This Day in Jewish History

1941: A Sadistic 3-day Pogrom Starts in Romania

After besieging the premier in his palace, not that he was pro-Jewish, the Iron Guard was free to catch, viciously torture and murder Jews.

Ion Antonescu, left, with Horia Sima, October 1940.
Wikimedia Commons

January 21, 1941, marked the beginning of a three-day pogrom in Romania.

The slaughter, which left 125 Jews dead, took place in the context of a power struggle between the government of Romanian prime minister Ion Antonescu, and his former allies, the Iron Guard Legion.

During their attempt to topple Antonescu, whom they portrayed as a puppet of the Jews, the legionnaires of the fascistic Iron Guard sadistically attacked members of the Romanian Jewish community in a number of different venues.

Just months earlier, Antonescu and the Iron Guard, led by Horia Sima, had been uneasy allies in the government formed in the wake of a national crisis that culminated in the abdication of the Romanian monarch.

Honorable fascism?

In fact, Antonescu was just as anti-Semitic as the Iron Guard. He did, however, have a more developed sense of decorum, and was willing employ the legal process, rather than outright violence, to strip the Jews of rights and property.

The Sephardic Temple in Bucharest after it was robbed and set on fire during the Legionary Rebellion and pogrom.
Wikimedia Commons

According to historian Radu Ioanid, “Antonescu was inclined toward an ‘honorable’ fascism of civil servants that reduced and strictly controlled the role of the masses and would forbid any spontaneous initiatives.”

The Iron Guard legionnaires, on the other hand, were quick to indulge their hatred of Jews in uncoordinated attacks and acts of theft.

The crisis that led to the abdication of Romanian King Carol II began after the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939. Suddenly, Romania found itself facing demands that it relinquish territories that had come under its sovereignty following World War I. Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina were being claimed by the Soviet Union. Romania had no choice but to cede them, together with other territories that were transferred to Hungary and Bulgaria.

In both cases, blame for the humiliating loss of territory fell on the usual suspects – the Jews.

With the departure of the king, Sima and Antonescu, a former army general, agreed, on September 6, 1940, that they would share power in an authoritarian regime to be headed by the latter. Both were enthusiastic supporters of Nazi Germany.

Consulting with Hilter

On January 14, 1941, Antonescu met with Adolf Hitler and asked the Fuehrer, “What am I to do with the fanatics?” Hitler’s response was, “You have to get rid of them. In every movement there are fanatical militants which think that in destroying they are doing their duty.”

The two made a deal. The Romanian promised that his country would join with Germany when it turned on the Soviet Union, and Hitler guaranteed Antonescu that he would have Germany’s support when he turned on the Iron Guard.

Four days later, Antonescu outlawed the commissars of Romanianization, a program established the Iron Guard to disposess Jews of their property. The Legionnaires responded by accusing Antonescu (whose stepmother was a converted Jew) of being an agent of “Judeo-Masonry,” and began a serious rebellion.

For several days, it looked as though Antonescu, who was under siege in his palace, was lost, especially as Horia Sima had control of the country’s media outlets and the support of much of the army.

Meanwhile, the rebellion offered a fine opportunity to stage a pogrom, and the Iron Guard, with the help of a wide swathe of Romanian society – police, university and high school students, union members, Gypsies – began attacking and looting Jewish-owned property. They also kidnapped Jews and brought them to torture centers where they were subjected to horrendous suffering before being murdered. This included undergoing mock shehita in kosher slaughterhouses. Property stolen from Jews was said to have filled 200 trucks. Seven synagogues were destroyed.  

Initially, Antonescu bided his time, and only on January 23 did he unleash the army on the rebels. Some 200 Iron Guard members were killed, the trucks with the Jewish property were confiscated by the army, and Antonescu was left the lone dictator of Romania.

Antonescu’s patience was not for naught. In the Iasi pogrom of June 1941, his forces murdered some 12,000 Jews within Romania, and overall, during the years of the war, his regime – not the Germans – slaughtered between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews in disputed regions in the war zone.