Romania Comes to Terms With the Holocaust

By Barbara Frye

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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Last June, President Ion Iliescu announced that “within the borders of Romania, there was no Holocaust between 1940 and 1945.”

But Leizer Finkelstein doesn’t much care what Iliescu thinks. At 81, he is one of the few survivors of the Iasi pogrom of 1941, in which thousands of Jews were murdered, and one of fewer still who remain in Romania. Nor does Finkelstein seem to care much about Romania’s first Holocaust Remembrance Day, slated for October 9, which was established in response to the outcry prompted by Iliescu’s remarks. In addition, the brouhaha led to the formation of a commission, chaired by Elie Wiesel, to determine what happened during Romania’s Holocaust. Its report, due next month, is expected to recommend expanded Holocaust education, an effort to document the names of victims and events to mark future Remembrance Days.

“It’s quite late to talk about responsibility now,” Finkelstein said, referring to his country’s long history of dodging responsibility for atrocities committed during World War II. “Many of those who were responsible in ’41 are dead. I was 17 then, and I’m 81 now. There are few survivors, so it’s too late.”

At the start of World War II, Romania allied with Nazi Germany in hopes of regaining territory it had lost to the Soviet Union. Jews in Romania were persecuted and accused of being Communist sympathizers. On the Sunday morning of June 29, 1941, the Jews of Iasi were ordered to the police station. Hundreds were shot by Romanian police officers as they stood in the station’s courtyard. The survivors, including Finkelstein, were crammed into freight cars that were sealed shut and sent rolling slowly through the countryside until most inside suffocated or died of thirst or starvation. In other areas, Jews were shot en masse or deported to camps or ghettos in the reconquered territory dubbed Transnistria.

According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, Romania had about 980,000 Jews in 1933. By 1950, the number was around 280,000.

But to many people, this past is as hidden away as the mass graves in Iasi, judging by the experience of Carmen Bortis, a secondary school teacher from the western town of Resita. During the past school year, she and her students devised a person-on-the-street survey for a local radio station. Twenty-five people were asked if they were familiar with the term Holocaust. Almost no one answered in the affirmative.

The questioners also asked if the people had heard about atrocities committed against Jews during World War II and if these things happened in Romania. Many knew about Hitler and about the extermination camps. A few said the Holocaust had not happened in Romania, but more said they just didn’t know.

And Adrian Bucur, a 29-year-old teacher from western Romania, said many of his students are shocked to learn, for instance, that it was Romanian soldiers who forced people into those freight cars.

“During communism, nobody [said] anything about the Holocaust, especially in Romania,” said Maria Radosav, who for the last four years has organized seminars to help teachers deal with the subject in the classroom.

“There weren’t mass deportations to Auschwitz from the territory of Romania, but that doesn’t mean that there was no Holocaust in Romania,” said Radosav, who teaches courses in Hebrew and Jewish culture and civilization at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. “We had the pogroms, we had Transnistria, we had the death trains.”

Radosav, Bortis, Bucer and about 40 other teachers and educators had gathered in early September in the tiny Transylvanian village of Arcalia for a Holocaust-education seminar of the year.

Radosav said that since 2001, about 100 educators from all of Romania’s 42 counties have participated. Each year, the preceding year’s group must return to tell what they have done in the classroom. Some have built Web pages. Many have taken their students to Sabbath services and have invited Holocaust survivors to speak in their classrooms. Some have written plays or translated books on the subject.

But some teachers claim only mixed success in getting their co-workers on board.

Alexandre Copala, a Sibiu secondary school teacher, said her students knew nothing about the Holocaust before she organized after-school discussions. Meanwhile, she said, other teachers asked her: “Are you Jewish? Why are you doing this? Why does this matter to you?”

But even if unearthing the past is a tough sell to an older generation of educators, these younger teachers — most of whom are in their late 20s — see it as a part of a larger effort to save Romania’s soul.

“I want to educate. I want to raise a normal generation,” Alexandru David, a Braila high school teacher, said with some urgency. “I want to show them there is another way.”

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