The Nizkor Project

50 Years of Silence

History and Voices
of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria

The Current Situation in Romania

Sadly, the disguised anti-Semitism, which pervaded the Communist dictatorship in Romania, is resurfacing in extremist parties and movements, which operate under the guise of freedom of speech in the post-Ceausescu era.

Today, there are only about 8,000 Jews left in Romania. Most of them live in Bucharest, they are over 75 years old, most of them are widowed, and are hardly getting by on their meagre pensions. Similarly to the Communist regime, post-Communist Romanian governments persistently suppressed their part in the annihilation of about half of its Jewish population, while, at the same time, they tolerated they tolerate campaign of rehabilitating Antonescu

"In the last three years, monuments to the memory of the fascist dictator Ion Antonescu (the 'artisan' of the anti-Jewish legislation and the initiator of the massive deportations to Transnistria) have been erected in various Romanian cities, as part of the campaign to rehabilitate this war criminal and present him as a national hero. Not only did the government do nothing to prevent these provocative developments, but government officials were present at the dedication of these monuments, thus giving support to the 'rehabilitation' campaign. In addition, there are streets in Romania today, which are named after Antonescu.

Needless to say, these efforts for [Antonescu's] 'rehabilitation' are very disturbing to the remaining Jewry in Romania, as well as to those of us who emigrated."<51>

On May 4, 1997, the day when the few remaining Jews in Bucharest, solemnly gathered to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Coral Temple in Romania, (coincidentally or not, just a few months after the publication of the printed edition of this book), Emil Constantinescu, Romania's president at that time, delivered an address on the subject of the Holocaust in Romania. Following is a translation of that address:

"The Sacrifice of the Jews of Romania Weighs Heavily on our Hearts."

"Today, we, Jews and non-Jews alike, have come to commemorate an event which should not have happened. Together, we are attempting to preserve in our memory a dark period, which we often find difficult to believe had happened, but which actually took place -- not in ancient times, as an expression of the inhumanity of an incipient society, not even on a faraway continent with evil values, but right here, touching us deeply by its intolerable proximity. Here, on our continent, in the heart of what we often like to call the cradle of modern civilization; here, in Europe, nearby, and even in the midst of us -- no matter how deeply revolting to the core of our humanity -- took place the Holocaust; a tragedy which has no precedent and stands without comparison, a tragedy in which 6 million of our brothers were destroyed for the simple reason that they were Jews.

"Romania was not spared that inferno. Between 1940 and 1944, many of your parents, brothers and sisters, many of our companions and neighbours were plucked from the midst of their families and friends --from a society to whose values they had always been loyal, and in which they were no different from other Romanian citizens, except for their adherence to a religious tradition inherited from, and transmitted by their ancestors -- only to be herded to a meticulously planned death.

"It is true that the chief planners of this unforgivable genocide were not Romanians. It is likewise true, as you know, that there were many Romanians of all social strata who risked, and sometimes gave their lives in order to save Jews from the merciless machinery of extermination. However, we are also aware that other Romanians did participate with criminal blindness in the implementation of the infamous 'Final Solution.'

"During the war, Romanian authorities tried many times to oppose the Nazi calls for the annihilation of the entire Jewish community; they tolerated or helped organize the emigration of some groups to Palestine and openly protected certain Jewish personalities. However, those same authorities organized the deportations, set up concentration camps, and instituted racist legislation.

"Today, we feel responsible for those dramatic events. The annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Romania weighs heavily on our hearts, on the hearts of all Romanians. The death of the innocent cannot be forgiven, rectified, or disregarded. We have the obligation to constantly reassure the victims of the Holocaust that nothing will be forgotten: none of the facts, and none of the names. As the president of Romania, of all Romanian citizens, it is my responsibility to be the guarantor of this memory, regardless how painful this may be; it is my obligation to keep alive the memory of the Romanian Jews who became victims of the genocide. Therefore, you are not alone in your commemoration. Today, through me, all Romanians shall remember their Jewish neighbours who perished innocently, more than five decades ago. Our collective memory is their posthumous victory. This memory is the weapon through which the innocent victims transcend decades and generations, to help us fight against the temptation not to feel guilty about our own past"<52>.

Through interviews with many Romanian intellectuals visiting family in Toronto, I discovered that hardly anyone was even aware of the above declaration, and it certainly did not promote a discussion or recognition in Romanian society.

Since the above address was delivered just days before the official launching of this book (May 15, 1997), representatives of the Romanian Consulate General in Toronto and the Romanian Embassy in Ottawa attended that ceremony. While they refrained from making any comments, we were hoping that their mere presence reflected a change in policy.

Sadly, only three months later, on August 2, 1997, the following item released by Associated Press, appeared in Toronto's Globe and Mail:

"Fascist monument erected. Supporters of a Romanian group that killed thousands of people during the Second World War have built a monument to Fascism on a beach in the Black Sea resort town of Eforie Sud. Followers of the Iron Guard, known as Legionnaires, constructed the 12-by-6-meter monument, which contains a cross made from pebbles and crisscrossed iron bars, the group's equivalent of the Nazi swastika. The group was allowed to erect the monument after they built a stairway to the beach. 'From a civic point of view, I am delighted by their activities,' said deputy mayor Ion Vasile"<53>.

