The Jews

In the nineteenth century, and also in the inner-war period, Romania had one of Europe's largest Jewish communities. Between the wars, its Jewish population was the third largest in Europe both in absolute terms (after Poland and the USSR) and as a proportion of the total population (after Poland and Hungary). In 1930, the number of Jews was calculated at 728,115 by nationality and 756,930 by religion, signifying 4.2 per cent of the population respectively. Today, only some 9,000 are left. While it could be said that the history of the Jews in Romania is almost over, it is still a history that arouses passion and resentment. Extreme interpretations present two completely opposite faces of Romania. Some (but not all) Jewish authors consider that Romania has always been a fundamentally anti-Semitic society in which overt outbreaks can be traced back to the Middle Ages; evidence for this lies in the fact that nowhere in Europe was the right of Jews to citizenship recognized so late (only after the First World War). This hostility reached the point of paroxysm in the violent anti-Semitism of the Legionaries and the Antonescu regime; after Hitler, Marshal Antonescu directed the most thorough campaigns of extermination (albeit more hesitant than the Nazi "final solution", and never brought to completion). Even today, in a Romania almost without Jews, anti-Semitism is said to persist to an alarming degree, in explicit or latent forms. In other words, the Romanians are not fully cured of it. Most Romanians, on the other hand, will not hear of such accusations. Romanians, they say, have never been anti-Semitic! They are by nature very understanding with foreigners, including Jews. The latter can hardly complain that they did not get well in Romania; if things were so bad, they would not have settled and remained for generations. Antonescu did not exterminate the Jews; he actually saved the greater number of them, refusing to implement Hitler's "final solution". Also, the Jews did not behave well towards the Romanians in welcoming the Soviet invaders and then occupying high positions during the most repressive phase of Communism. Reality, as always, is more complex. It is impossible to deny that the Romanians have shown an inclination towards anti-Semitism. This must, of course, be seen in the context of a European Christian civilization in which the treatment of Jews as foreigners was imprinted on the collective imaginary. For centuries, Jews were the most pronounced figures of alterity, of the "other", in European culture. In the case of Romania, certain relevant factors may be noted. In the nineteenth century, the number of resident Jews increased rapidly, most of them coming from Galicia and, later, from Russia; smaller numbers came from south of the Danube, from the Ottoman Empire. They settled especially in the towns, above all in the towns of Moldavia (in some of which they came to be in the majority). Around 1930, Jews represented 14.3 per cent of Romania's urban population but only 1.6 per cent of its rural population, with the majority concentrated in the north and north-east; more than two thirds lived in Basarabia, Moldavia, Bukovina and Maramures. As with any massive population influx, it is only natural that this would have created tensions. Furthermore, Romanian nationalism, including anti-Semitism, was strongly motivated by economic factors. The Romanians, most of whom were peasants or boyars, closely bound to the land and to traditional activities, have never excelled in economic and commercial pursuits. Numerous foreigners – not just Jews but also Germans, Greek and Armenians – occupied this sector, thus inspiring a sort of inferiority complex on the Romanians' part. The presence of Jews was particularly evident in commerce. In fact, Jewish society was itself highly polarized: while there were a number of rich Jews – bankers, merchants and industrialists – there were also plenty of Jews living in precarious circumstances in poor districts. In terms of educational attainment, they tended, on average, to do better than Romanians; there were many Jews in the liberal professions: doctors, lawyers, journalists etc.It is beyond doubt that the legionaries killed Jews, as did Antonescu's regime. However, only the Jews of Basarabia and Bukovina, accused by the regime of sliding with the Soviet occupiers in 1940, were actually subjected to exterminatory treatment. Almost all of them were deported beyond the Dniester, to "Transnistria", the territory controlled by the Romanian army between 1941 and 1944. Although there were a number of summary executions, most died as a result of the hardships they suffered in camps. The number of dead can be estimated at between 110,000 and 120,000 (assuming that some 100,000 had managed to escape to the Soviet Union with the retreating Red Army). The Romanian authorities were also responsible for the disappearance of a large number of "non-Romanian" Jews who had previously been living in Transnistria (these also were massacred or died in camps). In the rest of Romania, there was a single major bloody episode (after the legionary murders of January 1941, in which 140 Jews died in Bucharest), namely the pogrom in Iasi at the end of June 1941; based on the documentary evidence, the number of Jews killed on that occasion was at least around 3,000. Otherwise, the Romanian authorities, perhaps after some hesitation, refused to apply the "final solution" which the Germans were calling for. Jews nonetheless subjected to all sorts of persecution in the context of a large-scale policy of "Romanization": their property was confiscated; they were excluded from schools and universities etc. They were not sent to the front (being thought unworthy to die for Romania), but they were forced to do compulsory labor, more humiliating than useful (such as clearing snow from the streets), and to pay duties in kind (for example, by giving up articles of clothing). Worst of all was the fact that they lived in fear for years: anything could happen to them. The recently published Journal of the Jewish Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), an exceptional document for these years, highlights the trauma experienced by people who