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East European Perspectives: October 13, 2004

13 October 2004, Volume 6, Number 19


By Zoltan Tibori Szabo*

Transylvanian Jews and Communism

The survivors of the Holocaust had several expectations from the new authorities: the abolition of anti-Semitic legislation; the restitution of their movable and immovable assets; compensation for nonreturnable goods; and a contribution to the reorganization of community life. Some of these requests were fulfilled, but the restitution of property encountered many obstacles and proved to be a difficult process.

Because of the wartime circumstances, there was a general scarcity of goods and many of the returning survivors had restarted their commercial and handicraft activities. These entrepreneurs were almost immediately labeled as "speculators" taking advantage of an unfortunate situation, against whom "class struggle" must be waged.

The authorities disseminated rumors describing Jews as collectively engaged in "black marketeering." Prime Minister Petru Groza, in an apparent attempt to shake off his reputation of a philo-Semite, refused some of the survivors' requests on grounds that "the Jews cannot ask for privileges just because they are Jews." He called upon the Jewish leaders to put an end to the "outrageous lifestyle" of their brethren. "The cafe bars are filled exclusively with Jews," he said, professing fear that this would reactivate the allegedly obliterated chauvinism and anti-Semitism (Arhivele, 1945, pp. 36-37).

On 19 December 1944 the "Monitorul oficial" (Official Gazette) published Law No. 641, which abolished all racial legislative measures and reinstituted all civil rights to Jews. This was a major positive step, but the Statute of Nationalities, enacted at the same time as this law, did not grant the Jews the status of a separate ethnic nationality. The issue had been debated by the leadership of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), and the possibility of recognizing the Jews as making up an ethnic minority was rejected outright. In fact, the PCR had long been determined to transform the Jews into an exclusively religious community. They were to become "Romanians of Mosaic faith" (see Neumann, 1996, p. 250).

Between 12-14 February 1945, the so-called Parliament of Northern Transylvania -- in fact a congress of the Northern Transylvanian branch of the National Democratic Front (FDN) -- was held in Cluj. The gathering elected a 22-member strong Central Executive Committee, which was formed by nine Romanians, eight Hungarians, one German, and four Jews. During the debates, the Democratic Jewish Peoples' Community (CPED) presented its demands and outlined its future strategies. The CPED pledged to back a FDN-led government and to militate for the annihilation of fascism and the exposure of wartime fascist criminals. At the same time, it demanded the calling to account and punishment of the illegitimate possessors of deported people's goods, the "retroactive abolition" of fascist and despoliation legislative measures, payment of compensation for damages suffered, and the restitution and reactivation of previously Jewish-owned means of production. It called for the punishment of those guilty for the Jews' tragedy; the bringing home of the deported; guaranteeing the rights of Jewish women; a large-scale agrarian reform; and the absolute liberty of conscience and religion. Furthermore, the organization called for the protection of unhindered freedom of emigration to Palestine and other countries; Jewish representation on local administrative, judiciary, and education bodies, as well as on local and central structures of public administration. Finally, the CPED pledged to fight against the emergence of the black market ("Erdelyi Szikra," 15 March 1945).

Because the communists and the FDN were the only political actors in the early postwar period that pledged to solve the nationality problem, many Jews enrolled in the PCR. The disillusionment that would later surface would be the result of the eradication of free commercial and handicraft activities by communist laws and methods, which left many Jews without any means of subsistence.

Since the communists had not managed to entirely subordinate the CPED to their influence, in August 1945 a Jewish Democratic Committee (Demokrata Zsido Komite [DZSK], in Hungarian, Comitetul Democratic Evreiesc [CDE], in Romanian) was formed for this purpose. This organization was entirely controlled by the PCR. In the beginning the committee was successful in solving certain fundamentally important issues for Jews. For instance, in February 1946 several favorable decisions were reached by the authorities: time spent in the Hungarian forced-labor units or in Nazi death camps was to be put on par with military service; the widows and orphans of the deported were to be provided with the same facilities as war widows and war orphans; 10,000 square meters of canvas were provided by the Public Supply Office for Jewish housing centers; Jewish possessions were excluded from the list of the Agency for Handling Enemy Assets (CASBI); and a fund was established from unclaimed assets of the deported who failed to return for the support of Jewish institutions. The committee also managed to persuade Prime Minister Groza and the Allied Control Commission to back a memorandum addressed to the Soviet authorities for the immediate release of Jewish prisoners of war (see details in "Igazsag," 14 February 1946). This was required because the Soviets' prisoners included not only Hungarian and German soldiers but also the Jewish men doing forced labor in Hungarian military units. However, this problem was not immediately solved. Two years after the first memorandum, the committee's Cluj branch would be forced to plead again for the release of those men (Rotman, 1994, p. 292).

