The Holocaust in Romania

Background of the Holocaust in Romania 

Interwar YearsRomania had actually gained territory as a result of the new borders drawn at the close of World War I.  The traditional “Old Kingdom” of Romania consisted of the historical regions of Walachia and Moldova; shortly after WWI, however, Romania acquired the territories of Bessarabia; Bucovina; and Banat, creating an inflated “Greater Romania.”  This Greater Romania contained over 700,000 Jews in total, about 4% of the population of Romania.

All of this territory gained was a sore spot for Romania’s neighbors – Bulgaria and Hungary were especially jealous of the giant Kingdom of Romania.  This impacted the direction of politics in Romania between 1930-1938 because King Carol II was very keen on keeping his territorial gains.  At first, this pushed him towards France and he adopted a very pro-French attitude.  Then, though, as the years progressed and Nazi Germany became more and more aggressive, France revealed its unwillingness to go to war with Germany. King Carol II realized that without France’s support he would not be able to defend his land.  This pushed him towards becoming more friendly with Berlin and Hitler’s regime because he didn’t want Hungarian-German relations to develop to a point where the Nazis would support Hungarian desires to recapture lost territory from Romania.  Furthermore, the French had refused to give the stunted Romanian economy a boost when it desperately needed it.  In 1936, when the Rhineland was re-occupied by Germans and no action was taken by France, King Carol II became convinced of a need for increased friendship with Germany.  France refused to act against German aggression in Eastern Europe, and that was a very bad sign for the other smaller countries depending on Western European nations to protect them.  The good news for the King was that Germany was interested in a friendship because they coveted the Romanian oil supplies that were needed to wage war.  Overall, the King’s foreign policy vacillated between the hopes for Romania’s traditional allies in the west to take a stand, and the increasingly unavoidable reality of Germany’s rise in power.

Parallel to these events there was also a domestic storyline that was unfolding in Romania itself.  The “Iron Guard” were a new fascist political movement that was headed by a man named Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was a virulent anti-Semitic, xenophobic, nationalist force rising on the Romanian political scene. King Carol II had another publicity problem with his half-Jewish mistress Magda Lupescu, who was a greedy woman that was hated by the public.  Lupescu had a Jewish father and the public saw her as having wronged Queen Helen of Greece and Denmark – the King’s previous wife – and as benefitting off of her ability to pocket public funds.  None of this helped with the latent anti-Semitism and popularity of Hitler.  In 1938 Codreanu made remarks about wanting to detach from France and become more aligned with the Nazis, as well as some disparaging remarks about the royal monarchy.  The King was outraged as foreign policy decisions had always been under his own control, and from that moment on Carol II was determined to destroy the Iron Guard.

An inexperienced, violently anti-Semitic man named Octavian Goga came to power in 1937 – Carol hoped to undermine the Iron Guard by garnering the confidence of anti-Semitic people who subscribed to the Cordreanu’s ideals.  Goga was incompetent, as King Carol II had suspected he would be, and he also started enacting harsh anti-Semitic laws on the Jewish Romanians.  Foreign protest combined with some underhand dealings between Goga and Codreanu, who now conspired against Carol, caused the King to declare a complete dictatorship in 1938 after excess violence on the streets was incited by the Iron Guard.

Romanian Jewish Mother with Children
A picture of a Romanian-Jewish mother with her Children. Taken in Cluj, Romania.

The Royal Dictatorship

The succession of events that followed are complex, but for the purpose of this article they will be condensed into well-defined parts.  The first portion is the Royal Dictatorship, which is the name given to the government of King Carol II after he ousted Goga and declared himself absolute monarch on February 10, 1938.  Later that year he would have many members of the Iron Guard’s elite, including Cordreanu himself, executed while imprisoned for treasonous acts. Although he was still considered non-anti-Semitic, King Carol II did try to appease some of his more anti-Semitic constituents as Germany’s conquests continued. After the fall of France – Romania’s main ally in the west – in 1940, it became clear that Romania could no longer remain neutral and had to deal with the two superpowers that now flanked it on either side.  The problem was, though, that Hitler hated the King of Romania and refused to even meet with him when he tried to make an appeal for collaboration.  In 1940 the USSR gave the Romanian foreign attaché in Moscow and ultimatum that stipulated the secession of Bessarabia and Bukovina.  Romania was forced to accept the territories of Bukovina and Bessarabia to the USSR. this made King Carol II one of the most unpopular people in Romanian public life.  After trying to work out a way that the royal dictatorship could share power with the new fascist uprising, the King eventually transferred most of his powers to the new Dictator, Ion Antonescu, and left Romanian political life.  All told the King and his government were doomed; on 6 September, 1940, Carol and Magda fled their home and went into self-imposed exile in Mexico.  They took with them almost the entire treasury of Romania, and set new records for one of the most corrupt administrations in European history.

