Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania

Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania

by Alexandru Florian (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253032713
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Series: Studies in Antisemitism Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alexandru Florian is Director of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania.

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Ana Barbulescu

Between 1940 and 1944 the Romanian authorities imposed broad antisemitic legislation that led to the exclusion of the Jewish minority from all levels of society. The Jews from the Old Kingdom of Romania were subjected to two major outbreaks of violence: the pogroms in Bucharest (January 1941) and Iasi (June 1941). The pogrom in Bucharest led to the killings of 125 Jews, while the one in Iasi resulted in as many as 14,850 Jewish deaths.

In late summer 1941 Transnistria was transferred under Romanian authority and Ion Antonescu ordered the deportation of the Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina to these newly acquired territories. Prior to deportation, between 45,000 and 60,000 Jews were shot by the Romanian and German troops. Of t hose who were deported to Transnistria, between 105,000 and 120,000 Romanian Jews died of starvation, cold, and diseases. In addition, between 115,000 and 180,000 Jews were killed, mainly in Odessa and the Golta and Berezovka districts. Of the 25,000 Roma sent to Transnistria, 11,000 perished before repatriation. In the summer of 1942 the Romanian and German authorities reached an agreement regarding the deportation of the Jews from the Old Kingdom to the Belzec extermination camp. The first transport was scheduled for October but it never took place, as Antonescu changed his mind and decided not to implement the plan. The reasons for this decision remain unclear. In April and May 1944 around 132,000 Jews from Northern Transylvania were deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarian authorities. Most of those deported never returned.

If we put together these pieces of information, we get the full scope of the human tragedy that occurred during those years, when between 280,000 and 380,000 Jewish men, women, and children were killed or died of illness, hunger, or cold in territories under Romanian control. All these historical facts were absent from the communist historiography, where the Holocaust of the Romanian Jews remained a taboo subject. Fifteen years after the regime change, in 2004, the Romanian state acknowledged responsibility for the Holocaust of the Romanian Jews, accepting the conclusions of the Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. Furthermore, this acceptance was externalized into the public domain: there is a commemorative day remembering the victims, and a monument dedicated to them in downtown Bucharest. However, this official acknowledgment of the not so distant past is not shared by the majority of the Romanian population, as demonstrated by a survey on the representation of the Holocaust, conducted in the summer of 2015 on a national representative sample.

According to this research, 73 percent of the respondents declared that they had heard about the Holocaust, and among those, 78 percent associated it with the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War, 59 percent with the Nazi concentration camps, and 46 percent with the gas chambers. Only 20 percent of the Romanians who had heard about the Holocaust associated it with the deportations of the Jews to Transnistria. The discriminatory policies directed against the Roma population are remembered by only 18 percent of the respondents. When the questions were asked in a more explicit manner, the Romanian population's perception of the Holocaust proved to be equally distorted. Thus, when the respondents were asked to indicate the territory they associated with the Holocaust, 73 percent of them pointed to Nazi Germany and only 28 percent to Romania. Even more importantly, when they were asked to indicate what association they make with the Holocaust, of the 28 percent of respondents who indicated Romanian territory as the place where the Holocaust took place, 80 percent associated the Holocaust with the deportation of the Jews to the camps controlled by Nazi Germany, while the fact of the deportations to Transnistria was acknowledged by only 28 percent of those who located the Holocaust in Romania. When the questions address who was responsible, we get a similar picture: 86 percent of the respondents identified Nazi Germany as the main perpetrator. The Antonescu government was identified as responsible by 58 percent of the respondents, while 15 percent indicated the Soviet Union and 5 percent pointed to the Jews.

These results are quite surprising given that in the last twenty-five years some important works on this topic were published in Romania, and that, as mentioned above, more than ten years ago the Romanian state assumed responsibility for the anti-Jewish measures imposed during the Holocaust. Recognizing this inconsistency that characterizes the public memory of the Holocaust within Romanian society, my aim is to identify and reconstruct the social processes that explain how mnemonic myopia operates: why is it difficult for Romanian society to acknowledge the Holocaust of the Romanian Jews? In my opinion, the answer lies in a deficient historiographic socialization where, due to the dialectic relation between identity and memory, the Holocaust is presented in a distorted manner in order to remain consonant with the generic image ascribed to the Romanian people.

To develop this hypothesis, I turn to the main vectors of historiographic socialization that can be identified within postcommunist Romanian society and consider two categories of sources: the textbooks of Romanian history edited in postcommunist Romania and historiographical syntheses published after 1989 by four well-known Romanian historians (Florin Constantiniu, Neagu Djuvara, Dinu C. Giurescu, and loan Aurel Pop).

Postcommunist Historical Narratives of the Holocaust

When trying to determine from the history textbooks published in post-communist Romania the mnemonic narrative associated with the Holocaust of the Jews in Romania or in territories under Romanian authority, we first need to consider that although Romania's transition to democracy started in December 1989, another ten years had to pass before Holocaust-related issues were included in the school curricula for contemporary and Romanian history. This change occurred only in 1999, with Decision 3001 of the Romanian Ministry of Education. Furthermore, despite this requirement, the Romanian educational system is characterized by the use of alternative textbooks, and as a consequence, the specific content of each lesson can vary from one textbook to another.

