I’ve got to be completely honest right upfront and admit that writing a lengthy article about the summer of 1941 here in Romania is probably about the worst mistake I’ve ever made here on the blog.
For one thing, most people will find it boring and not even read it and secondly, those who do read it will take offense at something and hate or resent me for it. Nonetheless, I’ve become fascinated lately with the history of this country and my perambulations have taken me to the subjects I have written about below.
The story, as always for me, starts in 1848. I’ve written about this before in my post Szabadság, which began to scratch the surface of what happened in those heady days.
One more key development was the rise of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, who is nearly always referred to his initials here in modern Romania, i.e. “A.I. Cuza”, to distinguish him from several similarly named royal relatives. Born to a noble family in Moldova in 1920, AI Cuza was an accomplished, multilingual man with a distinguished military career by the time the 1848 Revolution occurred.
In Wallachia (including Bucharest), the focus was on overturning the Russian puppet government of Prince Gheorghe Bibescu (the situation was actually far more complicated as technically Wallachia was officially under Turkish dominion but the Russians had the de facto power).
A.I. Cuza helped participate in this (ultimately failed) revolution and made several key allies and ultimately ended up getting thrown in prison and shipped to Vienna. With the failure to gain Transylvania, for Romanian nationalists it must’ve seemed like the events of 1848 had ended in total disaster.
But less than 10 years later, Romania’s incredible lucky streak began. In 1856, a treaty was signed in Paris at the conclusion of the Crimean War, probably known best to English-speakers as the setting for the Tennyson poem Charge of the Light Brigade. For various and complicated reasons, Russia and Turkey (Ottoman Empire) had fought the Crimean War and the peace treaty at the end of it focused on making the Black Sea “neutral territory” to dissuade future hostilities between these two powers.
Although Romania had very little direct participation in the Crimean War, the Treaty of Paris awarded Moldova and Wallachia almost complete independence so that they would serve as a “buffer” between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
The treaty was signed in 1856 and by 1859, AI Cuza was out of jail and was officially elected as the ruling prince of Moldova. His allies and supporters in Wallachia from 1848 had now gained a lot more power and so also pulled strings so that a few months after he was elected the ruling prince of Moldova, AI Cuza also became the ruling prince of Wallachia.
Although on paper the two provinces weren’t officially one country, with a young and powerful prince ruling both lands, Romania was effectively born in 1859. By the end of 1861, it was made official and on February 5, 1862, the nation of Romania (using that name) came into being and Wallachia and (parts of) Moldova have remained united ever since.
It was then that Cuza made some of his greatest moves as the ruler of Romania, ably assisted by the brilliant Mihail Kogalniceanu. In a time when slavery was still legal in the United States, Cuza passed several laws to free Romanian peasants from forced labor (Ro: lucru de claca) and awarded them title to lands formerly owned by nobles. Cuza also tried (but ultimately failed) to pass a law wherein every male citizen would have the right to vote, a privilege previously held only by wealthy nobility.
Cuza also founded several universities (including one in Iasi which still bears his name today) and introduced compulsory but free primary school education for all citizens.
Unfortunately for Cuza (and for the Romanian people), his reforms were too fast and too much for the conservative nobility and the church (Cuza had confiscated a lot of land from the Orthodox Church) and along with factions of the military (known collectively as the “Monstrous Coalition” or Monstruoasa Coalitie) they ended up overthrowing him in 1866.
It was then that Romania made a truly bad mistake, although it must’ve seemed like a good decision at the time. To maintain the still shaky sense of sovereignty and independence from the major powers (Ottoman and Russian primarily), the nobles of Romania invited a prince named Karl (Charles in English and Carol in Romanian) of the Hohenzollern line to become the first king of (united) Romania. Having a Hohenzollern (whose family included several ruling monarchs of major western European powers) for a ruler made Romania seem like an equal to other nations.
It was this King Carol I who built the elaborately gaudy and tremendous expensive castle at Peles (and Pelisor next door), and who spoke no Romanian, that ended up costing Romania so much pain and suffering years later.
