“Even if there were no gas chambers at Iasi, still everything else was there: thousands of Jews perished in countless manners. Everything happened: the terror, the threats, the sealed boxcars, the hunger, the humiliation, the public executions.” —Elie Wiesel
Eighty years ago this summer—between June 28 and July 6, 1941—some 13,000 Jews from Iasi, the eastern capital of Romania, were brutally murdered by shooting and in two death trains on direct orders of wartime dictator General Ion Antonescu. The killings were carried out with zeal and cruelty by Romanian uniformed and civilian officials assisted by common citizens and German military units. No trace of compassion was shown the 35,000 Jews of Iasi (one third of the total wartime population)—not from high-ranking officers and army conscripts, anonymous employees or from officials invested with authority of the state; only a handful of officials and locals were recognized after the war as Righteous Among the Nations for protecting a few hundred Jews in total as the slaughter unfolded.
Iasi provided fertile ground for this atrocity, having the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of both the violently anti-Semitic Christian National Defense League and its genocidal Iron Guard offshoot that painted all Jews as Bolshevik agents, factors of dissolution of the Romanian state, enemy aliens and parasites on the Romanian nation. The Iasi Pogrom was the most infamous event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania and one of the most savage mass murders of Jews during World War II, surpassed only by the Romanian army’s October 1941 massacre of 20,000 Jews in Odessa and one carried out by the Germans in September 1941 in Babyn Yar. Still, the Holocaust in Romania—in which over half of Romania’s 800,000 Jews perished in a reign of terror that started even before the Nazi’s Final Solution went into effect—remains unknown to many, although the Iasi Pogrom is by far the best-documented event in the history of the Holocaust in Romania.
The pogrom was the natural culmination of centuries of state and popular anti-Semitism and fervent nationalist bigotry, manifested in no fewer than 196 restrictive laws against the country’s Jewish inhabitants passed between 1867 and 1913 alone. Indeed, the litany of persecutions and discriminatory actions against the Jews is too extensive to detail in this article. Romania was the last country in Europe to grant citizenship and emancipation to its Jews—in its 1923 constitution that adopted undertakings made in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following World War I and offered the hope of a better future for long-suffering Romania Jewry, but that was not to be. Fascism took grip of the country between the wars, and the country’s Jews were the victims of numerous atrocities, including the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws and the deportation of all Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina to the notorious region of Transnistria, where tens of thousands perished. I cannot overlook this opportunity to pay homage to leaders of the Jewish community—including President Wilhelm Filderman, Yitzhak Artzi and Fred Saraga who endangered their lives, traveling from Bucharest to Transnistria to bring material support to the deportees and rescuing thousands—mainly children and youths—and who posthumously received the Jewish Rescuers Citation, presented by the B’nai B’rith World Center and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.
The Romanian government officially recognized responsibility for the Holocaust of the Jews in Romania and the territories under its administration during World War II in 2004, but not before a public uproar over statements made by then-President Ion Iliescu a year earlier that "The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way." These comments triggered the establishment of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, headed by Romanian Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, that presented its shocking final report in 2004, which concluded that “Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of this Holocaust, in both its planning and implementation.” Since then, the Romanian government has clearly turned a corner in its recognition of the role its forbearers played in the tragedy of Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust. The 80th anniversary events—including an academic conference held at the Iasi University with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania entitled “Remembrance, Acknowledgement, Oblivion,” commemorative ceremonies at three cemeteries where victims of the pogrom are interred in mass graves, a solemn concert and the inauguration of a museum on the pogrom housed at the former central police station where many of the summary shootings took place—were sponsored by the municipal, regional and national governments, with appropriate participation.
My visit to Romania as B’nai B’rith International’s representative to these events was something of a homecoming. My mother’s family came from Iasi to the United States in 1913 and family lore has it that my grandfather received a medal from the King of Romania for establishing the first umbrella factory there. Walking the streets and visiting the two remaining synagogues—out of 136 that operated before the war—allowed me to conjure up visions of this once vibrant Jewish community, the vigor it showed over the centuries and the Torah scholars, intellectuals, business leaders and common Jews it produced. My visit to the evocative Great Synagogue—built in 1671 and the oldest Jewish house of worship in Romania—was made particularly personal when Jewish Community President Benjamina Vladcovschi explained that, like all synagogues in the city, it served a particular guild; in its case the tailors’ (schneiders’) guild. Today, Vladcovschi leads a community that has dwindled to only some 200 individuals, most elderly, but strives to keep the candle alive.
The Jewish cemetery of Iasi, where the earliest tombstone dates to 1467 and some 10,000 victims of the pogrom are buried in a mass grave, tells the storied history of Romanian Jewry. There, near the stage where about a dozen dignitaries spoke—including Israeli ambassador David Saranga; Alexandru Muraru, special representative of the Romanian government for promoting memory policies, combating anti-Semitism and xenophobia; and Romanian Jewish Community President Silviu Vexler—hundreds of graves of Jewish soldiers who died fighting for Romania in World War I greet all those who enter this transformational site. Waiting in sweltering 40-degree-centigrade heat to take my turn to speak at the Targu Frumos cemetery, 28 kilometers west of Iasi, where 570 victims of the Iasi-Calrasi death train are buried under a mass slab of concrete, I could not help but relive the agony of the train’s 2,500 victims, 1,400 of whom died enroute from thirst, hunger and suffocation during the train’s seven-day journey. Following presentations by representatives of the Council of Europe and the German government, I spoke about B’nai B’rith’s long history in Romania, going back to 1873 when International President Benjamine Pixotto was appointed U.S. consul to Romania by U.S. President Grant at the urging of B’nai B’rith, with the express intention of helping the Jewish community overcome oppressive discrimination and anti-Semitism. 13 lodges had been established by 1887. These were closed by order of the Goga-Cuza regime in 1937 but continued to operate clandestinely until 1948, when B’nai B’rith Romania President Akiva Ornstein was arrested and tortured in jail, where he died in 1954. I appealed to all those exposed to the pervasive evidence of this bloodthirsty massacre to commit themselves to support the State of Israel as a homeland and haven for Jews, despite any parochial criticism of Israeli state action, and to ensure that such an atrocity could never happen again.
May the memory of the Great Iasi Pogrom victims be a blessing.
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