Although the claim is repeatedly made that communism was brought to Romania by the Jews, this is hardly grounded in reality. While it is true that in the early years of the new regime many Jewish people occupied high positions in the government, the central authorities, the police force, the security police, and the leading bodies of the PCR (Ana Pauker, Leonte Rautu, Iosif Chisinevschi, Miklos Goldberger, Valter Roman, Gizella Vass, and others), proportionally over-represented relative to the country's total Jewish population, it is no less evident that the majority of the Jews -- craftsmen, merchants, members of the industrial and financial bourgeoisie, doctors, lawyers, and scientists with liberal beliefs, as well as many workers and unemployed people -- were extremely reluctant to join the party and on the whole wary of communist ideas (Neumann, 1996, p. 237). On 23 August 1944, the day Romania turned its army on former ally Nazi Germany, 300 out of a total of 1,000 PCR members were undeniably Jewish. Nevertheless, three years later, on 1 June 1947, only 4.16 percent out of the by-then ruling and 703,000-strong PCR were of Jewish nationality, almost 80 percent were Romanian, and 12.32 percent were Hungarian. After the party's 1949 ideological purging of "unreliable elements," the proportion of Jews shrank even further (Kuller, 2002, pp. 28-30). In February 1949, 10 percent of the staff of the secret police were Jewish. Romanian staff (83 percent) dominated, and the share of ethnic Hungarians was only 6 percent (Andreescu, Nastasa, and Varga, 2003, p. 26).

On 9 May 1946, the first issue of the weekly publication "Egyseg" (Unity) was published. It was subtitled: "The Central Magazine of Transylvanian Jewry." Its stated purpose was to support the PCR and its struggle against bourgeois forces. It was also the declared aim of the magazine to eliminate cooperation between the Jewish population on the one hand, and the religious communities and bourgeois forces on the other. Although the local CPED continued their work for the next few months, their role gradually diminished and the CDE took their place.

"Egyseg" was more than eager to follow up on its pledges. It started to present, in shocking reports, the alleged hopeless situation of the "aliyah" groups of Nazi-concentration-camp survivors who headed for Palestine via Italy ("Egyseg," 23 August 1946), the misery of Jewish migrants who were waiting in the Palestinian emigration centers of Western Europe ("Egyseg," 1 August 1947), the lack of information on the terrible conditions in transit refugee camps awaiting those trying to escape to Hungary, and the miserable living conditions of Jews who had reached a hunger-stricken Budapest, where poverty was widespread and nobody had time or the will to direct disoriented migrant Jews on their way to another country ("Egyseg," 15 August 1947). These conditions were implicitly being contrasted with those allegedly prevailing in the Autonomous Jewish Republic of Birobidzan in Soviet Russia (see for instance "Egyseg," 25 October 1946).

Starting with 1947, "Egyseg" published more and more articles urging the Jews to join in productive labor and the forging of the new society ("Egyseg," 24 October 1947). It also published "open letters", said to emanate from desperate people in Palestine -- after 1948, Israel -- warning that anyone seeking to emigrate would be committing suicide ("Egyseg," 2 January 1948).

Communist influence became even more apparent in 1948. By the end of the year, a furious campaign against all Zionist organizations had been launched. It was aimed at preparing public opinion for the dissolution of these organizations and the imprisonment of their leaders. "Egyseg" -- which changed its name in March 1949 and became "Uj Ut" (New Way) -- eagerly engaged in "illuminating" the "Jewish masses of workers" and in warning them against "the Zionist fallacies" (see, for example, "Egyseg," 10 and 17 December 1948, 14 and 21 January1949, and "Uj Ut," 11 March and 10 June 1949). Zionism would end up in being proclaimed "the twin brother of anti-Semitism" ("Uj Ut," 7 October 1949). This propaganda campaign misfired and it only contributed to convincing more Jews they should get out as soon as possible.

But the ultimate shattering of Jewish illusions on communism was brought about by the so-called restratification program, launched by the authorities after the 1948 nationalization of the means of production. The "restratification" strategy affected approximately 60 percent of the Jewish community: 35 percent of it was engaged in handicraft, 25 percent in commercial activities, 10 percent consisted of liberal professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.), while some 10 percent were of unidentified professions (Kuller, 2002, p. 65). After being subjected to "restratification," all of them were supposed to become employed by the state-owned industrial and agricultural enterprises.

