Accessibility links

Breaking News

East European Perspectives: July 8, 2004

8 July 2004, Volume 6, Number 14


By Felicia Waldman*


As Israeli historian Leon Volovici pointed out in a recent article (Volovici, 2003, p.65), Romania is facing a point in time marked by the concurrent presence of both a prolific nationalistic media with strong anti-Semitic accents and a swell of events dedicated to the history of its Jews. This remarkable paradox is perhaps just one more example of the originality of Romania's postcommunist transition, the more so since the object of both trends is declining by the day: There are only about 9,000 Jews, most of them elderly, living in contemporary Romania.

After 45 years of "relative silence" imposed by the communists and eight more years of "relevant silence" imposed by the neocommunists, since 1998 the Holocaust has finally been a topic of mention and discussion -- but "in the third person," as it were: It's true, it happened, but not in Romania! "Relative silence" because under communist rule there were rare references to the topic, designed, of course, to deny or minimize Romania's official participation in the so-called tragic events, which were never labeled Holocaust; furthermore, communist historiography even attempted to justify the crimes by turning them upside down and presenting them as evidence of the state's care for its Jews, as Victor Eskenasy rightly points out (Eskenasy, 1994), exemplifying the distortion with Nicolae Minei's preface to a book by Aurel Karetzki and Maria Covaci, Zile insingerate la Iasi, 28-30 iunie 1941 (Bloody Days in Iasi, 28-30 June 1941, Bucharest, Editura Politica, 1978). The aim of this line of interpretation was to uphold the nationalistic feelings of the population (the Romanians, it was claimed, have always been a hospitable and kind people, and any excess that might have taken place must have been the act of others), particularly under Ceausescu's national communism; at the same time, the authorities sought to prompt a shift in the perception of Marshal Ion Antonescu's policies, and even rehabilitate them, in an attempt to swipe away King Michael's initiation of the palace coup of 23 August 1944, which had undoubtedly changed the course of the war and which the communists had falsely presented as their own achievement. This line was continued under the first mandates of President Ion Iliescu (1989-96), when monarchy was still perceived as a threat to neocommunist power. This explains, at least in part, the sudden explosion of interest and pride in Antonescu's actions and policies, and the emergence of so many organizations seeking to preserve his memory after 1989.

"Relevant silence" for -- unlike the pre-1989 period, when historians could risk presenting reality in a light different from the "party line" only with great difficulty -- after 1989 that danger had vanished; one's position was now but a reflection of the pursuit of personal interests and courage -- or lack of it -- reflecting the historians' approach to "delicate topics" in the country's remote or more recent history. Though many history-related works have been published of late, few Romanian authors deal with what happened to the Jews of Romania during World War II; even fewer do so in a scholarly manner. It further complicates matters that most of those who do so "happen" to be Jewish. This is happily counterbalanced by the presence of a good number of translations of internationally acknowledged works on the subject. On the other hand, Romania has been flooded by increasingly numerous publications (including newspapers, magazines, brochures, and books) that deny or minimize the Holocaust in general and its Romanian chapter in particular.

Official Approaches To The Holocaust
The first change in the official discourse occurred under the rule of the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). Under Law No. 16/1996, Israeli and U.S. researchers were granted access to the Romanian National Archives. The Holocaust appeared on the government agenda in 1998, following the appointment of Andrei Marga as education minister. The need to challenge misconceptions about the conditions and roles played by Jews in the country's past in general, and about the Romanian chapter of the Holocaust in particular, was now officially identified. A joint Romanian-Israeli commission of reputable historians tasked with making observations and policy recommendations for the improvement of elementary-school and high-school history textbooks was appointed, and Holocaust education was introduced in 1999 in pre-university curricula as a mandatory subject within the wider framework of World War II history. A series of ministerial orders and guidelines launched a reform of the education system and made available to editors and authors willing to propose textbooks specific guidelines and various teaching materials about the Holocaust collected from diverse institutions with relevant expertise in the field.

