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BUCHAREST - When Corneliu Vadim Tudor appeared in the town of Cimpulung a few weeks ago as the Romania Mare party's candidate for the presidency of Romania, an annoying noise suddenly issued from the amplification system in the hall. It quickly turned out that that the noise was caused by Tudor touching the antenna of the microphone through which he was speaking. "I've understood. I'll keep my hand in my pocket," he said to the amused audience. But despite the good intentions, every few minutes his hand strayed to the bottom of the microphone, and it took a few long seconds of annoying noise to remind him to keep his hand away from the antenna.

This of course is not a metaphor, but rather an incident that occurred in reality, and implications concerning other discordant sounds coming from the candidate's throat are the reader's responsibility alone. Altogether, the Tudor of today is a man who has seen the light, a man who has repented. This is the reason, for example, that on Sunday, February 1 of this year, he sat down to write a letter:

"Dear Eyal,

This letter is a confession. I confess as a Christian, as someone who believes in Jesus and as a human being. Therefore, I would like to present my point of view concerning previous statements of mine that offended the Jewish people and wounded them. I ask forgiveness from God and from the people I have hurt. I know that God will forgive me only after the people whom I have hurt have forgiven me, and I know that I was wrong to have denied the Holocaust in Romania, which happened between 1941 and 1944 under Antonescu's regime. I promise not to allow any critical or anti-Semitic statement against the Jewish people in the future on the part of any element in my party and in the Romania Mare newspaper that I edit. Eyal, I have committed many sins, and I acknowledge them.

We are not angels, we are only human. From now on - there are no more sins. I apologize to all the Jews who were hurt by my exaggerations, in newspapers or spoken. This is how I am. I have changed. Israel has a list of real and dangerous enemies, who must be neutralized. I am not your enemy. Let us embark on a dialogue. A dialogue for a better world, for the Jewish people and for the Romanian people.

Yours,

Corneliu Vadim Tudor"

During his life, Tudor has devoted many words to the Jews and to Israel, most of them quite different from the letter he sent to his Israeli media adviser, Eyal Arad. A small example: In 1997, he wrote in his newspaper: "I love Jesus Christ too much not to think every day about those who humiliated Him, those who stoned Him, those who crucified Him and those who hammered nails into Him. The Jews did this. The Jews of 2,000 years ago, the Jews of all times."

But these are things that were written a long time ago, seven years ago. Today "I am Vadim 2004," he said last month in the car that took him to two election rallies. "I have the right to change. Every person has the right to change. Only the ox remains persistent, as a Romanian politician said 100 years ago."

What is there in the 2004 model Tudor? First of all, his almost mythic belief in the power of the Jews, the United States and Israel and their influence on the entire world and Romania in particular: "It is clear that no one can do anything in a state like Romania without American or Israeli advice," he says. "I will relate to what these advisers say. I will appoint a prime minister who will be acceptable to the West," he promises. "If needed, if I get a hint, if someone's name is given to me - I will agree to him. Because then I will know that some of the problems that have to do with the international community will be solved immediately upon his appointment."

The recognition of Israel's power led him to retract his previous opposition to American involvement in the Persian Gulf. "Israel's security played a role in the American strategy. You have to recognize this and be proud of this. Those who should fear are those who do not take into account this people, which was really chosen by God," he affirms. "Look what happened to Hitler. His regime could have lasted for 100 years through an awesome military and propaganda machine. It lasted for only 12 years. God smote him very quickly because he bullied the wrong people."

Pride before a fall

Tudor's language is spiced with quotations. He tells of a European philosopher who once said that life begins at the age of 50 and therefore if he were given the opportunity to be 20 again, he would refuse. "Now there is maturity in my creativity, now I have two daughters whom I received from God, now I am publishing my most fundamental books." And now he has also changed, now he is Tudor 2004.

How did this happen? He says that if he explains the process he has undergone it will lose its charm. Yet nevertheless: "First my parents died. I suffered terribly. In 2001, my elder brother who raised me died. We were very poor children. When I was at high school and university, I didn't have clothes and he would give me his suits, his shirts, his ties."

Another significant element in his change is his reading of the Scriptures. "People think they know the Scriptures, but few really study them and even fewer live according to them. The Scriptures changed me very much," says Tudor.

