The Ransom of the Jews: The Story of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel
By Radu Ioanid
Ivan R. Dee, 254 pages, $26.
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Surely the Cold War never produced stranger bedfellows than Shaike Dan and General Ghe- orghe Marcu. Dan, a Jew from Bessarabia, parachuted into Romania at the close of World War II to help smuggle Jews into Palestine, eventually becoming an adviser to Israeli prime ministers and a critical Secret Service operative in Eastern Europe. Marcu was a life-long Romanian Communist and a high-ranking member in the Securitate, Romania’s much-feared secret service. Throughout the 1970s, these two men met monthly at Romanian embassies in Austria and Switzerland — not dressed in trench coats on foggy evenings, but situated in offices, chatting with the familiar banter of old business partners. Dan always carried a suitcase (Samsonite was the preferred brand) filled with tens of thousands of dollars. Marcu came with a list of names.
Romania was selling its Jews, and Israel was buying.
As Radu Ioanid describes it in his new book, “The Ransom of the Jews,” Dan and Marcu were at the fulcrum of a bizarre arrangement that lasted through most of the Cold War, wherein Israel propped up Romania’s loopy totalitarian regime with a steady stream of needed cash in exchange for exit visas (about $3,000 a head) to secure the emigration of its Jewish population. A highly secretive operation run entirely between the countries’ two intelligence agencies, it existed on a subterranean track beneath the normal diplomatic niceties of state visits and economic cooperation.
Slightly little more than 350,000 Jews lived in Romania at the close of World War II — the second-largest surviving Jewish population in Europe after the 3 million Jews inhabiting the Soviet Union. In the immediate postwar period, a few thousand escaped to Palestine on illegal boats arranged by Dan. But by the end of the 1940s, the Romanian Communists started seeing dollar signs when they thought about their Jews. These were valuable hostages now that a Jewish state might be willing to pay a price for their emigration. And, indeed, by the end of the 1940s, Israel was supplying the ailing Romanian oil industry with American drills and pipes in exchange for 100,000 exit visas.
This type of bartering was also the preferred method of Henry Jacober, a Jewish businessman based in London who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, acted as a middleman between Romanian Jews’ relatives — who had the money to pay for exit visas — and Marcu, who would take down their names and make sure they got out. Instead of using cash, the Romanians and Jacober preferred a proxy and settled on livestock. Cows and pigs. Soon Shaike Dan learned of these dealings and took over the operation (after getting a thumbs-up from Ben-Gurion). By 1965, the Jewish state, working through Jacober (who took his own cut), was funding many projects inside of Romania — chicken farms, turkey farms and pig farms, turning out tens of thousands of animals every year, and even a factory making Kellogg’s Corn Flakes — all in exchange for Jewish families. The export of these products — including, I should add, bacon and pork — produced $8 to $10 million annually for Romania, much needed money for its cash-starved economy.
In the years after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965, he stopped the trade in deference to his defeated Arab allies and the post-Six Day War anti-Israel backlash (though, unlike the leaders of every other Warsaw pact country, he did not cut diplomatic ties with Israel or sign on to the United Nations resolution equaling Zionism with racism). By 1969, though, Ceausescu decided to restart the trade in Jews. He desired economic independence from a Moscow determined to turn Romania into a simple backwater supplier of raw material. For this he needed a steady flow of outside cash and a good relationship with the West, as an alternative trading partner. Israel was key on both these fronts. But he ordered the Romanian intelligence agency to, as Ioanid writes, “shift gears from the ‘ancient age of barter’ to ‘modern foreign trade.’ He wanted ‘cold dollars.’”
Dan and Marcu then drew up what amounted to an unsigned gentleman’s agreement that detailed the terms of the trade (which was renewed in 1972 and then every five years thereafter until Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989). Bucharest would receive a certain amount of cash per head depending on the age, education, profession, employment and family status of each prospective émigré. Ceausescu didn’t want a mass exodus; the Jews were too valuable a commodity. So he would let them out at a trickle, about 1,500 every year. Between 1968 and 1989, according to Ioanid’s rough calculation, “Ceausescu sold 40,577 Jews to Israel for $112,498,800, at a price of $2,500 and later at $3,300 per head.” And the money wasn’t the only way the Jewish state helped Romania. Israel secured loans for Ceausescu and paid off the interest itself. Military equipment was procured for the Romanian army, including a Centurion tank. Ariel Sharon, while defense minister in 1982, made a secret visit to Romania with experts from the Israeli military and aircraft industries in order to offer technological cooperation.
Ioanid doesn’t shy away from telling us who Ceausescu really was — a ruthless dictator, in fact a “comrade,” by his own estimation, with the likes of Qaddafi and Arafat, a crusher of his own people, who maintained a strange neo-Stalinist cult-of-personality ideology he tried to implement under the nearly unpronounceable name Ceausism. There were deep moral consequences to this relationship. Not only was Israel shaking hands with this devil, but it also was giving him coal to keep his fires burning. Was the price of propping up a totalitarian regime really worth it? Ioanid doesn’t really tackle this question, but it is one that cuts to the heart of Israel’s awkward position during the Cold War.
For Americans, and especially the cold warriors among them, moral divisions during those years were fairly clear. Communist regimes banished poets to frozen wastelands, censored books and viewed their citizens as little more than raw material. One didn’t negotiate with these dictators or seriously engage their ideologies. A defender of human rights pointed out their hypocrisies, shamed them into change and championed their dissidents.
But Israel couldn’t afford to have such principled thoughts. Many Jews still lived beyond the Iron Curtain. And Israel was constantly vacillating between the best tactics for getting them out. What was more effective, quiet diplomacy or encouraging a loud, vociferous public outcry? In 1972, when the Soviet Union tried to implement a diploma tax that, like the Romanian one, would demand an exorbitant price for the head of every departing Jew, Israel worked behind the scenes to get a legislative ball rolling in the American Congress that led to the Jackson-Vanik amendment — a powerful piece of moral legislation that demanded communist countries improve emigration conditions in order to attain Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States. This was a slap in the face to the Soviets, and quite a contrary strategy to the one the Israelis were engaged in clandestinely with the Romanians.
So what made Romania a country worth dealing with at this lower frequency, with suitcases bulging with dollars, and the Soviet Union approachable only with a hammer or a bat? The smaller size of Romania’s Jewish population, perhaps, made it easier to envision emigration. But more likely it had to do with the nature of the two regimes. Borderlands were few in the landscape of the Cold War (most were peopled with guerilla armies shooting guns at each other). But Romania was a unique case of a country within the orbit of the Soviet Union, run by a cruel Communist dictator, but not completely closed. Ioanid does a good job explaining this context. Ceausescu needed Israel much more than Israel needed him (the Romanian dictator, apparently, even had a role in leading the way to the Israel-Egypt peace talks). The money he was receiving was too precious. And the points he earned in the West by allowing Jews to leave were too important to him. He also seems to have been a less ideologically committed Communist than the Russians. The Soviets couldn’t bear the thought of Jews leaving, because it undermined the fiction of the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise that no one in their right mind would abandon. Ceausescu was more concerned with achieving a racially pure Romania, and the slow disappearance of its Jewish population only helped him reach that goal.
Can quiet diplomacy be justified, even if it helped prolong this evil? Dan and Marcu’s relations, although morally dubious, did open up opportunities, allowing many Jews to leave a stultifying environment. Ioanid doesn’t want to make an objective judgment about whether or not the sum total of this arrangement was an ultimate good, but one senses from his narrative that, in this case, redemption was worth the price.
Gal Beckerman is a freelance writer currently composing a history of the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman