After a slow start, Romania has become a model of success in acknowledging and confronting its role in the Holocaust. It is a rare positive story among new European Union Central European member.
Romania represents an optimistic tale of positive progress and Holocaust memory.
In 2003, the Romanian government appointed Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Romanian
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to preside over an International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. The Commission found Romanian civilian and military authorities responsible for the murder of up to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 gypsies. The Romanian government recognized the report's findings.
Since then, Romanians have, for the most part, come true about the dark spots in their past. The country has created alternative and unprecedented educational programs at the National College of Defence. It has instituted laws to protect against revisionism and rehabilitation of war criminals.
The archival situation stands to be improved, and restitution of seized property suffers from
bureaucratic inertia and general reluctance. Even so, Romania’s increased maturity as a
member of the European Union has generated a positive trajectory in coming to terms with its troubled history.
The Holocaust in Romania
Romania grew closer to fascism throughout the 1930s. In 1938, King Carol II established a royal dictatorship, and remained neutral in the first year of the war. In July 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum to Romania, and annexed Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. The Nazis and Italians in August 1940 negotiated the transfer of Northern Transylvania to Hungary, who had lost the territory in the Versailles Treaty. In September 1940, Bulgaria then received Southern Dobruja. After these disastrous territory losses, a coalition government of the Iron Guard and General Ion Antonescu came to power and deposed the king, replacing him with his son Michael.
In November 1940, Romania officially joined the Axis alliance. Anti-Semitic laws proliferated. The Iron Guard attacked the Jewish population. On January 21 1941, the Iron Guard rose against the regime, while at the same time instigating the Bucharest Pogrom.
Antonescu, with the help of the German Army, defeated the Iron Guard and took complete
power. Romania then joined forces with the Germans in June 1941 for the invasion of the Soviet Union, with the aim of reoccupying the territories annexed by the Soviets.
Shortly into the invasion, the Romanian government instigated a pogrom in Iasi, killing
thousands of Jewish residents. The German and Romanian army pushed deep into the territory of the Soviet Union, and the Romanians recovered not only Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, but also Transnistria, a region between the Dniester and Southern Bug rivers.
For the region’s Jews, the takeover meant death. Romanian and German troops began a
systematic massacre of the Jewish population in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, deporting the survivors to Romania operated concentration camps. The Antonescu regime extended the deportations to Southern Bukovina and Dorohoi. Plans were made for the deportation of all of Romania’s Jews by the summer of 1942, but Antonescu cancelled them, fearing repercussions. Most of the Jewish population living in the pre-Soviet invasion territory survived, though subjected to appalling treatment, the confiscation of property, and forced labour.
In the spring of 1944, the Soviet army retook Transnistria, moving on to Bessarabia and
Northern Bukovina. King Michael, with the support of an opposition movement, overthrew
Antonescu and signed an armistice with the Soviet Union. After the end of the war, Romania was locked into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union until 1989.
According to a national census of 1930, more than 750,000 Jews lived in Greater Romania, with over two thirds of the country’s Jews living in cities and towns. The Wiesel Commission
concluded that between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were murdered or died during the Holocaust in Romania, with an additional 135,000 Romanian Jews in Northern Transylvania perishing. At least 290,000 Jews survived after the war, with more than 100,000 leaving for Israel by 1951. The emigration continued until 1989, and the current Jewish population of Romania is estimated to be somewhere between 3000 and 12,000.
- 10 February 1947: Paris Treaty of Peace, one article of which was dedicated to the
restitution or compensation for Jewish heirless property
- 1989: End of Communism
- 1990: Establishment of Marshal Ion Antonescu Foundation by Corneliu Vadim Tudor and
Iosif Constantin Drãgan
- 1991: Minute of silence in Parliament to commemorate forty five years since the
execution of Antonescu
- 1993: ‘Everything for the Fatherland [Country]’ Party re-established
- 1995: Ziua (popular daily) campaign to name one of Bucharest’s main boulevards after
- 1995: Radu Theodoru revisionist article appears in Europa
- 1997: Establishment of the Caritatea Foundation
- 1998: Educational Reform
- 1998: Exoneration of Colonel Radu Dinulescu
- 1999: Exoneration of Colonel Gheorghe Petrescu
- 13 March 2002: Emergency Ordinance 31 banning the activity of fascist-like
organizations and the display of racist and xenophobic symbols, as well as the cult of
personalities found guilty in court of “crimes against peace and humanity”
- June 2003: Naming of a street in Bucharest "Dr. Traian Popovici” after Romanian
Righteous Among Nations
- 12 June 2003: in communication between the National Archives of Romania and the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a sentence stated that Romania’s
government “… strongly emphasizes that between 1940-1945 no Holocaust took place
within Romania’s boundaries.”
