Ransom of the Jews: The Story of Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel

Ransom of the Jews: The Story of Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel

by Radu Ioanid

After 1948, the 370,000 surviving Jews of Romania became one of the main sources of immigration for the new state of Israel. With the exception of a period in the early 1950s, almost all Romanian Jews left their homeland in several waves to settle in Palestine and Israel. Behind Romania's decision to allow its Jews to leave were practical economic and political


After 1948, the 370,000 surviving Jews of Romania became one of the main sources of immigration for the new state of Israel. With the exception of a period in the early 1950s, almost all Romanian Jews left their homeland in several waves to settle in Palestine and Israel. Behind Romania's decision to allow its Jews to leave were practical economic and political reasons: Israel paid for them, and Romania wanted influence in the Middle East. The trade satisfied both states and is still considered a highly confidential matter. In The Ransom of the Jews, Radu Ioanid of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum traces the intriguing story of this secret exchange. Drawing upon restricted archival records and interviews with agents and others directly involved in the operation, he describes how Israel—not without second thoughts—traded cash, agricultural products, and sometimes political influence to ensure the emigration of Jews from Romania. The price was $2,000 to $3,300 per head, and also involved trade and loan considerations. This privileged relationship between the two countries allowed Israel after 1967 to maintain in Bucharest its only embassy in the East European Communist bloc. It also permitted Nicolae Ceausescu, the anti-Semitic Romanian president, to emerge as a mediator in the Middle East peace process, in which he hoped to use Israel to improve his own relations with the United States. In 1978, during the Jimmy Carter administration, Mr. Ioanid reveals, Washington learned of the sale of Romanian Jews to Israel but turned its eyes for reasons ostensibly related to its policies toward the Soviet Union. In all, some 235,000 Jews emigrated from Romania to Israel under the agreement, which ended with the fall of the Ceausescu regime.

Editorial Reviews

Jewish Book World
A concise chronicle.... This book tells an exciting story of daring, steadfast commitment to the rescue of entrapped Jews...
…Intriguing story…
Andrei Codrescu
This is one of those rare books that is both an invaluable primary source and an occasion for profound thought.
Jurnalul National - Marina Constantinoiu
…Important as an official report…
Forward - Gal Beckerman
Ioanid doesn't shy away from telling us who Ceausescu really was…. Ioanid does a good job explaining th[e] context.
Montreal Gazette - Baruch Cohen
“A fascinating story, written by the energetic and knowledgeable Radu Ioanid. The book is a shattering document, a story superbly told, as well as an opportunity to learn about the vicious character of the anti-Semitic face of Romania's Communist leaders. It should be translated into Hebrew, so that the second and third generations of Romanian Jews in Israel, will know how their grandparents and parents were treated by their “homeland.””
Times Literary Supplement - Dennis Deletant
Ioanid writes with verve, enlivening his narrative with generous quotations from people he has interviewed, from all sides, who were directly involved in the deals, and from memoir literature. There are several comic cameos, such as the temporary loss in Zurich Airport of a suitcase containing $1 million in ransom money. But, as Andrei Codrescu, who was among the Jews ransomed by Israel, writes in his endorsement, Radu Ioanid's finely researched book highlights the ambiguity of a morally reprehensible policy that resulted paradoxically in freedom for many.
CHOICE - J. Fischel
An important book.... Recommended.
International History Review - Dov. B. Lungu
Provides the first comprehensive treatment of the most vexing problem of twentieth-century Israeli-Romanian realtions and its international ramifications.
Bookpleasures.com - Norm Goldman
A remarkable and engrossing read…[The Ransom of the Jews] will give readers an excellent perspective.
Journal of Cold War Studies - DRAGOS PETRESCU
Fascinating reconstruction...sheds valuable light on this complicated and shameful chapter in the history of Communist Romania.
Dennis Deletant
"Ioanid writes with verve, enlivening his narrative with generous quotations...and several comic cameos."
Times Literary Supplement
Marina Constantinoiu, Jurnalul National
"...Important as an official report..."
Baruch Cohen
"'The Ransom of the Jews' is an incredible story."
New for Members of the Tribe
Publishers Weekly
Ioanid (The Holocaust in Romania) sheds light on an extraordinary, little-known and shameful episode that explains some mysteries of international affairs, such as why Romania was the only Soviet bloc country to maintain relations with Israel after the Six-Day War. Drawing on interviews and on highly classified Romanian documents, Ioanid relates how Romania in the 1950s and '60s demanded payments in cash and goods from Israel in exchange for the emigration of Romanian Jews to the Jewish state. A historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ioanid places these events in the context of a cash-starved Romania, turning away from Russia and eager for Western trade, oil-drilling equipment and agricultural goods. In the late 1960s, the human trade allowed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his family to build their private bank accounts. "Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities," the dictator said in the mid-1970s. He insisted the payments per Jew be determined by his or her "education, profession, employment, and family status." Ioanid carefully follows all the ups and downs in negotiations and relations between Israel and Romania, and the impact of protests from Arab countries and Western demands for human rights. Ioanid does a service in reporting on this sordid tale of exploitation and the trade in human beings. (Jan. 22) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This work confronts Romania's troubled relationship with its Jewish population, detailing for perhaps the first time the country's selling (or "ransom") of its undesired citizens in the postwar period. Ioanid (director, International Archive Programs, U.S. Holocaust Museum; The Holocaust in Romania) has carefully documented how Romania's regimes, particularly those of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu, demanded payment (i.e., equipment, products, loans, or cash) from various countries before allowing its Jewish (and ethnic German) citizens to emigrate. Under Ceausescu, the price for a Jewish Emigre averaged $2700 and was considered reimbursement for the individual's "education and health expenses." According to Ioanid, Israel became the primary uneasy partner in this secretive 40-year arrangement, depending on Romania's larger, postwar Jewish population to emigrate (at least 280,000 Jews left Romania for Israel between 1948 and 1989). As a result, Romania's Jewish population dwindled from 1.5 million in 1938 to an estimated 11,000 today. Containing primary materials and interviews, this work is essential for academic collections as a supplement to any histories of Romania.-Maria C. Bagshaw, Lake Erie Coll. Lib., Painesville, OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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The Ransom of the Jews

