By ROBERTA SERET, PH.D. Anti-Semitism had always been part of Romanian culture long before the war, but it was in 1927 with the establishment of the Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party, that their practices publicly centered on eliminating all Jews in Romania by torture and death squads.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, reflecting on the treatment of the Bucharest Jews during this time, I realize that this part of history may not be well known. I feel it is important to revisit the facts. In my forthcoming novel, “Gift of Diamonds”, a survival story beginning in 1960s Romania, where Communism was rampart, I intersperse the evils of Communism with Fascism. Both heinous forms of government used similar horrors of destroying people with torture and death squads. In Romania, it began with Fascism.
King Carol ll, the royal-dictator (1930-1940) included in his government fascist practices, beginning by signing a law that was influenced by the Nuremberg racist protocols that defined who was to be considered Jewish. He tightened his dictatorship against Jews until 1940 when he was forced to abdicate and left for Portugal with his Jewish mistress, Magda Lupescu. General Ion Antonescu eagerly took power in September 1940, formed an alliance with the Iron Guard and tightened restrictions on the Jews.
The Iaşi death trains are estimated to have killed between eight and fourteen thousand Jews in the summer of 1941. Over 100 people were stuffed into each car, and many died of thirst, starvation, and suffocation aboard two trains that for eight days travelled back and forth across the countryside, stopping only to discard the dead (as photographed).
One year later, he destroyed the organization after a heinous act in January 1941: the Iron Guard had lists of rich Jews and hunted them in their homes. They tortured them until they signed over their houses and properties. Then they shot them in the forest. Others were taken to Bucharest’s slaughterhouse, where they were hung on butcher’s hooks, still alive to be tortured more. Their bellies were cut open and their entrails hung around their necks. Their dead bodies were hanged on hooks with a sign under each body, “Kosher meat.”
And still, the Iron Guard legacy of anti-Semitism and torture continued to influence Antonescu’s dictatorial regime during the war.
Anti-Semitism ravaged the Jewish population throughout the country, especially in areas outside the capital as in Bukovina, a territory previously owned by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and in Bessarabia, acquired from Russia, as well as in Moldavia and sections of Transylvania. All Romanian Jews received rights of citizenship in 1923, but in 1940, that citizenship was taken away from all Jews except those living in Bucharest. The Jews residing outside the capital were persecuted, rounded up and forced into death trains. Genocide was the goal. Those who survived were sent to Transnistria, a camp where typhus and starvation slaughtered more than 200,000, including 50,000 children.
Strangely, the Bucharest Jews were spared. Their population of 100,000 were not forced to wear yellow Jewish stars, or to live in ghettos, or to be deported. The question is who protected them? Paradoxically, it was General Ion Antonescu, himself, with assistance from Romania’s Chief Rabbi, Alexandru Safran, and the respected president of the Jewish communities, Wilhelm Filderman, with the Queen mother of Romania, Elena. Why did Antonescu, the fascist dictator, get involved to help?
Antonescu was aware that after losses on the Eastern Front in the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943), when he had allied his army to the Germans, that the Axis power could lose the war. At this time, Antonescu had in place the intention of stripping the Bucharest Jews of their citizenship and deporting them to camps. But Queen Elena and her son, King Mihai, intervened and organized formidable resistance against the dictator. Rabbi Safran and Filderman joined forces with the Royal family.
Antonescu was a rabid, violent anti-Semite. Even Adolph Eichmann had warned Antonescu that he was being “too cruel and sloppy with his Jews.” And yet, he didn’t want to appear to the outside world as being a monster. Consequently, he met regularly with Queen Elena and Rabbi Safran to discuss which Jews on their list should be spared. The Queen had warned the fascist leader that she was determined, “If the Romanian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, she would march next to them.” It was at this time that Antonescu realized the tide of war was turning against Germany, and that the Bucharest Jews could represent for him an insurance policy in case of a post-war trial for “crimes against humanity.” The Bucharest Jews, alive, could serve as collateral for his own survival.
In addition to a judicial justification, Antonescu began negotiating a financial deal without either Hitler or Eichmann ever knowing – to sell the Bucharest Jews and send them to Palestine. But the British, who controlled Palestine at that time, didn’t want to upset the Arabs. Even though Ben-Gurion, the leader of Israel, wanted the Bucharest Jews to build up the new country, the British told Antonescu, no. They called it a slave trade, unethical to sell people.
Antonescu persisted in trying. He had another idea, a business concept to trade and sell human lives: Jews for exit visas. His plan was to extort cash from American and world Jewish organizations for the sale of Romanian Jews. Such a scheme could simultaneously placate his government officials by their receiving from exiting Jews, a windfall of abandoned homes, gold, paintings, jobs, and businesses.
A key figure in this market was Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, under President Roosevelt. Since 1934, he was the only Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet and was active in bringing to the president various rescue plans to stop the annihilation of European Jews. Despite criticism about a slave trade extortion plan, the committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, a Zionist organization in New York, with the help of Morgenthau, placed an ad in The New York Times on February 16, 1943 saying, “For sale to Humanity, 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a piece.” There was no interest. No potential buyer came forward. And President Roosevelt hesitated to push the plan forward. It was an election year and not a popular idea. The rescue plan fell through, and with it the lives of 70,000 souls and thousands of children.
Morgenthau, tirelessly negotiated with Antonescu, while stalling for an end to the war. As negotiations continued, on August 23,1944 King Mihai, residing in the Royal Palace in Bucharest, organized a coup d’état against General Antonescu, who had been imprisoned by the king. In the process, the king and his new government declared war on the Axis powers and asked the Romanian Army not to resist the Red Army. One week later, on August 31, 1944, the Soviets entered the capital. An armistice was signed with Moscow on September 12,1944, and the Soviet occupation remained in Romania. Two years later, on June 1,1946 in Bucharest, Antonescu was executed by a military firing squad for war crimes. He had been responsible for the death of 300,000-380,000 Romanian Jews during the war.
The irony of history is that the Russians saved the Bucharest Jews. In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember the horrific numbers:
In 1930, Romania had a Jewish population of 725,000-750,000.
In 1945, 290,000-360,000 Jews had survived.
In 1940 there were 95,072 Jews living in Bucharest.
In 1945 there were 100,000-150,000 Jews living in Bucharest, which included Jews from other sections of the country who had sought safety in the capital.
ROBERTA SERET, Ph.D. is the founder and executive director of the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) at United Nations, International Cinema Education Organization and the Director of ESL and Film for the Hospitality Committee of the United Nations. She is an adjunct instructor at New York University in Film. Her work in the United Nations Global Classroom has been praised by various influential Americans, including Michelle Obama, Mike Bloomberg, and Caroline Kennedy. The Transylvanian Trilogy is her first fiction series, with Gift of Diamonds now available and Love Odyssey releasing March 23, 2021.