Now Is Not the Time'

The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe, says Romanian President Ion Iliescu, referring to contradictory statements issued by his government on the subject. Nor does he think demands for property restitution should be dealt with now

BUCHAREST - The intentions, at least, were good. On June 13, the government of Romania convened to approve a cooperation agreement between the archives in Romania and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. However, at the conclusion of the meeting the following statement was issued: "The government approved the cooperation agreement between the National Archives of Romania and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The talks on this subject ultimately underscored the position of the government of Romania, which encourages research concerning the Holocaust in Europe - including documents referring to it and found in Romanian archives - but strongly emphasizes that within the borders of Romania between 1940 and 1945 there was no Holocaust."

Reactions of outrage and incredulity followed immediately. The Israeli Foreign Ministry submitted an official protest to the Romanian Embassy, the World Jewish Congress called on Romania to establish a commission of historians to investigate the Holocaust, and studies about the Holocaust in Romania were cited in the media. A few days later, the government of Romania and the office of the president, Ion Iliescu, issued clarifications correcting the previous statement.

About half of Romania's Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. According to the historian Jean Ancel, Romania was guilty of the annihilation of 240,000 of the country's prewar Jewish population (from Bessarabia, Bukovina and from Romanian Moldova), who were transported to concentration camps in Transnistria, an area in the Ukraine. The regime was also responsible for the murder of about 180,000 Ukrainian Jews in the Soviet territories that Romania seized in the war.

What accounts for the contradictory statements issued by the government? A visit to Cotroceni Castle, the residence of the president of Romania, may provide a possible explanation. "The Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe," President Iliescu told Haaretz last week. "Many others, including Poles, died in the same way."

Yet isn't it the case that only the Jews and the Gypsies were targeted for genocide?

"I know. But there were others, who were labeled communists, and they were similarly victimized. In the Romania of the Nazi period, Jews and communists were treated equally. My father was a communist activist and he was sent to a camp. He died at the age of 44, less than a year after he returned."

What is your opinion of the declaration by the Romanian government denying that a Holocaust took place in the country?

"The government amended the declaration, because its contents were presented inaccurately. The Holocaust was a general phenomenon in Europe. It was not Romanian or German or Polish, but a phenomenon that was related to the period of the war and the rule of fascism.

"Romania, too, experienced a rise of fascism and a subordination to Hitler's Germany. And within the framework of the general phenomenon that is known as the Holocaust in Europe, such phenomena occurred in the territory of Romania, too. The massacre in Bucharest and at Iasi [in Moldova] in 1941, and the sending of the Jews to concentration camps in Transnistria took place in Romanian territory, and the leaders of that time are responsible for those events.

"However, it is impossible to accuse the Romanian people and the Romanian society of this. When Germany declared the Final Solution - a decision that was obeyed by other countries, including Hungary, Antonescu [Marshal Ion Antonescu, who seized power in Romania in September 1940] no longer supported that policy. On the contrary, he took steps to protect the Jews. That, too, is historical truth."

Pragmatic decision

But Antonescu was one of the most active leaders against Jews. For example, Hannah Arendt, in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem," notes that in August 1941, Hitler, referring to the Final Solution, said to Goebbels, "a man like Antonescu proceeds in these matters in a far more radical fashion than we have done up to the present."

Iliescu: "And he bears the responsibility for that. Antonescu took responsibility for bringing the Legionnaires to power, but he is accused of acts that were carried out when the Legionnaires were no longer ruling, in June 1941, at Iasi. That is Antonescu's direct responsibility, as in the case of sending the Jews to Transnistria.

"Antonescu also has his positive side. In 1944, when Hungary under Horthy was implementing the Final Solution and transported its Jews, including the residents of northern Transylvania, which was then under Hungarian rule, to death camps, Antonescu was no longer doing that."

What do you say to historians who maintain that it was the Germans' defeat at Stalingrad that prompted Antonescu to rethink his collaboration with the Germans?

"That is not important, and it is correct, but tell me, didn't the Hungarians also see the Germans' defeat at Stalingrad?"

