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Review of “The Holocaust in Romania” by Radu Ioanid

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

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Radu Ioanid’s The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2000), has received well-deserved high praise from Elie Wiesel. Wiesel writes in the Foreword: “I do not hesitate to say it: Radu Ioanid merits the recognition of all those who are interested in that history which has so lamely become known as the Holocaust. His work treats an unfortunately little-known subject: the tragic fate of the Jewish communities in Romania. Only a few historians, such as the great Raul Hilberg or Dora Litani, among others, have addressed it in their works. In fact, Radu Ioanid often leans upon them, but his work explores more fully the Evil that reined in Transnistria, between the Bug and Dnister, the two great rivers in Ukraine. His work, based as it is on material from unpublished archives, thus constitutes a new contribution to this field” (vii).

Ioanid is one of the first scholars to address the thorny subject of the Holocaust in Romania. Aside from Raul Hilberg, who covers the destruction of Jews throughout Europe including Romania, Jean Ancel (The History of the Holocaust in Romania, University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and Denis Deletant (Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, Palgrave MacMillan Publishing, 2006) also subsequently covered this topic at length. Radu Ioanid, however, paved the way for research focusing on the Holocaust in Romania.

His book is very important, not least of all because the Holocaust is denied or minimized by many in Romania: strangely enough, not only by the fringe political elements–Nazi or neo-Nazi sympathizers—but also by many conservative and even mainstream Romanians.

The main reasons for Holocaust denial in the country are complex, however, three key factors come to mind: 1) Ion Antonescu, Romania’s authoritarian, pro-Fascist leader, has been rehabilitated as a nationalist hero, 2) some consider the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina who perished in the Holocaust not Romanian, but Ukranian (even though they were under Romanian occupation during the Holocaust) and perhaps most importantly 3) Romania has a unique and ambivalent history towards its Jewish population during the Fascist era. It is the country that collaborated with Germany and doomed to death between 250,000 to 290,000 Jews (mostly those living in Bukovina and Bessarabia) while at the same time being one of the European countries with most Jewish survivors: about 375,000 Jews living in Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania made it alive through the end of WWII.

Those who want to absolve Ion Antonescu and the country in general of responsibility for the massacre of Jews in Romania have to contend with Radu Ioanid’s thoroughly researched and compelling evidence to the contrary. Ioanid describes the pogrom in Iasi that occurred in June 1941 as “one of the most savage pogroms of WWII” (The Holocaust in Romania, 63). Iasi was a divided city: half of its population was Jewish (about 50,000 out of 100,000 people), yet at the same time it was also the center of anti-Semitic, Fascist political activity (the Iron Guard headquarters). During the Iasi pogrom over 10,000 Jews were beaten, shot, robbed, raped and/or murdered. Hundreds of people were stuffed into boarded up “death trains”(about 100 persons to each car) that traveled aimlessly for days on end without food or water provisions. Most of them died of suffocation, thirst or starvation. The degradation of the Jews’ humanity is almost indescribable. As Ioanid points out, “At one stop the inmates were permitted to drink from a pond where pigs wallowed; several fainted and drowned right there, others perished later from the ensuing gastrointestinal infections” (85). Antonescu not only allowed this to happen, but, according to Ioanid, he sent an order requiring that Jewish women and children be included in this “Action”.

Moreover, unlike the German crimes against humanity, which were largely hidden by Hitler from the native population, the violence in Iasi was perpetrated in plain sight of the Romanian people, many of whom participated, alongside the goons from the Iron Guard and government officials, in the lootings, beatings and murders of Jews. As Ioanid elaborates, “The mob’s cruelty and greed too the form of truly shocking torture, rape, killing and robbery, all continuing earlier precedents but achieving spectacular new heights of barbarism” (62).

The pogrom in Iasi, however, pales by comparison—at least in magnitude—to the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, which began in June 1941 and resulted in over 300,000 deaths from forced deportations (to Transnistria), beatings, shootings, starvation and disease. Antonescu used the fact that Northern Bukovina had been briefly controlled by the Soviet Union (in June 1940) to charge the Jewish inhabitants of both Bukovina and Bessarabia with collaboration with the Red Army and target them for mass deportation and murder.

Although most of the Jews of Regat (Moldavia, Walachia and Southern Transylvania), being considered “Romanian Jews”, were spared from the Holocaust, Ioanid reminds us of significant exceptions: “about thirteen thousand Jews were murdered during the pogrom in Iasi, then the Moldavian capital… During deportations from Dorohioi about twelve thousand Jewish inhabitants were sent to Transnistria, at least one half of which perished” (111). Furthermore, the Iron Guard killed 125 Jews in the Bucharest pogrom.

