Baruch Cohen

In memory of the victims of the Yassi Pogrom

“Please leave me my son if you are taking my husband.… Son and husband were both taken and killed.”—Leah Haimovich, a Yassi Survivor.

What happened in the city of Yassi (Iasi) in June 1941 epitomizes the millennia-old antisemitic fervor that enabled the Holocaust to occur. The Yassi pogrom was an expression of long-standing and deeply-embedded Romanian antisemitism, just as similar events in Western Europe exemplified other variations of antisemitism, many grounded in Nazi doctrine.[1]

The killing of Romanian Jews began in the summer of 1940, following the retreat of the Romanian Army from neighboring Soviet Union. The military, civil administration and the infamous Iron Guard enthusiastically participated in the government-sponsored policy of exterminating Jews.

In June 1940, close to 450 Jews were killed in the towns of Dorohoi and Galati.

The murders were possible as antisemitism had become entrenched throughout Romania. Official and popular propaganda depicted Jews as enemies of the Romanian people. Romanian Jews were Bolsheviks, foreign agents, even parasites!

At sundown on June 28, 1941, the Yassi sky was set ablaze by a rocket, signalling the upcoming slaughter. The following day, a Sunday now known as “Dominica Aceia,” “That Sunday,” was the bloodiest day in the history of Romanian Jewry.

Yassi’s Jews were forcibly assembled at police headquarters and randomly fired upon. The Romanian Army and the Iron Guard mercilessly targeted the mass of people; others were beaten or even smothered underneath corpses. The shrieks and wails had no effect on those who ordered and committed these atrocities. The population stood passively by.

Curzio Malaporte, an Italian journalist for Corriere della Sera who was in Yassi at the time, reported that Jews were chased in the streets by soldiers and civilians alike, armed with sticks and iron bars, while groups of gendarmes shot indiscriminately at the doors and windows of Jewish homes. As Malaporte witnessed, “packs of dogs ran up to the cadavers of Jews guarded by gendarmes, and soldiers armed with guns were watching over them, seeking to separate the corpses.”

Such is but one of the innumerable recollections of the terrible “ Sunday That Was”.

The Yassi pogrom was not an isolated event; it followed massacres in Bucharest on January 21, 1941, and the Dorohoi and Galati pogroms of 1940! Zahor! Remember!

On the eve of WWII, approximately half of Yassi’s 100,000 inhabitants were Jews. Of the 40,000-45,000 Jews still residing there in June, 1941, an estimated 13,000 to 14,000 were murdered, including women and children.

An additional estimated 3,000 Yassi Jews were crammed into thirty-nine cattle cars, forced in by their captors using bayonets and rifle butts. Between 80-200 Jews were herded into each windowless freight car, many of whom already were gravely wounded. The Romanian guards made a point to nailed shut the small ventilation shutters, and with the passing hours breathing became increasingly difficult. The Romanian military and authorities proudly decorated the cars with signs: “Communist Jews, Killers of Romanian and German Soldiers”.

The total number of victims of the Yassi pogrom was never officially determined!



As we struggle to remember, we must comprehend that memory affects the future. Through awareness, study and acceptance of our troubled past, we can ensure that Never Again is realized.


(Baruch Cohen is Research Chairman of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.)

[1] The Holocaust In Romania: The Destruction Of Jews And Gypsies Under The Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944, by Radu Ioanid (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Jerusalem Post, June 28, 2012

Rebbetzin Eva Sandler of Toulouse, France, recently spoke at Sinai Indaba, South Africa’s annual national Torah convention, which brings together more than 4,500 Jews. A modern-day Jewish heroine, she spoke with remarkable composure and dignity about her husband, Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, and their sons Aryeh and Gavriel, brutally murdered by an Islamic terrorist on March 25, 2012.

Eva Sandler’s fortitude in the face of horror was truly moving; her calm and brave presence in Johannesburg and Cape Town brought a message of strength and faith to us all. Although she spoke sentence by sentence through a translator, the language and cultural barriers—which by any rational analysis should have separated us into different worlds—seemed to dissolve; there was a strong sense of shared Jewish fate.

As Rebbetzin Sandler recounted the details of that terrible day, we all felt that Toulouse could have been, G-d forbid, Johannesburg or Cape Town, New York or London, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. There is a shared Jewish fate which binds all Jews, in defiance of the natural laws of history.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his foundational essay Kol dodi dofek (“The voice of my beloved knocking”), identified two distinct covenants between G-d and the Jewish people: the “covenant of fate” and the “covenant of destiny.”

