On June 16, 1948, Moses Rosen was elected chief rabbi of Romania. Over the next 45 years, he managed the delicate, and controversial, task of maintaining a beneficial relationship with a communist, and often anti-Semitic, regime while cultivating good relations with world leaders as well. It was thanks to Rosen’s astute political skills that the lion’s share of the country’s Jewish population of 450,000 was able to emigrate under communism, most of them to Israel.
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Moses Rosen was born on July 9, 1912 in the town of Moinesti, in Romanian Moldavia. He was four when the family moved to Falticeni, some 150 kilometers to the north, after his father, Avraham Arie Leib Rosen (1870-1951), became rabbi of that town.
In the early 1930s, Rosen studied law and also trained for the rabbinate, both in Bucharest and in Vienna. He moved several times, depending on political conditions, and in 1935 and 1939, respectively, he earned his law degree and rabbinical ordination, both in Bucharest.
Early in World War II, Rosen spent some time in a Romanian concentration camp. Although he was soon released, under the rule of German ally Ion Antonescu, he had to go underground in order to avoid deportation to the German death camps. Thus he avoided the fate of some 250,000 other Romanian Jews who died in the Holocaust.
After the August 1944 coup that removed Antonescu and Romania’s subsequent realignment with the Allies, Rosen became head, first of the Malbim Synagogue and then of the Great Synagogue, both in Bucharest.
By the end of the war, Romania was occupied by the Red Army. The new communist government appointed a 600-member “Jewish Democratic Committee” to administer the community’s affairs. It was this body that, on June 16, 1948, in a nominally secret ballot, elected Rosen chief rabbi to replace Rabbi Alexandre Safran, who had been exiled abroad six months earlier.
For the first years of Rosen’s leadership, the committee’s mission was to suppress all religious and cultural expressions of Judaism other than secular Yiddish culture. Even during this period, Rabbi Rosen had enough political astuteness to be able to distance himself from the major work of the committee, while retaining his position.
Following the death of Joseph Stalin, in 1953, the committee was abolished and restrictions on Jewish life were relaxed. The new regime in Bucharest wanted to improve relations with the West, and such moves as releasing Zionist activists from jail were seen as a means to this end. In the succeeding years, Rosen was permitted to establish a journal of Jewish affairs, he was elected to the Romanian parliament and he became head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania.
Under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who came to power in 1965 and was overthrown in 1989, Rosen played a key role in cultivating good relations with both Israel and the United States. Even after the other Warsaw Pact countries cut ties with Israel after the Six-Day War, Romania maintained them. As a consequence, Romania received most-favored-nation status from the United States – and Romanian Jews were permitted to emigrate, a privilege not afforded the Jews of other Soviet satellites.
Not surprisingly, opinions on Rosen remain mixed, two decades after his death. There’s no doubt that he was autocratic and self-aggrandizing (he expected to be addressed as “Your Eminence”), and that he helped cover for some of the more oppressive practices of the Ceausescu government. On the other hand, during his leadership Romania’s Jews were allowed to practice their culture, anti-Semitism was discouraged and the American Joint Distribution Committee was allowed access to the state. Most significantly, it was because of Rosen’s influence that most of Romania’s Jews were able to leave. As he himself commented ironically to The New York Times in 1990, “I was able to destroy my community, bringing without much noise or fuss about 400,000 Jews out of Romania and to Israel.”
And indeed, by the time of Rabbi Rosen’s death, on May 6, 1994, following a stroke, only some 14,000 Jews remained in Romania.