Tag Archives: the Holocaust in Romania

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

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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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Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed work about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power,” yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devoted Catholic, mentioned that Mendes-France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded, in the heat of the moment, that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross, yet nobody spoke about their suffering. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about it. The young man took his friend’s advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published in Yiddish an abbreviated version of this book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit), and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the literary and small publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Elie Wiesel’s eloquent and informed interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. By 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, further augmenting its exposure.

This work is definitely autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has been also read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, almost lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a small Romanian town in Northern Transylvania which had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Chlomo, his mother Sarah, and his sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, managed to survive the Holocaust. However, since the women and the men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the war. In the concentration camps, father and son clung to each other. Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor, and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Chlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation: he’s beaten by SS officers and by other prisoners who want to steal his food. Weakened by starvation and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, sadly, only a few weeks before the Americans liberated the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a paternal sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Chlomo, fearing that he himself will become the next victim if he tries to help his father. In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences through a sense of absence: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…” (112)

Night is offers a stark psychological account the process of human and moral degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie, became doubly victimized: the victims of everything they suffered at the hands of their oppressors and the victims of everything they witnessed others suffer and were unable or, perhaps more sadly, unwilling to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of humanity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it again, in far better conditions, if at least one condition is met: caring about the suffering of others. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and his message to the world at large—is about the empathy required to keep the Holocaust memory alive. He reminds us all, “that I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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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)

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

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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The Legacy of Serge Moscovici: The Holocaust and Social Psychology

 

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Recently, on the day of his death (November 16, 2014), Le Monde published a tribute article about Serge Moscovici, considered by many to be “the father of social psychology”. (see Julie Clarini’s article, http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2014/11/16/serge-moscovici-figure-de-la-psychologie-sociale-est-mort_4524344_3382.html) I first encountered his name during my first years of graduate school, in 1994-95, when I studied with the historians Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot at the Collège international de philosophie and the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Some of my colleagues inquired if I was related to Serge Moscovici, the well-known social psychologist of Romanian origins whose last name I shared. I didn’t know what to answer them, since I had never researched our genealogy. But the question itself aroused my curiosity. Once I began reading his books and learning more about his background, I found Serge Moscovici to be a remarkable person and intellectual.

Born in Braila, Romania on June 14, 1925 under the name of Srul Hers Moscovici, he overcame incredible hardship and rose to intellectual fame against all odds. Being Jewish, his youth was marred by the anti-Semitic legislation passed by Romania’s Fascist regimes, which reflected the tone set by Nazi Germany throughout most of Europe. He was expelled from high school. Since some vocational schools remained open to Jews, he trained as a mechanic at Ciocanul, in Bucharest. While living in the capital, he observed with dismay some of Romania’s leading intellectual figures—particularly Mircea Eliade and Emil Cioran—express pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic points of view. He took refuge in what he felt would be the opposite route by joining the Romanian Communist Party, which was one of the few political parties that remained open to Jews. Moscovici witnessed the Bucharest Pogrom (in January 1941) and was sent to a forced labor camp, where he worked in construction. He was fortunate enough to be freed by the Red Army in 1944. Thereafter he made up for lost time and became the worldly intellectual he wanted to be, an ambition that couldn’t be realized in a Romania ruled by a Fascist regime. He taught himself French and philosophy.

Growing disenchanted with the Communist party, Moscovici moved to Paris, where he began studying psychology at the Sorbonne. His 1961 thesis, which would be published as a book in 1976, La psychanalyse, son image, son public, covered the relatively new field—group or social psychology–that would eventually gain him world renown. Having lived through both Nazi and Communist regimes—oppressed by one for being Jewish, disillusioned with the other—his research covered the psychological factors behind conformity (and mass movements) and the role of minorities in influencing larger group dynamics. Through a series of psychological experiments, he arrived at the scientific conclusion, which he had already witnessed in his life, that minorities can, indeed, influence the actions of the majority, even when what they say is counterintuitive or just plain false. These psychological experiments can be used to explain, in part, the manner in which totalitarian movements—Fascism and Communism alike—began as minority views and ended up ruling the majority throughout European and Eastern Block countries.

Later in life, in 1997, Serge Moscovici published an autobiographical book, Chronique des années égarées (Editions Stock), where he expresses some disappointment with the fact that his son, Pierre Moscovici–who would become famous in his own right as French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry–had to experiment in his youth with Communism and find out the hard way the lessons about totalitarianism learned years earlier by his father. Wisdom may be passed on from generation to generation, but rarely only through books or anecdotes. It also requires some personal experience: an experience of lived history that Serge Moscovici translated, in his research and books, into an elegant psychological theory. For those interested in social psychology, the role of the masses and the dynamics of totalitarian movements, Serge Moscovici’s death represents a great loss.

