November 2004

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Romania faces up to its Holocaust past

by Andrew Begg
November 2004

After discussions regarding the opening of Romanian government archives for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on 13th June 2003 the following statement was issued by the Romanian government: ''The discussions held on this topic have highlighted, in the final analysis, the position of the Romanian government: encouragement of research regarding the Holocaust in Europe while emphasising the fact that, within the borders of Romania, there was no Holocaust between 1940-1945.''

Given that Romania was Nazi Germany’s only ally not to send its Jews to Polish extermination camps, the statement was misleading and sweepingly dismissive. Instead, both Romanian and non-Romanian Jews were killed by Romanian armed forces and police in the areas under its control, including occupied Ukrainian territory given to Romania by Hitler, and Moldova. The statement was all the more shocking as it coincided with the publication of a comprehensive study by Dr Jean Ancel on the history of the Holocaust in Romania which proves that 420,000 Jews were murdered in greater Romania and the areas under its control during the Holocaust (240,000 were Romanian citizens and 180,000 were from the Soviet Union; the study was also published in Romanian). Jewish authorities around the world, and particularly Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority based in Jerusalem, were quick to voice their disapproval of the statement.

Antonescu meets Hitler during an official visit to Germany.



In the late 1930s, Jews were increasingly pushed out and barred from Romanian society, as these newspaper articles show.


The numbers. Romania’s Jewish community is estimated today at no more than 8,000.



At Bucharest morgue, corpses of Jews who died in the pogrom of January 1941.



This picture, taken in Constanta, shows Jews tied to a post and publicly humiliated in freezing temperatures.



Otto Adler, President of the Association of Romanian Holocaust Survivors.



After the Iasi pogrom, in which an estimated 14,000 Jews were murdered, Jews were ordered to wash the blood from the streets.



Lia Benjamin, historian and Wiesel Commission member.



Marco Katz, who runs MCA, which is dedicated to identifying and combating cases of anti-Semitism in Romania.



Legionnaires rounded up by police following the Bucharest pogrom.



Rodica Radian-Gordon, Israel’s ambassador to Romania.



President Iliescu and Prime Minister Nastase at Bucharest's Coral Temple on National Holocaust Day.

Four days later, on 17th June, Razvan Theodorescu, Romania’s Minister for Culture, spoke in support of his government’s statement. Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Directorate of Yad Vashem, maintained that the statement made by the Romanian government was a historical falsity and wrote to the then Romanian Minister for Education, Ecaterina Andronescu. ''If Germany were to have made a distinction similar to that of the Romanian government, it could easily claim that there was no Holocaust in Germany, since the German Jews were systematically killed only once they were deported to the death camps in Eastern Europe,'' Shalev’s letter read in part.

Yet the series of worrying statements emanating from Romania did not end there. In an interview with Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, on 25th July, President Ion Iliescu repeated the previous line of the Romanian government: ''The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others were killed in the same manner, including Poles,'' Iliescu said. He absolved Romanians from any responsibility for the murder of Jews that took place in Romania during the second world war, adding: ''In Romania under the Nazis, Jews and communists were treated equally.''

This interview, and those Romanian government statements that had come before it, prompted Yad Vashem to reach the conclusion that Holocaust denial in Romania is a deeply rooted phenomenon. A simple condemnation was no longer adequate; some form of action was needed to end Romanian ignorance of the facts, and attempts to avoid responsibility. This time, Avner Shalev wrote to the Romanian president, inviting him to establish a commission of historians ''so that together we can investigate the historical truth and publish the facts regarding Holocaust related events in Romania.'' In his letter, Shalev proposed that the commission include Romanian Holocaust experts, and utilise Romanian and German archival documents, survivor testimony, and Eastern European Holocaust research. Shalev’s letter earned him the support of many other bodies in Israel and abroad; among them the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith and Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

President Iliescu was quick to react. Less than three months later, he officially announced the establishment of an International Historical Commission of Enquiry into the murder of Romania’s Jews, to be headed by the Nobel Prizewinner and Vice Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Professor Elie Wiesel. Shalev reacted by saying, ''I congratulate the President of Romania on his courageous decision to confront Romania’s past. This is a vital step in the process of building the country’s democratic society, and an essential act for strengthening the ties between Romania and the Romanian Jewish community in Israel and abroad. The fact that Professor Wiesel is heading the Commission gives it added weight and historical significance.''