- 25 July 2003: Iliescu interview
- October 2003: Establishment of Elie Wiesel Commission
- 29 March 2004: Romania joins NATO
- 5 May 2004: Government adopts October 9 as Holocaust Commemoration Day
- 11 November 2004: Presentation of Final Report of the International Commission on the
Holocaust in Romania
- 13 December 2004: Romania becomes a member of IHRA
- 7 August 2005: Establishment of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the
Holocaust in Romania
- 30 June 2009: Terezin Declaration
- 8 October 2009: Bucharest Holocaust Memorial unveiling
- 2010: Discovery of Jewish mass grave in Popricani
- 28 June 2011: Iasi Holocaust Memorial unveiling
- March 2012: Dan Șova interview
- April 2014: Decision by investigators that the Romanian Army had committed genocide
in 1941 in the forest of Popricani
- 18 September 2014: ‘Everything for the Country’ Party registered officially
- May 2016: Approval of legislation to give priority to restitution claims by Holocaust
- 25 May 2017: Adoption of IHRA’s working definition of Antisemitism
- June 2018: Law to prevent and combat episodes of anti-Semitism, revision of
Emergency Ordinance 31
Under the communists, Jewish victims were ignored. In 1957, a court convicted Radu
Dinulescu, a notorious war criminal who was responsible for organising and carrying out the deportations of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia. His second sentence was not for killing Jews, but for his “intense activity against the working class and the revolutionary movement.”
After communism fell, Antonescu was rehabilitated as a great military strategist, a fighter
against communism, and often credited with saving the Jews in Romania. the country began to rehabilitate war criminals. In 1998 and 1999 respectively, the Supreme Court of Romania acquitted notorious war criminals Radu Dinulescu (chief of the Second Section in the General Staff of the Romanian Army) and his assistant, Gheorghe Petrescu. IIn 2001, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the leader of an ultranationalist party, stated that Romanians “are awaiting the time when the Holocaust perpetrated against Romanians, by no means a lesser one than the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews, will be officially acknowledged.” In 2003, President Ion Iliescu stated that “the Holocaust was not unique to the Jews.”
When Romania negotiated entry into NATO and the European Union and both organisations demanded that the country come clean about its past. Romania responded like a star student. It joined the International Holocaust and Research Alliance (IHRA) in 2004, chaired the alliance in 2016, and adopted the IHRA’s working definition of Antisemitism in 2017. The government set up the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania. Romanian generals and police study the Holocaust at the Romanian Defence College. The main threat to Holocaust memory no longer comes from government, but from individuals and local councils who have not yet embraced Romania’s official stance and education on the Holocaust.
In the summer of 2015, the Romanian Parliament amended the Ordinance to explicitly
incriminate the promotion of legionary (Iron Guard) ideology and symbols, and includes a
separate definition of the Holocaust in Romania. In June 2018, penalties were proposed was made to prevent and combat episodes of anti-Semitism.
The National Defence College was one of the first institutions in the country to address
Holocaust history. Since 2002, the college has trained Romanian military leaders about what their predecessors did during World War II. Three years ago, it began to organise training with magistrates, policemen, judges, and prosecutors.
Similarly, the Elie Wiesel Institute organises training with police officers and each year holds a summer course. Police officers can choose from among various topics, one of which is on the Holocaust.
For high school students, Romania has set up excellent and innovative educational programs. In conjunction with the NGO Centropa, every year a number of students in Romania submit entries to a contest on Holocaust education and research. The Elie Wiesel Institute offers teachers the opportunity to come to the Institute where there are pre-prepared didactic activities. On National Holocaust Remembrance Day, October 9, the Ministry of Education requires all schools to organise an activity to commemorate the Holocaust. Contained within the core curriculum is a mandatory education on the Holocaust Romania is also one of few countries in Europe to have introduced education on the Roma Genocide, taught in eighth grade. Elementary school children participate in a special anti-discrimination program.
Concerns, however, remain. In the core curriculum, the number of hours of history teaching has decreased, so only two hours now are devoted to the Holocaust. No university department of history in the country offers courses on the Holocaust. New history teachers therefore have not been educated properly in order to prepare them to teach the Holocaust. The Holocaust is sometimes taught within the faculty of Political Science. At universities even today, however, some professors retain remnants of Romania’s 1980s revisionism and nationalistic propaganda.
