As eastern European countries emerge from communism towards democracy, confronting their Holocaust history has been an important step in their evolution as free nations. An interesting example is Romania, a country that over many years of close ties has granted the Museum exceptional access to its records in many governmental agencies, including the country’s intelligence services and ministries of defense, foreign affairs, internal security, and police.
Changing long-held, deeply engrained prejudices is a long and complicated process. But the Wiesel Commission report has laid out the historical facts in an authoritative way for the Romanian public for the very first time.
Romania’s deep-seated antisemitism was present long before World War II. Allied with Nazi Germany under the wartime leadership of General Ion Antonescu, Romania was directly responsible for the murder of more Jews than any country other than Germany. Antonescu was convicted and executed as a war criminal after the war. Despite all of this, after the fall of communism, a revisionist history movement with close ties to prominent political circles emerged that portrayed Antonescu as a national hero. Statues of Antonescu were erected and streets were named in his honor. In recent years, protests by the Museum and other organizations succeeded in having some of these monuments removed.
However, in mid-2002, statements by Romanian President Ion Iliescu and other government officials reignited this issue by claiming that there had been no Holocaust in Romania, by suggesting that political opponents of the Nazis had been treated similarly to Jews, and by suggesting that Antonescu could not be viewed only in negative terms. The Museum led the international outcry and played a leading role in discussions that led Iliescu to appoint an independent commission, chaired by Nobel Laureate and Founding Museum Chairman Elie Wiesel, to produce a definitive history of Romania’s role during the Holocaust. Radu Ioanid, the Museum’s director of international archival programs and a native of Romania, served as U.S. vice-chair of the commission, which included experts from Romania, the United States, Israel, France, and Germany.
For the last decade, Radu Ioanid and Paul Shapiro, director of the Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and also an expert on Romania, have aggressively pursued access to Romanian archives. Their efforts have brought over one million Romanian documents to the Museum’s archives, which became the basis for the Commission’s 400-page report.
The Commission found that systematic killing and deportation were perpetrated against the Jews of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Dorohoi County. Transnistria, the part of occupied Ukraine under Romanian administration, served Romania as a giant killing field for Jews. A portion of the Roma population of Romania was also subjected to deportation and death in Transnistria. The Commission concluded that Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of this Holocaust, in both its planning and implementation; between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were murdered or died during the Holocaust in Romania and the territories under its control.
The Commission also traced the evolution of the destruction of Romanian Jewry during World War II. Prior to the war, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the antisemitic propaganda, instigation, and street violence of the Iron Guard poisoned the political atmosphere and stirred up Romanians’ animosity toward the country’s Jewish population. During the period in which it played a role in government, from mid-1940 through January 1941, the Iron Guard spearheaded the enactment of antisemitic laws and decrees that severely damaged the Jews and prepared the way for their destruction by vilifying them and depriving them of rights, property, dignity and, for the most part, the organizational and material means of self-defense.
The Iron Guard as an organization, however, had been banned by the time of the systematic forced deportations and murders of Jews began in 1941. While many former members of the Iron Guard and many Iron Guard sympathizers took part, the Commission found that direct responsibility for the Holocaust in Romania falls squarely on the Antonescu-led Romanian state. Although the Romanian leadership and bureaucracy shared Germany’s desire to liquidate the Jews, they coordinated their efforts with the Germans with difficulty and only for limited periods. Romania under Antonescu was a dictatorial regime, and it was on Antonescu’s orders that the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina were condemned to death. Further, when the Antonescu government decided to stop the extermination of the Jews, the extermination did stop.
The change of policy toward the Jews away from outright extermination began in October 1942, before the Axis defeat at Stalingrad, and deportations were definitively terminated in March-April 1943. The result of this change of policy was that at least 290,000 Romanian Jews survived. Nevertheless, the Commission’s report concludes, “Romania committed genocide against the Jews. The survival of Jews in some parts of the country does not alter this reality.”
In light of the factual record summarized in the Commission’s report, it found that efforts to rehabilitate the perpetrators of these crimes are “particularly abhorrent and worrisome.” Official communist historiography often tried to dilute or completely deny the responsibility of Romanians in the slaughter of the Jews, placing all the blame on the Germans and déclassé elements in Romanian society. In postcommunist Romania, political and cultural elites often chose to ignore and sometimes chose to encourage pro-Antonescu propaganda, which opened the door to explicit Holocaust denial and the rehabilitation of convicted war criminals. There have been few public voices raised in opposition to this dominant trend.
The Commission’s findings led the Romanian government to declare its first-ever Holocaust Commemoration Day on October 9, 2004. At the ceremony, former President Iliescu stated, “Assuming our past, with good and bad parts, is not just an exercise in honesty, but also a proof of our democratic conscience…” Iliescu’s four-year mandate ended in mid-December 2004, at which time President Traian Basescu followed him in office.
The Commission’s report concluded with a set of recommendations, including one that the Ministry of Education and schools throughout Romania should organize special programs and assemblies to mark Holocaust Commemoration Day, and religious leaders should be encouraged to observe the day through an interfaith ceremony and service. A national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Romania should be erected on public property in Bucharest, and consideration should be given to the establishment of permanent exhibitions on the Holocaust in Romania at the National Historical Museum in Bucharest and at other regional museums. Local authorities, particularly in former centers of Jewish populations, should be encouraged to find ways to recognize their prewar Jewish communities.
One of the basic reasons for the creation of the Commission was the need for correcting and supplementing what is currently known about the Holocaust in Romania. The long-term success of the Commission will, in no small measure, be judged by its impact on the teaching of the Holocaust to present and future Romanian students. Many Romanian textbooks currently in use that do refer to the Holocaust present incomplete or even factually incorrect information. The Commission recommends that the Ministry of Education create a working group, in cooperation with experts of the Commission and appropriate international institutions, with the purpose of reviewing, correcting, revising, and drafting appropriate curricula and textbook material based on the findings of the Commission’s report.
The Commission’s foremost recommendation was that the government of Romania should issue an official declaration acknowledging the report of the Commission and adopting the entirety of its contents and conclusions. Once accepted and endorsed by the President of Romania, the report was to be published in Romanian and English and made available in both print and internet editions. The report was also distributed throughout the country to all libraries, schools, universities, and other educational and research institutions.
In November 2004, Elie Wiesel, accompanied by Museum Director Sara Bloomfield, Paul Shapiro, and Radu Ioanid, officially presented the Commission’s report to President Iliescu, who apologized for his country’s role in the Holocaust and pledged to educate Romanians about their history. To encourage that effort, the Museum supported Romania’s entry into the 20-nation International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.
Romania still has far to go in terms of understanding and accepting its wartime history. Some groups will seek to challenge the findings of the Commission. A number of Holocaust deniers still have a voice in Romanian political and scholarly circles. Some monuments and streets honoring Antonescu still exist. And implementing the educational initiatives proposed by the Commission will require ongoing commitment by the country’s leadership. Changing long-held, deeply engrained prejudices is a long and complicated process. But the Wiesel Commission report has laid out the historical facts in an authoritative way for the Romanian public for the very first time. And the Museum’s close ties in the country, including an annual seminar on the Holocaust that Radu Ioanid and Paul Shapiro teach to the country’s military leadership at the national defense university, will offer many opportunities to work with Romanians on this vitally important undertaking.