WASHINGTON — With a few obvious exceptions, there was a hardly a worse place to be a Jew in the 20th century than Romania. During the Holocaust, about half of the region’s approximately 300,000 Jews were exterminated. In the following four decades of Communist rule, the community faced severe restrictions, including a strict limit on the number of Jews allowed to emigrate to Israel.
But by the end of the century, Romania began shedding its history of economic stagnation and political repression, and began instituting democratic reforms. Today, it is part of NATO, boasts EU membership, and has a vibrant civil society, a relatively free press, and an independent judiciary, though significant challenges remain.
Now, a new book by Alfred Moses — an 89-year-old American Jewish attorney whose work with Romanian Jews in the 1970s and ’80s earned him the ambassadorship to Bucharest under president Bill Clinton — recounts Romania’s journey from a communist dictatorship to a Western-style democracy.
“Bucharest Diary: Romania’s Journey from Darkness to Light” is an essential read for anyone interested in the region’s general and Jewish history. It’s by a modern-day Moses — a man who was more responsible for letting his people go to Israel than any other figure.
Moses first traveled to Bucharest in 1976 as part of an American Jewish Committee delegation. Romania at the time was under the iron rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
“On the trip, I was approached by a couple of young men who asked if I was American, and if I was Jewish,” Moses told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “I said ‘Yes,’ and then they began pouring out stories about how everything is blamed on the Jews, and how terrible life was for Romanian Jews. For the next 13 years, I got the Jews out of Romania.”
Working with American Jewish and government leaders, Moses successfully lobbied the US Congress to extend the most-favored-nation status annually for Romania in return for, among other things, Ceausescu allowing its Jews to emigrate to Israel.
“We spoke to Ceausescu himself no less than three times. During this period, I visited 18 different local Romanian communities and worked hand-in-hand with the country’s chief rabbi,” said Moses.
According to its census, there were nearly 25,000 Jews in Romania in 1977. By 1992, there were fewer than 9,000. (The last count in 2011 recorded 3,271 Romanian Jews).
Saving the Great Synagogue
Another of Moses’s legacies is the saving of Bucharest’s Great Synagogue, the oldest house of worship in the Romanian capital, in 1985.
“I got a call from the Romanian chief rabbi who said Ceausescu was clearing two square miles of downtown Bucharest to clear space for his new ‘City of the People,’ and two of the buildings in the path of destruction were the Sephardi synagogue and the Great Synagogue,” Moses said.
The Israeli ambassador and the mayor of Bucharest tried feverishly to save the edifices and received assurances from Ceausescu that neither building would be harmed. But the ambassador shortly thereafter walked around the block and saw that the Sephardi synagogue was gone. It had been destroyed the night before.
“Suspecting the Great Synagogue was next, he went to the chief rabbi. The chief rabbi called me, and I went to the US State Department and got total support all the way up to [US Secretary of State George] Schulz, who intervened with the Romanian foreign minister,” said Moses.
“He told the minister that if the Great Synagogue were destroyed, the US would ‘rethink its relationship with Romania,’ and that saved the Great Synagogue, which still stands today,” he said.
By the time Moses took up residence as US Ambassador to Romania in 1994, nearly all of Romania’s once-thriving Jewish community was gone, the majority to Israel.
A country transformed
The new book offers firsthand accounts of a country in transition and details the diplomacy that helped Romania recover from years of Communist rule. As ambassador, Moses facilitated negotiations for Romania with Hungary and Ukraine, resulting in treaties that resolved border disputes. And with significant moral and material support from the US government, Moses participated in one of the great post-Cold War American foreign policy success stories.
“We were the main spark plug for the transition to democracy,” Moses said. “When I got there in 1994, it was chaos. The economy was bad, it was just after the revolution and students were protesting in the streets. It was really as bad as you can imagine, a complete shambles.”
The US encouraged Romanians to privatize their economy and provided abundant technical aid to build democratic institutions. Moses says it was “truly America at its best.”
“We had technical aid in every area: how to build a judiciary, an independent and non-political police force, rebuild their customs stations, everything you can think of, massive economic aid and assistance. It was truly startling and we the Americans were the great heroes. When Bill Clinton came to speak in Bucharest’s main square [in 1997], half a million people turned out. It was incredible. We established a strategic partnership with Romania,” Moses said.
Moses’s tenure as ambassador helped pave the way for Romania’s entry into NATO and the European Union in the first decade of the 21st Century. But he acknowledges that significant challenges remain.
“Romania today still has many problems. With corruption, with the delivery of medical services, modern transportation, and the like. But Romania has gone from being in the bottom of the heap to one of Eastern Europe’s fastest growing economies,” said Moses.
“We really did something special there — we preserved the post-World War II order in Romania, which is currently in jeopardy, of course, with the current US administration,” he said.
For his efforts, Moses is the only American ever awarded the Marc Cruce medal by the Romanian Government.
As the top US diplomat in Bucharest, Moses made a point of attending Shabbat services every week in the Great Synagogue and he visited local Jewish communities whenever he traveled out of the capital.
While a family history may have explained Moses’s efforts to help Romania’s Jews, those seeking a motive must look elsewhere — quite possibly to a sense of Jewish kinship.
“Helping the community is just something that become a major part of my life,” Moses said. “But as far as I know, nobody in my family ever set foot in Romania.”