Considering this, and turning to the history textbooks, six different ways of recounting the events become apparent: mention of the Holocaust is completely absent (model A); Romania is depicted as a savior ofJews (B); mention of discrimination but not deportations (C); mention of deportations to camps, but the victim groups are not specified (D); mention of deportations but not the Final Solution (E); discussion of the Romanian Holocaust, including discrimination, pogroms, and deportations (F). These six models have been discussed at length in a previously published article, and therefore I will only outline here the specifics of each discursive model.

In the first model (A), the lessons make no reference to the Romanian case. This discursive narrative is found in textbooks published between 1993 and 2006. In these textbooks there is no mention of the actions perpetrated by the Romanian authorities against the Jewish population in either the territory of the Old Kingdom or the territories under Romanian control after June 1941. When the authors discuss the allies of the Third Reich and the fate of the Jews who lived in the territories under their control, the Romanian state is once again ignored. This approach erases Romania from the list of countries that were allied to Nazi Germany, and in doing so, implicitly denies the participation of the Romanian authorities in any rights infringements imposed upon the Jews under Romanian authority.

According to the second model (B), in Romania there were no discriminatory laws, camps, pogroms, or deportations. Consequently, there were no victims. The only association of Romania with the Holocaust is as one of the countries that saved their Jewish populations or participated in saving Jews who had escaped from other areas. This approach not only is silent on Romania's participation in exterminatory policies directed against the Jewish minority, but also transforms Romania into a positive actor on the international stage by including it among the countries that saved their Jews.

The textbooks following the third model (C) contain several objective facts regarding the status of Romanian Jews between 1938 and 1944. The information is not false but incomplete, and therefore the past is reconstructed in a distorted manner. Thus, in a textbook issued in 2000 we read about the Iron Guard and its antisemitic program, the existence of anti-Jewish discriminatory laws in Romania, and how many Jews were living in Romanian territory at the end of the war (about 300,000). All three of these things are true, but the authors do not state how many Jews were living in Romania at the beginning of the war, and what happened to those that constitute the difference in the prewar and postwar numbers. More importantly, in this version of history, the deportations to Transnistria are mentioned in a mere line and a half, with no attribution of responsibility, as Antonescu's regime is presented as opposing the "extermination of the Romanian Jews." A textbook from 1999 follows the same model, adding that the anti-Jewish legislation enforced by the Antonescu regime was simply a "takeover" of laws promulgated by the Iron Guard during the National Legionary state.

The fourth model (D), which mentions deportations of unspecified victims, recounts the historical facts in a most original manner: there is a short note on anti-Jewish legislation; there is a reference to the number of Romanian Jews at the beginning of the war (800,000), but we never learn how many were still alive at the end of it; and there is a short reference to the situation of the Jews from Northern Transylvania under the "Horthyist government." More importantly, we learn that the Romanian government built camps and ordered deportations. The examples provided are historical ones — Vapniarka, Bogdanovka, Dumanovka — but the authors do not explain who the victims were. As long as there is no causal connection made between Jewishness and the probability of being interned in such a camp, this information allows the reader to conclude that the political regime in Romania between 1940 and 1944 was nondemocratic, without understanding the situation of the Romanian Jews during the same period.

In the fifth discursive model (E), the description of the events is more complete and is accompanied by a more thorough description of the discriminatory legislation; the pogroms in Iasi and Odessa and the mass deportations to Transnistria (directed explicitly against the Jews) are also mentioned. The main characteristic of this discourse is not its more detailed description of the events but its development of a comparative dimension. Thus, the authors emphasize Antonescu's decision in October 1942 to not deport the Jews from the Old Kingdom to the Belzec extermination camp, comparing the fate of the Jews from the Old Kingdom with those from Northern Transylvania. The strategy is evident in a textbook that was first issued in 2000. The authors accept the reality of the deportations to Transnistria, in which several thousands of the 100,000 deportees died, but for these authors, what is essential is "the fact that as a result of Antonescu's decision, 292,149 Jews remained alive in August 1944."

In the last model (F), the information provided to the students is quite extensive. They learn about Romania's antisemitic legislation, the pogroms in Dorohoi, Bucharest, and Iasi, the deportations to Transnistria, and the massacre of the Jews in Odessa by the Romanian army, as well as the cessation of the deportations after 1943. Antonescu's position on the Final Solution is presented from the double perspective of ante- and post-October 1942. Thus, the authors record not only the breakdown of the agreement with the Germans after October 1942, but also the period before, when the Romanian authorities accepted the deportations of the Jews from the Old Kingdom to the Belzec extermination camp. The situation of the Jews from Northern Transylvania is also taken into consideration, but without emphasizing a comparison between the two cases (Antonescu and Horthy) and consequently diminishing the responsibility of the Romanian authorities.

