Among Neighbors, Murderous Hatred

Ideas about certain groups during the Holocaust abound, but the perception here that Romanian Jewry was somewhat safe needs to be reexamined.

I found Yosef Govrin, a native of Czernowitz, Bukovina (in northern Romania ) through the recommendation of historian Raphael Vago. I got to Dr. Vago after happening upon a book by private investigator Shlomo Waldman. I had read Aharon Appelfeld and was interested in the story of Gary Bertini, the late Israeli conductor who as a teenager survived the camps in Transnistria.

Rabbis bury remains of Holocaust victims - AP
AP

Govrin was ambassador to Romania in the 1980s. Some 40 years earlier, during World War II, he was among the Jews deported to Transnistria, where tens of thousands of Romanian Jews were murdered. It's a large swath of land in southern Ukraine that the Germans put under the control of their Romanian allies, who exiled the Jews of northern Romania there. Most did not return. They succumbed to beatings, shootings, hard labor, cold, hunger, typhus.

In conversation with Govrin, (his autobiography is called "In the Shadow of Destruction: Recollections of Transnistria and the Illegal Immigration to Eretz Israel" ) a surprising distinction surfaces. It might sprout prejudices and stereotypes, but the question is: Which nation besides the Germans excelled at murderous anti-Semitism?

Routine answer: the Ukrainians. Since the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-9. They also assisted the SS in the extermination camps. Even that generalization deserves review. Yosef Govrin says: "My memories of the Ukrainians are not bad, as far as the simple Ukrainian people in the area where I was, Transnistria, are concerned. They did not take part in the killing nor were they involved in acts of theft. This was also the impression of other survivors of Transnistria I spoke with. It should also be noted that the number of Ukrainians who have been recognized as Righteous Gentiles is very high and in recent years has even been increasing."

Perhaps there is a difference between Ukrainians who grew up as Soviet citizens (in the Transnistria region ) and the anti-Semitic ones who lived before the war in eastern Poland.

What did the Romanians do?

A fairly common view in Israel, till not long ago, held that in Romania, there was no Holocaust. Fact: Approximately half of the Jews there survived. Were these German allies were less anti-Semitic?

Romanian soldiers and citizens were personally involved in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Yosef Govrin: "Unlike the Ukrainians in Transnistria I mentioned, the Romanian Catholic population in Bessarabia and northern Bukovina [regions of northern Romania] did collaborate in the destruction. The Romanians committed mass murders and in 1941 killed around 100,000 Jews even before the deportation to Transnistria. The deportees to there were the last remnants."

Govrin stresses: These killings were carried out before the Wannsee Conference and the Nazis decision on the Final Solution. In 1942, the Romanians decided to send all the Jews in their country to Poland, from where they would not return, but Romania's ruler, Antonescu, was deterred from doing so after the German-Romanian defeat at Stalingrad.

Holocaust and anti-Semitism researcher Dina Porat is not eager to rank the murderous anti-Semitism among Eastern European countries. The only criteria for such a distinction, she says, lies in the differentiations of the Germans themselves.

The Germans needed guards in the concentration camps, notes Porat, and high on their list for the job were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. When it came to the mass murder of women and children, there were initial hesitation among the Germans; the Lithuanians showed they could do this, and the sky would not fall.

Porat says: "The Byelorussians were not murderers, so the Germans brought in Lithuanians to help exterminate the local Jewish community. Romanians and Hungarians rank lower than the Ukrainians and the Lithuanians."

Poles were not employed in the concentration camps, notes Porat, "but no one should draw any far-reaching conclusions; most of the concentration camps were on Polish territory and non-Jewish Poles were also killed. "As far as the Germans were concerned, it would not have been right to employ Poles there."