The Story of the Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel

Copyright © 2005
Radu Ioanid
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56663-562-2

Chapter One "The Jews Are Our Misfortune": Anti-Semitism in Romania, from the Congress of Berlin to World War II

The history of Romanian anti-Semitism is long and sad, and to this day largely unrecognized even by most Romanians.

Following the war fought by Romania and tsarist Russia against Turkey in 1877, and after the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the nations of Europe recognized the independence of Romania. But the Congress required that Romania treat all its citizens, including Jews, as equals under the law. Article 44 of the treaty stipulated that a person's religion could not be used as a basis for denying him either his civil and political rights or his access to specific professions.

But the Congress of Berlin had little effect on the Romanian government's continuing history of discrimination against its Jewish population. Romania agreed to Article 44, but not for long. It soon required the "naturalization" of Jews on an individual basis before the full rights of citizenship might be granted. On January 17, 1879, the Romanian Parliament revised the country's 1866 constitution to require both an individual petition and a parliamentary vote in order to gain naturalization, arequirement that remained law until 1919. Thus between 1866 and 1904 only 2,000 Jews were naturalized in all of Romania. (Jewish veterans of the 1877 War of Independence received citizenship, but they numbered a mere 888.) Romanian Jews remained stateless and highly susceptible to both economic and political discrimination.

From the Congress of Berlin well into the twentieth century, a large portion of the Romanian political and intellectual classes continued to express their hostility toward the Jews and toward Article 44, the treaty provision that was intended to protect them. Resentment of the Jews in the late nineteenth century came both from the boyars (the gentry) and the new bourgeoisie who had recently begun to assume a political role. As long as Jews worked as middlemen-tax collectors, distributors of manufactured goods, and salesmen for spirits whose production was controlled by the boyars-they were allowed some rights. But as soon as they showed a desire to take up other pursuits and to gain civil and political rights, they became a "social peril," the "plague of the countryside."

Jews had long been active in a wide range of trades in Romania. Competition from skilled Jewish craftsmen stimulated the new Christian bourgeoisie to brutal opposition of Jewish citizenship and the support of measures that would restrict them to "national labor." Rural peasants, living in abject misery because of a severe land shortage, also found the Jews easy targets for their grievances. Unable to resolve their severe agrarian problems, and willing to pander to the nationalist feelings of Christian tradesmen and merchants, in the last decades of the nineteenth century Romanian governments were content to divert feelings of frustration and anger onto the Jews.

