Bronfman was at the World Jewish Congress with his father, Edgar, in Spain when he was approached by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, who wanted to bring him on board.
“He told me that we would come to Otaci and Soroca when the time was right and we would celebrate the roots of my family,” Bronfman said.
Bronfman is now the chair of the international steering committee for Limmud FSU, which on Sunday held its first conference in Moldova with more than 400 participants.
After Otaki, Bronfman went to nearby Soroca, which is believed to be the birthplace of his great-grandmother and is still home to a small Jewish community. He visited the local synagogue and laid a wreath on a memorial for 6,000 of the town’s Jews who were massacred in a nearby forest by the Nazis.
For Bronfman, the return to his roots had crystallized one thing: how fortunate his family had been to have been able “get out early enough to be able to create a better life for ourselves.”
“My grandfather really wanted to be Canadian and so, perhaps, he heard more stories than we ever did about what life was like here. And in a very real way he did not want to repeat that life,” Bronfman said.
After the ceremony, the day again turned surrealistic.
Bronfman was taken to meet Baron Artur Cherar, a bushy-bearded leader of the local Roma and the self-styled gypsy king, who was supposed to talk of the common persecution of the Jews and gypsies by the Nazis. Instead the baron, who speaks a little Yiddish, took Bronfman past an old limousine in his garden that he said belonged to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, and into his mansion to show him his extensive porcelain figurine collection. He even let Bronfman hold two of them.
They came downstairs and Cherar played his accordion while Bronfman and the Jewish group swayed, arm over shoulder, and sang the Yom Kippur litany “Avinu Malkeinu.” They danced another hora and were joined by the baron’s wife in a whirl of aprons and flashing gold teeth.
Bronfman acknowledged that his day had not gone exactly as envisaged.
“But everybody is happy,” he said, “and that’s good.”