The above is annotated from a text from Yad Vashem Magazine no. 32, from an article by Yifat Bachrach titled, 'Romania: The Journey To Truth'. After more than a year of research, the findings of what has come to be known as the Wiesel Commission are due to be released this month. Yet the conclusions of the 30-strong Commission were largely anticipated by President Iliescu when, during Romania’s first ever Holocaust Memorial Day, he admitted that the government of Romania’s wartime leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu, and Romanian fascists who were briefly in power during the war were responsible for many atrocities against Jews, including expropriations, pogroms and deportations. ''The horrible tragedy of the Holocaust was possible due to the complicity of leaders of the states’ institutions – those who executed, often with a lot of zeal, the orders of Marshal Antonescu,'' Associated Press reported him as saying. He added that the Holocaust was a topic that was long avoided in Romania. ''Such a tragedy must not be repeated, and for this the young generations need to know and understand the entire truth,'' said Iliescu, outlining the fact that Holocaust awareness will soon be included in curricula of Romanian high schools.

In the narrow, ramshackle streets behind
Piata Unirii in central Bucharest there are three synagogues, the oldest of which serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it acts as Romania’s Holocaust Museum, dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. Secondly, in an adjoining office, are the quarters of the Association of Romanian Holocaust Survivors. It was this synagogue that felt the full brunt of mob hatred when, in January 1941, it and several other Jewish buildings like it were vandalised beyond recognition, during a three-day rash of violence that led to the murder of 121 Jews. Today, it is where the Holocaust Survivors’ president, Otto Adler, spends much of his time.

''After the Revolution, we tried to focus on two targets for the Association,'' Professor Adler told me. ''The first was to help victims of the Holocaust as much as possible, to establish legal consultancy for them to try to reclaim property they lost during the Holocaust, and, for that matter, during communism. The second was to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. It’s true, many of us do not like to remember what happened,'' said Adler, who spent a year in Auschwitz.

''But I shall give you an example of why it is important to remember, even though the memories can be so painful,'' he continued. ''I have two children who, until 15 years ago, had no idea about the horror of a concentration camp. I didn’t want to tell them about it. But after having seen anti-Semitic actions and prejudice becoming more pervasive, everywhere, the only way to fight to prevent the new Holocaust is to preserve the memory of the previous one.''

Looking at the walls of the Holocaust memorial at the synagogue in Str Vasile Adamache is painful indeed, as they illustrate in stark, gruesome detail the treatment meted out to Jews during the Antonescu regime. There are accounts of the initial discriminatory headlines of newspapers reporting the gradual isolation of Jews from Romanian society, and of the fascist influence of the rabble rousing, deadly Iron Guard or, as they were more widely known, the Legionnaires, whose brief and bloody term as a minority partner in a coalition government preceded what was to become horror on a massive scale. There is the vandalisation of Jewish property by Legionnaire thugs. There are the pogroms, of which there were many, but which perhaps Iasi was the most infamous. There are the notorious 'death trains' which culminated in approximately 5,000 Jews being crammed into two trains of cattle wagons in searing heat, and transported to Podul Iloaei, in the first case, and to Calarasi, in the second case, a journey that would normally require about eight hours travelling time but instead lasted for a week. There are the geographic summaries, outlining those parts of northern Transylvania that became Hungarian territory between 1940-1944. There are the orders, given either directly or indirectly, licensing ordinary Romanians in certain parts of the country to kill Jews on sight. There are the concerns and objections of foreign delegations. Finally there are the deportations to Transnistria, and all of the horror, cruelty, degradation and shame that they entailed.

Historians speak of the beginning of the

second half of the nineteenth century as a time when European states began to promote their own national identity, which would often develop into nation states. In many countries the conception of ‘the nation’ was not the French model - that all citizens in a nation are part of that nation - but rather, the conception of the nation state was more to do with blood relationships than citizenship. Blood relationships formed the base of the modern nationalist state.