Carol Iancu has summarized the legal situation of the Jews at the outbreak of the 1877 War of Independence, before the Congress of Berlin: "They did not have the right to reside permanently in the countryside, and they could be expelled [from the countryside and even cities] on charges of vagrancy following an administrative order. They could own neither house, nor land, nor vineyards, nor hotels, nor taverns in the countryside; they could not possess land for cultivation; they could not sell tobacco; their right to own houses or buildings in the cities was always challenged; they could not take part in any public adjudication; they could not become professors, lawyers, pharmacists, state-certified doctors, or railroad employees; they were obliged to serve in the military, but were barred from becoming officers."

Discrimination had eventually barred Jews from jobs in the railroads, the customs service, the state-run salt and tobacco monopolies, and the stock market. The 1866 constitution had permitted only Romanians (including naturalized subjects) to purchase real estate in rural areas while an 1869 law had forbidden Jews to collect taxes there. In 1884 itinerant merchants were barred from the villages, a measure that adversely affected many Jews. Several regulations hindered Jews from obtaining licenses to sell alcoholic beverages in rural settings.

The most dramatic form of anti-Semitism in rural areas was the expulsion of thousands of Jewish families from the countryside during the last third of the century by both central and local authorities. Even if they were elderly or born in the locality, those expelled were permitted only a day to leave, as when twenty-five Jewish families were forced from their homes in the Bacau district in 1885. If a Jew dared to protest Romanian anti-Semitism, he was deported.

In June 1868 military service had become compulsory for all males in Romania with the exception of foreigners. Since resident Jews were generally classed as "foreigners," this directive meant that the army would lose a source of cannon fodder and manpower. A March 1876 law on recruitment therefore stipulated that all male residents were obligated to serve-in other words, that only citizens of other nations might avoid service. Jews had thus become subject to the draft even though they were not citizens but were merely "stateless foreigners" or "inhabitants of the country." This 1876 law continued to be enforced even after the Congress of Berlin and the recognition of Romania by the European powers.

Two pieces of legislation in 1893, the Primary Education Law and the Secondary and Higher Education Law, made education free for the "sons of Romanians" only. "Foreigners" such as Jews might enroll, but only if space were available and they paid tuition.

In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, this continuing anti-Semitism combined with poverty to create the conditions for the mass emigration of Jews from Romania. Between 1899 and 1914, 140,000 Romanian Jews left the country. Many of them traveled by foot and begged for money and food from the Jewish communities they found along their way.

Concerned about its image abroad and the risks this posed to its ability to secure foreign loans, in 1900 the Romanian government attempted to show that its treatment of Romanian Jews was not at all harsh and that the massive emigration was the work of Jewish "provocateurs." 4 Meanwhile, especially in Bucharest, emigrating Jews were rounded up en masse in order to declare in writing that they were leaving the country because of hunger and poverty, not persecution.

A fateful transformation in Romanian politics occurred at the close of World War I, when the demographic composition of Greater Romania changed dramatically. It acquired (actually reacquired) Bessarabia from Russia as well as Transylvania and Bukovina from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From an almost ethnically homogeneous nation-state, Romania suddenly became a country in which ethnic minorities comprised almost 30 percent of the population. In December 1918, under Western pressure, Romania abolished the humiliating requirement of parliamentary confirmation for Jewish citizenship; henceforth proof of birth in the country and evidence that the individual was not a citizen of another would suffice.

While the Romanian political classes were pleased to acquire these new territories, they were less sanguine about the minorities who inhabited them. Political leaders-especially those in the Liberal party-sought to postpone the granting of civil rights to all minorities in the new territory of Greater Romania. Again, under strong Western pressure that threatened to withhold recognition of the new Romanian borders, a new constitution was adopted. Enacted in March 1923, it granted full citizenship to Jews and other minorities. Article 56 of the Citizenship Law of 1924 extended Romanian citizenship to all inhabitants of Bessarabia, Bukovina, Transylvania, and other areas.