Bessarabia and Bukovina.

These outlying and contested regions of Greater Romania were suddenly swiped away by the Soviets after giving the Romanian government an ultimatum on June 27, 1940.  Hitler would not help the Romanians fight his ally, and France had already fallen – there was no more illusion of being rescued by the western democracies, so Romania’s decision to peacefully surrender the regions to the Soviets became an easy one.  Looking back now it is plain to see that the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina was an event that turned Romanians towards Nazi Germany and fascism once and for all.  During the surrender and subsequent evacuation of the regions, there were  already acts of anti-Semitic terror taking place.  Events in Dorohoi and Galati show that the military personnel and citizens of the region were wholly imbued by the anti-Semitism that had been drummed up by the Iron Guard for so many years.  The aftermath of the surrender was what some pinpoint as the beginning of the Holocaust in Romania. Jews were seen as Communists and blamed for the retreat, though they had no greater or lesser place in the decision than anyone else.  Furthermore, the Soviets treated the Jews poorly during the year they occupied that area: only two understaffed Yiddish schools existed and, in the regional capital of Czernowitz, more than 80% of the people arrested and deported to Siberia were Jewish. In just one year the Romanians would retake their lost territories in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, and the bitter taste of Soviet rule would bring about consequences for the Jews alone.

A popular joke circulating in the summer of 1940 provides insight into the helplessness of Jews under the new regimes:

Two trains meet on June 28 in a station between Bucharest and Czernowitz, one going South with refugees from Czernowitz, the other going North with returnees to Czernowitz. Looking out of the windows, across the tracks, two brothers recognize each other. One is on the train going North toward the newly Soviet Northern Bukovina, the other joined ethnic Romanians fleeing south from territories that had been annexed by the Soviets. As the trains pull out of the station in opposite directions, the two brothers simultaneously yell to one other, gesticulating wildly: ‘Meshigenner!’ (‘You fool!’)

Ion Antonescu and Horia Sima pictured together in 1940.
Jewish boys in Pre-war Romania at a trade school.
The National Legionary Government

September 14, 1940 – January 23, 1941

The National Legionary government came to power directly after the final abdication of Carol II, on 14 September 1940.  The anti-Semitic, violently nationalistic Iron Guard had an extremely large representation in the new government.  Ion Antonescu, a young fascist of more moderate and practical tendencies, was slated to share power with a man named Horia Sima, head of the Iron guard.  Antonescu represented the military establishment, so, they were less fundamentally and ideologically driven by anti-Semitism.  Contrast this with the ideological rigidity of the Iron Guard, who were obsessed with racial homogeny and “Romanianization.”  The two groups butted heads quite frequently, but the beginning of the end of this tacit union was during the Jilava Massacres in November, 1940.

The Jilava Massacres were a series of killings of former politicians from the King Carol regime who had been imprisoned whilst awaiting investigation.  The massacre took place at the Jilava prison on November 26, 1940 and many prominent people were killed, including several former prime ministers.  Antonescu was outraged when he heard about this during the following day.  Horia Sima tried to throw the blame on a few of the members having gone rogue, when in reality the sentiment of happiness over the killings was shared by all Legionnaires.  By January, 1941, Antonescu and the Iron Guard were at odds constantly.  The Guard would later be dismantled after an attempted uprising during the Pogrom in Bucharest on January 22-23, 1941.