Lia Benjamin, the historian and Wiesel Commission member, traces Romania’s anti-Semitic roots back to 1866, when the country’s first Constitution was drawn up. This document contained what was known as the Seventh Article of the Constitution, which stated that non-Christians cannot be Romanian citizens. Vasile Conta, the influential philosopher and parliamentarian, put forth the theory for defending the principle of the modern constitution.

''In the modern state,'' says Lia Benjamin, ''it was deemed to be very important to ensure a pure nation state. So the right to vote for foreigners – as the Jews were – remained a great danger for the Romanian nation. For Vasile Conta in 1866, Jews were the most dangerous, because they were another race, with a different religion. It was widely believed that they should not be allowed to mix with 'original' people.''

In the second half of the nineteenth century then, Romanian society strained with strong anti-Semitic tendencies. But while it was difficult for Jews to integrate into society, there were exceptions. Several made huge contributions, such as philologists Moses Gaster and Lazar Sienanu, who played an important role in shaping the development of the Romanian language, as did Hayman Tiktin, who is regarded as having created the best Romanian-German dictionary to date. Iuliu Baras, a physician and naturalist, established Romania’s first hospital for children and encouraged the popularisation of the sciences.

Romania was then under Ottoman rule, but in 1878, following the Russian-Turkish war in which Turkey was defeated, and with Russia eyeing Romania ambitiously, a conference was hastily convened in Berlin, attended by the major European powers - Germany, France, Britain and Russia. The Treaty of Berlin allowed the independence of Romania on the condition that it changed the constitution of 1866 to allow Jewish citizenship. Romania initially procrastinated, reluctant to yield to a directive ordered from outside powers. In the end it gave in, but its leaders perceived their being forced into repealing the Seventh Article as an indication that foreign involvement was playing a part in Romanian society, for which they held Jews responsible.

However, the Article was changed, and non-Romanian, non-Christians were allowed to receive citizenship. But it was difficult. A Jew could apply for citizenship and his request would be discussed in Parliament. Then followed a complicated, bureaucratic procedure, which entailed an individual law having to be formulated for each individual request in every citizenship application. Citizenship might take ten years to obtain, and until then foreigners remained barred from attending schools, practicing law or working as tradesmen.

By 1913 there were about 250,000 Jews in Romania, but – not surprisingly, given the bureaucratic obstacles - less than 2,000 were citizens. Jews received collective citizenship in 1919, after the first world war when Romania was forced to recognise them. This was finally adopted by a constitutional amendment in 1923.

Between the two wars, until 1937, the Jews flourished: ''an economic and cultural explosion,'' says Lia Benjamin. ''Jewish writers, artists and economists had an important role in society, in trade and industry, and Jewish families formed an urban, middle class population. Jewish parents aspired to send their children to study in France or Germany. There was a great tendency towards cultural development. After 1923 Jews were allowed to be members of Parliament. There were no restrictions.'' The most prominent Jewish-Romanian of the inter-war period, Wilhelm Filderman, was a lawyer, member of Parliament and a tireless fighter for the rights of Romanian Jews.

Thus, while anti-Semitism was always present – for example, political parties led by Alexandru Cuza and Nicolae Iorga were stridently nationalistic – Jews were allowed to stand up and defend themselves in Parliament, in speeches, in magazines: publicly. Life was more peaceful, more calm in the 1920s and 1930s. Jews had legitimacy and they had the vote.

Rodica Radian-Gordon, who emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1963, and is Israel’s ambassador here, sees her role as largely political: ''to try and create the right atmosphere for enquiry and research into what happened during the Holocaust in Romania. Because it is an issue of recent history, an issue that was not discussed or researched, the archives were not opened to researchers, and because of the interests of the communist regime, this was one of the issues that was not dealt with until very recently.''

She adds that it is important for Romanians themselves to learn the truth about their own past, to come to terms with it. ''You cannot be a democratic nation without knowing your past - both the good and bad aspects of it. Most of the people who were directly involved are already dead, unfortunately, or elderly, and now is the time, perhaps at the last minute, for those survivors who are still with us to tell their stories and to be heard,'' she says.