In any event, it was a pragmatic decision, was it not?

"Still, Antonescu stayed with the Germans until the last minute. He had to be arrested in order to dismantle the alliance with Germany, whereas Horthy's Hungary remained subordinate [even at that stage]. What amazes me is that no one has passed such harsh judgment on Horthy's Hungary."

Hungary has not issued a declaration to the effect that no Holocaust took place on its soil during the Second World War.

"That is not what I meant. I am talking about those who are very thorough when it comes to Antonescu but not so thorough when it comes to others. For example, why did the return of Horthy's remains to Budapest and the holding of an extensive ceremony not generate condemnations on the part of those who condemn every statue of Antonescu?"

The Romanian government's statement also led to a discussion about the restitution of Jewish property from the war period.

"What's the connection? I don't think we should make a connection between these things. After all, that is liable to generate sentiments not of a positive nature toward the Jewish population. As though the entire engagement with the Holocaust was intended to justify property claims. I would prefer it if that connection were not made. In other words, the historical research should be left to the historians. As for the restitution of property - and there are Romanians, too, and not only Jews, who are asking for property back - today the situation is worse than it was in 1989. People are struggling with shortages, and at the same time tens of thousands - hundreds of thousands - of people are coming forward with claims, because in Romanian history, during World War II and afterward, property was nationalized. Does that mean that the wretched Romanian citizen of today has to pay for what happened then? People have already had their fill of property restitutions and of having to pay for what happened during history, without their being guilty of anything.

So are you saying that now is not the time for property claims because of the serious economic situation in the country?

"We are in favor of righting the wrongs that were done and ensuring compensation of some kind for those who suffered. But we also have to take into account the present condition of Romania. Is it worth continuing to skin those who are living in distress today, too? And just in order to compensate others? I don't find that appropriate."

Would you suggest delaying the compensation, or doing away with it completely?

"Doing away with what is possible and delaying what is possible. It is important to respect the existing situation."

Is the Romanian government taking steps in that spirit? Jewish organizations are complaining that it has been difficult to move ahead with property claims in the past few years

"There is a law that arranges the restitution of property. However, it is not easy to document everything, and documents have to be presented, after all. It is not enough to say: `They took my property - give it back to me.' Along with this there are also the economic problems. We have to view things realistically."

Blue-yellow-red

One of the surprises of the last elections held in Romania, in 2000, was the dramatic surge of the Romania Mare (Greater Romania) party, headed by Vadim Tudor. Romania Mare is an extreme nationalist party, which advocates xenophobia and nationalism. The party also had a certain success in the elections to the local governments. For example, Gheorghe Funar, the mayor of Cluj, in the country's northwest, is a member of the party. One of the changes he introduced in Cluj is to show the national colors in every possible corner: hundreds of flags were hung throughout the city, and the public benches, playground facilities in kindergartens and even the garbage cans were painted blue-yellow-red.

The party scored substantial achievements at the national level as well. Romania Mare now holds about a quarter of the seats in parliament, and Tudor contested the presidency in a second-round runoff against Iliescu. Tudor recently made headlines when he called on the United States ambassador, Michael Guest, to leave the country because he is a homosexual (Guest is openly gay).

One formidable obstacle Romania faces in the international arena is the political strength of Vadim Tudor and his party. What is the state doing to combat xenophobia and anti-Semitism?

"Romania has demonstrated a very balanced development from this point of view. The results of the last elections also show that Romania is not moving in that direction. If you look at the public opinion polls of the last year, you see that Tudor's accomplishments have diminished greatly. In general, those positions have not enjoyed success in Romania."

Yet Romania Mare is the second-largest party, is it not?

"Le Pen is second in France, and look how things developed there. The fact that other parties lost in elections because of the policy they pursued when they were in power is not significant. Tudor came second because the others failed. But things will balance out, and I do not think there is a danger of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism in Romania. At the same time, we must pay attention to him."

Do you see a possibility that Tudor will be part of the country's leadership in the future?

