BUCHAREST -- In late April, the Washington National Cathedral unveiled a stone carving of Holocaust survivor and longtime political activist Elie Wiesel to honor his legacy as an international human rights defender.
But in the Nobel laureate's birthplace of Romania, Nazi-allied leader Marshal Ion Antonescu -- a man who sent hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths -- has streets named after him.
There are, in fact, at least 17 places in the country with streets, busts, or institutions named after war criminals, according to the Elie Wiesel Institute for the Study of the Holocaust.
They include Antonescu, a Holocaust perpetrator who was executed in 1946 after his conviction by a People's Tribunal for war crimes and treason, among other crimes; Radu Gyr, a poet who supported a fascist paramilitary group known as the Iron Guard; and far-right philosopher and politician Mircea Vulcanescu, who served in Antonescu's government.
The streets and busts exist despite a 2002 law making it illegal to honor war criminals or people connected to the country's fascist regime during World War II, when Antonescu ruled and hundreds of thousands of Romanian and Ukrainian Jews living in areas controlled by Bucharest were killed.
"The Antonescu regime...killed the highest number of Jews in Europe after Nazi Germany," Alexandru Muraru, the Romanian government's adviser on anti-Semitism, told RFE/RL. "Romania wasn't merely a Nazi ally, it was the most important ally and was involved on a significant scale -- compared to other Nazi allies -- in the plan to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe."
Romania's Black Sea port of Constanta has had a Ion Antonescu Street since 2000.
Mayor Vergil Chitac was asked about the controversial figure in February, and he replied that there were "various contradictory evaluations" of Antonescu, who, he said, had "a mixed record." The remark was perhaps a reference to Antonescu's ban on the deportation of Jews to concentration camps after 1942 -- to the displeasure of Nazi officials -- after the reported intervention of Romania's royal family.
The Elie Wiesel Institute said it was "disturbing that the [Constanta] mayor...considers the law that makes it illegal to name streets after war criminals merely optional," local media reported.
Chitac later said his comments had been distorted and insisted he wanted to change the name of the street, though it's a complicated process. Constanta city spokesman Alin Vintila told RFE/RL on May 5 that steps were in fact being taken to change the street's label and it was just "a matter of time."
Vintila added, however, that "the locals are more interested in getting their street asphalted than changing its name."
Israeli Ambassador to Romania David Saranga said he was "shocked and disappointed" by Chitac's comments. "These kinds of statements minimize the suffering of the victims of the pogrom in Iasi, the death trains, and the deportations," Saranga added.
Denying The Holocaust
A 2015 law makes denial of the systematic murder of Jews by Nazi Germany a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. But many say the law is rarely enforced and toothless.
"We have a single case of a former intelligence officer who got a suspended sentence for publicly denying the Holocaust," said Muraru, who advises the prime minister on ways to fight anti-Semitism and preserve the memory of the Holocaust and the communist era after World War II.
"There are 40 cases in all [of Holocaust denial], of which 15 are classified or won't be prosecuted," he added. "Prosecutors don't have the necessary skills [to try these crimes]. They are lacking in what we call good practice in preventing and combating anti-Semitism in an EU state."
The emergence during the December parliamentary elections of a far-right populist party as a major political force in Romania brought anti-Semitism, homophobia, and nationalism to the fore, and has seemingly provided political cover for such views.
After a poor showing in the fall 2020 local elections, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (whose acronym, AUR, means "gold" in Romanian) placed a surprising fourth in the nationwide vote for parliament.
The AUR capitalized on frustration with the government's handling of the pandemic and tapped into latent populism and xenophobia that hadn't been represented in parliament for many years. "The ongoing health and medical crisis brought an extremist, radical right-wing party into the public space with maximum visibility," Alexandru Florian, director of the Elie Wiesel Institute office in Bucharest, told RFE/RL on May 12.
The AUR currently holds about 10 percent of the seats in each house of Romania's parliament.
Jewish Theater Incident
On March 27, Maia Morgenstern, a well-known Romanian actress and the director of Bucharest's Jewish State Theater, received an e-mail with anti-Semitic content that included death threats to her and others. The message threatened to kill her and her children "by throwing her into a gas chamber" and to set fire to the Jewish theater.
It was signed "on behalf of the AUR," although party leader George Simion rejected such a link and urged officials to find and punish its author while stating his support for Morgenstern.
Some have suggested that the letter was an effort to smear the AUR. One man has been detained in connection with an investigation into the case.
The 59-year-old actress, who is internationally known for playing Mary in Mel Gibson's 2004 biblical epic The Passion Of The Christ, declined to comment on the case for RFE/RL, citing the ongoing investigation.
Bucharest district Mayor Radu Mihaiu said: "This is not primitive evil, it's elaborated evil. It's evil with historic and cultural references. An educated evil."
Romania's parliament also condemned the incident and other anti-Semitic acts in a March 31 vote, according to RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
Maximillian Marco Katz, an activist, said it took someone of Morgenstern's notoriety to open people's eyes to the issue. "It takes a public person for society to be shocked. When it happens to the [unknown] Jew, nobody says anything," said Katz, who heads the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in Romania. "There are fewer than 2,000 Jews in Romania, and you have plenty of anti-Semitism," he told RFE/RL.
