Romania Starts to Confront Holocaust Past, but ‘Cycle of Denial’ Remains

An award-winning new movie shines a spotlight on the 1941 Odessa Massacre, where 40,000 Jews were murdered. But as lawmakers propose a law against ‘anti-Romanian’ acts, is the country ready?

Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
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Rabbis taking a break from the reburial remains of Holocaust victims found in a mass grave in northern Romania, at the Jewish cemetery in Iasi, Romania, April 2011.
Rabbis taking a break from the reburial remains of Holocaust victims found in a mass grave in northern Romania, at the Jewish cemetery in Iasi, Romania, April 2011.Credit: AP
Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne

BUCHAREST – While some in Eastern Europe are going to great lengths to whitewash their countries’ roles in the Holocaust, Romanian cinema seems determined to challenge false interpretations of the past.

The latest film to do so, Radu Jude’s “‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,’” snagged the top prize at the prestigious Karlovy Vary Film Festival last weekend. It focuses on a director choosing to make a film about the 1941 Odessa massacre – when Romania’s Nazi-collaborating wartime leader, Ion Antonescu, ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Jews after his army captured the port city. (The film’s title is an Antonescu quote about the massacre.)

With increasing numbers of countries – including Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine – facing criticism over attempts to downplay or deny their country’s complicity in the Holocaust, Jude’s film “points a finger at those people who are rewriting history,” in the words of one of the festival jury members.

Antonescu headed a Nazi-collaborating regime bent on territorial expansion and holding onto those territories for ethnic Romanians. At Hitler’s urging, Antonescu occupied parts of modern-day Moldova and Ukraine after the Nazi leader had given parts of northwestern Romania (Northern Transylvania), containing a significant ethnic Hungarian population, to Miklós Horthy’s collaborationist regime in Hungary.

But Antonescu’s regime was more than just any ally: Romania was Germany’s major ally on the Eastern Front after 1941, providing hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Nazi war machine. As historian Timothy Snyder stresses in his 2015 book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Romania was the only other state to “generate an autonomous policy of the direct mass murder of Jews.”

It’s clear that Antonescu really wasn’t concerned about going down in history as a barbarian. “There has never been a time more suitable in our history to get rid of the Jews, and if necessary, you are to make use of machine guns against them,” he said at the same cabinet meeting in 1941 when he made the “barbarians” statement.

A plaque in Bucharest acknowledging Romanian persecution of its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust.Credit: Michael Colborne

His words were heeded. In October 1941, after an explosion at the Romanian military headquarters in Odessa that Antonescu blamed on the Jews, Romanian troops murdered approximately 40,000 of Odessa’s Jews. According to Yad Vashem, 19,000 of Odessa’s Jews were taken to the harbor and burnt alive, while another 20,000 Jews were taken to a an outlying village to be shot or burnt to death

The 40,000 Odessan Jews who were still alive were marched to the Slobodka Ghetto outside of the city and left to freeze in the winter cold for 10 days. Yad Vashem estimates that out of Odessa’s 201,000 Jews in 1939, some 99,000 died in the Holocaust.

Downplaying involvement

The crimes of Antonescu and the Romanian state – like throughout much of Eastern Europe – weren’t discussed much during the country’s communist era (1947-1989). History textbooks were silent about it, downplaying Romania’s alliance with Nazi Germany and placing the murders of Jews into the amorphous category of “communists and antifascists.”

“Under communism, there was really no Holocaust memory to speak of,” Prof. Jelena Subotic, a political scientist at Georgia State University, tells Haaretz.

After the fall of communism, Romania and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe were faced with an already formed Holocaust memory from Western Europe that “clearly identifies unique Jewish suffering and discusses a significant degree of local culpability,” adds Subotic, who is currently writing a book on Holocaust remembrance in Eastern Europe.

This has led to situations where Eastern European countries have had to accept some form of Holocaust memory – like museums, memorials and school curricula that discuss the Holocaust – while at the same time continuing to downplay the idea of their countries having borne any responsibility for it, Subotic notes.