Will those who do not wish to believe that the Holocaust occurred in Romania, or that Ion Antonescu’s policies were largely responsible for it, be persuaded by Ioanid’s careful study of the subject? Probably not. Historical evidence rarely sways ideological beliefs. But that is not the book’s main purpose. This history of the Holocaust in Romania establishes the facts, to commemorate the victims and allow the survivors who want to know what happened access to the truth.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under 1940-1944, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Iron Guard, Radu Ioanid, Review of "The Holocaust in Romania", the Holocaust, the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Bukovina, the Holocaust in Romania, the Iasi pogrom, Transnistria

The controversial journal of Mihai Sebastian (1935-1944)

JournalMihaiSebastian

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The journal of the Romanian Jewish essayist, playwright and novelist Mihai Sebastian is still seeped in historical controversy in his native country. In fact, this journal, which the author kept for nearly ten years (from 1935 to 1944), was such a taboo subject that it wasn’t published until 1998 (in French) by Editions Stock. The Ivan R. Dee English edition appeared in 2000, increasing the diary’s international exposure–as well as the controversy that surrounded it. The Journal of Mihai Sebastian is particularly problematic for the Romanian community, both in the country and abroad. It depicts the regimes that allied themselves with the Nazis as well as some of Romania’s most notable writers and philosophers—Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu–whom the playwright Eugene Ionesco characterized, due to their Fascist political affinities, as part of the “Iron Guard generation”–in a rather negative light. Sebastian’s frank and lucid picture of the Fascist influence in Romania can offend on several levels.

Many Romanians with strong nationalist sentiments still view Ion Antonescu as a national hero that protected the country’s interests in an impossible political context. Furthermore, even Romanians without strong nationalist feelings take great pride in Romania’s leading 20th century intellectuals, particularly Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu. Some of them do not take kindly to a frank discussion of these authors’ pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in so far as bringing this subject up can cast doubt on their merit as writers and on their character.

I don’t think these are good reasons to shy away from reading this journal, however. The fact that Mihai Sebastian was himself a leading intellectual figure in the country and accepted as a friend by these authors gives us a more personal—and unique–glimpse into the cultural and political atmosphere of the times. This journal is interesting from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. It raises questions about Romania’s alliance with the Nazis and simultaneously explores the relation between morality and intellectuality (in the same way as discussions of Heidegger’s role in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi discourse does). (See Philip Oltermann’s excellent article on this subject, published in The Guardian on March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism).

Mihai Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 in a Jewish family in Braila. He managed to survive Fascism, the war years and the Holocaust, only to die, absurdly, in a car accident in 1945. Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and mingled with Romania’s leading intellectual figures. His journal discusses his relatively close relationships with Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu and Eugene Ionesco. Of these authors, only Eugene Ionesco was critical of Fascism. Years later, in 1959, he even published a political drama about totalitarianism, Rhinocéros, in which he described his friends’ strange transformations under the pressure—and lure–of history’s dark forces, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.

Being Jewish in an epoch when Judaism was equivalent to a crime punishable by imprisonment, deportation and even death, Sebastian had ambivalent relations with Cioran, Eliade and Petrescu, all of whom expressed anti-Semitic views and were seduced by a combination of Nazi and nationalist ideology. At one point, Sebastian expresses shock in reading an article by Mircea Eliade in support of the Legionary Movement: “Friday, 17 (December). In yesterday’s Buna Vestire (year I, no. 244, dated Friday, 17 December 1937): “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement,” by Mircea Eliade” 133). Numerous times, Sebastian hopes that personal bonds of friendship can shift his friends’ anti-Semitic views. He tries to persuade Camil Petrescu–to no avail–that his anti-Semitism is irrational:

“Thursday, 25 [June] 1936. When we left Capsa we went a few steps down the street and he repeated what he thought of the latest anti-Semitic attacks… He went on to say: ‘My dear man, the Jews provoke things: they have a dubious attitude and get mixed up in things that don’t concern them. They are too nationalistic.’ ‘You should make up your mind, Camil. Are they nationalists or are they Communists?’ ‘Wow, you’re really something, you know?… What else is communism but the imperialism of Jews?’ (60) Disappointed that Petrescu won’t listen to reason, Sebastian notes, perplexed: “That is Camil Petrescu speaking. Camil Petrescu is one of the finest minds in Romania. Camil Petrescu is one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania” (60).

Facing prejudice from one’s peers is one thing; facing the prospect of imprisonment or even death is quite another. Between 1935 and 1941, the political situation deteriorates significantly for Jews in Romania (and most of Europe as well) . In August of 1941, Sebastian finds himself in grave danger of being sent to labor camp for the simple fact of being Jewish. He’s aware of the probable link between deportation and extermination: “The alarm I felt at first is returning. Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” (389) Like most Jews from Old Kingdom Romania, however, Sebastian escapes due to a series of unpredictable shifts in government policies. (See my article on the subject of Ion Antonescu’s regime, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/review-ion-antonescu).

