When typhus broke out at a Romanian concentration camp 80 years ago, authorities at Bogdanovka decided to murder 40,000 Jewish inmates and burn down the camp.
Carried out in Romanian-occupied Ukraine by Romanian soldiers, Ukrainian regular police, and local ethnic Germans, the Bogdanovka massacre has largely been ignored by historians, along with Romania’s “distinct” role in the genocide of Europe’s Jews.
“I’m embarrassed to say, that I had no knowledge of that atrocity,” Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi-hunter, told The Times of Israel in reference to Bogdanovka.
“The question is not how gruesome it was, as numerous Holocaust atrocities were unbelievably horrific, but it’s a question of ‘coverage,’ for lack of a better word,” Zuroff said.
The Romanian army was behind most of the country’s Holocaust massacres, contrasting with the later model of German-built death camps in occupied Poland. Most of the Jews murdered by Romanians came from occupied Ukraine, as opposed to so-called “Old Romania.”
Further complicating the narrative, some Romanian Jews fell under the control of Hungary after the “Vienna Diktat” of 1940. Those Jews remained relatively safe until spring 1944, some three years after Romania’s army had “cleansed” occupied lands of Jews.
“In general, the crimes committed by Nazi collaborators outside of their countries get less ‘coverage’ than those committed on home territory,” said Zuroff, who pointed to the related example of the Holocaust in Belarus, in which Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians participated in the murder of tens of thousands of local Jews.
In Romania, Hitler’s stalwart ally dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu expanded his borders after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Hitler gave Antonescu a free hand to solve Romania’s own “Jewish question,” and an estimated 420,000 Jews under Antonescu’s control were murdered relatively early in the war.
Before World War II, more than 750,000 Jews lived in Greater Romania. Antisemitism was a feature of Romanian life for decades before the Holocaust, but the rise of fascism included a virulent strain of “racial” antisemitism. Beginning in 1940, some 32 laws and 31 decrees were passed against Romania’s Jews.
Like the Brown-shirts in Germany, Romania had a paramilitary group called the Iron Guard, founded in 1927. Also known as the Legionnaires or Green-shirts, the organization promised to defeat “Rabbinical aggression against the Christian world.”
Following a failed coup attempt in January 1941, the Iron Guard carried out a pogrom against the Jews of Bucharest. At least 125 Jews were murdered before Antonescu put a lid on the violence, but the genocide of Jews — and Roma people — accelerated that summer in Romania’s newly acquired lands.
“The Jewish people have embezzled and impoverished, speculated on and impeded the development of the Romanian people for several centuries,” said Antonescu. “The need to free us from this plague is self-evident.”
‘Death train’ from Iasi
The first large-scale Holocaust massacre in Romania took place in Iasi, a university city near the border with Moldova, in June 1941.
Encouraged by Antonescu, Romanian soldiers partnered with the police and local mobs to murder 13,266 Jews. Iasi’s residents helped arrest Jews and loot their homes, as well as humiliate Jews marched out of town.
As in Bucharest, the Iron Guard led mobs in murdering Jews on the streets and in their homes, deploying crowbars and knives in addition to guns. After the initial massacre, 5,000 Jews were packed into boxcars for a “death train” journey in which 4,000 of them perished.
In contrast to the Holocaust in Germany, there were no “black-ops” in Romania. The genocide was conducted “in broad daylight” under the direction of Romanian authorities. Fake press articles about Jews signaling Allied aircraft helped “justify” the massacres and incite collaborators, but those story placements were not intended to deceive Jews.
“The massacres were largely uncoordinated, and although the ruthlessness with which the Romanian Army slaughtered the Ukrainian and Romanian Jews won Hitler’s approval, they nevertheless earned the disdain of many SS officials, who disparaged the primitive techniques employed by the Romanians,” wrote historian Christopher J. Kshyk.