On 11 June 1948, 1,609 large-scale enterprises were nationalized. As "worker directors" of these enterprises were appointed, there were Jews among them as well. For instance, in Cluj and in Cluj County there were 44 nationalized enterprises, with 32 Hungarian, seven Romanian, and three Jewish "worker directors" (Vincze, 2004). Nevertheless, Jews later began to be excluded from leading positions. The last Transylvanian Hungarian Jew working in the central administration, Sandor Jakab, undersecretary of the Ministry of Finance, was "released" from his position on 6 March 1952 ("Romaniai Magyar Szo," March 6, 1952), and was sent to prison for 20 years as part of the Pauker-Luca-Teohari Georgescu purges, which were also extended to Luca's main collaborators in the Finance Ministry. Jakab was amnestied in 1964. Luca himself was sentenced to death in November 1954, his sentence being commuted to life in prison; he died in the Aiud jail in 1963.

Another shock suffered by the Jewish community was the government's decision of 3 August 1948 to nationalize all Jewish schools -- alongside all other denominational educational institutions -- and to dissolve some of them.

All these measures contributed to enhancing the emigration drive and according to official figures, between 1950-52 110,000 Jews left for Israel (Kuller, 2002, p. 69). However, only 90,000 of them actually settled there; the rest went to different European, African, or South American countries or settled in the United States or Australia. At least one-third of the 110,000 were from Transylvania. The large number of officially permitted emigrants is evidence of the failure to integrate the Jewish population into the communist state-controlled structures of postwar Romania. This has to be acknowledged as a fact, in spite of such amusing incidents as the December 1948-January 1949 PCR-organized "red aliyah," which sought to train would-be emigrants in communist ideology and dispatch them to Israel to disseminate the doctrine in the Holy Land (Rotman, 1994, p. 315). A widely circulated anecdote had the emigrating Jews throwing their party cards overboard once the ship left the Romanian port of Constanta, and the Black Sea, turning into a second "Red Sea."

Earlier, and each for their own different reasons, both Transylvania's Jews and the PCR had welcomed the 29 November 1947 UN General Assembly resolution on setting up two states in Palestine and the May 1948 creation of the State of Israel that followed the UN decision. The communists were hoping that Israel would contribute to the struggle against the "imperialist camp" of which they regarded Palestine-ruling Great Britain as being the second-most-important member after the United States. Moscow and its satellite parties were expecting the new state to be part of their sphere of influence and were bound to suffer a quick disillusionment. On the other hand, for Transylvanian Jews these decisions had a much deeper meaning: the unrestricted and unequivocal acknowledgment of national identity and its free exercise.

The People's Tribunals, Intra-Community Accusations and Inquiries

On 21 April 1945, Ministry of Justice Decree No. 312 created the People's Tribunals. The trials staged on the basis of this decree brought to justice not only people directly involved in wartime anti-Jewish measures, but also those who, in the eyes of the new regime, were regarded as war criminals (including journalists who had supported the war, politicians, and other persons involved in the illegitimate appropriation of Jewish assets) (for details see "Igazsag," 1 July 1945). The tribunals were to a large extent set up on the model of the Nuremberg International Tribunal, where Nazi leaders were also accused of war crimes and of conspiring to demolish the legal state framework and to launch aggressive wars.

In Old Romania and Southern Transylvania, the People's Tribunals tried 187 cases in 1945 and 1946 (Vincze, 2004). While 29 defendants were sentenced to death, most of the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by King Michael I. In Northern Transylvania, 481 cases were brought to justice: 100 sentences were for capital punishment and 163 for life imprisonment. Of those sentenced, 370 were Hungarian, 83 German, 26 Romanian, and two were Jews. This count includes sentences pronounced by regular tribunals, after the disbandment of the People's Tribunals.

The Northern Transylvanian People's Tribunal was seated in Cluj and started its activities in July 1945 (for details see "Igazsag," 5-11 and 12-18 July 1945, 2-8, 16-22 and 23-29 August 1945, 23 October and 14 December 1945, and 25 March 1946). The first trial was held in early March 1946. The defendants were 63 people charged with crimes against Romanian and Jewish people committed upon the 1940 entry of Hungarian forces into Transylvania ("Vilagossag," 1 April 1946). The second trial dealt with the cases of 195 people officially involved in the implementation of the anti-Jewish measures in Northern Transylvania. The indictment and the testimonies brought to light the atrocities of the Northern Transylvanian Holocaust, the depredation of the Jews, their persecution and deportation (see "Igazsag," 12 April and 2 June 1946; "Egyseg," 23 and 30 May 1946). The verdict of the second trial was delivered on 22 May 1946.

