Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)
A Long-Dormant Truth Finally Revealed
Al III-lea Reich si Holocaustul din Romania 1940-1944. Documentele din arhivele germane. (The Third Reich and the Rumanian Holocaust 1940-1944. Documents from the German Archives) by Ottmar Trasca and Dennis Deletant, Eli Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Rumania, 2007, 831pp. [Rumanian]
Reviewed by Michelle Mazel
For many years, in fact up to the revolution which brought the Communist era to an end in 1989, it was an article of faith in Rumania that during the Second World War the country’s behavior with regard to its Jewish minority had been exemplary. Conventional wisdom was that Jews had not been rounded up and sent to the death camps as had been the case in neighboring Hungary; rather the Jewish community had escaped relatively unscathed and was permitted to leave the country to settle in Israel after the war.
If pressed, Rumanian officials would concede that some Jews may have died in the city of Jassy, but at the hands of German soldiers, not Rumanians; and as to the tens of thousands of Jews of the provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina who died while being deported to Transnistria, according to the official line, they had been actively collaborating with the enemy and providing valuable intelligence such as the whereabouts of the German and their Rumanian allies, in some instances allegedly directing enemy fire at military encampments. Rumania, they argued, had always treated its Jewish minority fairly, going as far as granting Jews equal rights after the First World War.
Jews were therefore accused of being ungrateful. Worse, their baseless accusations against the benevolent regime which had protected them were the proof, if it were needed, that they were a faithless race. When in 1988 illegal copies of the serialization by the BBC of Olivia Manning’s “Balkan trilogy”, depicting the fate of Rumanian Jews during WWII, began circulating in Bucharest, it led to heated discussions and loud protests among the ruling elites.
The fall of Ceaucescu in December 1989 did not immediately lead to soul searching on the subject; on the contrary, with the relaxation of the iron grip of the regime on the press, a number of openly anti-Semitic papers appeared on the streets of the capital. Three of them started publishing the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and warned the recently liberated country of the dangers of world Jewry. Rumanian television channel 2 organized a lengthy prime time debate on the theme “Semit – Antisemit.”
Former generals and self-styled historians tried to convince the audience that the Rumanian wartime government had behaved impeccably and that the Jews who might have been killed had been the victims of the German soldiers and/or had been actively collaborating with the enemy. And they had a powerful argument: hadn’t the first leaders installed by the new Soviet rulers after the war been Jewish? Facing them was the Chief Rabbi of Rumania Moses Rosen in full rabbinical regalia and Rumanian born Israeli historian Jan Ancel. Sad to say, the public response was evenly divided between the two camps….
It is doubtful whether there would have been a significant change in Rumanian public opinion had it not been for the country’s earnest wish to join the European Union. Because of their EU candidacy the country’s rulers reluctantly came to the conclusion that Rumania would have to make a more thorough investigation of what happened to the Jews and even open its archives to foreign researchers. In fact, it would take a combination of American funding and the drive for European Union status to bring about the creation of the first chair of the history of the Holocaust.
The publication in 2005 of a report by the International Commission of Historians on the Holocaust in Rumania (known as the Wiesel commission), which led to the creation in 2005 of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the study of the Rumanian Holocaust, drew a storm of protest from the far right, and several demonstrations, albeit minor ones, took place throughout the country.
The purpose of the present work is to demonstrate beyond a doubt that there was close collaboration between the leaders of the Third Reich and the Rumanian government led by Marshal Ion Antonescu in the “eradication” of the Jews. The authors had access to the archives of the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin and the German Federal military archives and selected what they considered to be the most relevant documents. They are presented here in chronological order in the original German along side the Rumanian translation and lengthy footnotes, 852 in all. To make the book more accessible, there is a short introduction in English followed by an in-depth historical review covering some forty pages. There is also a list of the 196 documents in English together with a detailed summary of their content.
It is the authors’ view that these documents prove the following: 1) far from being forced to accept the German demands concerning the Jews, the Rumanians implemented the Nazi racial laws with enthusiasm, in some instances exceeding their demands; 2) the Rumanians were the sole instigators of the pogrom of Jassy which they carried out; 3) the Rumanians were solely responsible for the deportation and murder of the Jews of Bessarabia, North Bukovina, Transnistria and Odessa; 4) Antonescu was ready to have the Jews of Wallachia, Moldova and southern Transylvania deported to the death camps in Poland; 5) That these deportations were not implemented may be explained by the growing feeling in Rumania as early as 1943 that Germany was losing the war. Antonescu kept his options open regarding negotiations with the Allies in hopes of obtaining an armistice under favorable conditions.
Given the local conditions, it is doubtful whether the publication of this important work will put an end to the debate in Rumania about what really happened during WWII. Local historians can and will certainly claim that German documents absolving German representatives and soldiers from responsibility of atrocities committed against the Jews must be approached with the greatest caution. For the reader who may be unfamiliar with the history of the period, it is not always easy, even with the detailed footnotes, to understand exactly who is writing to whom, about what, and under which circumstances.
One can safely predict that the public at large will continue to be unaware of the existence of this important study. Die-hard anti-Semites and members of the far right parties will keep on pressing for the rehabilitation of Marshal Antonescu. Nevertheless, the documents presented here will not go away. New generations of students will have access to them. Hopefully, Rumania will one day come to terms with its past.
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 The Marshal was executed on 1 June 1946 by the new Soviet rulers for the crime of having betrayed his country to Nazi Germany. No mention was made of the fate of the Jews.
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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.