How is this change manifested? "I no longer have a short fuse. I was irritable, restless. I judged too many people and only God is allowed to judge people. In addition, there was also a certain arrogance, pride, and one must not be proud. It is a great sin. Pride goeth before a fall - it says so in the Bible. I gave up a whole series of things that frightened people around me. I don't need to arouse fear in anyone. If authority is not a natural product of a political leader, then it is artificial and it is better without it."

The change in him, he relates, also involves his perception of the Holocaust of the Jews. "I came to the realization that no one has the right to judge the Jewish people, apart from God."

But your statements about the Holocaust were not about judging the Jews, but about a factual matter: You said there was no Holocaust in Romania.

"The whole thing derived from a lack of information. We had no access to those documents, and we didn't know what it was about. We had to build a relationship with Eyal Arad - one must not forget that he is a theologian - who brought me documents from Yad Vashem. That was when I asked him, `How do you, the Jews, perceive the Holocaust?' because if you think it through, only the Jews have the right to speak on the subject and any definition that Israel gives for the Holocaust is the correct definition, because the Jews are the ones who suffered from it. So I asked Arad, `Tell me, how do you understand the Holocaust, so that I will know what to tell my Romanians?'"

What Arad explained to Tudor, so that he could tell his Romanians, is that the Holocaust means discrimination against Jews between 1933 and 1945 in Europe. "So I asked Eyal Arad: `Is the Holocaust only burning, only the crematoria?' And he said to me: `No! It also means the burning of stores, beatings, deportations, death trains. He brought me documents from Jean Ancel of Yad Vashem, who researches the Holocaust in Romania, and then I had an epiphany. It was my moment of change."

Was the change sudden?

"Concerning the Holocaust, it was a matter of a few days, until I had studied and internalized the documents. This happened four months ago, that is, at the end of 2003."

Following the explanation he received, Tudor had an idea: "I proposed that the coming generations of Jews, once they overcome the psychological turbulence because of the closeness to the Holocaust, look at it as a historical matter. Then they will be able to write `The Book of the Holocaust' and add it to the Bible. You have the obligation to write it, because in 12 years you suffered more than all the suffering in ancient times. The slavery in Babylon, the slavery in Egypt - all those troubles together did not create as many victims as in those 12 terrible years."

Let's leave the Holocaust for a moment. What other changes have you undergone?

"A profound understanding of the United States. Of its civilizing role. It is necessary to help it so it doesn't make mistakes, so it doesn't allow the re-growth of the Russian power. The United States has a messianic role."

What did you think before the change?

"I thought it was imperialism. But no, there is a religious element here."

Will the changes you have undergone increase or decrease your chances of winning the election?

"I didn't change because of that, not in order to get elected," he clarifies.

But as a political commentator, what do you think?

"Someone in ancient Greece said that a great leader does not do what he wants, but what is necessary. I consulted several people and they said to me: `This is good, this isn't good. You can say this, you can't say that.' No one owns the absolute truth. And if such a change can improve my situation on the international plane ... That is, not in Romania, because in Romania I'm not losing voters. My voters aren't coming to me as an anti-Gypsy or anti-Semite. Voltaire has a brilliant sentence that says: You will lead people well through the vehemence with which you tell truths. I tell with great vehemence truths that the Romanians think privately in their own homes, because they are afraid. That is how I have won them, not by dealing with race."

This was done by the Jews

Corneliu Vadim Tudor understands that he is at an important juncture in his political career. On November 28, the day of the general elections in Romania, he will be 55. Married and the father of two daughters, he studied sociology at Bucharest University. Last year he completed a doctorate in history at the University of Craiova and at present he is a doctoral candidate in theology at the Romanian Catholic Institute of Technology in Bucharest.

For most of his life he worked as a journalist under the Communist regime in Romania. At first he wrote for a daily paper and then as an editor at a news agency. During that period, he was known for his hymns of praise to Helena and Nicolae Ceausescu. In 1991, two years after the Ceausescus' fall, he founded the Romania Mare party, a populist, nationalist party with an anti-Semitic, anti-Gypsy and anti-Hungarian platform that was well-received in the context of the difficult circumstances in the country.

Has he changed? Has he really seen the light and repented? Has he ceased to be a Holocaust-denier, a nationalist, anti-Gypsy and anti-Hungarian? "We have an adviser from Israel who steadies me when I go too far. I tend to speak the truth all the time and all at once. This is not good. Everything in its season," he said this month at an election rally in Campulung.

