8. The Survival of the Romanian Jews

Despite the pogrom at Iasi, the deportations from Bessarabia and Bukovina, the repeated massacres in those provinces, and the Transnistria disaster, a large segment of the Jewish population of Romania was still alive in 1942. The Jewish population of Moldavia, Walachia, and Transylvania (the portion not occupied by Hungary) was not subjected to deportation or extermination. This did not go by unnoticed by Nazi Germany, which continued to pressure Romania and its other allies to solve “ the Jewish question” within the framework of the „Final Solution.” Situation reports on the campaign in the east compiled at the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) reflected the same thing.

The bureaucratic details of the Final Solution were drawn up on January 20, 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, which took place under the leadership of RSHA head Reinhard Heydrich. At this meeting Martin Luther of the Foreign Office expressed confidence that neither southeastern nor Western Europe would present obstacles. Though this prognosis proved largely correct, Romania and Bulgaria constituted partial exceptions. Even before 1942, German-Romanian relations, viewed through the prism of the Jewish question, were far from harmonious. The SS, along with regular German military units, had protested in the summer of 1941 the disorganized manner in which Romanian military units were killing Jews. In the eyes of the SS in particular the Romanian „technique” was inadequate; the Wermacht (armed forces) worried that it would affect the prestige of the German army.

As we have seen, in August 1941, the Germans had resisted Romanian deportations to the other side of the Dniester River, and a similar situation occurred on the Bug River in the spring of 1942. Nevertheless, in August 1941, despite „problems in the field,” German-Romanian collaboration at the government-to-government level appeared to be total.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1942, relations between Romania and Germany deteriorated. Cooperation on the Jewish question displayed a seesaw pattern of fluctuations. On July 26, 1942, the Eichmann Referat of the RSHA reported that its representative in Bucharest, Hauptsturmfzhrer Richter, had scored a complete breakthrough. “ Political and technical preparations for a solution of the Jewish question in Romania ,” reported Eichmann, „have been completed by the representative of the Reich Security Main Office to such an extent that the evacuation transports be able to roll in a short time. It is planned to remove the Jews of Romania in a series of transports beginning approximately September 10, 1942, to the district of Lublin, where the employable segment will be allocated for labor utilization, while the remainder will be subjected to special treatment.” Provision had been made to insure that the Romanian Jews would lose their nationality upon crossing the border. Negotiations with the Reichsbahn with respect to train schedules were already far advanced.

During his interrogation in Jerusalem Eichmann confirmed that Richter had been in possession of Mihai Antonescu’s written agreement for the deportation of the Jews from Moldavia, Walachia, and southern Transylvania. In any case, according to German diplomatic documents, several days earlier Ion Antonescu had given von Killinger a verbal agreement to the same effect.

According to a census of the Jewish population in the spring of 1942, about 300,000 Jews still lived in Romania. On August 8, 1942, Bukarester Tageblatt, a paper that reflected the viewpoint of the German embassy, published an article entitled „Romania Will Be Free of Jews”. On the same day Donauzeitung in Belgrade published an article entitled „Jewish Resettlement in Romania”, and two days later a similar article appeared in Volkisher Beobachter in Berlin. The Bukarester Tageblatt article lauded Romania’s „energetic steps” toward a Final Solution in Romania under the guidance of Marshal Antonescu. Also lauded was the „exemplary” activity of Radu Lecca, who „supervised” the Central Office of Romanian Jews as part of his „mission” to purge Romania of its Jews.

Censorship prevented Romanian newspapers from making similar announcements. But after August 15, 1942, rumors of a deportation from Transylvania and Banat (encompassing Timisoara, Arad, Beius, Turda, Sighisoara, and Brasov) toward Hungary grew more frequent.

By various means the heads of the Jewish communities tried to avert deportation. It would seem that the first to intervene at their request was one Dr. Stroescu, Antonescu ‘ s personal physician In a statement after the war Baron Mocsoni-Styrcea, who had had close ties to the Romanian royal house, stated that Neumann and Max Auschnitt (a wealthy Jewish industrialist) donated in a three-day period to Maria Antonescu’s Patronage Society four billion lei (fifty million Swiss francs). In any event, we know that the Germans were informed on those attempts to halt deportations. Chief Rabbi Alexandru Safran also intervened before Metropolitan Balan of Transylvania (whose anti-Semitic views were well known), begging him to intercede with Antonescu. The metropolitan met with Safran in Bucharest, and the former did intercede, most likely supported by Queen Mother Elena. The apostolic nuncio Andrea Cassulo interceded with Antonescu too, as did Swiss diplomat Rene de Weck.21 Whether or not such entreaties had an effect, Antonescu decided to temporarily postpone enactment of the deportation orders. Meanwhile, German-Romanian negotiations regarding the dispatch of Romanian Jews to Nazi camps continued.

On August 17, 1942, Luther informed Ernst von Weizsacker, Ernst Woermann, and Foreign Minister Ribbentrop that Mihai Antonescu and Marshal Antonescu had given their consent to the deportation and had agreed that transports would begin from the districts of Arad, Timisoara, and Turda. Lecca wished to come to Berlin to discuss the details with the Foreign Office and the RSHA. A few days later Luther wrote to the legation in Bucharest that Lecca was definitely coming to the German capital.

