10. Antonescu and the Jews

On may 6, 1946, during his postwar trial Ion Antonescu stated, “ If the Jews of Romania are still alive, it is on account of Ion Antonescu.” This statement bears a grain of truth. The survival of the Jews from Walachia, Moldavia, and southern Transylvania stemmed from Antonescu’s decision in the fall of 1942 to postpone indefinitely the deportation of Romanian Jews to Poland. However, Antonescu’s responsibility is overwhelming with respect to the death of the Jews of Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria. The Jews of Romania and Transnistria thus owe both life and death to Antonescu.

In spite of his innate sympathy toward pogroms, Ion Antonescu condemned such undisciplined acts, and on July 12, 1941, after the Iasi pogrom, he condemned the soldiers who had taken part. But this did not inhibit him from asserting that the Jews were “ the open wound of Romanism,” a people who „had robbed the bread from the poor.” On September 6, he wrote in a letter to Mihai Antonescu that „everybody should understand that this is not a struggle with the Slavs but one with the Jews. It is a fight to the death. Either we will win and the world will purify itself, or they will win and we will become their slaves. . . . The war in general and the fight for Odessa especially have proven that Satan is the Jew.”

On October 6, Antonescu explicitly told the Council of Ministers that he intended to permanently deport the Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina. On November 14, in another address to the Council of Ministers, Antonescu stated: „I have enough difficulties with those Jidani that I sent to the Bug. It is only me who knows how many died on the way.” Participants at the same meeting heard the following situation reports from General Voiculescu, governor of Bessarabia: „The Jidani don’t exist anymore. There are one hundred sick Jews in the ghetto at the crossing point for the deportees from Bukovina.”

At the November 13, 1941, session of the Council of Ministers, Antonescu expressed interest in the repression of the Jews of Odessa then under way:

Antonescu: Has the repression been sufficiently severe?

Alexianu (governor of Transnistria): It has been, Marshal.

Antonescu: What do you mean by „sufficiently severe”? . . .

Alexianu: It was very severe, Marshal.

Antonescu: I said that for every dead Romanian, two hundred Jews [should die] and that for every Romanian wounded, one hundred Jews [should die]. Did you see to that?

Alexianu: The Jews of Odessa were executed and hung in the streets. . . .

Antonescu: Do that, because I am the one who answers for the country and before history. [If the Jews of America don't like this,] let them come and settle the score with me.

Nor did the Conducator overlook pettier cruelties. At that same session Antonescu ordered that state pensioners among the deportees be deprived of their pensions.

One of the most revealing indications of Antonescu’s anti-Semitic convictions is the letter he sent on October 20, 1942, to Liberal party leader Constantin I. C. Bratianu shortly after canceling his decision to deport the Jews from southern Transylvania, Moldavia, and Walachia to occupied Poland. The letter is especially noteworthy because though it does not deal directly with the Jewish question, it nonetheless conveys powerful xenophobic undercurrents in its frequent anti-Semitic discourse. Similar to prefascist Romanian anti-Semites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and much like Legionnaire and Nazi theoreticians, Antonescu was obsessed with the interference of foreign powers in the defense of minorities in Romania and boasted about having put such interference to an end. He cast himself as the savior of the Romanian nation after the proclamation of the National Legionnaire State.

Ion Antonescu ‘ s attitude toward the Jews alternated between violent hatred and pangs of patriarchal generosity. During the fall of 1941, for example, Antonescu claimed before the Council of Ministers that he was „fighting to cleanse Bessarabia and Bukovina of Jidani and Slavs”; but on September 8, 1941, in the presence of Nicolae Lupu and Mihai Antonescu, Wilhelm Filderman obtained Antonescu’s promise to rescind the order for Jews to wear the Star of David throughout all of Romania, the permission for Jews to emigrate to Spain or Portugal, and a commitment to exempt from deportation the Jews of Moldavia and Walachia. The next day Antonescu also asked the government to differentiate between „useful” and „useless” Jews, presumably to halt the persecution of at least some. And yet one month later, in response to Filderman’s appeal for clemency toward the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu issued a violent reply accusing the Jews in those two regions of having been the enemies of the Romanian people and justifying their deportation to Transnistria.