A few hours later, at a rally in the city of Pitesti, he also did not disappoint. "How long will we be able to remain in the hall here," he asked. "An hour? And then who will expel us? The Hungarians? Who? Is it tenable that we should be discriminated against in our own country? Until when?" he wondered, to the laughter of the audience.

A conversation with him about anti-Semitic statements he published in the past is like dancing the tango. For a moment he tries to deny he ever said those things, and then he changes direction, admits them and asks forgiveness - and so on.

In July, 2003, you published in your newspaper an article in which you wrote: "Everything is so ridiculous, that it is impossible not to realize that all of this is part of a well-defined strategy: First of all, reports of tens of thousands of Romanian Nazis are appearing in all kinds of places in the world, and then pressures are applied to acknowledge what is called `the Romanian Holocaust,' so that ultimately our country will be subordinated to a regime of sanctions and reparations."

Tudor: "I didn't write that. Is it signed by me?"

Yes.

"Signed by Vadim Tudor?"

Yes.

"Not true! I know what I write and what I sign."

This article appears on the front page of your newspaper Romania Mare on July 11, 2003, and it says that the remarks are from a radio speech of yours.

"That I wrote about Nazis? Or what? That they are inventing American Nazis?"

Until recently you held the opinion that the Jews talk about a Holocaust in Romania in order to get money out of the Romanian people.

"I never said any such thing!" protests Tudor. "Maybe it's my signature but that doesn't mean I wrote it. I'll tell you what - the Jews did this. You have that (Norman) Finkelstein who wrote a book that also came out in Romanian two years ago, called `The Holocaust Industry,' and he talked about money. But now, after I've analyzed some documents, and after I've seen Israel's behavior, I can say that I'm not afraid that anyone is going to ask Romania for money, because no one will. I know that Romania is more important to Israel than compensation from 60 years ago."

Then he goes back to the article he wrote, and concedes: "Maybe it did appear. I think it did appear, probably. But it is part of a series of mistakes I made after having been misled by Jews. Ask that Finkelstein."

In 1997 Tudor made a speech in Libya in which he said: "I am a fighter against Zionism in my homeland. Here this is a matter of principle: The United States is a colony of Israel ... In my mind's eye I see a little mouse pulling a gigantic elephant behind it on a very long chain. This is Israel and the United States."

On the one hand, in the past you were against America, against Israel, against the Jews against the Jewish mafia that together with the Americans was trying to take over the world, and on the other in favor of Libya and Iraq.

"I have never been for Libya or Iraq."

It would seem that your worldview has reversed entirely.

"No. I regret that that's not true. I'm the hero of this film and I know what I was thinking. I've fought the mafia my entire life. Any mafia. You also have mafiosi. Do you mean to say that there aren't mafiosi in Israel? You don't have prisoners? You don't have crooks, criminals? That is, I never said it was an Israeli mafia."

A Jewish mafia.

"I didn't say that. That's not my terminology, `Jewish mafia.' I never said any such thing."

I quote: "I have never been, I am not and I shall never be an anti-Semite. The significance of this will be ..."

"Indeed, I'm not an anti-Semite," interrupts Tudor. "Why are you using that sentence?"

I use it, and I continue: "The People of the Book is one thing and the gangs of fraudsters and criminals that tear out your eyes these days in the name of King David and King Solomon is another thing. I do not think there is much left of the People of the Book, of those admired shepherds, who gave shelter to the mother of Jesus."

"But when did I say that? In 1997?"

On September 3, 1999, Romania Mare, No. 477.

"Under my signature?"

Yes.

"How many years have gone by? It's been five years. That's exactly the change in me. Paul didn't change? He changed! He had a revelation. But the thieves remain the same thieves, you should know. There are thieves in Israel. But I'm not generalizing. I've never generalized. I never said that all the Israelis are like that, God help me. Otherwise I wouldn't have taken an Israeli adviser and I wouldn't have been working with Eyal Arad. They are very decent people."

I don't understand how you can deny things you published under your signature in a newspaper that you edit.

"Okay, if it is my signature, I admit it. But I also said good things, positive things. You aren't quoting them. I thought I had the freedom to say things, but at a certain stage I realized that there are more important things."

How is it that an educated person like yourself doesn't say: There are Jews who ...

"I had bad influences on me," interrupts Tudor. "There were influences on me. I'll give you the solution: In politics, like in the education of children, you have to be careful of bad influences."