In conclusion, the contents of the analyzed textbooks vary greatly, ranging from a complete lack of information on the Holocaust (model A) to a thorough reconstruction of the historical events (model F). Between the two extremes, we have identified several models that fail to reconstruct the historical events, either by omitting important information (models B, C, and D) or by choosing to emphasize particular decisions of the Romanian authorities while ignoring others (model E).

Turning to the main historiographic syntheses edited in postcommunist Romania, we encounter a not-so-different scenario in the works of four mainstream historians: Florin Constantiniu, Neagu Djuvara, Dinu C. Giurescu, and loan Aurel Pop.

Probably the most popular synthesis of Romanian history published after 1989 was Florin Constantiniu's O istorie sincera a poporului român (An honest history of the Romanian people). The volume was published in 1997 and reedited four times up to 2016. Constantiniu dedicates 100 of the 500 pages of his work — one-fifth of it — to Romania's participation in the Second World War. Within this generous space we find a half-page description of the legionary rebellion in late January 1941, another half-page description of the pogrom in Iasi, and two inserts regarding the deportations to Transnistria — all together, amounting to no more than eleven lines.

With regard to the legionary rebellion we learn that there were 118 Jewish victims and that Ion Antonescu reestablished order, an approach that portrays the Romanian leader in a positive light, even if indirectly. The pogrom in Iasi is presented in a more elaborate manner. According to the author, in order to get the correct picture, we first need to put it in the right context, meaning that we have to consider the intensifying actions of the Soviet agents and the collective fear of "Judeo-communists"; this, explains Constantiniu, is the context of the attack of June 29 against the Jewish population of the city. In the course of the next day, two convoys of the Romanian army were attacked, so the Romanian and German soldiers proceeded to carry out summary executions. Next, at the request of the Germans, the Jewish population of the city was evacuated under inhumane conditions, and thousands ended up dying. We learn nothing about the random arrests made on the streets of Iasi, about the civilians, including small children, who were killed in those streets, or about Antonescu's order to evacuate the Jews from the city. The main perpetrators seem to be either the Legionary Movement or the German troops, an approach that omits mention of the Romanian authorities and thus diminishes their responsibility.

Transnistria is discussed in connection with the beginning of Antonescu's regime, which is described as nonfascist because it was not backed up by a fascist party. Constantiniu accepts that Antonescu's regime had an antisemitic component, mainly evident, according to the historian, between 1940 and 1942, but he provides no examples of the antisemitic legislation promulgated after January 1941. There is also no mention of the massacres in Bessarabia and Bukovina, but the author accepts the reality of some 200,000 Jewish victims.

Constantiniu sees Romania's position as paradoxical: "In a Europe heavily hit by war, Romania remained an island of prosperity and peace, where strange things happened. King Michael was visiting the American prisoners, comfortably detained in the Prahova Valley, ... and while in Europe the putting into practice of the Final Solution (Endlösung) led to the death of millions of Jews in the German camps, in Bucharest the Jewish theater Baraseum was functioning."


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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Memory under Construction: Introductory Remarks / Alexandru Florian

Part I: Competing Memories and Historical Obfuscation
1. Ethnocentric Mindscapes and Mnemonic Myopia / Ana Brbulescu
2. Post-Communist Romania’s Leading Public Intellectuals and the Holocaust / George Voicu
3. Law, Justice, and Holocaust Memory in Romania / Alexandru Climescu
4. Romania: Neither "Fleishig" nor "Milchig": A Comparative Study / Michael Shafir
5. "Wanting-not-to-Know" about the Holocaust in Romania: A Wind of Change? / Simon Geissbühler

Part II: National Heroes, Outstanding Intellectuals or Holocaust Perpetrators?
6. Mircea Vulcnescu, a Controversial Case: Outstanding Intellectual or War Criminal? / Alexandru Florian
7. Ion Antonescu’s Image in Post-Communist Historiography / Marius Cazan
8. Rethinking Perpetrators, Bystanders, Helpers/Rescuers, and Victims: A Case Study of Students' Perceptions / Adina Babe


What People are Saying About This

The Holocaust in Romania - Radu Ioanid

An excellent analysis of the slow, but steady, evolution of Romania from heavy Holocaust denial and distortion toward a fair confrontation of its tragic past and useful for understanding not only the development of public memory in a new, post-communist democracy, but also the situation as compared to neighboring countries with similar pasts.

The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust - Diana Dumitru

While positive changes have taken place, a large gap exists between the historical facts and public knowledge about Romania and the Holocaust. This volume offers a fresh and nuanced understanding of the contemporary "battles of memory" in postcommunist Eastern Europe.

From the Publisher

An excellent analysis of the slow, but steady, evolution of Romania from heavy Holocaust denial and distortion toward a fair confrontation of its tragic past and useful for understanding not only the development of public memory in a new, post-communist democracy, but also the situation as compared to neighboring countries with similar pasts.

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