G-d entered into the covenant of fate with us whilst we were still subject to Egyptian slavery, when He said, “I will take you to me to be a nation.” Through this covenant we became a separate people with a shared and supernatural fate for all times, and from which there is no escape.

In the past 70 years, for example, we have seen the irresistible power of this covenantal shared fate as Nazi Germany sought to annihilate assimilated and religious Jews alike. And today the covenant of fate binds all Jews, willingly or unwillingly, to the State of Israel and to the events and pressures that accompany anything to do with it. Every Jewish community around the world has been thrust to the front lines facing the anti-Israel onslaught, which in its milder form can mean being denigrated and isolated and in its most virulent form poses a serious threat to life and limb as attested to by Eva Sandler’s tragedy.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the covenant of fate binds us and imposes on us a…responsibility toward one another’s welfare. Every Jew must stand in solidarity with, and help, support and protect every Jew unconditionally, irrespective of political affiliation or religious observance or any other criterion. The all-encompassing covenant of fate connects us all, giving expression to the very concept of Jewish peoplehood and unity.…

The covenant of destiny, known also as “the covenant of Sinai” because it was entered into at Mount Sinai when G-d gave us the Torah, is about our shared values, moral vision and the Divine mission of the Jewish people. It is comprised of the Torah’s principles and values and calls us to a higher destiny, one which transcends mere survival. It is about why we want to survive, and what our purpose and moral calling is. It gives us our mission, articulating the raison d’être of the Jewish people.…

Rav Soloveitchik says further that the covenant of destiny redeems the covenant of fate from the latter’s potential victimhood. In the context of the covenant of fate we become subjected to the overpowering forces of history; we play a reactive role, with no choice but to respond due to force of circumstances, trying simply to survive. The covenant of destiny, however, is embraced freely and chosen, as it was first entered into at Mount Sinai.…

It was powerful and moving to witness these ideas of Rav Soloveitchik embodied in Eva Sandler, who transcended victimhood to become a modern-day heroine. At Sinai Indaba she spoke of her pain and of her moral mission to spread the light of Torah and faith in the world, calling on us to join her. She has moved beyond succumbing to despair from tragic events to rising to a moral vision and calling, redeeming the covenant of fate through the covenant of destiny.…

(Warren Goldstein is chief rabbi of South Africa.)

Isi Leibler

Jerusalem Post, June 27, 2012

A recent interview by [Haaretz] journalist Ari Shavit with former IDF chief of staff, now vice premier, Moshe Ya’alon, provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of one of Israel’s most sophisticated political leaders and covers the crucial challenges facing the nation.…

Coincidentally, precisely seven years ago I devoted a column to Ya’alon, describing him as one of the most adroit strategic thinkers to have headed the IDF. He was then accused of being disgruntled and embittered after his premature termination as chief of staff by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in response to his fierce opposition to the withdrawal from Gaza—for which he was subsequently totally vindicated.

Ya’alon was retired in the wake of his successful military response to terror which demonstrated that, contrary to the mantras invoked by the bleeding-heart leftists, resolute military action can significantly neutralize terrorism. He was also proactive when he instituted dual-track initiatives of targeted assassinations and construction of the security fence, the combination of which effectively brought an end to the second intifada.

In my earlier column, I expressed frustration and anger that, in a country facing existential threats from its neighbors, a retiring chief of staff’s explicit warnings of disastrous repercussions arising from the policies of prime minister Ariel Sharon had been totally ignored by the government and opposition. Regrettably, his predictions were subsequently basically realized.

Although highly politically incorrect at the time, Ya’alon also asserted that Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat were birds of a feather. Far from being peace partners, he insisted that they were primarily committed to ending Jewish sovereignty in the region. He furthermore predicted that the Arab “right of return,” which other Israeli leaders contended was merely a PA negotiating ploy, was set in stone and would remain a cornerstone of the intransigent Palestinian demands. He also warned of impending missile attacks directed toward Israel’s civilians unless the government took steps to enforce tougher deterrence.

Vice-Premier Ya’alon is certainly not typical of contemporary right-wing activists. He is a follower of Ben-Gurion rather than Jabotinsky. He is a kibbutznik with a Labor background who displays traditionally liberal approaches in relation to most social, religious and economic issues.… This new interview provides fascinating insights into Ya’alon’s view of the current imbroglio and reaffirms his primacy as a profound strategic thinker in relation to Israel’s external military threats.