This was certainly the case in Romania in the 1990s and early 2000s. Simon Geissbühler, a Swiss historian and diplomat, wrote in a recently published book, “Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania,” that government officials in the ’90s regularly denied that Romania had anything to do with the Shoah.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu in Bucharest, July 2003. Said there had never been a Holocaust within Romania’s borders and that "the Holocaust was not unique to the Jews.”Credit: REUTERS

This “cycle of denial,” in the words of Holocaust historian Paul A. Shapiro, wasn’t broken in Romania until 2003, after then-President Ion Iliescu made several controversial comments about there never having been a Holocaust within Romania’s borders. “The Holocaust was not unique to the Jews,” Iliescu was quoted as telling Haaretz at the time.

In response to the Israeli and international uproar over his words, Iliescu established a committee of international historians to fully investigate Romania’s role in the Holocaust.

A year later, the final report from the Wiesel Commission – led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Romanian-born Elie Wiesel – concluded that “the Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of this Holocaust, in both its planning and implementation.”

The report, as Geissbühler and others note, resulted in some positive steps in Romania. In 2009, a Holocaust memorial was erected in Bucharest, unambiguously stating that “the Romanian state was responsible for the deaths of at least 280,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews.” There have also been changes to school textbooks and education about the Holocaust, as well as a resurgent interest in scholarship in the field.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, right, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, April 25, 2018.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

But there are still concerns. “It is too early to speak about a strong wind of change when it comes to Holocaust memory in present-day Romania,” wrote Geissbühler. He worries that there is a gap between facts and knowledge, pointing to a 2015 poll that showed, in his words, that “not even a third of the respondents believed that the Holocaust had also happened in Romania.”

Worse, added Geissbühler, those who did still thought Germany was primarily responsible.

“While some progress has been made in the last few years,” Geissbühler tells Haaretz, “Holocaust memory in Romania remains fragile and fragmented. Many simply do not want to know.”

‘The film Romania needs’

Will Jude’s film change anything in Romania? Screen International acknowledged that Romanians might not be lining up to see it when it is released in theaters in September, “though prizes beckon and festivals will no doubt be lining up to receive it.” Still, one Romanian website, Viata Libera, says Jude’s film is “the film that Romania needs.”

If anything, Jude’s film might make it easier for Romanians to learn about the Odessa massacre – he said he himself only learned about it as a teenager.

Romanian film director Radu Jude and Ada Solomon posing with the best film award for "'I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians'" at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, July 7, 2018.Credit: AFP

“I stumbled across it in one or two books,” Jude told The Calvert Journal, an online magazine about Eastern Europe. “My mother argued with me, telling me not to read all these stupid things because [the massacre] never happened. But the shock was so big I became interested.”

And Jude’s film isn’t the only film challenging Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe. In 2012, Romanian filmmaker Florin Iepan confronted Romania’s leaders over their ongoing silence about the country’s role in the Holocaust, even trying to get former president, Emil Constantinescu, to meet with the sole Jewish survivor of the Odessa massacre.

A year later, the Polish film “Ida” – about a young nun in ’60s Poland who learns she was born Jewish – angered nationalists who felt the film was “anti-Polish” and implied that Poles were responsible for the Holocaust. Five years on, of course, the country has been embroiled in a fresh controversy after passing a law in January that made it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish people, nation or state of involvement in or responsibility for the Holocaust.

But Romania might not be far behind. Last week, a group of lawmakers – including members of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) – proposed a bill that would criminalize the promotion of “anti-Romanian ideas and doctrines,” with the setting of up “anti-Romanian organizations” punishable with jail time. Jude said he refuses “to live in fear” about such a move.

Still, his film won’t be the last to challenge interpretations of history in Eastern Europe. Just this week, a group of filmmakers in Lithuania – where 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust – issued a crowdfunding call for a film called “Isaac.” A psychological drama based on a short story written by Lithuanian-American writer Antanas Skema, the creators hope “Isaac” will help Lithuanians face some hard facts about the country’s past.

“Lithuanians are still in an evident denial and fear of admitting the dark deeds we did in the past,” Matas Drukteinis, the film’s spokesperson told Haaretz via email.

If the critical success of “‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians’” is any indication, the most lively space for Eastern Europe debate on grappling with its bloody past may well be up on the big screen.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, left, President Ion Iliescu and Chief Rabbi of Romania Menachem Hacohen attending a commemoration for Holocaust victims at Coral synagogue in Bucharest, OctoberCredit: REUTERS

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