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East European Perspectives: November 26, 2003

26 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 24


By Michael Shafir

5. Deconstructing The Trivialization Misconstruction

I understand "comparative trivialization" to be the willful distortion of the record and the significance of the Holocaust, either through the "humanization" of its local record in comparison with atrocities committed by the Nazis, or through comparing the record of the Holocaust itself with massive sufferings endured by local populations or by mankind at one point or another in recorded history (Shafir, 2002, p.60). As I pointed out above, Iliescu's interview with "Ha'aretz" indulged in both deflective negationism and denial by comparative trivialization.

In stating, "The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way," Iliescu, as Andrei Cornea would eventually observe, was embracing the postures of his adversaries on the political right (and particularly the radical right), who repeatedly accused Jews of an attempt to "monopolize suffering." In Marxist-like manner, I would add, the president was setting the record of World War II "on its feet," as it were. This dialectical game was by no means novel among those who share communist roots. Right after the war, Soviet authorities had vetoed the distribution of the famous "Black Book" by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vassily Grossman precisely because (according to Agitprop head G. Alexandrov), the tome reflected "the idea that the Germans murdered and plundered Jews only" (cited in Gitelman, 1997, p. 19). For propagandistic purposes, however, what was "unkosher" for Soviet eyes was deemed suitable for distribution among Western readers. Obviously, for a dogmatic Marxist like Alexandrov, who was Andrei Zhdanov's man in the Soviet apparatus at that time, annihilation prompted by racial struggle made no sense whatsoever, and the Nazi's war could have been driven only by class-struggle motivations. Throughout Soviet-dominated East-Central Europe, this perception of the Holocaust was reflected for many years to come, including at the Auschwitz memorial, where Jews ("zydi") were listed last in a "democratic" alphabetical order of "progressive" nationals from different countries who perished in that extermination center (Steinauf, 1996, pp. 117-118).

In his response to Iliescu's letter, Israeli President Moshe Katzav went to the core of the "comparative trivialization" dimension, writing:

"Many citizens of European countries were killed during the Second World War. The Nazi regime acted brutally toward many nations, but only the Jews were persecuted and massacred because of their origin and because of the morbid ideology called 'Racist Theory.' Not all the victims of the war were Jews, but all Jews were victims. This must be remembered. The Nazi genocidal plan was directed only at the Jewish people and the Nazis used the terrible expression 'Final Solution' [only] for the annihilation of the Jewish people.

"The Holocaust is a dark chapter in European and mankind's history. Denying the Holocaust, reducing [its significance] or the attempt to compare it with other tragic events is in contradiction with historic truth and a serious offense at the address of victims, of the legacy of the Holocaust and endangers the struggle against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Depicting Europe as a whole as a wartime arena of assassinations shrinks the historical responsibility for the terrible occurrence whose significance must be faced by all European nations, Romania included" (Mediafax, 30 July 2003).

The significance of the Romanian president's comparative trivialization did not escape the attention of local observers. Journalist Dan Tapalaga went so far as to compare Iliescu with Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy, noting that they share a common communist past and the joint denial of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But while Garaudy had been sentenced for his claims, and his Holocaust-denying books had been banned, Tapalaga wrote, in Iliescu's Romania "Garaudy's books are on display at bookstands side by side with Iron Guardist books and nothing happens to their publishers" ("Evenimentul zilei," 30 July 2003). Historian Adrian Cioflanca ventured the opinion that Iliescu was giving vent to "a widespread [Holocaust]-minimizing attitude." It is not a "monopoly over suffering" that Jews are demanding, he wrote, but a recognition of the fact that Nazi ideology left no room whatsoever for any Jew to seek salvation by converting into a Nazi "New Man." Herein lies the difference been Nazism and communism, for "the aim of Nazi terror was extermination, not conversion; it was not aimed at individuals, but was relentlessly focused at a wholesale category of mankind" ("Ziarul de Iasi," 31 July 2003). Likewise, Cornea noted:

"[T]he Poles, the Czechs, the French, had not 'died in the same way' in World War II, even if they were interned by the Germans in camps or tortured. They died fighting on the front-line or were exterminated because they resisted or because they opposed Nazi occupation (sometimes with arms in their hands, as in the Polish insurrection). They were not gassed en masse AS POLES, CZECHS OR FRENCH for belonging (be it only through one out of four grandparents) to a 'race' considered by definition to be unfit to exist, REGARDLESS OF THE DEEDS OR MERITS OF THE INDIVIDUALS MAKING IT UP. In the case of the Poles, the Czechs, the French, there was no 'Final Solution,' no systematic, deliberate, complete extermination plan embracing the population singled out for that purpose -- men, women, children, converted Jews [side by side with] pious or assimilated Jews" (Cornea, 2003. Author's emphasis).

