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East European Perspectives: November 12, 2003


12 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 23

DECONSTRUCTING HOLOCAUST DENIAL: ROMANIA'S CUCUMBER SEASON REVISITED (Part 2)

By Michael Shafir

3. Deconstructing The Salad: Utilitarian Anti-Semitism

"Utilitarian anti-Semitism" refers to the occasional exploitation of anti-Semitic prejudice for the needs of the moment by politicians who, by and large, are probably not anti-Semitic. Failure to distance oneself from anti-Semitic views in the hope of enlisting the support of those who are obviously prejudiced, or even forging political alliances with them, can be just as telling as embracing their views openly. That such political alliances are shortsighted and, more often than not, return to haunt the utilitarian anti-Semites themselves is another matter altogether. But it is a matter that brings to the fore the singularly PRESENT orientation of utilitarian anti-Semites, who seem to believe that the only thing that counts is what serves the need of the moment, and that the future can always be dealt with starting from scratch. It is therefore unsurprising to find the political discourse of utilitarian anti-Semites to be self-contradictory in a longer-term perspective. In my book on postcommunist Holocaust denial, as well as in a number of other articles, I have insisted on the extensiveness of the use of this device not only in postcommunist East-Central Europe, but also in "established" democracies of the Western hemisphere. Viewed from this perspective, Romania's case, rather than pointing to any "exceptionalism," is rather banal (see Shafir, 2002, pp. 57, 68; see also Shafir, 1997).

In discussing "utilitarian anti-Semitism," I have also pointed out that it is not so much what utilitarian anti-Semites SAY that counts as what they REFRAIN from saying, their political discourse being IMPLICIT rather than EXPLICIT. More than any other political discourse with nuances of anti-Semitism, then, this particular discourse is CODED and in need of deconstruction. Enough has been said thus far to realize that the ruling Social Democratic Party, or PSD (in its manifold changes of denomination since it came into being in 1990 as the National Salvation Front), fully qualifies for being placed in this category. Not only has the PSD made a crucial contribution to the birth of the Greater Romania Party (PRM) (for details see Shafir, 1994, pp. 343-344); not only has it forged an unofficial and later an official alliance with it between 1992-96; but the party created and led by President Ion Iliescu has always included extreme nationalists sympathetic to the views of the PRM alongside those who were either neutral or opposed to those views. What matters for the "deconstructionist" purpose is the failure of the PSD to call to order its own extreme nationalists (that is, its SILENCE). Viewed from this perspective, Radu Ioanid's criticism of the PSD after the government's 12 June statement (see above), while accurate, was hardly "newsbreaking." What also matters is the occasional "slip" of the leadership itself into a "telling silence of omissions" when courting the nationalist electorate. Finally, what counts in coming to deconstruct the discourse of utilitarian anti-Semitism is its sheer lability. The latter aspect, however, is also a reflection of the propensity to "simulate change" and will consequently be discussed separately.

Both the 12 June cabinet statement and Iliescu's interview with "Ha'aretz" must be simultaneously approached from the perspective of the immediate past and the immediate future. The framework for relevant immediate past is provided by Emergency Ordinance 31 of March 2002, while that of the immediate future are the looming parliamentary (late 2004 or early 2005) and presidential (late 2004) elections. Attempting to outlaw the flourishing cult of Marshal Antonescu, the ordinance had been mainly imposed from afar. It became clear to the Romanian leadership that NATO membership (a goal achieved with Romania's invitation into the organization at its Prague November 2002 summit) would not be attainable as long as the cult went on with the tacit support of some PSD members and with the active promotion of the PRM and of less significant political formations (for a discussion see Shafir, 2003). But with the next election approaching, the PSD and its leadership wished to signal to the electorate that the party's posture of "defender of national dignity" had not been forsaken, the more so as it feared that the PRM would not hesitate to build electoral capital on account of Ordinance 31/2002.