 

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)

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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

The Holocaust in more personal terms

 

photo by Magdalena Berny

photo by Magdalena Berny

 

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

For every book I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, there is a personal motivation as well as what I’d call a more “universal” element. I have to feel a strong personal connection to the subject of the book, since, after all, I’ll be studying that subject and writing about it for several years. At the same time, I have to believe that it’s a subject that has some historical weight to it, so that it can interest others as well. This was the dual motivation behind writing my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009), translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche, 2011). This novel draws upon, in part, my family’s story. But it represents, above all, a slice of life about communist Romania during the dismal last years of the Ceausescu regime.

Right now, I’m working on two books about the Holocaust. The first one, called Holocaust Memory, will be a collection of book reviews of some of the most significant and resonant memoirs, histories and novels about the Holocaust that I can find written (or translated) in English. The subject, I believe, is universal. Although the history of the Holocaust concerns most the Jewish people, this topic is also about social psychology, WWII, and the history of Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and the U.S. during one of the most trying moments of our collective past. As usual, however, there is also a personal component to my interest in this topic: I’m still haunted by some of the stories my Jewish grandparents told me about the Holocaust when I was a child.

In a fragment of Velvet Totalitarianism which I’d like to share with you below, I pieced together some of the life stories culled, here and there, from conversations with my Jewish grandparents about their experiences during WWII. This is by no means a history of the Holocaust in Romania. It offers a tiny kaleidoscope of family stories filtered by memory which, I hoped as I was writing my novel about communism years ago, I would one day have the know-how and the courage to explore in greater depth.

 

Chapter 10

[…]

“Grandma, what’s a pogrom?” Irina asked.

“You’re too young to learn about these terrible things,” Grandma Sara replied.

“Please tell me. I’ll do my best to understand,” the girl pleaded.

“I know you will. But these are adult subjects. They’re too sad for kids.”

“I’m not a kid any more. I’m already eleven!” Irina objected.

“You’re not a little kid, but you’re still a kid,” the grandmother stroked Irina’s hair.

“But, Grandma, since this happened to our own family…I have the right to know,” Irina insisted with the stubbornness of a child.

Grandma Sara gave in and told Irina, as far as she could recall, an abbreviated version of her family history. “What do you want me to say? We went from a rock to a hard place, as they say. My family’s originally from the Ukraine, a country next to Romania that was part of the Russian empire. Ironically, the reason we came to Romania is because we were running away from the pogroms there.”

“You still haven’t told me what that word means,” Irina reminded her.

“That’s what I’m about to explain,” the grandmother answered. “Long ago, Jews weren’t allowed in Russia itself; they had to live only in this area called the Pale of Settlement, which was part in Poland, part in the Ukraine. Like I said, our family lived in the Ukrainian part. And from time to time, when the tsar or hordes from neighboring villages were looking for someone to blame for their problems, they attacked Jewish villages, stole property, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people.”

“Even children?” Irina wanted to know.

“Yes. Women and children also.”

“But how can people be so mean?” Irina’s pupils expanded.

“The more downtrodden you are, the more you’re mistreated,” was all Grandma Sara could say.

By reading histories of the Holocaust, Irina later learned the details that her grandmother wouldn’t tell her, or didn’t know, or perhaps wanted to forget. Some Jews were shot in mass, but most lost their lives in “death trains” and concentration camps in Transnistria. Thousands of human beings were packed together like cattle in closed, windowless train compartments. Left for days on end without fresh air, water, food or latrines, they died of suffocation, dehydration or illnesses as the train wondered aimlessly around the countryside. Well, not aimlessly. Because by the end of its journey, the objective had been reached. All of its passengers were dead.

“Your grandfather was one of them,” Grandma Sara once told her.

“How did he manage to escape?” Irina asked with a shudder.

Her grandmother shook her head, as if the answer was beyond her grasp: some kind of miracle. “With God’s help, somehow, he jumped from the moving train. He still limps to this day. But at least he’s alive.”

Eventually, many Romanian Jews found their way to what later became the state of Israel, including all of her grandparents’ surviving siblings. In fact, Irina found out from her grandmother, her grandparents were the only ones who didn’t leave the country.

“Why did you and Zeida decide to stay behind?” Irina wondered. “Why didn’t you move to Israel like the rest of the family?”

Her grandmother shrugged: “Romania’s the only place we know. We were born here and so were our parents. This is our country, the only place we called home.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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