Romania Faces Its Past

“Probably no country has had a darker record in the treatment of its Jews than Romania,” wrote historian Nora Levin in The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945.

“It was,” Ms. Levin continued, “the most virulently anti-Semitic country in pre-war Europe. Notwithstanding the intervention of the great powers several times prior to World War I, the Romanian government had consistently refused to recognize its Jews as Romanian nationals. And, except for a few hundred families, all Romanian Jews remained ‘resident aliens,’ suffering gross disabilities and enduring great persecution.”

Extreme anti-Semitic tendencies among the Romanian populace, long evident in the country, only escalated on the eve of the war.  And the Jew-hatred was greatly encouraged when Romania officially allied itself in 1940 with Nazi Germany.

In June 1941, in the weeks following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany, the Romanian army, with the cooperation of Einsatzgruppe D and parts of the local population, massacred 100,000-120,000 of the Jewish population of Bessarabia and North Bukovina. The slaughter was carried out on the orders of Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s fascist dictator.

Similar massacres were carried out by the Romanian army in Western Ukraine and especially in Odessa. Prior to all that, Romanian soldiers, police and civilians slaughtered 15,000 Jews in the city of Iasi and carried out pogroms against the Jews of other cities in Romanian territory.

It has been estimated that, by war’s end, up to 380,000-400,000 Jews, including the Jews of Transnistria, were murdered in Romanian-controlled areas.

Fast forward to the present. Last Wednesday, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis signed into law a bill, approved by the Romanian Parliament last month, that makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust. Violators of the law will face prison sentences of up to three years.

Promotion of the Legionnaires’ Movement, an anti-Semitic party that joined the Romanian government in 1940, is forbidden as well, as are fascist, racist and xenophobic organizations and symbols. The law also bans support for people found guilty of crimes against humanity.

And, according to the bill, Holocaust denial extends to invalidating the role Romania played in the killing of Jews and others.

Romania has several right-wing fringe groups, like Noua Dreapta, or “New Right,” that may be affected by the new law.

Similar criminalization of Holocaust denial exists in many European countries, including France, Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic; the Italian Senate has also approved a bill outlawing Holocaust denial in that country. Romania now joins Lithuania and Poland, two other eastern European countries where a large number of Jews were murdered during the war, in confronting the past squarely and recognizing the hatred that underlay its evils.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder praised Mr. Iohannis’ move, saying that “Only by fighting Holocaust denial and fascism at the highest levels can a nation effectively counter the troubling spread of anti-Semitism across Europe.”

We agree.

On Tishah B’Av, we mourned the destruction of the Batei Mikdash and Klal Yisrael’s continued state of galus. And yet, pointedly, we omitted Tachanun. It was a day of mourning, but also a mo’ed — a hint to the fact that, as the Navi Yeshayahu (60:20) said: Visholmu yimei evlech — “And the days of your mourning will come to an end.”

We are still very far from there yet, as we all know so well from both the tragedies within and the threats without. Personal calamities strike the community, and anti-Semitism remains, sadly, alive and well. But still, there is some small measure of comfort that can be taken from the fact that some of the countries and populaces that a mere 75 years ago — within the memories of people alive today — viciously hated and sought to annihilate our people are today facing up to the sins of their past.

It is hard, maybe impossible, to imagine that the hatred of Jews that still thrives today among other countries and populaces will one day dissipate, and that the haters or their progeny will one day swear off their mindless animosities and confront their evil pasts. But, in the end, the Navi assures us that, indeed, there will come a time when our “mourning will come to an end” in a complete and final way.

May the day come soon.