Lecca visited Berlin sometime during the week of August 20. It seems that in Abteilung Deutschland [the Germany section of the RSHA] his visit was regarded as a mere formality. The two Antonescus had, after all, already voiced their agreement, and Lecca was not considered an important Romanian personage. In Berlin Lecca therefore received the brush-off treatment. That was a mistake. When he returned to Romania on or about August 27, the German diplomats were already aware that things had gone wrong.

But, as Hilberg has pointed out, the Romanians were no longer enthusiastic. This was compounded by the German-Romanian differences over economic and ethnic problems emerging in Transnistria. On September 11, Lecca submitted to Mihai Antonescu a plan for the “ evacuation” of Jews from Banat and Transylvania, with the exception of those „who had demonstrated . . . that they fit into the spirit of the Romanian nation and those useful to the economy and trade.” During the evacuation, Lecca proposed, a group of three thousand Jews among those slated for deportation to Poland might be allowed to emigrate to Palestine in exchange for two million lei. These exceptions made Lecca’s plan slightly more lenient than that for the deportations from Bessarabia and Bukovina the previous year, when (aside from twenty thousand Jews in Cernauti) there had been no permission to emigrate.

Richter ‘ s plan resembled the Romanian version, but there were differences: some categories were still exempted (for now), and of course the German plan did not mention any emigration to Palestine. The plan did, however, provide details about transports to Poland, their security, and transfer to the Germans at the border post of Sniatin. The Central Jewish Office would be made to finance the deportations.

On September 13, 1942, the Jewish New Year, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull may have issued a message of solidarity to the European Jews over the radio. According to a subsequent memorandum from Richter to von Killinger, the Swiss legation in Bucharest had forwarded a message from Hull (U.S. interests were represented by the Swiss legation) that condemned the deportations and threatened the Romanian government with reprisals against Romanians in the United States. Hull’s alleged message definitely had an impact in Romania.

On September 23, the General Administration of the Romanian Railroads (CFR) informed Radu Lecca that it had been invited to take part in a conference to be held in Berlin on September 26 and 27 concerning the transport by train of Jews from Romania to Poland. The conference took place with the participants discussing the transfer of 280,000 Romanian Jews to Belzec.

On October 10, the Office of the President of the Council of Ministers ordered the Ministry of the Interior to begin deporting all Jews from Transylvania and Banat, slating forty thousand people for transfer over the next few days. However, it was probably on the next day that Ion Antonescu canceled the order.

The Germans were unhappy with the Romanians’ lack of enthusiasm. Mihai Antonescu and Richter again discussed the topic on November 11. Antonescu’s changed stance on the Jewish question was clear. He described in a diplomatic report what he told the Nazi official:

I prefer to strike at the economic activity of the rich, rather than carry out massacres and engage in hostile acts against the poor. . . . The Hungarians are watching, photographing, and producing propaganda abroad against us about our so-called barbarism against the Jews. The abuses are not the work of the government, and I have already intervened three times to ensure that the Jews are treated in an orderly fashion. Some peripheral agencies have made mistakes and carried out abuses that must come to an end. In this regard I have ordered that clothes be sent to the Jews in Transnistria. . . . With regard to the treatment of the Jews I am not backing down, but I am not escalating either. I intend to adopt measures that will strengthen the good situation of the Romanian people, rather than undertake savage steps to fight against physical persons through useless barbaric acts. . . . I used this opportunity to talk to Mr. Richter about the problem of the Jews who have suffered severe circumstances . . . along the Bug.

Sixteen months now separated Mihai Antonescu from his anti-Semitic statements and the orders of summer 1941.

The National Peasant party leader, Iuliu Maniu, and the leader of the Liberal party, Constantin I. C. Bratianu, also sent memoranda to Antonescu seeking an end to the deportations. Both of these men, just like Ion Mihalache, another National Peasant leader, felt that the deportations had been carried out to please the Germans against “ the humanitarian traditions” of the Romanian people. Intellectuals protested too : Eugen Lovinescu, Ion Pillat, Vasile Voiculescu si Oskar Walter Cisek . As Aureliu Weiss, one of Maniu’s assistants, wrote:

The opposition of Marshal [Antonescu] to German demands [to deport the Jews of Regat] to which he had [earlier] consented . . . is explained less as an act of will and reflection than as one of proud independence and autocratic character. He did not like receiving orders; he liked giving them. He especially did not like . . . orders from abroad. Deep inside, he was offended, irritated, by German demands regarding „his” Jews.

Thus Antonescu’s pride, the fact that Hitler respected him and was willing to make certain concessions to him, the hesitating nature of the Romanian bureaucracy, internal and external interventions, and the unfavorable turn of the war were all factors that contributed to the cancellation of plans to deport the Jews from Moldavia and Walachia, and thus to the saving of nearly 300,000 lives.


The Return from Transnistria

The selective repatriation of the Jews deported to Transnistria began only at the end of 1943. But individuals in the highest ranks of the Romanian bureaucracy had begun expressing signs of goodwill toward a few Jewish deportees as early as spring 1942. On May 22, the governors of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria received a secret note from the Office of the President of the Council of Ministers specifying categories of Jews who could be released from the ghettos (but would have to remain in Transnistria), conditional only upon the consent of the concerned administrators and the ministers of the interior and justice.

Officials repatriated 10,744 Romanian Jews from Transnistria, including 1,846 orphaned children, approximately one-fifth of those surviving as of fall 1943. Amid the chaos following the German-Romanian retreat and the advance of the Red Army, some deportees managed to reach Romania on their own.