In a sense, the ensuing period between 1923 and 1937 represented a golden age of human rights for Romanian Jews. But unease began to appear in the mid-1930s with the formation of such nationalistic movements as the League for National Christian Defense (LANC) and the Iron Guard. Anti-Semitism was a main feature of their programs: LANC used the swastika as a political symbol, and both LANC and the Iron Guard were involved in the devastation of synagogues, the burning of Jewish homes, and the beatings of Jews.

In December 1937 the radical anti-Semitic right took power in Romania. The National Christian Party (PNC), successor to LANC, was asked by King Carol II to form a new government, even though the party had won only 9 percent of the popular vote in that year's elections. Almost immediately the civil liberties for which Jews had struggled for generations were seriously undermined by anti-Semitic legislation. As many as 200,000 Jews were immediately deprived of their civil rights. The PNC government, better known as the Goga-Cuza regime, had a short life of only forty-two days and was followed by the royal dictatorship of Carol II. But the PNC's legislative legacy endured. In August 1940, Prime Minister Ion Gigurtu, Minister of Justice Ion V. Gruia, and King Carol II signed law number 2650, openly inspired by the Nuremberg racial laws. The law defined who was to be considered a Jew; a corollary law forbade marriages between Jews and Romanians "by blood." These and other anti-Semitic measures formed legal precedents that would soon be useful to the fascist regimes that followed.

On September 6, 1940, Ion Antonescu, in an alliance with the Iron Guard, established a dictatorship which abolished the rights of the Jews still further. The war and the Nazi model of anti-Semitic public policy gave Antonescu the opportunity to radically "resolve" the "Jewish question" in Romania. From mid-1940 to early 1942 the Romanian government issued a broad range of laws and regulations with clear anti-Semitic intent.

Eighteen days after taking power, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Antonescu laid out the underlying concepts that would guide Romania's anti-Jewish economic legislation. Jews formed the greatest obstacle to expansion of the Romanian economy, Antonescu declared, and he promised to solve the problem by replacing Jews with Romanians. He proposed that most Jewish property be expropriated in exchange for compensation.

In late 1940 and early 1941 the government enacted restrictions on Jewish business activities. It prohibited Jews from engaging in the sale of products included in state monopolies-salt, matches, and tobacco, for example-while the Ministry of Labor required Jewish-owned grocery stores to remain closed on Sundays so they might not take business away from Romanian shops on the other six days of the week.

Jews were eliminated from most of the professions. In November 1940, Jewish doctors and other health-care providers were excluded from the National Association of Physicians. Jewish physicians were segregated in their own professional associations and permitted to care only for Jewish patients. Dozens of professional and social associations expelled Jewish members: bar associations, the journalists' union, the writers' union, the Society of Architects, the Romanian opera, even the deaf-mute association. Segregated Jewish schools were established. An October 1940 decree provided that Jews could no longer be teachers or students.

Professional and enforced social discrimination went hand in hand with ministerial orders that essentially outlawed the recognition of Jews as human beings. By mid-1941, for example, Jews were permitted to buy bread but forbidden to purchase pastries. Beginning in August 1942, Jews were charged a higher price for bread than non-Jews, and they might purchase bread only with specially marked ration cards.

While expropriations of property could be carried out with some degree of efficiency, replacing Jews in the workforce was more difficult. Although officially most Jews were fired from their jobs in 1943, thousands continued to work for Romanian firms. These companies were forced to seek every possible sort of waiver and approval in order to retain their Jewish workers, because the Jews' skills were irreplaceable; even a "Romanized" economy could not do without their services.

Another key component of the fascists' anti-Semitic legislation was Jewish forced labor. As early as December 1940 the government decreed that Jews were obligated to work "in the public interest" under the Ministry of National Defense or other state ministries.