This was also the main argument of some of the commentaries in the Romanian media in which the authors distanced themselves from, or took a critical position of, the two incidents. Some of these pronouncements were hardly a surprise. For example, one would have expected little else from political scientist and pundit Dan Pavel -- one of the earliest critics of the nationalist manipulation of Marshal Antonescu's figure for political purposes in postcommunist Romanian historiography (see Pavel, 1995). In an article in the daily "Ziua," Pavel now warned that "yielding to the ultra-extremist-nationalist pressure of autochthonous negationist circles" would be tantamount to undermining democracy ("Ziua," 23 June 2003). The same applies for Cornel Nistorescu, the editor in chief of the daily "Evenimentul zilei," who concluded in a 28 July editorial that Iliescu was after the vote of "the poor" -- to whose poverty his policies had contributed heavily -- whom he could fool with an alleged threat to further impoverishment emanating from Jewish restitution claims. Andrei Oisteanu, a Jewish social scientist and author of an important book on Jewish stereotypes in Romanian popular and high culture (Oisteanu, 2001), put it as unambiguously as possible: Iliescu's interview with "Ha'aretz," he said during a debate on the Holocaust as reflected in the Romanian media, "was not merely a blunder, it was an electoral calculation" targeting Iliescu's "traditional electorate, as well as attempting to attract as many percentages as possible from the Greater Romania Party" ahead of the elections (Mediafax, 6 August 2003). Similarly, philosopher and pundit Andrei Cornea wrote that Iliescu had in all likelihood "deliberately triggered the scandal in order to appear as a 'genuine Romanian' in the eyes of that [nationalist] electorate of 'genuine Romanians' ["romani verzi"] whom he wants to attract to, or to keep on the side of, the PSD in view of the [forthcoming parliamentary] elections" (Cornea, 2003).

But Iliescu cannot run again in the 2004 presidential elections. Why would he, then, indulge in taking positions that damage his image on the international level? According to an exceptionally insightful article published in "Ha'aretz" on 4 August, Iliescu was hoping to be named Senate speaker after the end of his presidential term. For this "he will need the vote of the extreme nationalist Greater Romania [Party]," and "throughout the interview" that caused the scandal "Iliescu was sending out a message to supporters of that party, the second largest in Parliament." It should indeed be recalled (see above) that the president had indicated that he does not reject the PRM "as a whole."

Yet deconstructing the June-July Holocaust-denial scandals must involve not only a deconstruction of its main protagonists' pronouncements but also an effort to "deconstruct the deconstructionists." Not all those who criticized the government or Iliescu can be trusted with being genuinely indignant about the significance of their pronouncements. Take, for instance, the case of Cristian Tudor Popescu. Popescu had in the past come to the defense of notorious Holocaust deniers such as Roger Garaudy and Norman Finkelstein (for details see Shafir, 2002, pp. 42, 122-123). In early 2003, he became president of the Romanian Journalists Association and was in obvious need of mending his West-bashing image among Bucharest-accredited foreign diplomats. In an editorial, Popescu started by citing Iliescu's statement of 3 April 2002 that he "will leave politics when I also leave this world" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 April 2002) and went on to say that it is "irrelevant what position Mr. Iliescu will hold after 2004 or what his age will be; what is important is that he wishes to maintain his dominant position in Romanian politics. As a matter of fact, Ion Iliescu is running. And he does so at any cost, even at the cost of serious damages provoked [by his declarations] to Romania" ("Adevarul," 29 July 2003). Or take the case of journalist Vladimir Alexe, who in an article published in the daily "Romania libera" went out of his way to demonstrate that Iliescu was assuming populist postures and cultivating an image of "father" ("tatuk" -- spelled in a way reminiscent of Russian, rather than the Romanian "tatuc") of the impoverished, defending them against alleged rapacious Jews. Alexe concluded by questioning whether Iliescu might not be playing with the thought of yet another presidential mandate ("Romania libera," 6 August 2003).

