Romania struggles to confront Holocaust past

While Bucharest is making efforts, historians say it still has a lot to learn about its complicity in a dark chapter of history

Historian Alexandru Climescu poses for a picture at the monument of the Holocaust memorial in Bucharest on January 25, 2016. (AFP / DANIEL MIHAILESCU)
Historian Alexandru Climescu poses for a picture at the monument of the Holocaust memorial in Bucharest on January 25, 2016. (AFP / DANIEL MIHAILESCU)

BUCHAREST (AP) — More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the suffering of survivors in Romania is often overlooked or played down, even if the country has taken some steps toward recognizing what happened, historians and survivors say.

After denying its role in the Holocaust for years, in 2003 Romania set up an international commission of historians led by survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel to look into the matter.

Its report said between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews died during the Holocaust in territories run by the pro-Nazi Romanian regime of Ion Antonescu from 1940-1944.

But historian Alexandru Climescu said understanding of this dark chapter in Romania’s history was still poor and he warned against a tendency to put the blame for massacres and deportations to the Nazi death camps on German forces.

He points to the case of two Romanian officers jailed after the war for their part in a notorious pogrom in Iasi, in the country’s north, in which some 13,000 Jews perished in June 1941.

The two men were cleared posthumously in 1998 after an unusual appeal by the state prosecutor who put the blame on the Germans, saying the two men were simply obeying orders.

Jewish victims of the Iași pogrom on July 1, 1941. (Wikimedia commons)
Jewish victims of the Iași pogrom on July 1, 1941. (Wikimedia commons)

“Acquitting those who were nicknamed the Eichmanns of Romania… is to deny again that the deportations in the north and the Iasi pogrom itself even took place,” Climescu said.

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. On Wednesday, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel released a plea for clemency he wrote shortly before he was executed in 1962.

Iancu Tucarman, 92, who survived the Iasi massacre — in which Jews were gunned down by guards and suffocated in overcrowded train wagons — also condemned the court’s decision.

“In my wagon, 137 Jews were put on board instead of 45, the normal capacity for a wagon transporting goods. After a nine-hour ordeal, only eight were still alive and got off the wagon,” he said.

“If war criminals can win their legal cases, that means their crimes didn’t take place,” Tucarman added. “Can the victims also ask the courts to cancel their deaths?”

Alexandru Florian, director of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania, shares his indignation.

“Public institutions are sometimes contributing to the rewriting of history and they are twisting it. Those two officers will now forever remain ‘innocent’ from a legal point of view,” Florian said.

There are now around 5,700 Jews living in Romania, down from some 800,000 before World War II.

And while the Holocaust survivors interviewed by AFP said they do not experience regular anti-Semitism, polls suggest more than one in 10 Romanians say they don’t want anything to do with Jews.

“For decades under the communist regime there was an attempt to destroy the memory,” said Liviu Beris, 88, another survivor.

“The mindset people have, formed under this regime, it can’t change overnight.”

Recognising Romania’s role in the Holocaust has been accompanied in recent years by more concrete measures including school lessons and laws banning Holocaust denial, Climescu told AFP.

But he warned “symbolic acquittals” are still going on, giving the example of war criminals being made “citizens of honour” in some towns, streets still bearing Antonescu’s name and museums showing the wartime leader in a heroic light.

“The biggest danger is that people who directly contributed to the persecution and extermination of Jews might be legitimised in the public view as symbols, martyrs and heroes,” he said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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