The Holocaust in Romania brought not only plunder, "Romanization," and forced labor to Romanian Jews; it culminated in a series of devastatingly cruel deportations, executed under murderous conditions. Ion Antonescu was chiefly responsible for designating the Jews as Romania's primary enemy and in ordering these deportations. His obsession with the need to purge the country of Jews was constant. On July 4, 1941, he asserted that "the Jewish people had embezzled and impoverished, speculated on and impeded the development of the Romanian people for several centuries; the need to free us from this plague is self-evident." On September 6, in a letter to his deputy, Mihai Antonescu, he advised that "everyone should understand that this is not a struggle with the Slavs but with the Jews. It is a fight to the death. Either we will win and the world will purify itself, or they will win and we will become their slaves.... The war in general and the fight for Odessa especially have proven that Satan is the Jew." On November 14, in a meeting of the Council of Ministers, Ion Antonescu declared: "I have enough difficulties with those jidani [kikes] that I sent to the Bug. Only I know how many died on their way." Observing that even Nazi Germany was acting slowly, Antonescu urged his lieutenants to hasten Romania's solution to its "Jewish question": "Put them in the catacombs, put them in the Black Sea. I don't want to hear anything. It does not matter if 100 or 1,000 die, [for all I care] they can all die."

Administrative and legal measures authorized the deportations, expulsions, and resettlements in ghettos. As a consequence, the entire Jewish population of Bessarabia and almost all of that of northern Bukovina were deported or "evacuated"; so was the entire rural Jewish population of Moldova. "Evacuations" were carried out primarily in northern Moldavia and southern Transylvania but also in Walachia. Transit camps and ghettos were established in Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria.

In 1930 Romania had been home to 759,000 Jews. At the close of World War II about 375,000 of them had survived. As a result of 1944 deportations to concentration camps and extermination centers in the Greater Reich, 150,000 of the original Jewish population of Romania ended up under Hungarian sovereignty in northern Transylvania. Nearly all of these-130,000-perished before the war's end. More than 45,000 Jews-probably closer to 60,000-were killed in 1941 in Bessarabia and Bukovina by Romanian and German troops. At least 75,000 of the deported Romanian Jews died as a result of expulsions to Transnistria. In all, at least 270,000 Jews under Romanian jurisdiction died, either on the explicit orders of Romanian officials or as a consequence of their criminal barbarity. Romanian officials sometimes worked with German help, but more often they acted on their own.

The general policy toward Jews during the war was one of terror, plunder, rape, deportation, and murder. Those Jews who survived owed their good fortune only to the inefficient and corrupt nature of the Romanian administrative system, to Ion Antonescu's decision to postpone and then abandon plans to deport Jews from Old Romania, and sometimes to the kindness and courage of a few Romanians.

The idea of the forced emigration of Jews was not new to Europe; it had found widespread support among both fascist and non-fascist anti-Semites in many European countries during the period between the world wars. Even the Nazis had seriously promoted such a solution before 1939. In principle the Antonescu regimes permitted the voluntary emigration of the Jews. Even the viciously anti-Semitic Iron Guards supported it. But as Antonescu instituted his wartime policies of the physical destruction of the Jews, his government was already considering how it might use their suffering to extort money from American Jewish organizations.


Excerpted from The Ransom of the Jews by RADU IOANID Copyright © 2005 by Radu Ioanid. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
<%TOC%> Contents Acknowledgments....................vii
Foreword by Elie Wiesel....................xv
Introduction: Lost and Found....................3
1 "The Jews Are Our Misfortune"....................6
2 Voting with Their Feet....................25
3 The Zionist Enemy....................39
4 Barter....................68
5 An Uneasy Relationship....................92
6 The Money Trail....................125
7 The Washington Equation....................149
8 "Why Did You Drain My Soul?"....................164
Afterword by General Ion Pacepa....................175

What People are saying about this

J. Fischel
"an important book.... Recommended."
emeritus, Millersville University, Choice
Baruch Ioanid
"A fascinating story, written by the energetic and knowledgeable Radu Ioanid."
...Intriguing story...
Gal Beckerman
Ioanid doesn't shy away from telling us who Ceausescu really was.... Ioanid does a good job explaining th[e] context.
Andrei Codrescu
This is one of those rare books that is both an invaluable primary source and an occasion for profound thought.
NPR commentator, Professor Louisiana State University, author of The Hole in the Flag: an Exile's Story of Return and Revolution

Meet the Author

Radu Ioanid is director of international archival programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Born in Bucharest, he was educated in Romania and in France, and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He has also written The Holocaust in Romania and wrote the Introduction to Mihail Sebastian's acclaimed Journal 1935–1944, both published by Ivan R. Dee.

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