But as the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Not all textbooks include the subject in their treatment of World War II, although those textbooks were endorsed by the Education and Research Ministry. Teachers were even less willing to address the issue when discussing the last world war. One must take into account that even the most eager history teachers are put in the awkward position of having to teach something about which they know nothing -- or, worse, about which they are misinformed. Under the influence of communist education and a hectic media running from far-right extremism to philo-Semitism and with no expert guidance, they are "lost in transition." A national retraining program is clearly required, although this is admittedly no easy undertaking.

So what has been done so far?

After a bumpy start, with the introduction in elementary-school and high-school textbooks of uncontrolled references to the Holocaust that, as we shall see, have sometimes done more damage than good, things seemed to start moving slowly onto the right track. Sponsored by the Romanian government, an initial group of 20 history teachers and five students of Jewish studies from all over Romania was sent to attend a special course on the Holocaust organized at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Institution in Israel in the year 2000.

This trend continued for a while under the newly returned leftist government of the Social Democratic Party, with 25 educators attending a specially tailored program at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (CDJC) in Paris in 2001 and another 23 educators in 2003. Regular training sessions in Holocaust education started being provided to all interested teachers, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and CDJC, by the Moshe Carmilly Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History of the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj as of 2001 and by the Goldstein Goren Center for Hebrew Studies of Bucharest University as of 2002 (as of 2004, such sessions will also be provided by the Center for Research and Study of the Culture and Civilization of South-Eastern European Jewry of the University of Craiova and the Center for Jewish Studies of Al. I. Cuza University of Iasi). In turn, the Romanian Defense Ministry's National Defense College of introduced in its curriculum for the period 2002-07 a modular course in Holocaust studies. In June 2002, the Romanian Academy of Sciences organized together with the Culture and Cults Ministry a special session intended to forge an official position on the Romanian Holocaust; alas to no avail: Whatever the initial intention, the only common conclusion this elite group of Romanian historians managed to reach was that Antonescu had been a "tragic figure. " In July 2002, the Institute of Political Studies of Defense and Military History together with the Goldstein Goren Diaspora Research Center of Tel Aviv University and the Goldstein Goren Center for Hebrew Studies of Bucharest University organized an international symposium titled "The Holocaust and Romania. History and Contemporary Significance," to which messages were sent by the prime minister, the minister, and the state secretary. In October 2002, the Romanian education and research minister participated in a Ministerial Seminar on the Day of Remembrance in Strasbourg. In May 2003, the ministry organized in Bucharest a European seminar on Holocaust education with the assistance of the Council of Europe (which has included Romania in its program aimed at modernizing history teaching). Lectures, conferences, and various one-off events focused on the Holocaust would complete this rather idyllic picture.

Now let us look at the other side of the coin.

In March 2002, to secure Western goodwill before the NATO summit in Prague, the Romanian government issued Emergency Ordinance No. 31, "outlawing organizations and symbols of a fascist, racist, or xenophobic character and the promotion of the cult of persons guilty of crimes against peace and humanity." Article 6 provided for "six months to five years' imprisonment" for "the public contestation or denial of the Holocaust or its effects." Article 2 defined the terms used in this ordinance ("organizations and symbols of a fascist, racist, or xenophobic character," "persons guilty of crimes against peace and humanity") to designate acts prohibited under penal law but did not define the term "Holocaust" itself. Under the circumstances, the enforcement of Article 6 could generate arbitrary exonerations or abusive incriminations, so in May 2002 the Culture Commission of the Senate issued a definition ("the systematic massive extermination of the Jewish population in Europe, organized by the Nazi authorities during the Second World War."), probably aiming to introduce it into the text of the subsequent law during its debate in parliament. But the law has been postponed indefinitely, lest Western chancelleries discover the view of many legislators on such sensitive topics as the Holocaust in Romania, Antonescu's cult, etc. Thus, as Andrei Oisteanu underlines, the government ordinance remains an ineffective document being used only for statements asserting the existence of effective legislation to counter racism in Romania (Oisteanu, 2003, p.147).