Pogrom in Bucharest:

The Legionnaires finally erupted in a violent protest in Bucharest in late January, 1941, when there was a terrible pogrom. Antonescu had visited Hitler at Obersalzberg on 14 January, 1941, and obtained approval for his plan to do away with the Iron Guard.  The rebellion and pogrom – two simultaneously occurring events – were the perfect excuse to crush the Iron Guard.  The Iron Guard began the pogrom by occupying major public locations, such as the police station and city hall.  The soldiers tried to recapture the locations, but the Legionnaires started opening fire on them.  The army was given instructions to deal with the Iron Guard men as gently as possible, which allowed the pogrom to carry on all the way until 24 January, 1941.

During the pogrom there were many atrocious acts committed against Jewish people and property. Over 2,000 Jews were arrested and many were tortured in the most brutal ways.  Many of the people arrested were wealthy or prominent Jewish community members.  The tortures described by various eyewitnesses include: hanging people on meat hooks in the slaughterhouse and slashing open their entrails; burning of synagogues in a ghoulish and demonic frenzy; and the rape and torture of Jewish women.  About 120 Jews were reported to have been killed by the 24th of January when Antonescu and his military stepped in to restore order.

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania claimed the destruction would cost 383 million lei. After the Legionary rebellion was put down, the army found 200 trucks filled with money and jewelry.  A few people were tried and some executed, but not much was done to rectify the injustices perpetrated by the Legionnaires.  The result of this pogrom was the end of the National Legionary state and a total solidification of power for Ion Antonescu, who was a milder option at the time, but would later become detrimental to many Jews.

Destroyed Jewish Shop after Pogrom in Bucharest, 1941.
Jews killed in a pogrom in Iasi.
Pogrom in Bucharest Newspaper
Pogrom in Bucharest Newspaper

The Guardian.
London, England.
Saturday, January 25, 1941

Jews in Jassy
Jews lined up against a wall during the pogrom in Jassy (Iasi.)

The Pogrom in Iasi

On June 27, 1941, it seemed like the Germans were invincible as they plunged through the communities of the Soviet Union.  The Romanian officials took note and were delighted to announce some new persecutions against Jews in order to please their German allies.  The pogrom in Iasi took place on the night of June 28, 1941, and was carried out with official orders from Ion Antonescu.  The previous day Jewish men had been mobilized to dig trenches; the newspapers had been particularly anti-Semitic; and crosses were painted on the doors of Christian homes: all signs pointed to pogrom.  The pogrom was planned out in a very particular way, but the lack of restraint and order on the part of the Romanians left the situation in a state of complete chaos.

The people who participated in the pogrom were from all walks of life, from the Iasi police to former Legionnaires to opportunistic civilians – nobody took pity on the 45,000 Jews of Iasi.  On June 29, 1941, after a night of pillaging, rape, and murder, there was an order to deport all Jews regardless of age, sex, or physical ability.  The Jews of Iasi were marched along the streets that were littered with bodies of recently murdered coreligionists and made to wait at the train station in the hot summer sun. They were subjected to tortures, robberies, pillaging, and humiliation all along the way.  Finally, batches of 100-120 people were loaded into boxcars that could not hold more than 40 – the sun beat down on them as the trains drove around and around, arriving at their destinations with over half of the people dead. This reveals that the intention of extermination was known from the beginning: all cracks and windows were sealed and the train rode the same route multiple times in order to murder its passengers from heat stroke; thirst; or suffocation. Over 14,000 Jews were killed during the pogrom.

The Fate of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina

As the Romanian army advanced through the regions in July, 1941, virtually all Jews were executed in Einsatzgruppen-style mass shootings.   From the first day of the war with the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941) until the deportations to Transnistria started (September, 1941) there were many mass murders and tortures for the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina.  Most were paraded from place to place on grueling death marches and then robbed, tortured, and shot in a forest.  Many stories of tortures suffered by Jews of Balti, Kishinev, Brichon; and Czernowitz are endless. Most were driven to the Dnestr river and either shot or forced to cross it into German hands, meaning certain death.  Roads in the area were littered with corpses as stories of hundreds of people freezing to death; rape; and humiliation pour out of this time and place. A rough estimate says about 150,000 Jews were murdered in these months in the regions of Bessarabia and Bukovina.  Then they started to concentrate them in ghettos in the ruined quarters of many of the main Jewish population centers: Balti, Soroca, Kishinev, Czernowitz, and Khotin to name a few.