Although it was considered “modern” and “progressive” at the time, Romania modified its constitution in 1866 with the installation of Carol I on the throne. It was Article 7 of that constitution which perplexed me the most and led to the writing of this article because it specifically forbade all non-Christians from being citizens. This was clearly targeted primarily at Jews as they were a significant and powerful minority in the country at the time.
Reading documents and constitutions only give you dry facts. They don’t really tell you the why of it all and I couldn’t find anything explaining why preventing Jews from becoming citizens was important enough to Carol I and the powerful elite of Romania (including definitely the Orthodox Church) that it needed to be included in the constitution.
But it was while researching World War 1 for my article Die Stadt Bukarest ist von meinen Truppen besetzt that I discovered a partial answer. As I had mentioned, the American Ambassador at the outbreak of World War 1 (1914), Charles Vopicka, spoke German and thus could and did discuss many subjects with King Carol.
Vopicka specifically asked Carol why Jews had been excluded from holding citizenship in Romania. From Vopicka’s book (page 270 – original spellings included):
Soon after I arrived in Bucharest and had been received as Minister of the United States to Roumania, I began an investigation to ascertain why so few Jewish subjects of that country were permitted to become citizens, and why so much ill feeling existed against them. I even spoke to King Carol and to the present King Ferdinand concerning it.
King Carol said to me: “The Jews are better educated than the Roumanians, so we must first build schools where our own people may be taught. Then in 20 years the Roumanians will be well enough educated to vote on the question of whether or not the Jews shall be admitted to citizenship.”
To this I answered: “That is too long a time.“
King Carol died in late 1914 after ruling the country for 48 years, so “apparently” all the schooling of Romanians and exclusion of Jews after all that time still hadn’t been “enough” for him.
But what Vopicka didn’t know was that in 1907, there had been a massive revolt in Romania (called Rascoala in Romanian). Under Carol’s reign, almost all of A.I. Cuza’s reforms had been rolled back and most of the country (and land) was controlled by a few rich families.
Since their estates were so massive, the ruling nobles employed administrators to ensure that the goods produced and tax payments (landless peasants owed a form of tithe to the nobles) were collected and many of these administrators were Jewish. The 1907 revolt started out in Moldova with a violent protest against a Jewish administrator but soon spread across almost the entire country.
King Carol sent in the military (reports say up to 140,000 troops) and the uprising was brutally crushed. Vopicka knew next to nothing about it precisely for the same reason that modern historians know almost nothing – King Carol ordered the destruction of all documents about the revolt. How many peasants were killed or injured is unknown, as is the details about what the army did to put down the uprising.
Through my research I also found another curious fact – that between 1881 and 1902, literally every single commercial enterprise (business) registered in Romania was owned by Jews. The literacy rate at this time was about 13% (meaning 87% were illiterate), therefore King Carol’s schools for Romanians were a total failure and that Jews were the only segment of society that was prospering besides the ruling nobility and Orthodox Church.
When one segment of society (poor, illiterate Romanian peasants) are pitted against another segment of society (Jews) by a disdainful and anti-semitic nobility, not to mention a church that regularly described Jews as “Satanic”, it’s only natural that there will be a violent clash.
In 1914, King Carol died and was replaced by his nephew Ferdinand, who was a far more capable and humane leader (he also spoke Romanian). After making a brave stand in Iasi and seeing his country nearly wiped off the map by the Allied Powers, he rallied the troops and by 1918 was able to preside over a newly-enlarged country that now included Transylvania and the Banat.
Ferdinand also oversaw the 1923 Constitution which finally granted citizenship to Jews as well as giving all male citizens the right to vote.
Unfortunately for Romania, Ferdinand died in 1927 and was succeeded by Mihai, his grandson, still alive today and officially the King of Romania although that title is meaningless in 2013. Technically Ferdinand’s son Carol II should’ve succeeded to the throne but Carol II began an affair with a (half) Jewish woman named Magda Lupescu and renounced any intention of becoming king.
So young King Mihai (age 6) technically became king in 1927 but in a surprise move, his father Carol II returned from his adventures abroad in 1930 and usurped the power from his son. Romania began some of its most troubled years in this period as a number of factions struggled for supremacy, one being the king himself (who like his namesake Carol I, was only interested in himself), Ion Antonescu and the fascists, the Communist Party and the Iron Guard.
