For Jewish News October 5 2023
What do you think of when you hear the word “Romania”? Perhaps some weak jokes about Transylvania and Dracula, echoed by the rubbishy fridge magnets and keyrings I saw last week in the duty free shop at Iasi airport.
It’s certainly not mass murder of Jews which springs first to mind. And yet, Romania’s deeply disturbing past, 80-odd years on, continues to bubble up to the surface, as the country does its best to face up to its role in the Holocaust.
Romania is notorious for what became known as the Iasi, or Jassy, Pogrom. Over three appalling days at the end of June 1941, hundreds of the town’s Jews were rounded up by Romanian militia and brought to the central police station. This long, low building was once, ironically, owned by Jews.
Once in the courtyard of the Chestura — as the police station was known in the Romanian language — the majority of the Jews were beaten, shot and clubbed to death. The perpetrators, according to Yad Vashem academic Dr Alex Avram, were “the mob, neighbours of the Jews”, together with police and soldiers sent specially from the capital, Bucharest. The streets, eye-witnesses reported later, “were rivers of blood”.
Those who didn’t have the “fortune” to die at the Chestura were herded towards the Iasi train station where they were made to lie, face-down, in a huddle in front of the station building. Passengers defending from an incoming train from Bucharest were encouraged to leave the area by walking on to the Jews.
Two trains, cattle cars, were filled up with Romanian Jews. The death trains went back and forth, the sealed carriages leading to death by asphyxiation while bodies of the dead and dying were randomly thrown out onto the lines.
In all, around 13,500 Iasi Jews died in this pogrom. To get some measure of what took place, it’s important to know that pre-war, Jews comprised half the city’s population. There were 127 synagogues. Today, for the remnant of 300 Jews who still live in Iasi, there are just two in operation, the Great Synagogue, a grand cathedral-like structure, and the so-called “Apple-Sellers’ Synagogue”, used for Shabbat services.
All of this evil happened at the initiative of the wartime Fascist leader, Ion Antonescu, anxious to prove to the Nazis that in the fight against the Soviet Union, he was more anti-Jewish than strictly necessary.
In the main Jewish cemetery today, long runs of bleak concrete, topped with a star of David, form mute witness to the Iasi Pogrom — these are the mass graves of the Jews who died at the Chestura. And in a piquant mirror image, on the other side of the cemetery are rows of individual graves of Jewish soldiers who fought for Romania in the First World War. All of them, those who died in battle and their sons and nephews murdered in the Pogrom, were heroes.
As for the Chestura itself, it has now been transformed into the Pogrom Museum, each terrible picture providing testimony of what Romania did to its Jews. The young woman who showed me round the museum wept, and apologised for weeping. She said she, like almost all her contemporaries, had not known about the Iasi Pogrom, but had often met descendants of survivors, who had made it to Israel or America, and who were able to fill in one more part of the jigsaw for her.
From this academic term on, ignorance will be no excuse as the Romanian genocide against the Jews and the Holocaust in general will be a compulsory subject to be taught in schools.
I won’t forget Romania in a hurry. And it no longer means Dracula to me.