A family in the ghetto at Czernowitz wearing the Star of David.
Jews in the ghetto at Kishinev awaiting their deportation to Transnistria.

Deportations to Transnistria

The area of Transnistria is between the Dnieper River and the Bug River, on the eastern-most side of the inflated Romanian territory.  This area also became the site of mass murder when Ion Antonescu began deporting the Jews of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and (later) Southern Transylvania (The Jews of Northern Transylvania shared the same fate as the Jews of Hungary.) The transportations started at the end of 1941 and lasted through October 13, 1942.  The Golta district was the home to many camps (known as the ‘Kingdom of Death’) including Bogdanovka camp, Akhmetchetka camp, and Domanevka camp – each horrific in its own way.  The inmates in the camps arrived without even the most basic provisions, and the Romanian infrastructure was so poor that even German Nazis complained of its cruel collateral damage. The human corpses were left strewn along the road unburied, disease spread rapidly. Many of the people just walked aimlessly in this barren land, without food, in the cold, and rejected by the local population, until they died.

1942: Antonescu’s Change in Policy

Earlier in the year 1942 the German foreign ministry had convinced Antonescu that deportation of all Jews living in Moldova and Walachia (The Old Kingdom) was necessary.  They were intending on sending these Jews to Belzec, along with all Romanian Jews living abroad in Germany and territories it occupied (Romanian Jews living abroad had been protected thus far.)  But, by October of 1942, Antonescu had rescinded his permission for the Jews of the Old Kingdom to be deported, citing various factors spawning from both domestic and international forces.  On top of the fact that the royal family and the church had protested this deportation, Antonescu was keeping his prospects for potential talks with the Allied forces open as well.  By the time Antonescu reversed the decision he was uncertain of German victory and wanted to be able to use the Jews as bargaining chips should the Axis be defeated.  Antonescu thought that if he decided not to deport over 300,000 Jews with Romanian citizenship that he would be looked upon more favorably should he ever be asked to answer for his crimes against humanity with respect to the Jews of Bukovina; Bessarabia; and Transnistria. Also present in the Romanian dictator’s mind was the disparity in treatment faced by Romanian Jews versus Jews of other countries – Romanian Jews were being treated the same as Slavic Jews in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe.  This outraged Antonescu, who considered it an attack on his own people that Jews of Romania would be treated any less favorably than Jews of Hungary or Germany etc. The dictator’s pride was tarnished by the notion that he would be grouped with countries such as Poland or the USSR, even if that grouping was the treatment of a country’s Jews, certainly Romanian Jews should enjoy protection similar to that of any other Axis power, he thought. Hungarian Jews were not being deported, so why should Romanian Jews be sent away? As trivial and petty as this may seem the pervasive sense of Romanian nationalism did extend to its Jewish population when comparing it to other countries’ Jewish populations.  Antonescu would not tolerate anyone, except for himself, knocking Romanian Jews.

Romanian Jews Before Execution

The End

Towards the end of 1943, in December, repatriations of certain populations of Jews deported to Transnistria began taking place.  The years after the battle of Stalingrad had been tough for Romania and an Axis defeat became more and more evident.  During On August 23, 1944, King Michael staged a coup against Antonescu and effectively ended the alliance with the Axis powers.  After taking the throne, King Michael immediately made a peace treaty with the Soviet Union that was finalized on September 12, 1944.  Unfortunately, it was too late for Romania to get out of the war with a good deal, and they would fall victim to the Soviet Union’s oppression within the coming years, leaving King Michael to go into exile despite his cooperation. Antonescu was tried for his crimes; saying that he did not order mass murder of the Jews, but rather that he saved them by halting the deportation of Old Kingdom Jews to Belzec.  However, his crimes against humanity were far too great and his paper trail was far too sloppy – Ion Antonescu was executed by firing squad in 1946.  Afterwards, The Soviet Union was given 90% share of the sphere of influence of Romania.  This would begin the slow trudge into relative obscurity as one of the Communist satellite states of Eastern Europe: the Romanian nationalist ideals had backfired, there would never be a great and powerful Romanian Kingdom in Europe again.  The Jews of Romania largely emigrated to Eretz Israel in the coming years and today there remains fewer than 3,000 Jews living in the country.