But you're a doctor of history. You know what a fact is.

"In 2002 I fired a party member whom I discovered saying in the newspaper that Hitler cleansed Germany of Jews. Does it matter what happened five or seven years ago? No. It's more important what I do from now on."

How is it possible to be sure that you will not change again?

"I won't change."

There's no guarantee of that.

"Yes, there definitely is a guarantee. It is my age and my seriousness, and the abyss into which Romania has tumbled. To this day I have written articles. And I have apologized for that. How can I ask forgiveness and retract it two months later? How would I look to the people around me, or my family? I would look crazy!

"There will be no more such statements; because of my word games and my lack of caution, the rise of the normal forces in this country has been delayed."

And what about what you said half a year ago?

"What did I say half a year ago?"

What I read to you, about the Jews who want to squeeze out reparations by inventing a Romanian Holocaust.

"But it is not possible, because at that time I was at the beach. I was at the beach!"

Poverty and corruption

In what kind of flower garden does a bloom like Tudor grow? To understand his popularity, it is necessary to understand the environment in which he operates. The average net wage in Romania today is about $180 a month, and more than 2.4 million Romanians (a bit more than 10 percent of the citizens) live on less than a dollar a day. While other eastern European countries, like neighboring Hungary, are about to enter the European Union, a target date of 2007 has been set for Romania and some in the EU are hinting that this date will be postponed.

It is hard to meet anyone in Romania nowadays and not hear at least one story about corruption, and it is hard to open a newspaper in Romania and not find reports of acts of corruption, the protagonists of which are often senior politicians or judges. Last month the European Parliament adopted a grave report written by Emma Nicholson, who is in charge of the process of bringing Romania into the EU. She sent a harsh message to the government of Romania, saying that the country must attack the main problems that affect its membership in the EU: "Corruption, corruption and corruption."

Tudor played on those strings. In his election campaigns, he has combined slogans against "the crooks in government" with nationalist slogans like war against "the Hungarians' intention to steal Transylvania," a struggle against the spread of the Gypsies in Romania and calls to annex Bukovina and Bessarabia to his country (from this derives the name of his party: Greater Romania). He has often hinted that the Jews are the ones who are responsible for the situation. For example, in August, 2001, a call was published in his newspaper: "We warn the Jewish mafia to leave Romania alone!"

These slogans caught on and Tudor's books are selling very well. From a minor party, in the 2000 elections Romania Mare became the second largest in parliament and holds about one-quarter of the seats. The surprise of the elections was Tudor's rise to the second round in the presidential election against the incumbent Ion Iliescu. After nearly all the other candidates - distressed at the thought that an extreme nationalist like Tudor could be elected president - announced that they were transferring their support to Iliescu, Tudor captured only about one-third of the votes, and lost the election. This year he is hoping the results will be different.

`Food, heating, medicine!'

A few weeks ago, at the entrance to the hall in Campulung, hundreds of people gathered to see him. Wearing a dark suit, with a white scarf around his neck, Tudor looked like a television star who had leapt for a moment from the screen into reality. The inhabitants of the town, most of them poor, crowded around him, wanting to exchange a word, to get help.

It is very important to Tudor to radiate closeness to the voters. After the rally, he set out on a walk through the streets of the town and about 200 people followed him. "Tudor walks around to show that in contrast to the members of the other parties he does not immediately escape in his official car. He is a man of the people," said Marinica Fulugia, the Romania Mare candidate for mayor of Campulung. Then he made a request: "We have 90 percent unemployment in this region. You are close to him. Could you ask him to set up a manpower agency here for placing workers abroad?"

Tudor knows very well how to turn the Romanians' terrible existential distress into legitimate votes at the ballot box. "These are our slogans for the election year," he declared in Campulung and also in Pitesti. "Food, heating, medicine, law! This is what the Romanians want and this is what we will give them!" He is an excellent rhetorician, intelligent and charismatic. He delivers his speeches extemporaneously and every speech of his is a performance. He controls his listeners: He makes them laugh, yell, get annoyed or applaud him.

From time to time he also remembers to stimulate the sense of national pride. "Unlike the Hungarians, we are not celebrating 1,000 years since we became part of Europe, because we have always been here, and we are not celebrating 1,000 years since we became Christian, because we were converted by Jesus' first evangelist, the Evangelist Andrei. We are the only nation on earth that was born Christian!"

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