The establishment of the commemoration day was among the recommendations made in the Wiesel Commission report. In 2004, Romania observed its first Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the Parliament to take place on or around October 9. On that date in 1941, Romanian Jews were sent to ghettos and forced labor camps.
The most important current initiative is a new Museum of the Holocaust in Bucharest, which is under construction and soon to be opened. A small Museum of the History of the Jews and the Holocaust already exists in a synagogue.
Romania is erecting Holocaust memorials and putting commemorative plaques in train stations and other significant sites. Bucharest has unveiled a seven million dollar Holocaust Monument, and Iasi, the site of a 1941 massacre, has a monument dedicated the victims of the pogrom. Smaller cities such as Gherla are also erecting memorials dedicated to Holocaust victims. A Bucharest street is named after Dr. Traian Popovici, a Romanian Righteous Among Nations.
Under communism, many public archives in Romania were purged or selectively split up. This legacy means that the country’s archives are fragmented. The national archives are
subordinated to Ministry of Interior, the military archives subordinated to the Ministry of Defence. There are also some private archives, and the archive of the Centre for Jewish Studies is subordinated to the Jewish Federation.
Military archives are difficult to access, because they are located far from Bucharest, will grant access after multiple screenings and then allow access to only five files per day., and have a tight schedule of 9AM to 2PM.
Secret policies documents before 1972 are declassified, but still must be checked to ensure
they don’t contain secret documents. Researchers must know the names of the individuals to investigate.. Its archives contain files from military and civil tribunals, as well as documents from Securitate about war criminals and collaborators.
The national archives provide digital copies. There is a small cost associated with access. A
partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has digitised in excess of
100,000 pages per year.
Romania has made respectable advances in restitution, but several important issues remain
From 2001 Romanians could begin to reclaim property confiscated during the war or under
communism. Although no special provision was made for property looted from Jews, Jewish families were able to reclaim stolen estate.
The government created a Property Fund. In 2010, the case of Maria Atanasiu and Others vs. Romania in the European Court of Human Rights (led to a pilot judgment to deal with the extended delays in returning seized Jewish private property. Romania responded with a law aimed at speeding the restitution and compensation for existing private property and communal property claims . In May 2016, Romania passed legislation which enabled Holocaust survivors to request prioritized processing.
Romania is the only central European country with minimal far-right nationalist presence.
Since the 2004 elections, no political party in Romania deserving to be labelled anti-Semitic has held seats in the legislature. The “Everything for the Fatherland” Party, re-established by former members of the Iron Guard , received less than two percent of the popular vote in 2015, well below the threshold needed enter Parliament. According to Dr. Michael Shafir, the Head of Romania’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance, the remaining far-right today focuses on homophobic, and xenophobic sentiments, rather than anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
While the Romanian government has made significant steps towards better Holocaust memory, the public seem to have lagged behind. A survey commissioned by the Wiesel Institute, released in October 2017 found that only 41% of adults believed the Holocaust had occurred in the country, while 44% considered Antonescu a hero . The survey revealed an increase of 6% in the percentage of people who believed minorities had more rights than Romanians. Romanian football stadiums are often the site for anti-Romaslogans, such as “one million crows [Roma], a single solution: Ion Antonescu.”
The Legionary Movement historically was linked to the Orthodox Church. In 2015, various
Orthodox Church organisations claimed that the Iron Guard had been “at the forefront of the struggle against communism.” In 2017, the Wiesel Institute accused church officials of making statements that praised members of the Legionnaire movement.
Despite a ban on Legionary symbols, they persist. A January 2016 symposium was dedicated to the memory of a prominent Iron Guard leader, Gogu Puiu. Multiple Legionary organisations, including the Bratianu Foundation which recently hosted the launch of the anti-Semitic book, The Nazi Zionism, written by retired general Radu Theodoru.
Prominent members of the Legionary Movement make regular appearances in the media.
At the same time, a new openness and acceptance of Romanian guilt is also often discussed. In July 2018 a film by Radu Jude titled “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” was released. The film portrays a director looking to re-enact the massacre of the Jews in Odessa and the challenges she faces.
Before the war, the Jewish community numbered roughly 800,000. After the war, the remaining population of around 350,000 dwindled as Romania “sold” its Jews to Israel. Today, the Jewish population numbers between 3000 and 12,000 - while the Romanian Jewish population of Israel numbers around 400,000.
The Federation of Jewish Communities represents Romanian Jewry, and publishes a fortnightly review, the Revista Cultului Mozaic. As one of eighteen minorities recognised by the state, the Jewish community receives representation in Parliament. The government also gives grants to the community for books, newspapers, and projects.
-Author: Caderyn Owen-Jones