In breach of its own ordinance, the Romanian government in June 2003 claimed in a press release issued after its weekly session that there had been no Holocaust in Romania. A week later, as a result of international and domestic pressure, the Romanian delegation to the OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism in Vienna issued a new statement recognizing the involvement of Antonescu's regime in the extermination of Romanian Jews. The delegation stressed Romania's antiracism legislation, as well as the mandated Holocaust education in schools -- introduced, in fact, by the current opposition while in power (in 1998, as mentioned above). Efforts were made by the Romanian delegation to convince its U.S. and Israeli counterparts that the whole matter was the fault of the minister for public information, who was then replaced (only to be appointed president of the Agency for Governmental Strategies). In August 2003, the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" published an interview with President Iliescu, who in turn made a series of controversial statements regarding the Holocaust and Jewish property in Romania (see Shafir, 2003). In early December 2003, during a sports competition in Germany, Alexandru Mironov, former presidential adviser to Ion Iliescu, told the competition's chairman of the referee commission that Jews are guilty over everything that is going wrong in the world today ("Romania libera," 4 December 2003).

The situation seemed to improve toward the end of 2003, however. In October, the Foreign Ministry organized jointly with the U.S. government through USAID and the Goldstein Goren Center for Hebrew Studies of Bucharest University an international symposium titled "Minorities, Cultural Heritage, and Contemporary Romanian Civilization" dedicated to the promotion of interethnic dialogue, whose central issue was the Holocaust. Also, the Romanian government sponsored the participation of a group of young politicians representing all major political parties in a weeklong seminar on the history of the Holocaust in Romania at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies in November 2003.

Moreover, following the international reactions generated by these unfortunate and disturbing actions, President Iliescu decided to initiate several measures meant to mend fences. The first such measure was the establishment in October 2003 of the so-called Wiesel International Commission for the Study of the Romanian Holocaust, which is led by Elie Wiesel and includes historians as well as public figures from Romania, Israel, the United States, France, and Germany. The commission convened in May in Washington, D.C., and is scheduled to meet again in September in Jerusalem and in November in Bucharest, when it is expected to finalize its report and hand it to President Iliescu ahead of the presidential election of November.

It is also worth mentioning that -- following similar actions launched in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia -- the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the "Targum Shlishi Foundation" in September 2003 finally launched "Operation Last Chance" in Romania. The project offers $10,000 rewards for information that might facilitate the prosecution and punishment of Nazi war criminals. As the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania National Director Marco Maximilian Katz shows (Katz, 2003), when presenting the project at a news conference at the Federation of Jewish Communities in Bucharest, the Wiesenthal Center's top Nazi-hunter, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, stressed the importance of the project in Romania, which since becoming a democracy has not investigated, let alone prosecuted, a single Holocaust perpetrator. Besides establishing a special "hot line," the project includes a special advertising campaign asking the public for information and aims to educate the population about crimes committed by the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators during World War II.

An additional step undertaken by the Romanian authorities at the urging of the Israeli government and the Wiesel Commission was to establish a date for the official commemoration of the Holocaust. Several suggestions made by the government were turned down, as they either fell during vacation time, when the event could not be marked in schools, or would have marked the Holocaust in connection with events that had nothing in common with Romania itself. Finally, it was agreed to mark Holocaust Day on 9 October -- the date when the first Jews were deported to Transnistria from Northern Romania proper.

A third measure, still mainly declarative, concerns the return of confiscated Jewish property.

The fourth and last measure refers to Holocaust education, the topic on which this article is focused. In what follows, it is my intention to present several facets of this endeavor. But first, a few words on public perceptions of the Holocaust seem to be in order.

The Holocaust In Public Perception
It is obvious that following 50 years of communist-induced ignorance and/or distortion of the Holocaust, the population might be inclined to perceive the sudden raising of the issue as stemming from an alleged intention to accuse Romanians collectively for its perpetration and might be inclined either to shrug off the issue or speak out contemptuously against it. Also at work are old, popular, and sometimes objectless anti-Semitic stereotypes that need to be overcome ("anti-Semitism without Jews," which is in fact mostly cultural in essence).