Despite its trenchant critiques, however, Mihai Sebastian’s journal shouldn’t be judged only as an indictment of the political ideology of some of Romania’s leading intellectuals and of the country at large. Written in a lyrical and contemplative style reminiscent of an author Sebastian greatly admired–Marcel Proust–the journal also captures the author’s great appreciation of classical music, the cultural activities of the times, as well as his intriguing and often tumultuous love affairs, whom he compares to the vicissitudes of passion described by Proust in A la recherché du temps perdu.

As a memoir with political and ethical implications, Mihai Sebastian’s journal reminds us of the fact that political morality and intellectual merit aren’t necessarily linked. Great intellectuals can and do sometimes espouse immoral or chauvinist views. Does it follow that they they be judged only—or even mostly–in terms of those views? Absolutely not. Just like we shouldn’t judge Aristotle’s great contributions to philosophy only in terms of his “sexist” and incomplete views of women or Thomas Jefferson’s notable contributions to government, political theory and even architecture only in terms of having owned slaves and thus supported slavery, we shouldn’t judge Eliade, Cioran and Petrescu only (or mostly) in terms of their anti-Semitism or Fascist tendencies. Those of us who respect these writers need not fear that the truths expressed by Mihai Sebastian’s journal will diminish the intellectual worth of Romania’s leading authors. This book is important because it offers us a deeper understanding of Romania’s controversial, pro-Fascist years, from the perspective of a Jewish writer caught in the middle of cataclysmic events that he had the opportunity, lucidity and talent to describe exceptionally well.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Ion Antonescu, both murderer and savior of Jews

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Ion Antonescu, both murderer and savior of Jews: Review of Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944 by Dennis Deletant

Ion Antonescu is probably the most controversial political figure in recent Romanian history. He was Romania’s authoritarian military ruler from September 1940 to August 1944. He was also Adolf Hitler’s unwavering ally—and friend—during WWII. Described by many as one of the biggest mass murderers of the Holocaust and hailed by others as a national hero, it is difficult to reach consensus regarding Ion Antonescu. Dennis Deletant’s well-documented and marvelously written political history, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and His Regime, Romania 1940-1944, sheds light upon the darkest period of Romania’s past by focusing upon the views and policies of this mystifying political figure.

First and foremost, Deletant establishes the historical facts. Ion Antonescu was responsible for the death of “between 250,000 and 290,000 Jews and between 10,000 and 20,000 Romas” in the Romanian-occupied regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia. Because the Soviet Communist army took over these regions between June 28 and July 1940, their inhabitants—particularly the Jews in the area–were regarded by Romanians with suspicion. The Antonescu regime considered them to be disloyal to Romania and sympathetic to “the Bolsheviks” (whether or not they actually were Communist sympathizers). Antonescu’s racial policies, closely allied to those of the Nazi regime, caused unbelievable suffering and the death of tens of thousands of innocent people living in Bessarabia and Bukovina, who perished in death trains or in forced marches; were shot by German Einsatzgruppen (Task Forces) and Romanian troops; died of starvation, cold and diseases once deported to concentration and refugee camps in Transnistria (the strip of land between the river Dniester and the Eastern Moldavian border with Ukraine), which lacked sufficient food, clothing, potable water or sanitary living conditions.

At the same time as Romania under the Antonescu regime distinguished itself as the country with one of the most devastating Holocausts in Europe, it also distinguished itself as the country with the greatest number of Jewish survivors in Nazi-dominated Europe. According to Deletant, “up to 375,000 Romanian Jews” living in what is called “Regat” or “Old Kingdom” Romania (Wallachia, Moldavia and Southern Transylvania) were saved from deportation to concentration camps in Poland—which the Germans, including Adolf Eichmann, repeatedly demanded–by Antonescu’s ambivalent ethnic policies. Deletant’s riveting book explores this seeming paradox by analyzing the complex and contradictory figure of Ion Antonescu and his policies.

One thing is pretty clear, however (and one of the main reasons why, despite his murderous ethnic policies, many Romanians continue to see Ion Antonescu as a national hero): the Marshal’s pragmatic policies were always primarily guided by prioritizing Romania’s national and territorial interests and national security. His decisions changed with changing political and military circumstances. Antonescu sided with Hitler once he saw that remaining allied with France and England could not guarantee Romania’s security. As Deletant explains, this became particularly obvious to the Romanian leader after the Anglo-French capitulation to Hitler over Czechoslovakia in September 1938.