A major component is devoted to the Iranian nuclear threat. Ya’alon stresses that we must not, under any circumstances, stand by and enable “the apocalyptic-messianic regime of the ayatollahs” to obtain the bomb. Although hopeful that Israel will not be obliged to go it alone, Ya’alon insists that “we are not bluffing” and that despite the likelihood of considerable Israel casualties should armed conflict ensue, it is unquestionably preferable for us to bomb rather than to be bombed.

He points out that the IDF has the ability to hit the Iranian surrogate Hezbollah with 150 times the explosive power they could direct against us, which should make the Lebanese government weigh the consequences if they enable missiles to be launched against Israel from their territory.

Ya’alon also articulates what few other Israeli leaders are willing to say publicly. “I was ready to divide the land but they [Palestinians] are not.… As long as the other side is not ready to recognize our right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people, I am not ready to forgo a millimetre [of territory]. I am not even willing to talk about [territorial concessions]. After land-for-peace became land-for-terror and land-for-rockets, I am no longer willing to bury my head in the sand.”

He adds, “…We need to look not for a solution but for a path. There are problems in life that have no solution. At the moment the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a problem with no solution.… Anyone suggesting otherwise is promoting a false illusion. A golden calf. Self-deception.”

Yet Ya’alon remains optimistic: “When I see where my grandparents and parents were and where my children are—I see that time is not working against us.… The secret of Zionism is that when our ethos is to build and the ethos of the other side is to destroy, our ethos will triumph.… We must free ourselves of being solution-orientated and discard self-blame. We must free ourselves of thinking that if I give in to the enemy and please the enemy, the enemy will give me quiet. That is a…way of thinking unrelated to the reality of the Middle East.”

Ya’alon was asked, “As a Mapainik, a kibbutznik, a Rabinist, how did you become a Likudnik?” To which he responded, “The Labor movement had Yitzchak Tabenkin and Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Even Rabin from the Oslo process was never from Peace Now. He supported the Allon Plan in the broad sense and firmly opposed withdrawal to 1967 lines. Before his assassination he spoke in the Knesset about an eternally united Jerusalem and about [retaining] the Jordan Rift Valley and about a Palestinian entity that would be less than a state.”

Ya’alon is perhaps the most understated minister in the government and is considered a highly untypical Israeli leader. He is not an adept political street-fighter. He is soft-spoken, even dour, and certainly lacks charisma. Despite his low profile he is one of our most capable leaders. He was a brilliant chief of staff who can take credit, to a large extent, for creating the strategy that brought an end to the era of the suicide bombings. His moral integrity would qualify him to serve as a role model for most Knesset members.…

It is comforting that a man of Ya’alon’s caliber is today a senior member of the security cabinet and influential in the formulation of defense policies. It is also reassuring to know that if Ya’alon ever considered that the government was initiating policies endangering the country, unlike numerous other politicians, he would not remain silent.

Jonathan Sachs

Jerusalem Magazine, June 14, 2012

…The phrase “Jewish leadership” is ambiguous. It means leadership by Jews, but it also means leadership in a Jewish way, according to Judaic principles and values. The first is common, the second rare. Throughout my life it has been a privilege to witness both. So by way of saying thank you for the past and giving blessings for the future, I have set out below seven of the many axioms of leadership done in a Jewish way.

Principle 1: Leadership begins with taking responsibility.

Compare the opening of Genesis with the opening of Exodus. The opening chapters of Genesis are about failures of responsibility. Confronted by God with their sin, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?…”

By contrast, at the beginning of Exodus Moses takes responsibility. When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervenes. When he sees two Israelites fighting, he intervenes. In Midian, when he sees shepherds abusing the daughters of Jethro, he intervenes. Moses, an Israelite brought up as an Egyptian, could have avoided each of these confrontations, yet he did not. He is the supreme case of one who says: when I see wrong, if no one else is prepared to act, I will.

At the heart of Judaism are three beliefs about leadership: We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.

Principle 2: No one can lead alone.

Seven times in Genesis 1, we hear the word “tov” (good). Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good.” We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship.

One corollary of this is that there is no one leadership style in Judaism. During the wilderness years there were three leaders: Moses, Miriam and Aaron. Moses was close to God. Aaron was close to the people. Miriam led the women and sustained her two brothers. The sages say it was in her merit that there was water to drink in the desert.