The most important people among those indicted were convicted in absentia, as they had already left the country along with the removal of the Hungarian Army and administration. The People's Tribunal condemned in the so-called Ghetto Trial 30 people to death, 52 to hard labor for life, 18 to life imprisonment, 15 to 25 years of hard labor, three to 20 years of hard labor, eight to 20 years of imprisonment, one to 15 years of hard labor, 13 people to 12 years of imprisonment, and others to shorter periods of captivity ("Igazsag," 3 June 1946; "Egyseg," 6 June 1946). The sentences for incarceration in the Ghetto Trial (Group No. 2) added up to 1,204 years (Braham, 1983, pp. IX-X). Nonetheless, not even one person was executed. As of 1950, those sentenced to prison were gradually freed, as the "newly arisen, Soviet-type people's democracy" decided it could do well with some of their services (Braham, 1997, pp. 1273-1274).

On 22 August 1947 several cases on which prosecutors of the People's Tribunal's had concluded there were no grounds for indictment were reopened before regular tribunals and dozens of ethnic Hungarians were brought to justice. Separately, some survivors launched private suits against fellow concentration camp prisoners who had functioned as doctors or supervisors ("Kapos") in the death camps. Some of these accusations were brought before the court; others were tried by the so-called honor tribunals of the CPED.

Many among the survivors shared the belief that some of the leaders of Kolozsvar's (Cluj) Jewish communities had betrayed their people. To this day it is alleged that on the day before the ghettoization of the Jews, the Neolog chief rabbi, Mozes Weinberger (known today as Moshe Carmilly), while urging his believers to remain in their homes and abide by the measures imposed by the authorities, fled with his wife to Romania. Other members of the so-called Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee managed to illegally cross the border into Romania as well.

Separately, the members of the local Jewish Council also escaped in what to this day is considered by many to be one of the most shameful episodes of the Holocaust on the Jewish side. Rezso (Rudolf) Kasztner, a lawyer born in 1906 in Kolozsvar, made the arrangements directly with Adolf Eichmann. In exchange for a large sum of money paid to the Nazis, 1,684 Jews were rescued. They were transported by the Germans to the Bergen-Belsen camp en route to Switzerland. The wealthy members of the Kasztner group had paid large amounts to finance the escape of the others. The list of the 388 Transylvanian refugees included in the Kasztner group was compiled in the Kolozsvar ghetto, while the rest of the community's members -- who had no clue about the plan -- were being encouraged to wait patiently and not to attempt escape to Romania. They were also told that the Jews in the ghetto would be taken to Kenyermezo in western Hungary (which later proved not to exist) to perform agricultural labor.

Keeping the Kasztner transport secret was a matter of life and death. In 1945, the CPED set up an inquest commission with the specific purpose of inquiring into the facts of the Kasztner affair. The council found Kasztner guilty and also condemned the behavior of most of the Jewish community leaders of Kolozsvar (Tibori Szabo, 2001, pp. 50-51). Kasztner himself was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in Israel in 1957, as his case was under revision by the country's Supreme Court. Kasztner had appealed the verdict in a libel trial he himself launched in 1954 against one of his accusers and had lost the case, with the court ruling that he had "sold his soul to the devil." On appeal and after his death, the Supreme Court exonerated him of all accusations, except that of helping Nazis to escape justice after the war. Even today, the Kasztner affair is still a contested issue. Those who survived because of his actions consider the late lawyer a great hero, and compare him to Oscar Schindler.

Self-Determination Strategies and Identity Dilemmas

One of the main expectations of the Transylvanian Jewish population in the postwar period was that the new regime's assimilation strategy would make it possible for them to fully integrate into society, which had never been the case before. Between 1920-40, nearly the whole Jewish population of Transylvania could be viewed as constituting a religious minority within the larger ethnic Hungarian minority of Romania. Although the local authorities compelled them to send their children to Romanian schools, the majority of the Transylvanian Jews remained loyal to their Hungarian mother tongue and culture. Moreover, in the political arena, their support went mainly to ethnic Hungarian parties. The fact that after Transylvania's 1940 reincorporation into Hungary, the local Jews' allegiance was betrayed by Budapest's anti-Jewish measures greatly contributed to the trauma of local Jews.

A return to their former "double-minority" status, to employ the concept of the late Cluj sociologist Erno Gall, was out of question for most Transylvanian Holocaust survivors (Gall, 1997, pp. 641-660 and 1991, pp. 957-969). The old assimilation dilemmas came back to life, the insecurities characteristic of repressed communities became even stronger, and what might be called a "minority-status neurosis" caused serious psychological crises. There were four main possible options: a) to blend in with "the democratic masses of people" by taking advantage of the proclaimed internationalism and equality of rights; b) to assume a Romanian identity and entirely give up the past, either of which signified abandoning the Jewish identity altogether; c) emigration to Palestine (Israel), where one could transform oneself into a "Jewish Jew"; and d) emigration to another foreign country where one would embrace Western-style liberal positions.