A common thread amongst the majority of people either directly or indirectly afflicted by the Holocaust is a reluctance to point an accusing finger at a nation as a whole. ''Israel, or indeed the Jewish population, is not accusatory,'' says Rodica Radian-Gordon. ''We are not looking to blame anyone,'' although any perpetrators of crime who have not yet been brought to justice should face trials. Rather, she hopes that Romanians will face up to this shameful period in their history, because appreciation and understanding of the Holocaust will ensure that nothing like it ever occurs again.

What about anti-Semitism today? Lia Benjamin, who has worked work with many Romanians for many years, says that people tell her, ''Oh Lia, you have nothing Jewish in you!'' ''I get foolish and I ask, 'What do you mean when you say that? That I don’t lie?' They think they are complimenting me, trying to make me very happy when they say I am not Jewish! But I am Jewish. I am a Jew. I received a Jewish education and I am proud of it!''

Yet many newcomers to Romania are unnerved at the level of discrimination directed at Jews, and indeed other minority groups, such as Roma people. ''It is a Romanian conception that Romanians were always very tolerant, with foreigners and with Jews. But of course it is not so,'' says Lia Benjamin.

For Rodica Radian-Gordon, anti-Semitism in Romania today is a result of bias and ignorance. ''Most of the people you hear making anti-Semitic remarks probably don’t know any Jews. It still exists, but there is a big difference now. To say something anti-Semitic doesn’t necessarily mean that you are aware that you have just said something anti-Semitic. People can say something anti-Semitic to a Jew, which is obviously hurtful to them, but not even be aware that they are being hurtful.''

Marco Katz, who runs MCA, which monitors anti-Semitic statements in the media, agrees. He fired off a complaint to MTV recently, which aired a pop video by the group Angels, which featured swastikas and other Nazi symbols. The result of his action was that the swastika was removed and the hate symbols reduced. ''What surprised me, however, was that both MTV and CNA, the media monitoring authority, tried to defend the artistic merit of the video. I’m not accusing anyone of anti-Semitism, I just doubt that Romanian society understands what the Holocaust means for Jewish people,'' he says. He was similarly disappointed to see that the party backed by Gheorghe Becali in the upcoming elections, the Partidul Noua Generatie, has adopted the same electoral slogan for its campaigning that was used by Corneliu Codreanu, the leader of the Iron Guard, in the 1937 elections. He immediately sent a letter to the Electoral Office demanding that it be withdrawn, without delay.

Hence the need for accurate information, and greater awareness, and Jewish groups in Romania have welcomed the news that the Holocaust is to be taught in schools. Both the Israeli Embassy and MCA are involved in helping to shape the syllabus. And while each expressed reservations about the content of the syllabus, both admit that the fact that the Holocaust might eventually receive the respect it deserves is nevertheless a huge step in the right direction. ''It is part of my role to see that this issue is treated with seriousness and honesty. I think this is the key issue, that the Holocaust is treated seriously,'' says the ambassador.



On 29 June, 1941, a unit of Romanian soldiers, gendarmes, and SS troops knocked on our door and ordered in German, ''All the Jews out!''

Several days earlier, we heard that Jews were being arrested, tortured and shot.

They got us out of the house, with our hands in the air, and lined us up outside. We went to the courtyard of the police station. On both sides of the entrance there were groups of German and Romanian soldiers. I saw an old man who was carried in. The moment he entered he was hit on the head with rifle butts and crowbars.

Next to the courtyard was a cinema seperated by a two-metre wall, and on top of it there were jagged pieces of glass. There were thousands of people there. At about 2.00 in the afternoon, they started shooting randomly. The only escape was over this wall. Lots of people were killed.

I managed to climb the wall. When I reached the top I heard someone calling to me in a feeble and hopeless voice. I looked and recognised one of my classmates, Aurel, who couldn’t climb to the top. I stretched out my hand and that moment I heard a gunshot. I felt his hand growing weaker, until it slipped. When I looked at him, I could see his terrified eyes. I fell on the other side of the wall. Everybody was running towards the cinema, hiding under the chairs, inside the stalls. A young footballer I knew, who had pushed me over the wall, now pushed me on to the stage, and we first hid behind the screen. Two metres above us there was a beam; we climbed on it and stayed there, very still. They shot at anything they saw moving in the cinema.

