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Romania: Past Imperfect -- Role In Holocaust Only Reluctantly Admitted (Part 3)

Romanians lived under dictatorships for half of the 20th century, from 1938 until 1989. Now, more than a decade after toppling communism, they are still reluctant to discuss some of the darkest moments of their history, such as participation in the Holocaust under Antonescu, and Ceausescu's dictatorship. Amid a lack of information and growing poverty, many Romanians remain indifferent to attempts to rehabilitate the image of Antonescu or to present Ceausescu in a favorable light. RFE/RL looks at the possible causes behind Romanians' difficulties to come to grips with their past.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Twelve years after the fall of communism, many Romanians still appear unable to admit to their country's participation in the Holocaust under wartime dictator Ion Antonescu.

Amid economic hardships, many shy away from outrightly condemning Nicolae Ceausescu's national-communist dictatorship, which turned Romania into one of the most backward countries in the Soviet bloc.

The Romanian government's decision in March to make public denial of the Holocaust a punishable offense and to ban monuments to people guilty of crimes against humanity has again raised the issue of Antonescu's responsibility in the killing of Jews during World War II.

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase only recently admitted that Romania, as he put it, "must take responsibility for its past." But he also rejected what he called "attempts to blame the entire Romanian nation for atrocities committed by the country's wartime government."

Historian Istvan Deak from Columbia University in New York is a specialist in contemporary Central and Eastern European history. Deak told RFE/RL that many Romanians, including some historians, have an incomplete perception about what happened during the war. "I believe that the Romanians are generally not as well-informed on the events of Word War II than are, for instance, the West Germans. Many Romanians still cherish illusions regarding Romanian behavior during the war. A few years ago, I was at a historical conference in Bucharest. Of course, during the brief meeting, I wasn't able to talk to the people at large, but I did talk to some historians and was struck by their firm conviction that Romanian behavior during World War II was an admirable affair and that Romanian authorities and people protected the Jews," Deak said.

During the rule of Marshall Ion Antonescu, between 1941 and 1944, Romania was allied with Nazi Germany. Western historians say that in 1941 and 1942, more than a quarter of a million Jews from Romania proper and from territories under Romanian occupation in what was then the Soviet Union were killed.

But it must be mentioned that more than half of Romania's estimated 600,000 prewar Jewish population survived the Holocaust, in part because of Antonescu's decision in the fall of 1942 to cancel a plan to deport the Jews from central and southern Romania.

Antonescu was executed in 1946 after being found guilty of war crimes by a military court in Soviet-occupied Romania.

Deak said that Antonescu was a ferocious anti-Semite and, undoubtedly, a war criminal. But he added that Antonescu at some point realized that Germany was going to lose the war and spared the remaining Jewish population. "Antonescu was, I believe, a criminal who is guilty of both war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is responsible for the deaths of maybe half a million Romanian soldiers and for the deaths of over 300,000 Jews. I have no admiration for him, but I must admit that he was intelligent enough to understand by 1943 that the war was lost. He took steps to establish contact with the West. He also allowed other Romanians to have such contacts and began to protect those Jews who were still alive. Whether he did it out of opportunism or a change of heart, I don't know, nor do I believe that we will ever know," Deak said.

For decades during communism, Romanian historians highlighted the sparing of the Jews, ignoring the killings from 1941 to 1942. Romanians were taught that despite its ill-fated alliance with Hitler, their country managed to save Jews from extermination, only acknowledging some "isolated" incidents.

By contrast, they pointed a finger at neighboring Hungary, saying it was overzealous in sending its Jews to German concentration camps. Western historians say Hungary deported some 150,000 Jews from northern Transylvania during the Hungarian wartime occupation of this Romanian province.

Romanian historian Andrei Pippidi said Romania's official insistence on the saving of the Jews after 1942 could be interpreted as a sign of a guilty conscience. "My impression is that [Romanians'] refusal to discuss this issue shows a guilty conscience, which is not being confessed. Nobody really believed that [Romanians] were the saviors of the Jews, but in such circumstances, out of reflex, we are comparing ourselves with our neighbors and like finding ourselves in a better position. Thus, they always count the Holocaust victims in Hungary [as being more significant]," Pippidi said.