Morgenstern also condemned another anti-Semitic incident that had upset her in recent months. She said that on March 19 a public official addressed her using a pejorative term for Jews during a meeting between the theater director and local officials that week.
Morgenstern said an unnamed individual turned to her and said, "Let's do that, jid," using a racial slur in Romanian. She said she was shocked and the person later brushed it off as a "joke."
"I froze. 'What did you say?' The response that came immediately was relaxed. 'Hey, don't get upset. I said it as a joke.'"
She said she was especially upset that such a comment came at an official meeting and from someone "who works in the field of culture."
No one else present seemed bothered by the comment, she wrote on Facebook.
Romanian director Victor Ioan Frunza called it "an unacceptable racist remark," while actor Marius Manole said he had no tolerance "for any form of racism."
Holocaust: Optional Subject
The Holocaust is an optional subject in Romanian schools, contributing to a hazy and incomplete knowledge of the horrific event, Muraru and Katz say.
"Most of the parents say, 'Why should my kids learn about the Jews? Let them learn math and physics,'" Katz said. "The Holocaust is a big issue, treated in a superficial matter," he added. "Many [students] learn that the Holocaust was done by Nazi Germany and that's it. They don't learn about Antonescu, the pogroms, the trains of death. This is not shocking, this is reality."
"The government can make 20 strategies [for learning about the Holocaust], but if judges, lawyers, and teachers know nothing about it, how can you expect them to teach kids what they don't know about?"
Muraru, who was appointed to the newly created post of special representative for promoting the policies of memory, combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia in January, also said it was concerning that many Romanians don't know how deeply implicated their country was in Nazi-era genocide.
In a survey on the Holocaust released on May 12, one-fourth of respondents said they didn't know or couldn't say exactly what the Holocaust was. Another 35 percent said they couldn't identify the Holocaust's significance for Romania.
"Romania has the moral, political, and historical duty to be vigilant.... This doesn't mean today's population should be blamed, but it does bring into the discussion a certain moral culpability," Muraru said.
Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany until August 1944, when it changed sides. Under Marshall Antonescu, an estimated 120,000 Jews were deported from Romania to Transdniester in the Soviet Union. Many of the Romanian Jews eventually killed in Nazi concentration camps were deported in 1944 by the Hungarian government, which had annexed northwestern Romania four years earlier.
The Elie Wiesel International Committee for the Study of the Holocaust published a report in 2004 saying that Romanian authorities were directly responsible for the deaths of 280,000-380,000 Jews and about 11,000 Roma from 1940 to 1944.
Many of them were victims of pogroms such as the 1941 killing of almost 15,000 Jews in and around the city of Iasi. Many others died in labor camps or on death trains.
A survey by the Avangarde market-research institute carried out in April-May showed that just 3 percent of respondents mentioned pogroms and 4 percent knew of the deportations of Jews to the Soviet Union. About one-fourth said the Holocaust in Romania only meant the deportation of Jews to camps in Nazi Germany.
Some 72 percent said Nazi Germany was responsible for the Holocaust in Romania, while 57 percent acknowledged Antonescu was also to blame.
Romania's Jewish population plummeted from 800,000 before World War II to fewer than 10,000 today. Muraru said there were now just 3,500 Jews in the country.
The AUR routinely rejects accusations that it is anti-Semitic. But Muraru called it "a neo-fascist party that is neo-Legionnaire and anti-Semitic," and said it should be isolated. "For weeks, this political group tried to rehabilitate war criminals and crimes against humanity.... Unfortunately, a number of [political] leaders had a weak reaction."
The AUR announced on May 5 that it would run in the July 11 parliamentary elections in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
The party posted a picture of Muraru on May 9 on Facebook, saying that "he is a foreign agent infiltrated into the structures of the state systems." The post asked readers to decide "whose interests" Muraru was serving, in what some saw as a veiled reference to Jews.
Claudiu Tarziu, the joint chairman of AUR, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Wiesel's family was sent to camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his father, mother, and younger sister were killed. After the camps were liberated, Wiesel went on to author 57 books, including Night, about his experiences during the Holocaust.
He became a human rights champion and was the founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and died in 2016, aged 87. In August 2018, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared outside the house in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei where Wiesel was born. One message said that Wiesel was "in hell with Hitler."
But a bust of Wiesel was unveiled in Bucharest two months later, on national Holocaust Remembrance Day. And anti-Semitic incidents are certainly not limited to Romania.
A senior EU official on May 14 condemned what he said had been an outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks against European Jewish communities and buildings in the 27-country bloc. Margaritis Schinas, the vice president of the European Commission charged with promoting a European way of life and fighting anti-Semitism, urged EU member states to take action. "Deeply concerned by the recent attacks against Jewish communities and premises in the EU," he tweeted. "These are clear manifestations of anti-Semitism which need to be loudly condemned."
Schinas told AFP he was responding to reports of hostility targeting Jewish communities in Germany, Austria, Spain, and the United Kingdom.