Bucharest — (JTA) — Touring the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2005, Romanian President Traian Basescu was unprepared to confront some painful truths.
Facing a photograph showing pro-Nazi Romanian troops offloading their Jewish countrymen from cargo trains, Basescu was shocked and saddened. For decades, his country’s educational system had obscured the truth of Romanian complicity in the deaths of their Jewish countrymen.
Now here he was in Washington seeing hard evidence to the contrary.
“For over 50 years of communism, we have been taught that Romania did not do that, that this was not real, that we were not involved in the Holocaust,” Basescu told JTA in an interview at the presidential palace Friday ahead of a three-day visit to Israel. “Yet there I was, facing reality.”
A former senior official in the merchant marine under the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Basescu, 62, wrapped up his three-day visit to Israel on Tuesday. In the region he met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But it was the visit to Washington nine years ago that convinced Basescu to ramp up Holocaust commemoration efforts. Under his leadership, Romania has owned up to its Holocaust record more directly than ever – progress that has facilitated its integration into the European Union and helped forge lucrative ties with Israel.
The same year as his visit, Romania set up the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of Holocaust. Since the institute’s establishment, more than 100 schools have launched Holocaust education programs, several national monuments have been erected, an official memorial day was designated and laws were passed on restituting lost Jewish property.
Yet failures in the restitution of property and persistent Holocaust denial – even in academia and government – have tarnished the country’s reputation and threaten to eclipse the efforts by Romania to correct the effects of Ceausescu’s denial policy.
“Most Romanians believe the Holocaust happened, but many still think Romanians did not perpetrate it,” Liviu Rotman, a historian at the University of Bucharest, told JTA. “To them it was the Hungarians or the Germans, but never Romanians, despite a wealth of evidence.”
Some 750,000 Jews lived in Romania prior to the Holocaust; approximately half were killed. Romanian troops also were responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in Transnistria, the Romanian name for Ukrainian territory occupied by Romania during the war.