U.S. historian Deak said that while Romania's record is not the worst, Romanians must realize they have little to be proud of regarding their wartime acts. "In truth, protection was extended to the Jews of [the Romanian provinces of] Moldova, Valahia, Oltenia, and southern Transylvania during the last years of the war, which is certainly a respectable achievement. But, on the other hand, there also was the Romanian-initiated Holocaust in [the then-Romanian provinces of] Bessarabia, Bucovina, [and the Romanian-occupied] Transnistria and beyond, especially in 1941. So we might say that the Romanian glass is really half full and half empty. I feel that it is necessary for this information to be widely divulged so that the Romanians would understand they neither need to be more ashamed than other Europeans for what happened during the war, nor do they have a reason to be proud," Deak said.

Amid official silence, attempts by ultranationalist politicians to rehabilitate Antonescu's legacy enjoyed the occasional support of some army officials. Several monuments to Antonescu were erected and several streets were named after him, leading to protests from Holocaust survivors' organizations and Western officials.

Textbooks in Romania remained largely unchanged until 1999, when the history curriculum introduced the compulsory study of the Holocaust and the government gave teachers freedom to choose from a list of history texts.

However, some of the new high-school textbooks do not mention Romania's involvement in the Holocaust at all. Others, while speaking of atrocities committed during Antonescu's rule, highlight the sparing of Jews.

The few schoolbooks that mention the deportations and deaths of Jews estimate the number of victims in the "thousands" or "tens of thousands" without clearly stating who was responsible for the killings.

Historian Pippidi said that in the absence of an effort to help young people understand Romania's role in the Holocaust, the introduction of the subject in the curriculum, and the publishing of new history textbooks might be of limited use. "My impression is that it is very much something of a formality, because nothing prepares pupils and students to help them understand and adopt the ideas contained by such texts. Therefore, in my opinion, these [textbooks] are marred by formalism and are, in my opinion, a rushed imitation," Deak said.

Romanians appear largely indifferent not only to their wartime past but also to the more recent communist dictatorship of Ceausescu and to the bloody events that led to his overthrow.

For almost 25 years, Ceausescu and his infamous Securitate political police ruled Romania with an iron hand, impoverishing the country and isolating it from the rest of the world.

Securitate-linked historians, meanwhile, justified Ceausescu's policies before the impoverished Romanians through nationalistic propaganda depicting a glorious Romanian past and future grandeur.

A bloody uprising in December 1989 resulted in Ceausescu's overthrow and his summary execution.

Almost 13 years later, authorities have yet to determine who was responsible for the more than 1,000 deaths in the 1989 uprising or to answer charges that the revolt was orchestrated by communist apparatchiks.

Despite the belated opening last year of the Securitate files, there has been relatively little public interest in examining the acts of repression perpetrated by the political police.

Pippidi said no former Securitate members were prosecuted for their acts of political repression. "Not even one single trial has been initiated to prosecute [politically repressive] acts perpetrated by the Securitate or perpetrated by somebody personally accused of crimes committed while in the service of the Securitate," Pippidi said.

Deak said that for Romanians, examining the past is more difficult than for other countries that emerged from communism, not only because of Ceausescu's national-communist inheritance but also because of a tradition of nationalistic propaganda that goes back to the 19th century. "At the moment, the Romanians have more work to do than some others because of the terrible legacy of Ceausescu and, beyond Ceausescu, because of a hundred years of incessant chauvinistic propaganda perpetrated by Romanian politicians, journalists, writers, and other intellectuals," Deak said.

For Romanians to understand their past, Deak said, the country's historians must present an accurate and complex picture of events, while at the same time becoming more rational and self-critical.

But analysts have pointed out that even if the historical truth is established, in Romania, like in many other Eastern European countries, much will depend on finding better ways to disseminate this truth to the younger generations.