We found a window in the bathroom and got out though that window. We had to be careful and walk along the walls. When we reached Piata Unirii, we heard a shout: ''Stop!'' It was a group of gendarmes. We were taken back to the courtyard.

At dawn, at around 6.00, they lined us up again. There were rivers of blood flowing in the courtyard. The bodies were carried off in garbage wagons.

They ordered us to lie on the ground and not move or we would be shot. Passersby were staring at us: some of them were hostile and chanting anti-Semitic slogans; others were indifferent, as if everything was a show; others made the sign of the cross and sympathised with us.

There was a peasant from Latcani whom we knew as Tita. Defying death, she took out and gave us some big, sour, juicy cherries. This simple peasant from Latcani was a real symbol of human dignity, having no racial or religious prejudices, and indeed she stands for the Romanian people. I noticed that the gendarme who was standing nearby saw her, but turned away as if he hadn’t seen anything.

While we were lying on the ground in front of the station, the train from Bucharest arrived. Passengers started heading towards the exit but remained puzzled not knowing what was happening. Gendarmes shouted to them, ''Walk over the Jews!'' Some of them really did that. I believe that this is one of the biggest humiliations that would make a man who values his dignity prefer death.

The carriages were for cattle. In a carriage in which normally only around 40 people can fit, we were 120 to 160 people or even more. We could only stand up straight. There was a small window. When the carriages were sealed we once heard some knocking: they were fixing some beams above that small window.

The train took eight hours to get to Podul Iloaei, a distance of 17 kilometres from Iasi. The atmosphere was stifling. Outside it was 40 degrees. I think inside it might have been 60 degrees, or even more. After several hours, people had begun to die, so there was some more free room and some of us could sit over the bodies. Otherwise, anyone who sat, knocked down by hunger or thirst, couldn’t get up, and he would suffocate there. They would drink the blood out of their chapped lips in order to quench their thirst. A young architect I knew tried to open the window and was shot. People had simply gone crazy.

When we got out at Podul Iloaei, we found accommodation in a synagogue. An infirmary was set up. There was a camp regime, people would work at the railway. We lived in the villagers’ homes. I stayed with a doctor.

Then I returned home, but another series of new forms of persecution began. We were supposed to wear the yellow star. Jews were only allowed in the markets after 10 o’clock, when there was nothing left to buy. We were expelled from schools.

The moment I jumped on the other side of the wall was the last time I saw my father.

I found out later that he was on the train to Calarasi; one of my uncles was also there and he told me how my father died. He said my father could have survived, but he was so worried about us, that he preferred death.

I caught the denouncer who brought the patrols to our homes. I didn’t swear at him, but I took him to the authorities. He was imprisoned. So many people died because of him. It’s a stupid thing to blame the whole nation. I only condemn the criminals.

Interview by Cristina Tanase.

Jewish corpses in front of the former cinema on Str Unirii, in Iasi; outside Iasi railway station, Jews lie face down before being forced to run in single file towards one of the two 'death trains'; dire scenes once the train doors are opened.

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I come from a small town called Herta, which is located in what used to be the northern part of Moldova and is now part of Ukraine. By the time war broke out, Herta had been occupied by the Russians for a year. The Russians nationalised everything, including the bakery that my father owned. We lived in constant fear of being deported. Under the Russians, 39 families were deported to Siberia from Herta. We probably would have gone too, had war not broken out and the Russians retreated.

My father had not heard of the anti-Semitic measures that had taken place in Romania, and was overjoyed when he heard that Romanian troops had gathered on the outskirts of Herta. He took my hand and said, ''We’ve managed to avoid being deported to Siberia. Let’s go and greet our people.'' I was 13. We went with ten Jewish people and twenty Romanians. Eventually we saw the sun reflecting off the soldiers’ helmets. As we drew closer, a Romanian officer shouted: ''Which of you is Jewish? Get to one side!''