By 1938, yet another constitution was in place, the new one granting absolute power to King Carol II. But by 1940, he had lost the power struggle with Ion Antonescu and effectively ceded those absolute powers to Antonescu, who then began calling himself the Conducator, essentially the Romanian version of the title his counterpart Adolf Hitler had adopted in Germany – Führer or “The Conductor” of an entire nation.
The fascist government of Antonescu was vehemently anti-semitic. And in active collaboration with the Germans, the fury and horror of the summer of 1941 was unleashed, starting with the Iasi pogrom that left at least 13,000 Jewish citizens of that city dead.
A young Jewish baby (1 year old) named Jean Ancel was in Iasi during that awful summer and was hidden away in a basement and managed to escape death although almost every member of his family died in the massacre. When he was 23, he emigrated to Israel and dedicated himself to researching and documenting what happened to the Jews of Romania and Bessarabia during the war.
Obviously the suffering and hatred towards this minority was awful and evil beyond belief, tens of thousands of completely innocent people (not to mention decorated combat veterans who had faithfully served in past conflicts) were killed or put to death in concentration or work camps, robbed, beaten and raped, the fury and discrimination that had been building up for decades unleashed in a bloody wave that swept over the entire continent that led to the deaths of over 300,000 Jews dead in territories controlled by the Romanian administration (which included lands now part of the Republic of Moldova as well as Ukraine due to larger political maneuverings between the Soviet Union and Germany).
What struck me the most, however, was not the violent persecution of Jews in areas controlled by Romanian forces, as that was a mere “drop in the bucket” of the larger context of World War 2, a seemingly inevitable result of long-standing hostility towards Jews by the Orthodox (and Catholic) Church, a huge gap between the social standing and literacy rates between Jews and Romanians and decades of misrule and anti-semitism on the parts of two kings as well as Antonescu’s absorption of Iron Guard beliefs about Romanian “purism” and anti-semitism, but the sheer incompetence (which seems to be an endemic trait of Romanian leadership) at how Antonescu’s forces went about the task of “liquidating” the Jewish population.
Time and time again, even the cold-blooded killers of Einsatzgruppe D were dismayed by the incompetent and sloppy manner in which Romanian forces were executing Jews. The Germans were dumbfounded that the Iasi pogrom in the summer of 1941 had been conducted openly in daytime by members of the police (and to a lesser extent, the military) wearing full uniform, gunning down people on the streets and leaving their bodies to rot.
Antonescu himself became furious at his own commanders for failing to turn over seized property and money taken from Jews to the government (page 35 of the 2004 Holocaust report):
The first phase of extermination was executed in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina under Antonescu’s direct command.
General C. Niculescu’s Committee for the Investigation of Irregularities in the Chişinău ghetto (formed at Antonescu’s request to probe the rapid and inexplicable enrichment of certain officers and the “failure” to confiscate deportees’ gold) found that between the establishment of the camps—after the “cleansing of the land”—and the beginning of the deportations, “25,000 Jews died of natural causes, escaped, or were shot.”
In fact, one of the primary reasons Antonescu outlawed the Iron Guard in early 1941 was precisely because it had been seizing so much wealth from Jews in Bucharest and not turning it over to his government.
Antonescu’s forces moved rapidly through Bucovina, Bessarabia and clear into Ukraine (including the city of Odessa), rounding up and shooting, robbing and raping Jews as they went. The Germans were quite alarmed, especially as Jewish prisoners were held in extremely unsanitary conditions and thus became breeding grounds for diseases, primarily typhoid fever.
The Germans weren’t worried about the health of Jews of course but the fact that the disease was highly contagious and was endangering the German population in the region.
On February 5, 1942, the local German commander sent a telegram to Prefect Loghin of Berezovka (near Odessa) inquiring about this (page 64 of the 2004 Holocaust report):
Some 70,000 Jews have been concentrated on the [Romanian] side of the Bug, approximately 20 kilometers [12 miles] into [Transnistria], opposite the towns of Nikolaevka and Novaya Odessa, which lie about 60 kilometers [37 miles] north of Nikolaev on the Bug.
