Restoring Romania's Erased Memory

Just as for years the Austrians built themselves an image of "Nazism's first victim," so the Romanians have nurtured for themselves the myth of "the European country where the Holocaust did not happen."

Ever since the publication of an interview Romanian President Ion Iliescu gave to Grig Davidovitz (Haaretz, July 25, 2003), the ground under his feet has not ceased to tremble. His attempts to deflect the condemnation (which came not just from Israel, but also from Romania) and to minimize the damage his comments caused were bungling, if not ridiculous.

That said, these attempts are now accompanied by welcome initiatives that manage to produce something positive from the situation. In addition to the letters of apology and the clarifications that Iliescu and his prime minister made to their Israeli counterparts, several concrete decisions were taken. A committee of international historians is to be established, to fully investigate Romania's role in the Holocaust; Romania will declare a national day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust; and Romanian Education Minister Alexandru Athanasiu will visit Israel in October to examine Holocaust study programs for his country's schools.

So keen was Athanasiu to undertake his mission that he asked to visit here during the course of this week, but he was firmly told by Jerusalem that Israel objects to "a process of crisis management combined with elements of public relations ... It will take some time before the lessons of this incident will be fully learned. The time is not yet right for the slate to be wiped clean." Experts and senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem view this educational effort as a fitting response to the Romanian president's "sins."

l The first sin: Relativizing the Holocaust

Iliescu's comments to Haaretz (which he later revised), claiming that "the Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population of Europe," have been described by Israel as "a form of Holocaust denial." A similar response could be found in the mass-circulation Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei, which wrote that "when he mixed the Jews' martyrdom with the persecution of Communists, Polish people or Gypsies, Iliescu embraced - deliberately or not - part of the revisionist theory." Even if the president's comments were not intended to deny the Holocaust, banalizing the Holocaust is also a grave sin.

l The second sin: Rewriting history

Iliescu seeks to clear the name of Romania's wartime leader. He claims that "[Marshal Ion] Antonescu no longer supported the Final Solution. On the contrary, he took steps to protect the Jews." But it is now known that the Marshall, who insisted on using a derogatory term whenever referring to Jews, was in no need of help from Hitler. In 1941 he was already working on a plan for the elimination of Romanian Jewry. His regime was directly responsible for the murder of 420,000 Jews. If not for the Germans' defeat at Stalingrad, he would have forged ahead with his plan for genocide.

In attempting to disconnect the Romanian people from all responsibility for "phenomena related to the Holocaust," Iliescu also sins against the historic truth. Documents that have recently been uncovered paint a very gloomy picture of the Romanians' behavior throughout the Holocaust. Romanian society, with very few exceptions, saw Antonescu as a legitimate ruler and cooperated with him. In contrast to the situation in most occupied European countries, there was no Romanian underground. No one rose up against Antonescu or against the expulsion and murder of the Jews.

l The third sin: The property issue

The property that was expropriated in Romania after the war is valued at $5.3 billion - one tenth of Romania's gross domestic product. Iliescu cannot compensate only the Jews, without angering his public. With that, his comments raise suspicions that he sees Jewish "preoccupation" with the Holocaust as a cover for avarice. In addition, Iliescu never states that he himself appears on the long list of the country's former Communist rulers who acquired the nationalized property at exceedingly low prices in the 1990s.

l The fourth sin: The motives behind the interview

According to one interpretation, Iliescu, who ends his term of office in 2004, is hoping to be named chairman of the Senate. For this, he will need the vote of the extreme nationalist Romania Mare (Great Romania) party. Thus, throughout the interview, Iliescu was sending out a message to supporters of that party, the second largest in Parliament.

Historian Dr. Rafael Vago of Tel Aviv University says that the interview to an Israeli newspaper was perhaps intended to prove to the nationalists that their president is determined not to allow outside interference - Western or Jewish - in Romania's internal affairs.

Either way, the "blunders" in the interview are too frequent to be viewed as mere slip-ups. The fact is that they came just weeks after the government in Bucharest announced that the Holocaust did not happen on Romanian soil. The president's comments are fuel on the revisionist bonfire, joining his reprehensible comments made in a Bucharest synagogue in January 2001, where he attacked the "artificial inflation" of the number of Holocaust victims.

Too many people in Romania share Iliescu's views. Just as for years the Austrians built themselves an image of "Nazism's first victim," so the Romanians have nurtured for themselves the myth of "the European country where the Holocaust did not happen." One can only hope that the snowball set in motion by Iliescu's interview will help them to deal with the darker periods of their history and to shatter the walls enclosing their erased memory of history.