In the early postwar period, many Jews chose one of the first two options or a combination of them. Among them, many now avoided the use of the Hungarian language and talked even to each other in Romanian. The Neolog Jews chose to have tombstone epitaphs written in Romanian. The fact that the majority of the Jews from wartime Romanian-ruled Southern Transylvania survived the Holocaust, while almost all the Jews from Hungarian-ruled Northern Transylvania were exterminated, served as an incentive for embracing either of these options.

For a segment of Transylvanian Jewry, "communism became the most radical way of everlasting integration" (Neumann, 1996, p. 249). The fact that the Romanian regime viewed the postwar Transylvanian Jews as the most ferocious enemies of Hungarian nationalism and territorial revisionism contributed to having Jews appointed to important positions necessitating PCR approval.

According to Gall, "all these considerations and viewpoints played a part in many abuses and mistaken cadre appointments and, on the whole, created revulsion" both among ethnic Romanians and ethnic Hungarians in postwar Transylvania. Furthermore, "the [former] persecuted often became excessive persecutors, those who endured hundreds of years of injustice engaged [themselves now] in committing wrongs or remained passive towards the injustices suffered by others" (Gall, 1997, p. 656). Another factor that deepened the gap between Jewry and the Hungarian population was the arrival of the Soviet Red Army: for Jews, it meant rescue, for Hungarians it brought the loss of national independence and the return to the difficult 1920-40 minority status, not to mention Soviet yoke (Neumann, 1996, p. 249).

The relevance of the third and fourth options increased in salience later, when the Jews realized that Romania had no intention of acknowledging the existence of a separate Jewish nationality; that anti-Semitism had not diminished and occasionally penetrated the higher spheres of the PCR as well; and that the new "restratification" strategy had left most of the Jews without any means of income.

Alternatively, there also were Jews who tried to overcome the endured psychological traumas and retain their Hungarian identity. Many of them were active in the left-wing-oriented Jewish organizations. This option was characteristic of the Transylvanian Jewish intellectual elite, which had based its self-determination strategy on the spiritually enriching coexistence of multiple parallel identities.


Some of the main problems of Transylvanian Holocaust survivors were: the question of homecoming against the alternative of emigration; the search for family members; the personal and collective struggle against the traumas caused by the Holocaust; the self-destructive examination of the reasons of the tragedy; the attitude towards those responsible for the suffered atrocities; their position towards the transformed political, social, and economical situation of the country; the recovery of assets that had been confiscated; the reconstruction of community life; accommodation with the new realities; and national-identity dilemmas.

At the beginning, many of the survivors enthusiastically supported the emergence of the new regime. They viewed the Soviet Red Army as savior and liberator. Later on, however, many Jews realized that the new Soviet-type society would never find an adequate solution to their specific nationality problem. Nationalist and racist intolerance, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism, although operating under reshaped forms, were still at work, in spite of being repeatedly castigated by the left-wing political forces that acceded to power in Romania and Northern Transylvania following the Soviet occupation. The final result was that the majority of Transylvanian Hungarian Jews opted for emigration, which they ended up viewing as the only possibility that would put an end to their long-lasting struggle, sufferance, and humiliation.

This does not imply that the emigration option was universally selected. Other available choices were made as well: for instance, to totally confide in the communist ideology and lifestyle; to assimilate unconditionally; to reject any national affiliation, etc. But all these other options were generally selected only by small sub-segments among the Transylvanian Jewish community and reflected particularistic grouping. There were many reasons for opting here or there in a politically, economically, and socially heterogeneous community as the postwar Transylvanian one.

At the end of the day, what might have weighed more than any other factor was the fact that while the wartime measures enforced on the Jews from Northern Transylvania on the one hand and Southern Transylvania on the other had similar purposes, their overall effect was quite distinct. The surviving Northern Transylvanian Jews had not only lost more relatives in the Holocaust than did the Jews of Old Romania and Southern Transylvania. They had been forcefully deprived of a cultural identity -- the Hungarian one -- which they had eagerly embraced, indeed had spread themselves among others (including lesser-educated Magyars). Only the tragedy of reformed German Jews is comparable.

*The author is a Cluj-based correspondent for the Hungarian daily "Nepszabadsag" (Budapest), and a columnist for the Hungarian-language daily "Szabadsag" (Cluj).


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