They lined us up in front of a ditch, and suddenly their guns were pointing towards us. A man from the other group - one of the Romanians - saw that they were going to kill us and threw himself between us and the soldiers, genuflecting and saying, ''Captain, they suffered with us.'' Then another Romanian joined him, and another, until eventually they were all standing in front of the soldiers. We were saved. The captain said: ''Go!'' and we went home. There were only Romanians, there were no Germans amongst the troops we had met there. We were incredibly lucky to escape.

The next day, all the Jews in Herta were rounded up and taken to the basements of two synagogues in the town. The soldiers made lists and read names out to us. They took 100 people to a mill on the outskirts of town, shot them and buried them in a common grave. Then they killed another 32 people in a yard of one of my neighbours.

Afterwards, we were allowed leave. When we got back we found our house completely ransacked. Two weeks passed, then they marched us to Basarabia.

It was very hot, and we didn’t know where they were taking us. They didn’t give us food or water. We were like animals. We arrived at a small town, Secureni, in the north of Basarabia, where they put us in the houses of the Jewish people that had in turn been deported from Secureni. After three days they escorted us to another small town, Edineti. I was with my family – my mother, father, sister, brother, cousins, and my grandmother.
In Edineti we stayed in the houses of the Jewish people who had been deported. People were selling what they had for some water and food. We were full of lice. They called us 'dirty Jews'. Typhoid came upon us, and people began dying.

We stayed in a camp in Edineti for two months. We were 10-12 people to a room. We became nonhuman beings.

About 11,000 Jews were in the camp at Edineti, and about 1,700 of them died. In October they took us to the Dniester River. Those who lagged behind, who were too tired to walk, were shot. Along the way, we were told to dig holes into which the people who had been shot would be thrown. I saw an old man thrown into one of the holes, and straight afterwards some Romanian peasants appeared from the fields to take the clothes off the dead body.

The night before we crossed the Dniester River, we stopped on a hill. It was raining, cold, muddy, and we were exhausted. Many of the people who fell asleep froze to death during the night. My mother kept telling me, ''Stay awake. If you fall asleep you will die.'' We stayed together, we helped each other.

In the morning, the scene was apocalyptic: I remember the soldiers hitting the dead bodies to wake up. I remember the look in the eyes of the survivors when they realised their darling relatives were dead. The hill was covered with dead bodies. Every October I have nightmares about these scenes that I can’t forget, after so many years.

They put us on rafts and we crossed the Dniester. Our group of 100 people was lucky because the soldiers that escorted us were kind-hearted. They didn’t hit us, and they let us stop if we were tired. We arrived in Lucineti, then a small Ukrainian village called Hriumuca. They put us in stables and they left us there. It was November, and we were in the middle of Transnistria. My parents went to find some money that was hidden somewhere.

My father and my uncle went to Moghideni, 60 kilometres away, to buy a cart and two horses. They returned, collected us and we went to Moghideni. We stayed in a house, in one room. A ghetto was formed in Moghideni, and I found a job as a carpenter and was given food instead of money. I got ill with typhoid.

I was saved by a Romanian sergeant that I met by accident, when I went to his house to deliver a chair. He warned me that another deportation would take place soon so I hid in a sewerage drain until the deportation had left. I want to emphasise that not all Romanians were bad. There were good people, who saved lives.

Eventually, politics changed, and as the war was slowly being lost, repatriations took place. Those deported from Dorohoi were repatriated and also the people from Herta were repatriated to Dorohoi. On 23 December 1943 we were put on a train to Dorohoi, with obligatory domicile. Of the 1,800 Jews who were deported from Herta, only 450 survived. From my family, two people died.

Liviu Beris is Vice President of the Association of Romanian Holocaust Survivors.

Jews being deported to Transnistria; typhoid and starvation were the most common killers of deportees; shootings were common for those who were too weak to keep up; statistics of Jews that went missing.

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>>Read TESTIMONY by Leonard Zaicescu who survived the Iasi pogrom of late June 1941

Liviu Beris who was 13 when he and his family were deported to Transnistria