Although closely allied with Nazi Germany, Antonescu was no Hitler. Deletant plausibly describes the Romanian Fascist regime as an authoritarian military dictatorship rather than a totalitarian state. Antonescu allowed some degree of “democratic opposition”, debate and even critique of his policies (70). More remarkably, he corresponded and even had several meetings with Wilhelm Filderman, the President of the Federation of the Union of Jewish Communities in Romania, a courageous and dedicated man who fought relentlessly for Jewish civil rights in his country. After several exchanges with Filderman, Antonescu even relented on not enforcing many of the Nuremberg-inspired racial laws: something that would have been inconceivable for Hitler or any of the Nazi leaders.

In a much-cited note to Filderman (particularly by those who want to exonerate Antonescu), the Marshal promises the Jewish leader that he will not harm the Jews if they, in turn, do not sabotage his regime. In September 1940, Antonescu writes: “I assure Mr. Filderman of this and I also assure him that if his co-religionists neither sabotage the regime openly nor behind the scene, nor politically, nor economically, the Jewish population will have nothing to suffer” (104).

Filderman responds by thanking Antonescu on behalf of his co-religionists for his reassurances and assuring him of the loyalty of Jewish Romanians. He states: “Moved by the most sincere sentiments towards the throne and the country, the Jewish population of Romania wishes you a fruitful and peaceful rule and assures you that it will fulfill its duties faithfully and loyally” (59). Filderman’s response is also sometimes cited by those who want to prove that the Jewish community was grateful for Antonescu’s rule. Those who want to protect Antonescu’s image, of course, omit their fruitless exchanges regarding the mass deportation, shootings and internment in concentration camps of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Bukovina and Bessarabia, among many other human rights violations. Although Filderman tried to persuade Antonescu not to enact these murderous racial policies, he didn’t succeed. “Under Antonescu,” Deletant goes on to state, “Transnistria was the graveyard of an estimated figure of 220,000-260,000 Jews, and up to 20,000 Romas. Most of these deaths resulted from inhumane treatment and a callous disregard for live rather than industrialized killing… The toll increased dramatically with the murder by shooting of thousands of Jews in Transnistria in December 1941 and January 1942 on the orders of the Romanian authorities there” (171).

So what led Antonescu-the-killer-of-Jews to become Antonescu-the-savior- of-Jews by the end of the war? And why did the Romanian Fascist leader refuse to give in to Nazi pressure to deport all Romanian Jews to concentration camps in Poland, where most would have perished? Although the Marshal’s reversal of policy cannot be fully understood, Deletant explores several factors: 1) the tide of the war changing, after the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-February 1943), in favor of the Allies; 2) pressure from the U.S. on behalf of the Romanian Jews; 3) the fact that Antonescu regarded Jews from mainland Romania as more assimilated and thus more “authentically Romanian” than the Jews in the regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia; 4) the warranted fear that Romania would be conquered by the Soviet Union and turned into a Communist satellite; 5) Filderman’s repeated interventions on behalf of Romanian Jews; 6) the argument (applicable up to the Spring of 1944) that the Hungarian Jews hadn’t been deported and that Romanian Jews shouldn’t be treated any worse than them; 7) the need to make independent, autonomous decisions as well as 8) the humanitarian pleas of the exiled Queen Helen of Romania on behalf of the Jewish community in her country.  Ultimately, what the Marshal feared most came true anyway. Following a coup d’état, Antonescu was tried and executed on June 1, 1946 (along with several top members of his regime) by a new Soviet-led Communist leadership, which many Romanians detest far more than they do the nationalist Antonescu dictatorship. This too plays a role in the perception of those who want to “rehabilitate” the ambivalent figure of Antonescu as a national hero.

So what is Deletant’s historical verdict about Ion Antonescu? Judged by nationalist standards, there’s no question that he attempted to defend and even increase Romania’s boundaries and uphold its perceived best interests. Judged by moral standards, however, Antonescu is both a murderer and a savior of Jews. Without a doubt, the Marshal’s earlier policies caused the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Romas in Bessarabia and Bukovina. But the virulently anti-Semitic leaders of the Iron Guard would have been far worse than him. So, from a consequentialist ethical perspective, there’s no doubt that Antonescu’s ethnic policies also saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews from “Old Kingdom” Romania. Moreover, Antonescu’s friendship with Hitler—and Hitler’s trust in him– ironically contributed to saving Romanian Jews at a time (in the spring and summer of 1944) when nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to die in concentration camps in Poland once the Nazis invaded Hungary. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be writing this book review–because my family wouldn’t have survived the Holocaust in Romania–if it weren’t for the contradictory historical role played by Ion Antonescu, the murderer and the savior of Jews.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Dennis Deletant, Hitler's Forgotten Ally, Holocaust in Bukovina and Bessarabia, Holocaust Memory, Ion Antonescu, Ion Antonescu and Adolf Hitler, Romania 1940-1944 by Dennis Deletant, the Holocaust, the Romanian Holocaust, Transnistria