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Romania holds unprecedented commemoration of Jewish victims of 1941 pogrom

Official leading fight against antisemitism says parliamentary meeting before massacre’s survivors ‘is laying the foundations for a truth-based reconciliation’ with country’s past

A member of the Jewish community walks at the Jewish cemetery in the city of Iasi, Romania, on June 29, 2021. (Liviu Chirica/AFP)
A member of the Jewish community walks at the Jewish cemetery in the city of Iasi, Romania, on June 29, 2021. (Liviu Chirica/AFP)

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania, which has long denied taking part in the Holocaust, on Wednesday paid tribute to thousands of Jews killed during a 1941 pogrom in the northeastern city of Iasi.

An unprecedented meeting of parliament was convened in the presence of the massacre’s last survivors.

“We, as a nation, must openly admit that our past was not always glorious,” said Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu, recalling the “unimaginable suffering, cruelty and savagery” inflicted on the orders of pro-Nazi marshal Ion Antonescu.

Some 15,000 victims, almost a third of Iasi’s Jewish population, were killed in what historians call “one of the most documented massacres of the Second World War.”

On June 29, 1941, thousands of Jews were taken to the Iasi police headquarters while being beaten and humiliated by Romanian police and civilians.

They were then shot dead by army troops.

A man wearing a Star of David on his shirt attends the commemoration service for the victims of the 1941 Iasi pogrom at the Jewish cemetery in Iasi, Romania, on June 29, 2021. (Liviu Chirica/AFP)

Between 7,000-8,000 people were crammed without water into two “death trains” comprised of sealed, overheated freight cars where most died of suffocation.

Around one hundred pictures of the massacre remain, along with about 600 portraits of victims.

“We have not completely fulfilled our mission,” lamented Silviu Vexler, head of Romania’s Jewish community in reference to “praise for war criminals” by elected officials of the nationalist AUR party who won seats in parliament in December.

Michael Cernea, 89, an American Jew born in Romania, is pictured visiting the monument of the victims of the Iasi pogrom at the Jewish cemetery in the city of Iasi, Romania, on June 29, 2021. (Liviu Chirica/AFP)

Between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died in the Holocaust in Romania and territories under its control, according to a commission headed by Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, himself a Romanian-born Jew.

And though the commission’s report was validated by the Romanian government, Antonescu, sentenced to death for war crimes and executed in 1946, remains a hero in the eyes of many Romanians.

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, right, and Romanian Prime Minister Marshal Ion Antonescu, left, meet on January 16, 1943. (AP Photo)

“By commemorating this massacre, the worst in modern Romanian history, the parliament is laying the foundations for a truth-based reconciliation,” said Alexandru Muraru, the government’s top representative for fighting antisemitism and xenophobia.

Eighty years on, around two hundred people laid flowers on mass graves where some of the victims are buried.

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