previously considered themselves to be integrated and now found themselves abandoned or treated with condescension even by old friends. But the fact remains that these Jews survived. Finally, the fate of the Jews of Northern Transylvania, which had been ceded to Hungary in 1940, must be mentioned. Deported to Auschwitz in 1944, most of them died there, some hundred thousand people in all. In their case, however, it was the Hungarian and German authorities who were responsible, not the Romanian government. These are the facts and figures. The Antonescu regime exterminated rather more than 100,000: Romanian Jews and "saved" some 300,000; in strictly arithmetical terms, the merit would thus be three times grater than the guilt! But killing is a crime, while there is no merit in not killing. On the other hand, Antonescu cannot be isolated from the troubled context of his time – an age dominated by discrimination, hatred and violence. Dresden and Hiroshima were hardly noble acts either, not to mention the millions of victims of Hitler and Stalin. There is no doubt that Romanians regard Antonescu differently from the way Jews regard him. The Marshal led the Romanians into war to make the country whole again and fell victim to Communism. So not everything favorable said about him today necessarily implies an anti-Semitic or an anti-democratic attitude, although such attitudes are characteristic to those (relatively few in number) who keep alive a veritable cult of the Marshal. Another sensitive point concerns the role played by Jews in the early years of Communism. Around 1950, they were prominent in both the Party leadership and the Securitate. But this, too, has a historical explanation. First, in the small Communist Party of 1944, Romanians were in minority and Jews were numerous. Even after the Party multiplied its ranks and became predominantly Romanian, the restricted circle of its leaders and of faithful Communists was slower to be Romanianized. Such a "cosmopolitan" leadership also suited the Soviets initially, in as much as it was a way of striking at Romanian national tradition. Not only Jews but also Hungarians and other nationalities held sensitive posts in the apparatus of politics, propaganda and repression. After 1944, many Jews had embraced Communism since occupation by the Soviet army meant the long-awaited liberation. What reasons did they have to reject the Soviets and the system they brought, when "traditional" Romania had come close to wiping them out? By supporting the Communist regime, they were, in a sense, getting their own back for what the Antonescu regime had done. This argument should not be taken too far, however. There were also Jews who were persecuted by Communists, driven to emigrate or thrown into prison, just as there were also – whatever anyone says! – a great many Romanians who supported Communism, starting with the head of the Party himself, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. To present Gheorghiu-Dej as a "good man" who had no choice in the face of Russian pressure from within, in contrast with his Jewish colleague and rival Ana Pauker, is not the most honest of approaches. Both leaders had their share of responsibility for setting Romania on the road of Stalinist Communism (along with many others). And indeed, the Jews became disenchanted with Communism quickly enough. Already in the 1990s, they began to emigrate, leaving the Romanians to create a particular brand of national Communism for themselves. As for contemporary anti-Semitism, I believe that it seems more of an issue when seen from the West than it actually is. Ultra-nationalists (like those of the "Greater Romania" faction) target Jews especially to display their hostility to international "high finance" and the West in general. But their "favorite" enemies are still Hungarians and Gypsies. There are Western commentators who believe that they can detect a "potential" anti-Semitism in the remarks of certain intellectuals regarding recent Romanian history. What the West, which suffered the effects of Nazism and other forms of fascism, does not understand very well is that for the Romanians, the great drama was Communism, and in this respect their pains differ from those of the Jews. Nowadays, relations between Romanians and Jews are as good as they could be, having largely been cleared of former prejudices. In Israel, and all over the world, there are numerous Jews who speak Romanian and feel attached to Romania; from time to time, they return to their country of origin. There is also an Israeli literature in Romanian. Romanians, too, travel to Israel, and many of them find work there, often in far more favorable conditions – but that is another problem, one that reflects the Romanians' status in the world in general). In losing Romania's Jews, the Romanians lost, without realizing it, not only economic ferment (now, when the economy is scarcely moving, they have every reason to think nostalgically of the Jews and Germans who have left) but also part of the Romanian soul. It was not only ethnic Romanians that created Romania and Romanian culture: Jews also contributed a significant dose of non-conformism, together with intellectual curiosity and flexibility. Some of the most important researchers into Romanian language and folklore (the purest areas of "Romanianism") were Jews, for example: Lazăr Şăineanu (1859-1934), author of a classic work on the oriental elements in Romanian language and culture, who worked first in Romania and then in France; H. Tiktin (1850-1936), author of the first systematic Romanian grammar and of a highly regarded Romanian-German dictionary; and Moses Gaster (1856-1939), who was particularly preoccupied by Romanian folk literature (he settled in London, where from 1887 he was Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community). Jewish writers also made important contributions to inter-war Romanian literature, tackling a wide variety of subjects and literary forms, from the evocation of picturesque Jewish districts (now vanished) to science fiction, Dadaism and surrealism. (I shall return to these contributions in Chapter VII.) Romania: Borderland of Europe Reaktion Books, £19.95, 2001

by Lucian Boia (b. 1944)