The commemoration of the victims of the deportations to Transnistria

On November 20, 2003, the Great Synagogue on Bucharest’s Adamache St. hosted the commemoration of the victims of the deportations to Transnistria during the Second World War. The event was organized by the Association of the Romanian Jews Victims of the Holocaust, the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Romania and the Jewish Community in Bucharest. The chosen location currently shelters the Holocaust Museum, a permanent exhibition of written documents and photographs attesting the atrocities committed during the years of the Second World War on the eastern territories and in the Old Kingdom as well.

The opening speech was held by Prof. Osy Lazar, president of the Jewish Community in Bucharest. M. Kertes (conductor of the Coral Temple’s Choir) said the “Sivisi” prayer to the memory of those who perished in the tragic conditions that were to be evoked. Great Rabbi Menahem Hacohen held a preach in Yiddish about the historical perpetuation of Cain’s sin. A Cain who told God that he was not his brother’s keeper, thus being guilty of a perhaps greater crime than murdering Abel. A Cain who embodies not only the murdering of one’s neighbor, but also the indifference towards one’s neighbor. A Cain who is still amongst us and who must be continually exposed, regardless of all the hideous masks behind which he hides.

Rabbi Eliezer Glantz intonated the ritual psalm “Tiilim” for the remembrance of the dead, prime-cantor Iosif Adler said the prayer “El Male Rahamim” and rabbi Avraham Erenfeld said a “Kadis”.

After the ritual part of the commemoration was completed, some of the guests held allocutions. The presidential councilor Victor Opaschi pointed out that, for decades, the communist regime ignored or minimized the serious situation of the Jews as an ethnic minority group during the years of the Second World War. After 1989, disputes on this matter aroused less among historians, and more among politicians and leaders of opinion. This is why the Presidency supported the creation of the International commission for the study of the consequences of the Holocaust in Romania, which is another proof of our country’s commitment to promote tolerance, to combat any form of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and to take responsibility for its past, with both its bright and dark sides.

Her Excellency Mrs. Rodica Radion Gordon, the ambassador of the State of Israel to Romania, opened her speech with an inspired quotation inviting to a reflection on the suffering and the dehumanization of an individual plucked over night from his universe and deserted to the most degrading persecutions. The ambassador stated some painful truths: in 1941 and 1942, 180,000 Jews were deported to Transnistria; Antonescu’s Government (whose State policy was explicitly anti-Semitic) is directly responsible for this action; the majority of the interwar Romanian intellectuality was more or less anti-Semitic. In exchange, noted Mrs. Gordon, it is praiseworthy that the contemporary Romanian State is taking definite steps in assuming its past. It is also to be desired that the young generation be better informed on these aspects of the Romanian history.

The most emotional moment of the diplomat’s speech was the reading of Ida Goldish’s letter to her sister, Clara Schwartz (on November 1941). Mrs. Goldish described the tense atmosphere in the town (the first convoys of deportees – of 2,500 people each – had already left on foot) and expressed her hope that the deportations would be postponed for the spring, because of the autumn’s cold. A few days later, Clara lost her child (who died of frost). She would survive him for only a few days…

Bishop Vicentiu, the representative of the Romanian Patriarchy, showed that it is the duty of every of us (regardless of religion) to learn from the mistakes of the past and to educate the young generations so that such deeds may never occur again. We are no longer allowed to repeat Cain’s example (“mankind’s first murderer”), as we must incessantly learn love among people, for we are all God’s sons.

Mr. Liviu Beris, survivor of the deportations, moved the audience with a narration of the experiences he went through, expressed in grave and chosen phrases. He started with a bitter dilemma: “I wonder who speaks to you now: is it the survivor of Transnistria, or is it Transnistria that survived in me? After all, what you have before you is a wounded memory that has refused and refuses to hate.” An account of the deportation’s ordeal followed: the terrible executions that preceded it; the convoy marching under the hot sun of July, with the people turning, in a few days, in dirty cattle – a convoy that had become a “hybrid complex of non-humans, of victims and executioners” and which was not accompanied by one single German soldier; the gun shots that signaled the killing of those who couldn’t keep up with the convoy; then the fall, the frost and mother’s voice, “If you fall asleep, you die” – but not all of them could obey this commandment and, in the morning, the soldiers’ boots would kick many bodies that would never rise again; Transnistria, “a land of death and misery”, where the deportees were left to rot, in the middle of nowhere; the faces swollen with hunger, in whose eyes could be read the certainty of death – “We were talking to them, and we knew they were dying, and they knew they were dying too…”.

Then Mr. Beris quoted a few of Marshal Antonescu’s writings that clearly demonstrated his programmatically anti-Semite position. It is only the unfavorable evolution of the situation on the front that made Antonescu change his position, which led to the survival of the Jews that were left in the Old Kingdom (who were also on the death list). One must not forget, added Beris, about those Romanians who saved Jews, like lieutenant Ioan Popescu (who saved 4,300 Jews destined to be executed) or the mayor of Cernowitz, Popovici, who saved 20,000 Jews from being deported to Transnistria.

In the closing of the commemoration, historian Harry Culler presented for the first time in public a fragment from an interview filmed in September 2003 which reveals, through an original testimony, some hidden aspects on the pogrom in Odessa (October 23-26, 1941). The interviewee is col. (res.) Ovidiu Anca who, shortly before his death, tells the account of the things that happened in those days, which he witnessed from a privileged position: he was then a captain and served as the deputy of gen. Trestioreanu, who was replacing the commander-in-chief of the Odessa garrison). In the aftermath of the blowing up of the Odessa garrison headquarters (on October 22), several orders of repressing the Jewish population were received, in which the number of those who were to be executed varied. Anca’s testimony is renewing because he speaks of an order that came from Antonescu in the night of October 22/23 (which was never found), that Anca claims to have personally given to gen. Trestioreanu; an order that set the number of the Jews that had to be executed at 22,500 (a huge figure, arbitrarily set, which was in no way in accordance with the number of the victims of the explosion, that hadn’t even been confirmed at that time). What followed was a terrible repression, which observed this order, and Anca describes it with the objectivity of the soldier horrified to witness such inhumane acts.

The event at the Great Synagogue involved two dimensions (which correspond, in fact, to the objectives of the Holocaust Museum): on the one hand, remembering a tragic past and, what’s more important perhaps, assuming it openly; on the other hand, acknowledging the necessity of an appropriate education of the young generations, so that the horrors that were committed sixty years ago may never repeat. And this in a national context that seems to be more favorable than ever for assuming the past.

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