That said, one can easily identify the problematic issues that are still the object of endless debate among both the population and a certain category of historians and public figures. To sum those up, they are:

1. The inclination to minimize the number of Jews exterminated in territories administered by wartime Romania. Although there are no exact figures, Jewish historians' estimates vary between 250,000 (Ioanid, 1997) and 420,000 (Ancel, 2003). Romanian authors usually avoid assuming the Romanian authorities' responsibility for the Jews murdered in Transnistria and Ukraine, especially when they discuss the fate of Jews who were not Romanian citizens. They also prefer to avoid a serious discussion regarding the Romanian Jews who immigrated to France after 1940 and were handed by the Romanian authorities to the Nazis. Instead they prefer to emphasize the fact that, by the end of the war, 300,000 Romanian Jews (about half of the Jewish population of Romania in 1940) were still alive.

2. The inclination to avoid discussing the fate and the suffering of the Jewish population living within the present borders of Romania and to minimize the importance of anti-Semitic and racist legislation, and of anti-Semitic attitudes of the political and cultural mainstream, between 1918 and 1944. Issues such as the loss of citizenship and right to work, forced labor, property confiscation, destruction of synagogues, and so on are barely mentioned.

3. The role of the army and of the national gendarmerie (and in some cases, of parts of the civil population) as perpetrators, the moral guilt of the Orthodox Church and of political parties, and the role of civil population as bystanders are not taken seriously into consideration.

4. With but a few exceptions, the fate of the Romany population does not engender interest among historians and politicians.

5. The definition of the Holocaust proposed by what Shafir (2003) calls the "selective negationists," such as Senate Deputy Chairman Gheorghe Buzatu (himself a historian) exonerates for all practical purposes Romanians from participation in the Holocaust, as it defines the Shoah as having been only Nazi-perpetrated. The same selective negationists, on the other hand, insist on the fact that Romania and Antonescu refused to hand over the country's Jewish population for deportation by the Nazis while barely mentioning deportations by Romania of Jews to Transnistria or pogroms against the Jews on Romanian territory proper.

6. The inclination to leave Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria outside discussion when debating the issue of the Holocaust in Romania (understood in restrictive geographic terms), although at the time (1941-44) those territories were under Romanian military and civilian administration.

7. The issue of the (never implemented) postwar restitution of confiscated Jewish assets and postcommunist restitutions and reparations for the victims of the Holocaust and for Jews whose properties were liquidated under nationalization. As President Iliescu said in his interview with "Ha'aretz," Jews are entitled to compensation for confiscated property, as are all Romanians, but the country is poor and one should not give Romanians the feeling that Jews want to "squeeze it out."

8. The moral and collective responsibility of the Romanians. The debate on the Holocaust, the cataclysmic defining event of our time, which raised new moral imperatives for society and its present immediacy, bothers many as it involves forms of moral condemnation. Thus some historians and politicians admit there might be a case for individual responsibility of Antonescu and his supporters but stop short of admitting that national responsibility (to distinguish from collective guilt) derives from the former.

*Dr. Felicia Waldman is a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish thought at Bucharest University and director of the Bucharest-based think tank IDEE.


Ancel, J., 2003, Contributii la istoria Romaniei: Problema evreiasca 1933-1944 [Contributions to Romania's History: The Jewish Problem, 1933-1944], Part 2, Vol. 2 (Bucharest: Editura Hasefer)

Eskenasy, V., 1994, "The Holocaust and Romanian Historiography" in Braham, Randolph L. (ed.), The Tragedy of Romanian Jewry (New York: Columbia University Press).

Ioanid, R., 1997, Evreii sub regimul Antonescu(Bucharest: Editura Hasefer).

Katz, M. M., 2004, "Anti-Semitism in Romania, 2003. Report of the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania (affiliated to ADL)," available at,

Oisteanu, A., 2003, "Holocaust: Definition Attempt," in The Holocaust and Romania. History and Contemporary Significance (Bucharest, Editura Semne '94).

"Romania libera" (Bucharest), 2003.

Shafir, M., 2003, "Deconstructing Holocaust Denial: Romania's Cucumber Season Revisited," in "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," Vol. 5, Nos. 22-25.

Volovici, L., 2003, "Evreii in Romania post-Ceausescu: 'centralitate' si fobie," [Jews in Post-Ceausescu Romania: Centrality and Phobia] in Identitatea Evreiasca si antisemitismul in Europa Centrala si de Sud-Est [Jewish Identity and Anti-Semitism in Central and South-Eastern Europe] (Bucharest: Editura Meta).