Rumor has it that the Romanian military guard has been removed, so the Jews are being left to their fate and are dying of starvation and cold. Typhus has spread among the Jews, who are trying in every which way to exchange articles of clothing for food. In so doing, they are also endangering the German territory, which can easily be reached by crossing the frozen Bug River.
As far as I can tell, the entire “master plan” that Antonescu and his forces had for Jews in Bessarabia was to line then up as close to the Bug River (then the border between lands controlled by Germany and the Soviet Union) and then “push the Jews across” the river. The Jews had already been robbed of anything of value, of course, but there was never a really concentrated effort to put them to work in camps (as the Germans did) or murder them en masse but simply to keep moving them along until they were someone else’s problem.
The Germans were all for the extermination of the Jews but several cities and villages near the Bug River had a native German speaking population (similar to the Transylvania Saxons in Romania, a result of centuries of Ostsiedlung) and these malnourished, infected Jewish prisoners were a threat to the local community.
The Germans were also dismayed by the chaotic way in which Romania was rounding up and deporting Jews to the border. In 1942, Adolf Eichmann wrote an internal report on the Romanian efforts. From page 66 of the 2004 Holocaust report:
Eichmann praised the Romanians’ desire to eliminate their Jews but did not welcome the Romanian operation “at present.” He agreed with the deportations “in principle” but criticized the “disorderly and indiscriminate” evacuation of thousands of Jews to the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, which threatened not only the German forces but also the local residents with epidemics, insufficient food, and other hazards.
Eichmann explained: “Among other things, these unplanned and premature evacuations of Romanian Jews to the occupied territories in the east pose a serious threat to the deportation [operation] presently being carried out among the German Jews. For these reasons, I request that the Romanian government be approached to put an immediate end to these illegal transports of Jews.”
Jeez, you know you’re doing poorly when the Nazi official in charge of exterminating Jews is criticizing you and referring to your deportations as “illegal”.
The Romanians were even throwing dead (Jewish) bodies into the Bug River (thus contaminating the drinking water of everyone in the vicinity), which forced the Germans to harshly reprimand the Romanian forces, telling them to burn the bodies instead.
Furthermore, Antonescu realized to his surprise that he couldn’t afford to deport or exterminate all the Jews in Romania because they were essential to the economy (page 13 of the 2004 Holocaust report):
In June 1942, the Chief of Staff ordered that Jewish workers who committed certain “breaches of work and discipline” (lack of diligence, failure to notify changes of address, sexual relations with ethnic Romanian women) were to be deported to Transnistria along with their families. Those Jews in labor detachments often met with severe punishment, such as whipping and clubbing.
In the end, the essence of the “revision” was that the labor camp system was considered to be damaging to the economy. So, beginning in 1942, labor detachments became the preferred system. However, this reorganization of the Jewish compulsory labor system was also an abysmal failure, even according to a report of the Chief of Staff issued in November 1943, which concluded that the Romanian economy could not do without the skills of the Jewish population.
All in all, it was a horrific period of Romanian and European history, with hundreds of thousands of Jews killed and many more injured, raped and/or robbed of all of their possessions. At the end of the war, the vast majority of the surviving Jewish population emigrated to Israel and today there are only about six or 7,000 left today in Romania, where they are a protected minority.
I’ve met a handful of (native Romanian) Jews over the years here in Romania and the good news is that they’ve told me they’ve had ordinary lives here without any real hostility or oppression. There is a beautiful historic synagogue preserved in Cluj (although it’s closed for worship due to insufficient attendees) and the respected Babes-Bolyai University here in town has a department of Jewish studies (itself also housed in an old synagogue).
Still though, it gives me shivers to know that just a few decades ago life here in this country was so different, society being so viciously and murderously intolerant of many groups, including the Gypsies (who were also targeted by Antonescu’s forces albeit to a lesser degree).
Thank goodness we all live in a much more modern and tolerant era is about the only thing I can say in conclusion.