Cornea quite rightly insisted also on the fact that the reference to Iliescu's father having suffered like a Jew during the war, and having died as a result shortly thereafter, was another instance of "trivialization" by comparison. Romania's communists, he wrote (and Cornea's own father had been one of them), were treated by the Antonescu regime as "'normal' political prisoners in a state of military dictatorship involved in war against the USSR." The regime had neither forced them into "death trains," moving them on rail tracks until they suffocated or were forced to drink their own urine, as happened in the wake of the 1941 Iasi pogrom, nor deported a majority of them to Transnistria. "That Antonescu massacred the Jews under the PRETEXT of being communists is one thing, and it is another thing that those interned for genuine anti-communist conspiracy were not massacred at all, returning home [at the end of the war]," he noted (Cornea, 2003. Author's emphasis).

Indeed, as historian Serban Radulescu-Zoner would also observe, the "deportations to extermination camps in Transnistria had been carried out ON PURELY ETHNIC CRITERIA, without any previous sentencing. On the other hand, the several dozens of communists (the so-called anti-fascists) had been sentenced as Moscow agents, respectively as agents of the NKVD or the Comintern...and had the status of political prisoners (visits by relatives, food parcels, newspapers, books, and the right to refuse work)." The Targu-Jiu internment camp, where Iliescu's father had been detained, Radulescu-Zoner noted, was by no stretch of imagination a facility "where detention would be based on ethnic criteria, where a Holocaust-like extermination would be carried out, as was the case of Transnistria." The communists interned there, he noted ironically, "had been so badly treated" that once the front-line neared Romania's borders, "they all got out safe and sound and healthy and, with the help of the Soviet troops, imposed the 'red terror,' proceeding to set up extermination camps themselves" ("Romania libera," 30 July 2003). Indeed, it was from Targu-Jiu that Romania's future communist leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, would escape on the eve of the coup against Antonescu (one in which, incidentally, he played no role whatsoever). And, as one of the inmate-colleagues of both ofRomania's future communist leaders (Dej and Ceausescu) testifies in his memoirs, communists interned in Antonescu's prisons enjoyed preferential treatment and could engage in such activities as commerce, the profits of which were divided between prisoners and jailers. This was a far cry from what Jews and Roma deported to Transnistria had had to face. Furthermore, when some communists were sent from Antonescu jails to Transnistria, "selection," again, was along purely ethnic criteria (Campeanu, 2002, p.53).

Even Cristian Tudor Popescu (see above), while remarking that he did not agree with "the idea of Holocaust uniqueness," wrote that comparing deaths in the wake of time "spent in a DETENTION camp with the death of Jews systematically decimated in CONCENTRATION camps" was "false." The president's father, Popescu explained, "was a communist out of his own free will...[and] was engaged in dangerous politics as a prominent member of a...subversive political party directly led from Moscow, whose activity was overtly directed against the Romanian state. This was an assumed risk." Unlike him, the Jews sent "to Auschwitz or Birkenau were people picked up on the street, with no other fault but that of having been born Jewish" ("Adevarul," 29 July 2003. Emphasis in original).