That there was an unmistakable note of populism in the presidential interview was correct. Yet Alexe himself has a well-established reputation of being a far more emphatic Holocaust denier than Iliescu is ever likely to become (see Shafir, 2002, pp. 75-76). No matter how valid the points, the affair had thus turned into one in which Iliescu's critics on the domestic scene were taking turns at bashing the president for their own political agenda and/or for the purpose of attempting to "correct" (most likely in the eyes of Western observers of the Romanian political scene) their own, far more tarnished, previous Holocaust-denying postures. It is not the validity of the arguments that should be questioned, then, but the objective pursued by some of those making them.

As for the arguments, their credibility was enhanced by additional signals pointing to the intention of the PSD and of Iliescu personally to renew their courtship of the extreme nationalist vote. In July, the PSD had "absorbed" into its ranks two left-wing extreme nationalist formations. One was a splinter party that left the PRM in 2001, calling itself the Socialist Party of National Revival. The other was the Socialist Labor Party (PSM), established by former Ceausescu Premier Ilie Verdet and, like the PRM, a former ally of the ruling party between 1992-94, when it was still represented in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2003). Former PSM First Deputy Chairman Adrian Paunescu, who alongside Tudor was a Ceausescu court poet, had switched to the PSD and had been elected a senator on its lists in the 2000 elections. He was one of the open opponents of Ordinance 31/2002 in the PSD ranks, being a notorious admirer of Marshal Antonescu. Yet in July 2003, one week before the interview with "Ha'aretz" was to appear, Iliescu conferred on Paunescu a high state order on his 60th birthday, for the poet's "prodigious publicizing activity and sustained promotion of culture through the dissemination of the noble Romanian sentiment" (Mediafax, 18 July 2003). Finally, Iliescu also signaled that he would be ready to pardon Miron Cozma, the leader of the miners who rampaged Bucharest on several occasions in 1990-91 and apparently attempted a coup in 1999 with the backing of the PRM, whose deputy-chairman he had been at one point.

4. A False Deconstructionist Choice: Between Ignorance And Dissimulation
It has been suggested by several Romanian critics of the June-July Holocaust-denying postures that the explanation may rest in "stupidity" or the marks of "old age" beginning to leave their trace on political judgment (see, for example, the editorials by Cornel Nistorescu in "Evenimentul zilei," 28 July 2003 and by Petre Mihai Bacanu in "Romania libera," 1 August 2003). This makes little sense. Iliescu is in his early seventies, and he remains Romania's most versatile politician by far. Stupidity is the last excuse that could be made on his behalf. Besides, no member of the Adrian Nastase cabinet team is anywhere close to "old age," and the scandals were triggered by the government's "no Holocaust on Romanian territory" pronouncement.

Of far greater relevance is the argument that these pronouncements were primarily due to ignorance, rather than ill will. It has been explained that both Iliescu and the members of the Nastase cabinet belong to generations that are simply unaware of what the Holocaust was all about and of Romania's role in its perpetration. During the early August debate on the Holocaust and the media in Romania, for example, young historian Adrian Cioroianu described Iliescu as "the victim of the generation to which he belongs and the victim of [his] counselors." Cioroianu said that he does not "believe that Iliescu is an anti-Semite, and neither does he lack sensibility vis-a-vis the Jewish problem." However, he added: "Iliescu belongs to a generation that does not know how to speak about this. He possesses neither the knowledge, nor the appropriate [political] discourse. Moreover, these aspects were aggravated by electoral interests as well" ("Curentul," 7 August 2003).

There is certainly a lot to speak in favor of this perspective. As a young communist, Iliescu was educated in a system that started by presenting the victims of the Holocaust as having been "progressive fighters for freedom" rather than Jews, went on to ignore the Holocaust altogether, and ended in indulging in "deflective negationism." Toward the end of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime in Romania, history in general was taught in hilarious patriotic tones and was employing utterly distorted conceptual misconstructions. Those are far from having vanished with the regime. Among would-be history students, whose university entry examinations he must read in his capacity as university lecturer, ignorance is quite incredible, as Cioroianu showed in a recent book. Hand in hand with that, he wrote, the aspiring students write their tests under the presumption that they can "implicitly count on an implied nationalism and on an a priori xenophobia" on the part of the person who would mark them. The assumption, in turn, is a reflection of the "hypocrisy of public discourse (according to which a kike is that Jew who just left the room)." In other words, he added, the examiner "is being winked at, as if signaling: 'now that we are between ourselves, we know what the truth is, regardless what others may say and regardless of what we might be obliged to say officially'" (Cioroianu, 2002, pp. 207-208).