During the biblical era there were three different leadership roles: kings, priests and prophets. The king was a political leader. The priest was a religious leader. The prophet was a visionary, a man or woman of ideals and ideas. In Judaism, leadership is an emergent property of multiple roles and perspectives. No one person can lead the Jewish people.

Principle 3: Leadership is about the future. It is vision-driven.

Before Moses can lead he has to experience a vision at the burning bush. There he is told his task: to lead the people from slavery to freedom. He has a destination: the land flowing with milk and honey. He is given a double challenge: to persuade the Egyptians to let the Israelites go and to persuade the Israelites to take the risk of going. The latter turns out to be more difficult than the former.

Along the way, Moses performs signs and wonders. Yet his greatest leadership act occurs in the last month of his life. He gathers the people together on the bank of the Jordan and delivers the speeches that constitute the book of Deuteronomy. There he rises to the greatest heights of prophecy, his eyes turned to the furthest horizon of the future. He tells the people of the challenges they will face in the Promised Land. He gives them laws. He sets forth his vision of the good society.…

Before you can lead, you must have a vision of the future and be able to communicate it to others.

Principle 4: Leaders learn.

The Torah says that a king must write his own Sefer Torah which “must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:19). Joshua, Moses’s successor, is commanded: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night” (Josh. 1:8).

Without constant study, leadership lacks direction and depth. This is so even in secular leadership. William Gladstone had a library of more than 30,000 books. He read more than 20,000 of them. Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were both prolific writers. Winston Churchill wrote some 50 books and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Visit David Ben-Gurion’s house in Tel Aviv and you will see that it is essentially a library with 20,000 books.

Study makes the difference between the statesman and the politician, between the transformative leader and the manager.

Principle 5: Leadership means believing in the people you lead.

The rabbis gave a remarkable interpretation of the passage in which Moses says about the Israelites, “They will not believe in me.…” The [rabbis] said that the sign God gave Moses when his hand became leprous (Ex. 4:6) was a punishment for casting doubt on the Israelites. A leader must have faith in the people he or she leads.

There is a profound principle at stake here. Judaism prefers the leadership of influence to the leadership of power. Kings had power. Prophets had influence but no power at all. Power lifts the leader above the people. Influence lifts the people above their former selves. Influence respects people; power controls people.

Judaism, which has the highest view of human dignity of any major religion, is therefore deeply skeptical about power and deeply serious about influence. Hence one of Judaism’s greatest insights into leadership: The highest form of leadership is teaching. Power begets followers. Teaching creates leaders.

Principle 6: Leadership involves a sense of timing and pace.

When Moses asks God to choose his successor, he says: “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in” (Num. 27:16-17).

Why the apparent repetition? Moses is saying two things about leadership. A leader must lead from the front: he or she must “go out before them.” But a leader must not be so far out in front that, when he turns around, he finds no one following. He must “lead them out,” meaning, he must carry people with him. He must go at a pace that people can bear.

One of Moses’s deepest frustrations—we sense it throughout the biblical narrative—is the sheer time it takes for people to change. In the end, it would take a new generation and a new leader to lead the people across the Jordan and into the promised land. Hence the rabbis’ great saying: “It is not for you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Leadership involves a delicate balance between impatience and patience. Go too fast and people resist and rebel. Go too slow and they become complacent. Transformation takes time, often more than a single generation.

Principle 7: Leadership is stressful and emotionally demanding.

Listen to Moses, the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?… I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin” (Num. 11: 11-15).

Similar sentiments can be found in the words of Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah. All at some stage prayed to die rather than carry on. Transformative leaders see the need for people to change. But people resist change and expect the work to be done for them by their leader.

When the leader hands the challenge back, the people turn on him and blame him for their troubles. So Moses is to blame for the hardships of the desert. Elijah is to blame for disturbing the peace. Jeremiah is to blame for the Babylonians. No wonder the most transformative leaders feel, at times, burnout and despair.

Why then do they lead? Not because they believe in themselves. The greatest Jewish leaders doubted their ability to lead. Moses said, “Who am I?…” Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Jeremiah said, “I cannot speak, for I am a child.” Jonah, faced with the challenge of leadership, ran away.

Leaders lead because there is work to do, there are people in need, there is injustice to be fought, there is wrong to be righted, there are problems to be solved and challenges ahead. Leaders hear this as a call to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. They lead because they know that to stand idly by and expect others to do the work is the too-easy option. The responsible life is the best life there is, and is worth all the pain and frustration.…

(Jonathan Sachs is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.)