The presidential address was given to mark -- for the first time in Romania -- Holocaust Day. In May 2004, a government decision established that the day would be marked on 9 October, but commemoration was postponed this year to avoid violating the Jewish Sabbath.
Iliescu as well as former President Emil Constantinescu have on several occasions come close to acknowledging this shameful period in Romanian history, whether it was on International Holocaust Day (27 January, the day of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp) or on other occasions. Yet previous presidential addresses had always distorted the significance of the day, were it only for the fact that they began by emphasizing "rescue" rather than "perpetration" in a chronological aberration aimed at stressing the alleged "Romanian exceptionalism" among Nazi Germany's wartime allies.
But not so this time. Iliescu told the audience that this "shameful chapter in our recent past...must be neither forgotten nor minimized." Furthermore, he pointed out that such soul-searching self-examination is needed in order for Romanians to put the past behind them and to allow them to march on the road to "building a future and building ourselves." This, he said, is never possible, if "tragic events, on which a long and unjustified silence had been cast," are not recalled and properly commemorated. What was truly remarkable in the president's speech was how he distanced himself from the dominating trends in Romanian historiography that tend to place the blame for the Holocaust on Nazi Germany or, at best, on alleged fringe elements in Romanian society such as the Iron Guard. Under the apparent influence of some of his advisors, Iliescu himself has done exactly that in the past. This time he bluntly acknowledged that anti-Semitic legislation in Romania dated back to 1937 and that even before the war began Jews were subjected to severe policies of discrimination and exclusion from Romanian society, as well as to forced labor.
The president went on to describe the January 1941 pogrom in Bucharest and the June 1941 pogrom in Iasi, insisting at length on the deportation of Bessarabian and Bukovinian Jews to Transdniester, which began on 9 October 1941. This is actually the reason why, at the insistence of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and international Jewish organizations, the day selected to mark Holocaust Day is 9 October. The day thus symbolizes the state-organized Romanian participation in the perpetration of the Holocaust and not, as some had proposed in Romania, days marking pogroms or other dark events in which the role of state institutions is more difficult to precisely establish. It is for this reason that Romania would observe a day different from International Holocaust day, since Jews exterminated by Romanian authorities were not deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. That fate was met only by northern Transylvanian Jews, who at that time were under Hungarian rule.
Iliescu remarkably distanced himself from another self-exculpatory trend in modern Romanian historiography, one that emphasizes the second phase of the war, beginning in October 1942, when Antonescu gradually began to rescind the deportations and finally allowed those Jews who had survived the ordeals to return to Romania. He insisted that the change was not one of heart, but one reflecting developments on the battlefield: Antonescu began realizing that his country might lose the war and was hoping to thus hide the true dimension of the massacre. Yet, as he mentioned, over 250,000 Jews and more than 12,000 Roma had perished during the Holocaust. Here the president chose to stick to the lowest estimates of scholars, some of whom (as an official 11 October statement from the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest chose to use) assess the total to be more than 400,000, including Ukrainian Jews who perished at the hands of Romanian police and the military. The change in the tide of the war, he showed, explains the paradox of survival in Romania of a significant part of its Jewish population (some 400,000), whom Antonescu had originally decided to exterminate.
The speech also marks a great change for Iliescu, who had come a long way in his thinking himself. A rather careless remark he made in an interview with the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" in July 2003 created an international uproar, with the Romanian president perceived as indulging in comparative trivialization of the Holocaust. Being at the end of his presidential mandate, Iliescu was apparently sensitive as to how he would enter history, including international history. In an effort to mend his image, he established an international commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Elie Wiesel. The commission's conclusions are to be handed to the president next month. Earlier, the Romanian government had agreed with international Jewish organizations to establish a day for commemorating the Holocaust and to introduce into the school curriculum optional courses on the Holocaust. Indeed, according to Romanian media reports, the day was marked on 12 October in many Romanian schools. This, in fact, might be the most important aspect of the change -- educating people about and giving them an awareness of the past.
Could Iliescu's speech and other increased attention to anti-Semitic episodes in the country's past uproot Holocaust denial in Romania? Uprooting might be too strong a word. There are Holocaust "negationists" (particularly among the elder generation) who did not and would not give up their effort to deny the obvious. And they direct their effort with tenacity at the young generation. On the eve of the Holocaust Day commemoration, one of those deniers, university professor Ion Coja, organized a "countermanifestation" in Bucharest, where he launched a new book with his well-known contentions. According to a government ordinance from March 2002, Holocaust denial is now a crime in Romania. Perhaps now acts should follow Iliescu's remarkable 12 October speech.