To which category do Romania's postcommunist leaders belong? Are they the victims of ignorance, or are they its perpetrators? The question is most likely misguided. They are both. It is not that historical research and data concerning Romania's role in the Holocaust are missing. The FCER's Center for the Study of the History of Jews in Romania has published IN ROMANIAN in numerous tomes documenting the SHOAH in that country. The FCER's publishing house Hasefer has also translated many works on the history of the Holocaust in general and of the Holocaust in Romania in particular. Other publishers have also printed relevant works. These books are either altogether ignored or are distorted in book-reviews addressed to a public reluctant anyhow to read them, and certainly too poor to purchase them. More significantly, the curriculum of history teaching in Romanian schools is either ignoring the subject altogether or presenting it in a distorted manner, exculpating Romania's wartime leaders of any responsibility for the Holocaust's perpetration when not presenting them as saviors of local and even foreign Jews (see Waldman, 2003).That Romania's postcommunist elites share the general public's ignorance on the Holocaust there can be little doubt. As Cioroianu explained during a debate on the Holocaust's treatment in the media, "The problem is that Romanians appear largely indifferent to their wartime past, or else unable to come to terms with this unpleasant chapter in the country's history." Cioroianu was also quite accurate in observing that due to the Ceausescu national communist legacy, Romania is lagging behind other former communist countries in attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust legacy ("Divers," No. 66, 18 August 2003).

But Iliescu, Nastase, and those close to them (no less than the members of the rightist counter-elite that governed Romania between 1996-2000) are to the same extent perpetrators of ignorance. For they "wink at" Romanian public opinion, using one political discourse for domestic, and a different one for foreign consumption (see Shafir, 2002, p. 100 and 2003). One simply cannot engage in that performance out of ignorance. Culture and Cults Minister Razvan Theodorescu, who, as shall be discussed below, played a crucial role in the June scandal, is himself a historian and a member of the Romanian Academy. Iliescu's close counselor is historian Ioan Scurtu, who is also director of one of Romania's most prestigious history institutes -- the Bucharest-based Nicolae Iorga Institute. But many Romanian historians cultivate that tacit note Cioroianu was writing about when describing the would-be students' entrance tests. As Iasi-based journalist Florea Ioncioaia observed, Theodorescu and Scurtu are not far distanced from historians such as Gheorghe Buzatu and those circles of Romanian historians "known for their adherence to totalitarian political culture" ("Ziarul de Iasi," 23 June 2003; on Buzatu see below). When the Romanian Academy's history section is headed by Dan Berindei, a Holocaust-denier blackmailed (on account of his youth-membership in the Iron Guard) into becoming an informer of the dreaded Securitate and a Ceausescu propagandist abroad, and when Iliescu comes out in praise of the Academy's national-communist old-new version of the "History of Romania," is the president misled or is he misleading? (On Berindei's past see Oprea, 2002, pp. 410-412; "Evenimentul zilei," 4 and 5 August 2003; on Berindei's Holocaust-denial postures see "Jurnalul national," 8 May 2002).

The dilemma of opting between ignorance and mischief is a false dilemma. Ignorance is prompted by a lack of information. OPTING for being misinformed is not ignorance, but self-defense. However, MANIPULATING information and employing it at a cross purpose is neither ignorant nor self-defensive. It is simply engaging in cheating. (I shall, however, return to reexamine this aspect in the final part of this study). This "cleverer than thou" propensity -- which ordinary Romanians call SMECHERIE (swindle), seems to have powerfully reemerged once the invitation to NATO membership was put behind the country, with Romania having proved its allegiance to the North Atlantic alliance during the Iraq war. With the approaching electoral contest, the PSD and Iliescu were wary of alienating the nationalist segment of the electorate. They could not possibly renege on promises made to the West and materialized in Ordinance 31/2002, but they could signal to domestic audiences -- as in fact they did when the ordinance was approved -- that they would attempt to minimize its impact.