In 1943, Antonescu’s mood swings continued. On the one hand he still declared that he tolerated those Jews who might deserve partial protection by the Romanian state; on the other he demanded his subordinates to display stern behavior toward the Jews.

At the beginning of the war Antonescu had believed that he would be able to resolve „the Jewish question” once and for all, as well as that of the other minorities (Ukrainians in particular). He was a harsh, even violent anti-Semite. But a comparison to Adolf Hitler, whom he admired and who admired him, shows him in a different light. A direct or indirect dialogue between the German dictator and the leader of the Jewish community in Germany would have been inconceivable. In spite of his apparent inflexibility, though, Antonescu tolerated, even encouraged, contact with minority leaders in his own country and with the Allies (in Cairo and Stockholm), which suggests that he had a more realistic assessment of the overall chances of winning the war. After the end of 1942, he had imagined, like many other Romanian politicians, that the Romanian Jews could be used as capital to improve Romania’s position with regard to the United States and England. But this does not mean that the decision not to deport the Jews from southern Transylvania, Moldavia, and Walachia to Nazi camps in occupied Poland was strictly opportunistic. In all likelihood, numerous appeals, including Metropolitan Balan ‘ s, the ones from the royal family, and others from various diplomatic corps, played a significant role. While acknowledging that „bloody repression” had occurred under Romanian aegis during the war, Antonescu nevertheless declared that under his authority, there had been no massacres.

More than any appeal, however, Antonescu’s national pride counted heavily in his restraint. It was not up to the Germans to decide what to do with his Jews. Antonescu was concerned about Romania’s image abroad. Reports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicating that Romanian Jews under Nazi occupation were treated worse than Hungarian Jews annoyed Antonescu. His position of relative equality with Hitler had commanded the respect of Nazi dignitaries and the German embassy. At a certain point even Himmler gave up and intended in 1943 to order the withdrawal of his murdering bureaucrats from Romania, having lost all hope of collaboration in the destruction of Romania’s Jews.

Even though he shared many ideas with the Legionnaires, Antonescu was not an adventurer in the economic arena. Politically, he placed himself between Goga and Codreanu. He nurtured an obsession with a Romania purged of minorities, who represented a danger to the state, especially in territories that had been reallocated to Romania after World War I. Antonescu’s anti-Semitism was economic, political, and social, but it did not bear the mystical and religious aspects of Legionnaire anti-Semitism. His hatred was not that of the middle-class man, armed with a truncheon; rather, it was that of the bureaucrat, pretending to resolve a problem in a fundamental, reasonable, and nuanced fashion, by law. The fate of the Jews might have been different had the Legionnaire government lasted longer; the Legionnaires would certainly have been more closely aligned with Germany.

The trials of the Romanian war criminals began in 1945 and ended in 1952. On January 21, 1945, Law 50 pertaining to the punishment of war criminals was drafted by Lucretiu Patrascanu, Communist minister of justice, and was signed by King Michael. Four of the accused were executed in Romania: Ion Antonescu, Mihai Antonescu, C. Z. Vasiliu, and Gheorghe Alexianu. In dozens of cases civil servants and high-ranking officers had death sentences commuted. For instance, on June 1, 1945, Patrascanu successfully requested that the king commute the capital punishment for twenty-nine of the accused in the first trial of war criminals. Hundreds of officers and high-ranking officials were sentenced to life or lengthy prison terms. Hundreds of noncommissioned officers, gendarmes, and enlisted men were also sentenced to prison terms or hard labor. All who did not die in prison were released between 1958 and 1962. The publicity surrounding the first trials permitted the Communist party to propagandize against its political enemies. But as the Romanian Communist party tightened its grip on power, this publicity diminished and eventually vanished completely.