But Cornea insisted on an additional, highly important aspect of Iliescu's interview with "Ha'aretz": by placing communist and Jewish victims of the Holocaust on a par with each other, Iliescu was unwittingly inviting a resurrection of the misplaced "Holocaust vs. Gulag competition." For, as Cornea pointed out, if the "relatively moderate" suffering of Antonescu's communist political prisoners was being placed on the same level as the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust, then -- were it only on grounds of sheer numbers -- the suffering and decimation of Gulag victims would certainly be a more legitimate comparison. As Mircea Mihaies, a Timisoara-based professor and journalist, put it:

"The truly shocking part of Ion Iliescu's irresponsible outburst is the negation of the Holocaust by comparing it with the suffering of underground communists. Not [by comparing the Holocaust with the suffering] of representatives of democratic parties sent to prison and exterminated by the communists, but [by comparing it] with [the suffering] of Bolsheviks in the service of a foreign power. In other words, it is Gheorghiu-Dej, who was justly sentenced for undermining state order who deserves compassion (and homage!) and not Iuliu Maniu, who died as a martyr in the Sighet prison! [The reader is invited to] compare the extermination regime of the 1950s with the internment of communist chiefs in camps where they benefited from all the rights of political prisoners, in order to grasp the colossal dimension of the ill will that animates Ion Iliescu throughout his far too long career" (Mihaies, 2003).

Likewise, journalist Tia Serbanescu -- hardly one who displays compassion for Holocaust victims in Romania, but an active militant for the condemnation of communist crimes -- would eventually note that Iliescu was "attempting to transform the communist henchmen into victims" and was thus guilty of "fraud" ("Curentul," 27 August 2003). The Golem had turned against its maker.

6. Deconstructing A Presidential Prevarication
It would be misleading to conclude that the media as a whole rallied against the government or the president's positions. The daily "Curentul" was noting on 17 June that the cabinet had run into trouble with Jewish organizations for "rightly denying the existence of a Holocaust in Romania between 1940-1945" and on 31 July was calling Katzav's response to Iliescu's letter "a gratuitous lesson in history." Another newspaper, the daily "Cronica romana," was dubbing "Ha'aretz" -- Israel's most liberal daily -- "a gazette with a strong nationalist orientation" (the description would fit hand in glove its crafters) and was accusing Iliescu's domestic critics of "inflating" a statement that "at no point minimized the suffering of the Jewish people" ("Cronica romana," 5 August 2003). In turn, Antonescu apologist Ion Cristoiu claimed that Iliescu had fallen into a "trap" set up with the purpose of forcing Romania to agree to Jewish property restitution. A "banal" case of misunderstanding that could have been easily clarified at diplomatic level, Cristoiu wrote, was thus being turned into an occasion to bash Romania's president. The Israeli government, he went on to conclude, would be well advised to ask itself if the "humiliating treatment of a state that stood by Israel in difficult times, risking its independence for Israel's survival, does not run the risk of hurting the Romanian people's sensibility" ("Jurnalul national," 4 August 2003).

With the benefit of hindsight, these appear to have been a prelude to the preparations of a presidential counterattack. On 15 August, the private Realitatea TV channel aired excerpts from the discussion on the treatment of the Holocaust in the media (see above) that had taken place 10 days earlier. In support of his argument that the presidential interview with "Ha'aretz" was part of a political calculation aimed at domestic audiences, Andrei Oisteanu had pointed out that presidential interviews with foreign journalists are not spontaneous events, but rather well prepared in advance, listing and agreeing on questions and clearing the final version of the interview ahead of publication. One week later, on 22 August, as Iliescu was visiting China, a grim-looking presidential office staffer, reading a statement under the presidential seal in the name of the "right of reply," denied on Realitatea TV Oisteanu's assumptions and went on to accuse the social scientist of being in league with "Ha'aretz" in a conspiratorial attempt to discredit Romania's head of state. What the initial presidential reaction to criticism at home and particularly abroad had described as "distortions" and citations taken "out of context" (see above) was now being turned into a well-prepared international Jewish conspiracy. Oisteanu does not know anyone on the staff of the Israeli daily, he told this author.

