Baruch Cohen: ROMANIA’S HOLOCAUST 1940

“I was born in Bucharest to a non-practicing Jewish family. My knowledge of and interest in Judaism came from observing the traditions while visiting my maternal grandparents in Cernovitz. However, I was only able to truly understand the full implications of being Jewish, when I was preparing to enter my second year of high school. At that time, my parents were advised that under the new racial laws of Romania, my attendance at school was not only undesirable, but also prohibited by Antonescu’s laws against the Jews.

“Due to these restrictions, my father (Follender) was dismissed from his job. Other family members also lost their employment and their businesses, as a result of the intensifying anti-Semitic legislation. Soon everyone began to feel the economic repercussions. My family was forced to start selling their jewelry, furs and other valuables, in order to purchase the basic necessities of life.

“In a very short time, the formerly middle-class family found itself in a terrible state of uncertainty, economically stranded and in fear for its future. The news about Jews being plundered, beaten and murdered throughout Romania and in certain areas of Bucharest became a reality during the Rebellion of the Legionnaires in 1941.”

–Sonia Palty, “Jews, Cross the Dniester!” in Felicia (Steigman) Carmelly, Shattered! 50 Years of Silence: History and Voices of the Tragedy in Romania and Transnistria (Scarborough: Abbeyfield), 328.

A year after denying that the mass murder of Jews took place on Romanian territory, Romania’s president Ion Iliescu fjnally acknowledged his nation’s role in the Holocaust (Montreal Gazette, June 14, 2003, November 12, 2004). “The Holocaust tragedy was possible due to the complicity of leaders of state institutions,” he admitted. President Iliescu then announced the establishment of a national memorial day for the Holocaust victims: October 9.

Elie Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, headed a commission to investigate the Holocaust in Romania. In presenting the commission’s results, he said: “I didn’t know there was so much brutality, that the anti-Semitism was such a pure anti-Semitism, with nothing to do with racism or economics. Why did it take so long for me to learn that.”

There was no mass deportation to Auschwitz from Romania proper, but that does not mean that there was not a Holocaust in Romania. The anti-Semitic legislation in Romania started in December 1937, and even before this began, Jews were subjected to severe policies of discrimination and exclusion from Romanian society. Many Romanian men of letters or representatives of the Romanian orthodox clergy contributed to the negative image of the Jew in the conscience of that epoch. By the beginning of his rule in November 1940, Ion Antonescu had already elaborated his policies toward Jews in schools, and in the army, from literature and from the Christian religion: “The Yids…are guilty of most of the misfortunes of this country” (Pe Marginea Prapastiei, Volume 1, Bucharest, 1941–in Romanian.)

On August 3, 1995, the  Gazette began to publish the first horrific accounts of Romanian Holocaust survivors (see “Survivors of Romanian killing fields form Holocaust group.”) I am a Holocaust survivor of the January 21-23, 1941 pogrom, which I call the “Bucharest Kristallnacht.” For three days (January 24, 25, and 26, 1941) I searched for my missing father. I searched the Bucharest slaughter house, and saw bodies with “Kosher Meat” tags hanging from their bellies. I visited the morgue and the Jilava forest outside Bucharest, where the corpses were lying. Luckily, my father had gone  into hiding, in the home of a righteous gentile, and survived.

I do not care what President Iliescu, or the commission, thinks. The uncovering of the terrible atrocities Romanian Jews endured has been long overdue. In the Iasi pogrom of June 28-July 6, 1941, 13,000 Jews were killed; in autumn 1941, over 250,000 Jews were deported and murdered in the Transnistria killing fields. Thousands of Jews deported from cities like Viznitza, Licpani, Nova Sulitza, Soroca, Vertujeni, Dorohoi, Hertza, Podul Iloaye, Ploesti, Craiova, Concesht, Hunedoara, Brashov, Timishoara, Arad, Mogilev, Shargorod, Dubossary and Peciora. My wife’s grandmother perished during a “death march” toward Transnistria; she was shot dead by a Romanian soldier. The rest of the family had to continue marching. Many others were beaten and tortured by the Romanian Army. It is a little late to begin talking about responsibility now.

I am now 85 years old. How many survivors are left to hear President Iliescu’s acknowledgement of Romania’s complicity in the Holocaust? There were close to 800,000 Romanian Jews before World War II started. In 1950, their number was around 300,000. Today, there are only 6000-8000 Jews in Romania, most of them elderly and frail, but antisemitism is alive and well. The Romanian media and television glorify the Iron Guard, spreading their fascist venom. In Romanian schools and universities, there is no curriculum to teach the new generation about the role played by Romanian authorities and the Romanian army in persecuting, humiliating, deporting, and killing their Jewish citizens.

Finally, it is long overdue for President Iliescu to acknowledge the crimes committed against Romanian Jewish citizens in the period of 1940-1944 by the Romanian army and Romanian authorities. It is crucial that the commission’s 400-page document be made available to the Romanian people, and it must be taught in all Romanian schools and universities. This document must be a permanent chapter in the Romanian history of the years 1940-1944. The Romanian Holocaust, its crimes against the Romanian Jews, was possible only with the complicity of leaders of the Romanian state institutions. To raise a new generation educated about that horrible past–in order to eliminate the “teaching of contempt” forever–is now imperative.

Romania’s annual October 9 commemoration, even if it is observed, will not mean much without a sincere and detailed enumeration of the crimes committed during those tragic years, a period which taints the history of contemporary, modern Romania. The full disclosure of the commission report must be the basis of all future curricula, in all the state and private educational institutions in Romania. The Romanian authorities must also ensure the payment of restitution for all Jewish properties, stolen or confiscated by the Romanian state during the Holocaust years 1940-1944. Now that Romania is to become a NATO partner by 2007, Romania must provide a clear balance of payments, moral and material, for the crimes and theft committed in the years 1940-1944. A still-tainted Romanian state has no place in the West’s NATO alliance.

*Baruch Cohen z”l, the Canadian Institute or Jewish Research’s ’s long-time Research Chairman, passed away at 98 on October,3, 2018.   An  active member of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, he was a major figure in the successful campaign to throw light on the long-neglected reality of the Holocaust in Romania. This article, originally published by CIJR in 2004, commemorates the anniversary of the ‘Bucharest Ktistallnacht” antisemitic pogrom of  January 21-23, 1940.  {See the “Link” section below for a video of Baruch Cohen speaking on this issue.)