The 12 June government announcement was the first step in that direction. By claiming that "between 1940-45, no Holocaust took place within Romania's boundaries," the government was clearly omitting from what it chose to define as events pertaining to the Holocaust not only anti-Jewish legislation dating back to as early as December 1937 but also the 1940 pogroms in Dorohoi and Galati; the 1941 pogroms in Bucharest and Iasi; the extermination of Jews in Herta in 1941; the interment of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps in Moldavia and Muntenia and enforced labor in those regions; and the deportation to Transnistria of some 12,000 Jews from southern Bukovina (Suceava, Campulung, Radauti, and Siret, at least half of whom perished) and from Dorohoi County, of suspected communists, and even of a few hundred Jews from Bucharest itself, though most of the latter survived deportation (see Ioanid, 2000, pp. 3-175; Ancel, 2001, Part 1, pp. 65-98, 199-261, 332-372, 4300-440, Part 2, pp. 22-64, 230-316; "Realitatea evreiasca," no. 189, 6-23 June 2003).

It would eventually be "explained" behind closed doors and in private conversations with foreign journalists that this had been the fault of Public Information Minister Vasile Dancu, who had allegedly left the second part out of the government announcement, one that would have explained what the Romanian cabinet had in mind. Dancu, however, flatly denied this version, insisting that his staff had just disseminated the government communique as it was handed to him by the government's spokeswoman; neither he nor the staff of his ministry had any hand in it, he insisted ("Romania libera" and "Evenimentul zilei," 17 June 2003; "Adevarul," 19 June 2003). Foreign journalists were told that Dancu had been "punished" and had been dismissed from the government. I myself was called in Prague by an Israeli journalist who inquired whether this was accurate. No, it was not. It was again a "smecherie." On 16 June, the cabinet underwent a long-awaited reshuffle, being trimmed from 23 to 14 ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2003). Dancu was just one of nine ministers who lost their portfolios. But while other ministers indeed left the cabinet, Dancu was one of those whose ministerial rank was changed to that of department head. He is now chairman of the Agency for Government Strategies (see "Cotidianul," 25 August 2003).

But what was the purported second part of the press release supposed to have included? According to Culture and Cults Minister Theodorescu, that part should have explained that the 1940-44 Romanian authorities were guilty of participation in the Holocaust's perpetration, but that the crimes were not committed on Romanian territory. There was nothing novel in the allegation; Theodorescu had made it ahead of the debates on Ordinance 31/2002 (see Shafir, 2002, p. 102, and Shafir, 2003). He "explained" that in 1941, Bessarabia and Bukovina, as well as the re-annexed Herta district, had not been officially reintegrated into Romanian territory, those provinces being under a military occupation regime. It was indeed in those regions, and particularly in occupied Transnistria to which Romania has never laid claim, that most of the Jewish (Romanian and Ukrainian) and Romany victims perished, were subjected to atrocities ranging from point-blank shooting to extermination through malnutrition, forced labor, and epidemic under appalling medical conditions. Estimates range between 250,000 (Ioanid) and 420,000 (Ancel). To understand the significance of the contention, however, one must take a look at the definition of the Holocaust proposed by Romania's foremost "selective negationist." Within the framework of the debates in the Senate's Defense and Judicial committees on Ordinance 31/2002, historian Gheorghe Buzatu, who is also deputy chairman of the PRM and a deputy chairman of the Senate, proposed that the Holocaust be defined as "THE SYSTEMATIC MASSIVE EXTERMINATION OF THE JEWISH POPULATION IN EUROPE, ORGANIZED BY THE NAZI AUTHORITIES DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR" (Mediafax, 5 June 2003. Emphasis added). In other words, BY DEFINITION there has been no Holocaust in Romania, since the extermination of Jews there had not been "organized by the Nazi authorities." Should the plenum of the Senate approve the amendments proposed by the two committees, and should the Chamber of Deputies -- whose committees have not yet debated the ordinance -- also heed them, the government's emergency ordinance would be devoid of relevance.