The same text (minus the mention of Oisteanu's name) would be released to the media by the presidential office three days later (Mediafax, 25 August 2003). In it, the Israeli daily and the journalist who interviewed Iliescu were accused of having committed a "fraud." The reporter who interviewed Iliescu, it was claimed, did not submit questions in advance, as is usual in such cases. Nonetheless, "out of politeness," the president agreed to respond to questions, provided the text would be submitted to his office ahead of publication, it was further stated. However, the journalist failed to respect the pledge, "responding to goodwill with ill will." The daily had thereby indulged into a "deplorable political provocation." What is more, such behavior was "unlikely to contribute to the traditional friendship between the Romanian and the Israeli people." Quite the contrary, it was likely to "boost suspicion and bring water to the mills of anti-Semitic elements and [encourage] anti-Semitic sentiments." The communique also added that, as a result of the scandal, President Iliescu had received many "solidarity messages" from Romania and from abroad, including some "whose [anti-Semitic] demeanor he does not share or approve of." The editors of the daily "Ha'aretz," and Oisteanu in the version broadcast on Realitatea TV, "and those caught in the trap of a provocation stemming from obscure interests are invited to meditation over the [possible] consequences of this politicking approach," the statement concluded.

It does not take a great connoisseur of anti-Semitism to observe that the presidential communique was imbued with anti-Semitic stereotyping. First, the international-conspiracy assumption; then the implication that the Jews themselves are guilty of creating and inflating anti-Semitism; and finally the use of terminology derived from the political discourse of the Iron Guard -- though stopping one step short of it: Indeed, whereas the Legionnaires used to speak of the "international occult," the presidential communique "merely" spoke of "obscure interests." There was also in it an implied threat, and, almost unavoidably so, the implied "I am not an anti-Semite but...." Does that make Iliescu an anti-Semite? No, not necessarily. But it does make him a "victim of his counselors" and -- assuming the statement had been cleared by the president before it was released -- it certainly shows him oblivious to anti-Semitic nuances; and as Adrian Cioroianu noted (see above), it reveals a head of state lacking the sensitivity and the political discourse suited for coping with these matters. We shall yet dwell on the reasons.

What is more, Iliescu was consciously inventing a scenario. On the very next day of the presidential communique, the daily "Evenimentul zilei" printed a transcript of the controversial parts of Iliescu's 25 July interview, publishing them under the headline "At The Age Of 73, Iliescu Is Lying!" The daily said it had received the tapes from Israeli correspondent Grig Davidovitz, who had interviewed the president, and went on to place the tapes of the filmed interview on its real-audio website ( (see "Evenimentul zilei," 27 and 28 August 2003; "Romania libera," 28 August 2003). Davidovitz told "Evenimentul zilei" that he and "Ha'aretz" are "100 percent" abiding by the rules of professional journalism. He also denied there had been an agreement to have the interview cleared prior to publication. It was true, he added, that Iliescu made that request after the interview ended, but weeklong attempts to reach presidential spokeswoman Corina Cretu in order to satisfy the request had ended in failure. If anything, the transcripts published on 26 August in "Evenimentul zilei" show that Davidovitz softened the controversial 25 July presidential statements, rather than exacerbating them or taking them out of context. In turn, the "Ha'aretz" editorial board described the "fraud" allegation as "ridiculous and baseless." It added that the paper had "published his exact words," and that Iliescu had been "firm and consistent" in his comments about "the Holocaust and the Jewish tragedy." And it then noted that it was "mystifying that the president chose to wait for a full month after the interview was published in "Ha'aretz" before issuing a statement refuting it."

Any guess is as good as any other as to why Iliescu chose to do so. The daily "Curentul" believed it found the answer in the intention of Democratic Party Deputy Chairman Emil Boc to launch a procedure for Iliescu's "suspension from office" on the grounds that he broke provisions in Ordinance 31/2002 ("Curentul," 26 August 2003). As nothing in that party's record shows the Democrats being either very democratic or much of a party, the explanation was tempting: The Democrats might be seeking to build abroad the political capital they are lacking at home. This would explain Iliescu's outburst against "politicking." But the explanation collapses when one realizes that the text of the presidential communique had first been aired on Realitatea TV on 22 August, while Boc announced his planned initiative on 24 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 August 2003).

If anyone was "politicking," then, it was Iliescu himself. In so doing, he had overstepped the bounds of "mere" utilitarian anti-Semitism. That he was courting a certain segment of the Romanian electorate, that he was winking once more at that segment, and that in so doing he did not hesitate to prevaricate are beyond dispute. What is disputable, however, is to what extent Iliescu and other Romanian politicians are aware of the implications of their political behavior, and whence that behavior might derive.

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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