Having invested some hope for a change of attitudes following the declaration made by the Romanian President on May 4, 1997, and being aware that several books about the Holocaust have recently been translated, written, and published in Romania, we were rather disappointed by the fact that such a monument was allowed to be built.

Romania's continuous reluctance to come to terms with its role in the Holocaust is further illustrated by its reactions to the recent publication of The Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, by Mihail Sebastian.

Mihail Sebastian, a pen name for Joseph Hechter, was born in 1907, in the city of Braila situated on the Danube. It was quite common in Romania for people in prominent positions to take on Romanian names. When his literary talent became quite apparent, Sebastian moved to Bucharest and soon became an illustrious writer of international repute, the author of several books, plays and essays. Later, he became a literary critic as well as the editor of a highly rated literary journal.

Until 1938, when anti-Semitic legislation began to infiltrate Romania, Mihail Sebastian was an assimilated Jew, with few connections to the Jewish community. He was a member of a brilliant group of Romanian intellectuals. At the age of 27, he started a diary, which chronicled the socio-political environment, which brutally compromised his private life as well as his brilliant career. The project was started as a personal journal, but it became a potent indictment of the savage destruction of half of Romania's Jewry during the Holocaust.

When Sebastian was dismissed from his positions of literary critic and editor, the Jewish community in Bucharest offered him a teaching position at a Jewish high school. He lived under the constant threat of deportation and death. At some point during the war, he was taken to forced-labour.

Sebastian painstakingly describes in his diary how those whom he had previously considered his best friends distanced themselves from him and most of them bitterly betrayed and humiliated him.

An edited selection of the journal, translated by Patrick Camiller, appeared in The New Yorker, of October 2, 2000. The last entry in Sebastian's journal was made on December 31, 1944, a few months after the Russians entered Bucharest: "The last day of the year. I am ashamed to be sad. After all, it is the year that gave me back my freedom. Beyond all the bitterness and suffering, beyond all the disappointments, this basic fact remains."

On May 29, 1945, on his way to a lecture, Mihail Sebastian was hit by a truck and killed.

After his death, one of Sebastian's brothers hid the notebooks containing the journal for fear that they might be confiscated by the authorities. During the time of Ceausescu's communist regime, the notebooks were smuggled out of Romania by Israeli diplomats in Romania. Later, when his brother moved to Paris, the notebooks were returned to him. Only in 1997, did the Sebastian family release the material for publication.

The journal was first published in Romania and, at first, created quite a huge upheaval in intellectual circles. However, for the most part, Romanians are not ready to scrutinize their involvement in the Holocaust. Consequently, the discussion was soon silenced by those who consider it "unpatriotic" to examine the history of those times.

However, in 1998, a French edition of the Journal was published and in 2000 an English one. Hopefully, these publications will promote further awareness of the true history of the Holocaust in Romania.

*    *    *   

During this last century, Romanians have experienced tragic deceptions under consecutive dictatorships. Denying the savage annihilation of half of Romania's Jewish citizens represents an additional distortion of that country's history. This denial is totally incongruent with the foundation of a free society, a society toward which Romanians are presently striving. True freedom is not guaranteed by economic advancement alone, but also by the ethical and spiritual values the citizens embrace. This assertion is best illustrated by the short-lived history of Nazi Germany, a highly technological society, but one that was morally bankrupt. Romania must therefore be cognisant that the struggle for freedom and the building of a free market economy must not proceed at the expense of its national honour and integrity.

The heart-warming address of President Constantinescu represents an encouraging first step. However, in August 2000, he declared on Romanian television that he withdraws his candidacy for the next elections because "he does not want to be accused that his intensified campaign against corruption has any political motives behind it". He noted that another reason for his withdrawal is "that he does not want to create divisions in 'some parties', and does not wish to amplify the negativism of the ongoing electoral campaign". He also stated: "In Romania seats in the Parliament and in the Government are being purchased and sold. I do not wish to be a part of such a political marketplace. .By withdrawing from the campaign, I will be able to continue with integrity the fight against those who steal up to the very last day of my mandate."<54>

In November 2000 elections, there were two candidates running for the presidency. One, Mr. Corneliu Vadim Tudor,was representing a party promoting a nationalistic, Fascist, anti-Semitic orientation, and the other, Mr. Ion Iliescu, was representing a party promoting a communist orientation. Mr. Ion Iliescu was elected President of Romania. It is too early to assess what economic, political, and social changes he will promote to lead Romania unto a path, which will truly be to the benefit of each citizen and of the nation as a whole. The question remains: are there no Romanian citizens who represent a more liberal, democratic orientation? If there are none, or they are too weak to assert themselves, what is causing that apathy? How can it be overcome, in order for the country to build an honest democratic society?

The fact remains that the young generation of present-day Romania must take the opportunity to come to terms with its real historical legacy. Therefore, it is essential that Romanian schools and universities institute a program whereby the students are educated about the roots and consequences of racial and religious prejudice. No other subject matter is more appropriate for such an agenda than Holocaust Education. This type of program could help young Romanians become aware of, and vigilant toward the perils of chauvinistic nationalism.

Although "Most of the documents that deal with crimes against the Jewish people disappeared from the files even prior to the collapse of the Antonescu regime, whereas the remaining documents were hidden by the Communist authorities"<55>, presently there are a number of books, many of them listed in our bibliography, which attest to the tragic events of the Holocaust in Romainia and Transnistria.

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