"I don't think so."

Would you say that the parties in Romania reject outright cooperation with Romania Mare in a coalition?

"I don't want to reject that party as a whole. We have to assume that there are decent people in that party and among its supporters, people who support some of the positions of Romania Mare because of the difficulties they are experiencing in their life. There are serious social problems and the economic situation is not yet satisfactory in the eyes of a large part of the population, and that encourages populist utterances."

Not toeing the line

Romania has recently adopted an interesting foreign policy. On the one hand, it is engaged in negotiations to join the European Union (according to the plans, this will happen in 2007), while on the other hand it is drawing closer to the United States. Bucharest actively assisted the United States in the war in Iraq, and was the first country to sign an agreement with the U.S. not to allow American nationals to face trial in the newly established International Criminal Court in The Hague - drawing protests from France and Germany. Iliescu denies that Romania is maneuvering around the rift that has developed between the United States and Europe.

"The disagreement over intervention in Iraq is a historical incident," he says. "I don't think that question has any deep meaning. It is impossible to describe the development of Europe without the United States, and the United States does not want to cut itself off from Europe." A few months ago, after a few Eastern European countries that are candidates to join the EU, including Romania, issued a declaration of support for the United States, French President Jacques Chirac said those countries "missed a good opportunity to remain silent." How do you view Romania's future relations with France and Germany?

"That was a hasty moment and President Chirac subsequently corrected his statements to some extent. I have met with him several times since then. I think he understands that this is not a proper form of expression. The position of the candidate countries did not contradict that of the EU, because the EU did not have a common position. On one side you had Britain, Spain, Portugal and Italy, which supported the United States, and on the other side France, Germany and Belgium, which adopted a different approach. Which line were we supposed to follow?

"I met with Chirac and we reached the conclusion that it was inappropriate to ask who Romania supports - the EU or the United States - because when we support the EU we support the United States, and when we support the United States we support the EU."

Israel is making efforts to draw closer to the countries that are expected to be accepted into the EU in the hope that the will change the Union's positions, which are usually less supportive of Israel compared to the U.S. If Romania becomes part of the EU, can it be expected to take a position closer to that of the United States in regard to the Middle East conflict?

"We do not immediately fall into line with the opinions of others. At the same time, since we aspire to be members of the EU, it is clear that there is a certain commitment on the part of member states to the community of which they are a part. However, we are trying to influence that position so that it fits the principles we want to promote."

One of the diplomatic wrangles between the United States and Europe today is over the question of meetings with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. If you were to visit the Middle East, would you meet with Arafat?

"I probably would. He is the president of the Palestinian Authority and was elected by the Palestinian community. Just as we did not obey Moscow's demand that we break diplomatic relations with Israel [after the 1967 Six Day War], we will not obey views that impose prohibitions on us.

"I think there is no logic to a position like this, which demonstrates hostility toward a political leader who did not only play a negative role, but a positive one as well. He signed an agreement with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and contributed to the peace process. In any event, I do not intervene in Israel's decision and we do not pretend to understand the problems better than the sides that are involved. In principle, I would say, a demand like this is not proper."

Adoption solutions

Sixty Israeli families are currently waiting to receive a child from Romania, although the adoption procedures have not yet been completed. Romania is not willing to release the children at this time, even though the would-be parents have already seen them, in some cases several times.

Romania suspended child adoption by Israelis in 2000 at the request of the European Union, because of irregularities. Nevertheless, adoptions were authorized in exceptional cases - though that option has now also been blocked.

"We have hundreds of requests in this regard from members of parliament in the United States, Spain, Italy, England and France," Iliescu says. "However, in light of the recommendation by the EU we have stopped the process. By the end of this year a joint formulation on adoption is supposed to be articulated, to set the procedure that will be followed. The whole matter is now the responsibility of the government."

Even though the adoptive parents have already made contact with the children, Iliescu sees no need for intervention on humanitarian grounds. "In principle, I am against international adoptions. I prefer to find a solution for the children here, in Romania," he says.(G.D.)