It might not be too bold to say that the history of the Shoah in Romania seems to have been forgotten rather profusely by modern historiography. The reason for this is unclear, yet one thing remains salient: unlike the rest of Europe where most of the massacre of Jews was coordinated by the Germans, in Romania it was the Romanians themselves who physically organized the death of close to 380,000 people.
In fact it is most surprising that the birth country of Elie Wiesel, and numerous other Jewish historians of great prominence is not be found in the history books of the Western World- something which has led to a serious problem placed on the importance on the thousands of souls that perished under what seemingly can be called pure ‘evil’. Yet what is so unique about Romania in respect to other countries during the Shoah?
Once called by the famous Hannah Arendt as the most anti-semitic country in Europe, and described by Puah Rakovsky as one of the darkest places for a Jew to live, Romania coordinated its own fascist government and ideology as early as the mid 1920’s, well before Hitler had any power over Europe, let alone Germany. In a sense, Romania’s fascism was very much its own, and its decision to kill Jews although under the surveillance of Germans, was still her own responsibility.
Romania’s hatred of Jews was by no means based on normalized xenophobia which was sourced from racial concepts- it was rather an anti-Judaism based on Christian Orthodox fanaticism coupled with the fascist and populist ideological precepts of the Iron Guard. The movement which was founded by Corneliu Horia in 1927 rooted its fascist ideals from Mussolini and even the early days of Hitler’s NSDAP- but fostered such a deep hatred of the Jews that it surpassed that even the early days of the Nazi party.
As early as the 1930’s the Romanian populace began to become enthralled by the new trends of anti-Judaism coupled with a severe hatred of any foreign elements. Although Romania’s Jews never really knew any peace, by the 30’s anti-Jewish violence was becoming more normal with each passing day.
With the rise of the National Legionary State in 1940, almost 80 anti-semitic laws were passed which played an important role in reverting the status of Jews as Romanian citizens to their pre-1918 state as non-citizen foreigners. These laws, similar to German laws, made life for Jews in Romania close to unbearable. For instance, a Jew had to pay three times the amount for a tram fare in Bucharest.
Yet what was most shocking, and an issue which seems to be displaced by current historians, is Romania’s participation in the Shoah. The most amazing thing being is that they began the systematic killings of Jews, even before the Nazi’s ploted The Final Solution in 1942.
The Iron Guard’s notorious Dorohoi pogrom in 1941 which was supported by the state led to the death of 200 Jews, and the destruction of numerous synagogues in Bucharest. The importance of this however ultimately is that this was coordinated well before Romania had any association with Germany or the Nazis. The pogrom itself let to more casualties than Germany’s Kristallnacht in 1938- yet the more gruesome difference was the sheer brutality in which it was conducted.
The nefarious Jassy Pogrom is perhaps one of the most devastating chapters of the Shoah in Romania. It resulted in the death of more than 13.000 Jews in the most deplorable manner. Jews were taken outside of their homes, beaten and taken to the police station only to be shot in the courtyard. This was the case for more than 7000, the rest were placed on board of several trains that traversed the Moldavian landscape for days until many died of thirst and hypothermia. Only a few hundred survived.
The call was ultimately given by Antonescu- The Grand Marshal of Romania- who at that point was Hitler’s sworn ally. The pogrom which took place between June 27-30 was conducted with such brutality that it has come to serve as a template to be used by the Einsatzgruppen’s massive killing campaigns of Jews in Poland and Russia. In other words the pogrom was completely outside the German context, it was solely under the control of the Romanian army.
Antonescu only intensified his own take on The Final Solution and of 1942, when Romania became heavily entangled on the Eastern Front alongside the German army. Romanian killing squads roamed Bukovina, Moldova and Transnistria between 1942-44 systematically murdering Jews and Romani. This of course was done in the most brutal fashion where soldiers emptied entire villages of its Jews, marched them to nearby forests and shot them.
Mass deportations to camps in Transnistria, where thousands were taken to their deaths, seemed to follow the German model of organized factory-line murder. Transnistria which was a Romanian-administered territory under Axis control covered large areas of present Moldavia and Ukraine. An estimated 300,000 Romani and Jews died in this area alone.
The most infamous of the camps was Bogdanovka- set up and completely run by the Romanians under German encouragement. By the end of 1941 the camp held close to 54,000 prisoners most of which were eliminated in the most barbaric fashions. Many were taken to the nearby forests and shot in pits. However thousands were taken to surrounding barns, crammed and locked inside only for the building to be doused in kerosene and be burned.
Jews in Transylvania were transported directly to German camps, such as Auschwitz- perhaps the best account of this is Elie Wiesel’s own experiences as a child taken from his native town of Maramures into the hell of Buchenwald. Wiesel’s account of course although the most famous, is still one of thousands that survive today.
Interestingly, as the Germans began retreating at the advancing Russians, Antonescu who was looking towards the Allies for support was giving concessions to their demands towards Romania’s policies towards the Jews. By 1943 a great deal of the deportations to Transnistria stopped, however he began to heavily tax the remaining Jewish communities and even used them as forced labor for the remainder of the war.
The Wiesel Commission, which was set up to raise awareness of the Shoah as a whole, inferred that out of all of Germany’s World War II allies, Romania was responsible for the most deaths. This, of course, is no surprise as Antonescu’s leadership which could have been easily equated to that of Hitler and Mussolini sought the destruction of Jewry as vindictively as his allies.
Antonescu’s trial which was conducted by Romania’s People’s Tribunal set up after the war found him and numerous others guilty which finally led to their execution a year later. After the war the Romanian Jews who survived immigrated to Israel, however those who were left behind were subjugated to further perilous treatment by the new Communist state. Although some shed their religiosity altogether and took part in the formation of the new Socialist Romania, most left in pursuit of a better life in America and Eretz Yisrael.
The truth is that the scars that have been left behind are still visible to this very day. There are thousands of survivors left that still live in Romania, the United States and Israel. However many of them have not chosen to talk about their dark past, mainly because of the suffering it would incur to do so- something utterly unimaginable to our generation.
The Shoah in Romania has been overlooked by Western historiography and the best evidence of this is that most of the sources that we have today are only a fraction of the many that are still hidden away by the Romanian government. Mattias Carp’s laborious research in the 1950’s, although proved to be invaluable is only an general overview of the whole- which is why only a few historians have tackled this issue.
Despite the fact that ever since the fall of Communism in 1989 led to the access of thousands of documents never made public before from the period-still only a fraction of the whole- not enough research and study has been done about the Jews of Romania- something which seems to play a key role on why it is not discussed in Western classrooms all that much.
Yet, you might be wondering what is the importance of digging through such a painful and dark past?
We are obliged to let posterity know that what happened is unforgettable. Yet the only way to achieve this is to begin by researching even deeper than ever before in order to formulate a more concrete understanding of the greater narrative. The truth is that the influx of survivor testimonies has not gained its full potential, all the while there are thousands of sources that remain untouched to this day.
In short, it is our duty to remember the thousands that perished under hatred and bigotry, and the best way to do so is to make sure that their stories are heard.
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.