However primitive the Romanian methods appeared, the country’s army, police force, and civilian collaborators set a “blueprint” for Holocaust massacres elsewhere, including Kyiv.
The September 1941 massacre of 33,771 Jews at Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv, was similarly catalyzed by false press reports of Jewish sabotage. At the massacre site, German SS “Einsatzgruppen” units partnered with Ukrainians, echoing the Romanian army’s use of local collaborators earlier that summer.
Five months after the Iasi pogrom, the Holocaust in Romania would reach a frenzied — but largely forgotten — climax at the Bogdanovka concentration camp.
‘With their bare hands’
Located in today’s Ukraine, Bogdanovka was a series of camps — called “colonies” in Romanian — set up near a former Jewish collective farm on the Southern Bug River. By November 1941, the camp held 54,000 Jews from Romanian-controlled Odessa and Moldova’s Bessarabia region.
In December 1941, a few cases of typhus were reported at Bogdanovka. In response, the district’s German advisor and Romanian administrators decided to murder 40,000 of the inmates and burn the facilities down.
Beginning on December 21, Romanian soldiers and collaborators — including local ethnic Germans under Ukrainian police command — forced thousands of disabled and elderly Jews into two locked stables. The structures were doused with kerosene and set on fire, killing everyone inside.
After that inferno, the perpetrators led groups of 300 to 400 Jews into the forest where they were shot in the neck at a site Romanian soldiers called “the great valley.”
German death camp technology was still months away from fruition, so Romanian soldiers watched thousands of Jews freeze to death along the riverbank during the final days of 1941.
“The rest [of Bogdanovka’s Jews] were left freezing in the cold, waiting on the banks of the river for their turn to die,” according to Yad Vashem. “With their bare hands they dug holes in the ground, packing them with frozen corpses and trying in this way to shelter themselves from the cold. Nevertheless, thousands of them froze to death.”
Taking a pause for Christmas, the massacre resumed three days later. Between December 21 and the last day of 1941, at least 40,000 Jews were murdered at Bogdanovka.
‘A distinct chapter’
During the second half of 1941, Antonescu managed to outpace Nazi Germany in the genocide of Europe’s Jews.
“Antonescu’s policies of ethnic cleansing were carried out independently, though with the approval, of Hitler’s Third Reich, making Romania’s persecution of Jews a distinct chapter in the history of the Holocaust,” wrote historian Kshyk.
In the fall of 1941, Antonescu tentatively agreed to deport the remainder of Romania’s Jews to death camps, but those plans were canceled in 1942. Partly for economic reasons, Antonescu decided to spare an estimated 290,000 Jews in “Old Romania” and he quasi-facilitated the emigration of 5,000 Jews to Palestine for a large fee.
In reversing the genocide of Jews under his control, Antonescu was looking toward Romania’s bargaining position at a post-war peace conference. As early as spring 1942, the canny dictator pieced together that Germany would lose the war. After Soviet forces entered Romania in 1944, Antonescu was arrested and, two years later, executed outside Bucharest.
Although a large number of Romania’s Nazi collaborators were prosecuted and punished in the immediate postwar period, many Holocaust perpetrators managed to escape justice. To date, said Zuroff, only four people have been convicted of involvement in Holocaust atrocities in post-Communist Eastern Europe, and only two of the four were punished.
“We did receive potentially valuable information in at least one case of a person who allegedly participated in the mass murder of Jews in Odessa,” said Zuroff, referring to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “Operation Last Chance” effort to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.
“Unfortunately, he died before he could be prosecuted,” said Zuroff.
In 2003, Romania’s government acknowledged the country’s role in the genocide. However, there has been “backtracking” on that acknowledgment and tensions over Bucharest’s nascent Holocaust museum. A memorial at Bogdanovka has been vandalized several times in recent years.
“As far as Holocaust denial and distortion is concerned, Romania has had a large share of both, as is typical in all the post-Communist ‘new democracies’ of Eastern Europe,” said Zuroff.
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