But to a certain extent, Theodorescu's "reading" of the Romanian Holocaust is even more perverse than Buzatu's. For if his terms are accepted, Nazi Germany might have claimed that its crimes are not genocidal either. After all, only a few camps had been on German territory proper, and none of those was in the category defined by the most authoritative Holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg (1994, p. 956), as "extermination centers" ("Vernichtungszentren"). Second, the war alongside the Nazi allies had been launched by Romania to liberate Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, which had been forcefully annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. Thousands of Jews were exterminated as the Romanian troops marched back into those lands. Were those territories Romanian or not?

Theodorescu, a former chairman of the Israel-Romania Friendship Association, is no negationist. As a historian, he knows Buzatu's definition is absurd. Yet as a politician representing his party's interests, he "winks" (to use again Cioroianu's metaphor) at the Romanian electorate, providing a referential framework he hopes will appease Western demands that Romania meet its responsibility in coping with its past, all while trying to keep it out of the earshot of domestic audiences. For, as former Foreign Minister Adrian Severin (a marginalized member of the PSD) pointed out, the Holocaust cannot be perceived in terms of "territoriality," since universal human norms are never "territorial." Severin might have been correct in concluding that what the government's press release of 12 June did was not to call into question the Holocaust, but rather to call into question the "seriousness, profundity, and professionalism of political leaders on the banks of the River Dambovita" ("Ziua", 18 June 2003).

One can therefore agree with the journalist Ovidiu Nahoi, who called the government's 12 June communique a display of "jugglery...aimed at attracting the supporters of the PRM on the side of the government and of the ruling party" while at the same time reflecting "the famous Romanian political inconsistency... [of] playing for both teams and speaking two languages at the same time." The Romanian leaders, Nahoi noted ironically, "proved to be really courageous: until NATO accession became a fact, they were all admitting the existence of the Holocaust; they were all more than willing to collaborate with the Holocaust Museum in Washington and to ban by law any manifestation, inscription, or monument having anything to do with Antonescu." However, "[O]nce the Americans ratified NATO's entry, there was no longer Holocaust on Romanian territory!" ("Evenimentul zilei," 17 June 2003). Precisely the same censure would be directed at Bucharest by Ioanid. The "explanations" provided by Theodorescu, Ioanid said in an interview with the BBC, were a display of "duplicity." In the months ahead of NATO's Prague summit, he said, one heard no such statements; the opposite was heard whenever Nastase and Iliescu were speaking up. "We would not agree to play the game of having Bessarabia and Bukovina belong to Romania when they like it, but not belonging to it when it comes to the Holocaust -- not to mention Transnistria, which was under Romanian jurisdiction" ("Cotidianul," 18 June 2003).

The conclusion, then, was singularly simple: the "change" of heart on the eve of the NATO invitation, embodied as it were in Ordinance 31/2002, had been simulated. The "simulated change" and the "change to change" were no displays of ignorance but a shipment of radically different "goods" at radically different times to radically different clients. In a book published many years ago, I pointed out that Ceausescu's Romania was employing a policy of simulated reform at home and of a "simulated presence" in the Warsaw Pact (Shafir, 1985). On the eve of Romania's accession to NATO, it would be too early to speak of a simulated presence in the Atlantic alliance. Eagerness to ensure accession has turned Romania into a leading contributor to NATO-led international military (or "peacekeeping," as they are oddly called) missions. But is it too early to speak of a simulated presence into the organization's democratic values?

The author is grateful for having been granted the permission to publish this abridged version of his article ahead of the appearance of its full version in the Romanian journal "Xenopoliana. Buletinul Fundatiei Academice A. D. Xenopol", Vol. XII, 2003.

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