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