Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Wilhelm Filderman, the Chair of the Union of Romanian Jews and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (1923-1947), is not only one of the country’s most influential Jewish leaders, but also the person who played a key role in saving a large percentage of Romania’s Jews from the Holocaust. At the beginning of 1942 the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania was dismantled and replaced by a Nazi controlled Jewish Council, in preparation for deporting Romania’s Jews to concentration camps in Poland. A lawyer of international repute and a former high school colleague of the man who would become Romania’s authoritarian ruler during the Fascist period—Marshal Ion Antonescu—Filderman was one of the key figures who helped persuade Antonescu not to send the Jewish population of the country living in Regat (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania), about 375,000 people, to their death in concentration camps.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Filderman was not able to prevent Antonescu from sending almost 300,000 Jews living the Romanian-occupied regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina to concentration and resettlement camps in Transnistria. In fact, in March 1943, Antonescu deported Filderman himself to Transnistria for three months after the Jewish leader vehemently protested yet another government tax on the Jews.
Opposing totalitarianism in all its forms, Filderman also refused to support the Communist regime established in Romania after the end of WWII. He didn’t join the Democratic Jewish Committee affiliated with the Communist Party and, as a result, was arrested for a short period of time in 1945. Vilified for his anti-Communist stance, Filderman escaped to France after he heard that he’d be arrested once again, this time on the false charge of being a British agent. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, until his death in 1963. Wilhelm Filderman’s archives—his memoirs and letters—were transferred to the Holocaust Museum in Israel, the Yad Vashem archives, in accordance to the wishes expressed in his will.
Despite looking extensively, I could only find Volume I of Filderman’s Memoirs and Diaries, published by Yad Vashem in 2004 and edited by the great historian Jean Ancel. This volume covers the period from 1900-1940. So far, I haven’t been able to locate anywhere Volume II of Filderman’s memoirs, which would cover the years 1941-1947: namely, the historically crucial periods of the Antonescu regime, the Holocaust, WWII and the Communist takeover of Romania. Jean Ancel passed away in 2008, before having had the chance to finish editing the second volume of Filderman’s memoirs. Even though we may not have the full documents available in English, we can still see a clear picture of Filderman’s selfless and courageous struggles on behalf of Jewish—and human–rights by reading Volume I of his memoirs. As Ancel states in the introduction, Filderman’s journal reveals the author’s underlying humanist and democratic motivation: “Filderman continued to see his waging war on evil and his struggle on behalf of the Jews not only as an effort for an oppressed minority, but also as part of the larger struggle for human rights” (9).
Although devoted to his family, Wilhelm Filderman was also consumed by his duties to the Jewish people living in Romania. He worked long days, and often nights as well, using his legal training to contest Romania’s draconian anti-Jewish decrees. He was not opposed to Zionism, but he supported Jewish assimilation above all. As Ancel rightly states, Filderman “loved Romania and could not understand why Romania did not love him and his coreligionists… Filderman believed that only a modicum of goodwill was required to see the Jews’ fierce desire to identify with Romanian nationalism, to be part of the country and of Romanian society” (13). He viewed Romanian Jews, most of whom had lived in the country for centuries, as Romanians nationally and fought to obtain for them the same civil rights as those enjoyed by ethnic Romanians. The rise of Fascism and Nazism—particularly after the rise to power of the Iron Guard in 1927 and of Ion Antonescu in 1940–transformed Filderman’s legal battles for civic equality into a heroic fight for Jewish survival.