Roots of historical distortion

Shlomo Waldman, 54, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, is not a historian but has written voluminously on the destruction of Romanian Jewry - "a study of his roots." His book, "Dracula Lo Nitze'ah Oto - Tik Iasi, Shoat Yehudei Romania She'hu'alma" (You Won't Find Dracula - the Iasi File, the Holocaust of All of Romania's Jewry ), was published several months ago by Maarechet Publishing House, Kibbutz Dalia ). Waldman's father, Yosef, an accountant in Even Yehuda died in 1982. He had survived the monstrous train pogrom on June 30, 1941 in the city of Iasi, which had a large Jewish population. Its perpetrators were Romanian soldiers and citizens who had the backing of the country's leader.

Waldman's book stands out for its hubris. Waldman deals with his father's suffering (with obsessive detail about every step of collecting data ). He calls for a change in the public perception of the Holocaust in Romania, or as he puts it, an indictment, a reminder of the evil cruelty of the Romanian people.

His view reflects the belief that for Israelis, "Romania was not in the Holocaust," because half of its Jewish population survived the war. Historian Vago agrees that there's a measure of distortion in the prevailing Israeli view. "There's a feeling that at least in Yad Vashem there's room for correcting the description of the Holocaust of Romanian Jewry," Vago told me. Vago, in a very concise summary, says that "Romania did not hand its Jews over to Nazi Germany but organized for them its own cruel Holocaust."

From 1919 to 1940, Romania ruled Bessarabia, whose capital is Kishinev, and Bukovina, whose capital is Czernowitz. The overwhelming majority of Bessarabia was Romanian; a high percentage of Bukovina's residents were Romanian. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939 ), the Soviet Union took control of these regions, and there is testimony that the mostly pro-Communist Jewish residents welcomed the takeover. In 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa ), Romania, with German help, reassumed control of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. After the 1941 train pogrom in Iasi, near the border of Romania-Bessarabia, the mass murders of the Jews of these regions took place - followed by the deportation of most of the survivors to Transnistria in Ukraine.

What was the fate of the Jews of southern Romania (primarily Bucharest and the surrounding areas )? Vago says: "They were not deported or exterminated or sent to concentration camps." It may be that the Romanians did not murder the veteran, loyal Romanian Jews, who were perceived as part of "the Old Romania" but only the "peripheral" Romanians, whose loyalty was ostensibly questionable.

The death trains from Iasi

Shlomo Waldman's book also questions this approach and is based, inter alia, on the terrible death train pogrom. It happened in Iasi, which was considered part of "old Romania." In late June 1941, thousands of Jewish men from Iasi were forced onto sealed transport trains - approximately 120 people in each wagon with a capacity of around 50. The trains traveled randomly, back and forth, between Iasi and other destinations in the area.

Over 12,000 people choked to death in them. In a memorial booklet published many years ago in Israel, and mentioned in Waldman's book, it says the people in the wagons "drank their own urine, licked their sweat, clung to the cracks, went mad, killed each other, stood on top of each other in the terrible crush of people and died suffering greatly."

What happened to those who survived and the city's other Jewish residents? They continued living there, during World War II and afterward, alongside the murderers. Most of them simply had no other choice.

Tel Aviv musicologist Ruth Guttman Ben-Zvi, who grew up in Iasi, before and after the pogrom, remembers: "I was a girl among those brought to the courtyard of the local police station. We were wealthy and lived a five-minute walk away. Early in the morning, we already knew there was a pogrom in the neighborhoods of the poor Jews, and we tried to hide in the garden. It didn't help. They came and got us.

"They beat my father with iron rods used to stoke fireplaces, so he would give them the key to the safe. They stole everything and took us to the Castura (the police station ); luckily for us, a Romanian soldier who knew us did not let the other soldiers put us together with the poor Jews. We were on the sidewalk. They walked in the middle of the street. Everyone had their hands raised. Whoever fell was killed with blows.

In the police station courtyard, there was a separation. Women and children were sent home. Men were sent to the train station."

I asked: After all, you stayed in Romania until 1960. Were the Romanian people anti-Semitic?

Gutman Ben-Zvi answers: "I'm wary of generalizations. From a young age, we knew there was anti-Semitism. But we also had good relations with Romanians. A French proverb says that every anti-Semite has 'a good Jew.' I was the good Jew of many."