The Study of the Holocaust in Romania: Current State and Trends
19th-23rd of September 2016
A very thought-provoking, full but rewarding seminar week ended yesterday in Bucharest. The Elie Wiesel National Institute for Holocaust Studies in Romania had brought together, for the first time, under the framework of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure ten young researchers from all over the world to discuss the current state and trends regarding Holocaust Research, with a main focus on Romania.
Besides giving young scholars such an important exchange opportunity, the Elie Wiesel Institute prepared an impressive programme, inviting the most acclaimed experts on the Romanian Holocaust. It is impossible to research or read about the Holocaust in Romania without stumbling upon articles or books by Radu Ioanid, Paul Shapiro or Michael Shafir.
The first two days have focused on providing the participants with extensive historical input. Radu Ioanid discussed the particularities of the Holocaust in Romania and went into horrifying details, starting from the legal level and ending with describing the practical extermination of the Jews.
The second day begun with a presentation by Paul Shapiro. He used two case studies to exemplify how well documented the Holocaust in Romania is. By means of documents from different archives the participants gained an insight into the hardships of the Chisinau Ghetto. Not only were the discrimination activities carried out by Romanian security forces, but the population was not unware and even involved. Their deeply enrooted antisemitic beliefs made attacks and abuses towards the Jewish part of the society easier and wide-spread. The story of the Vapniarka camp could also be broadened with the help of paintings, drawings, or diaries of the survivors, and documents with their testimonies from the post-war period.
The perspective of analysis changed after the lunch break. Prof. Oisteanu, an expert in religious studies, presented details of the antisemitism in Romania before and during the Second World War among the Romanian elites, based on his key study. Oisteanu analysed Mircea Eliade, a very erudite Romanian writer. This author shifted, beginning from 1932 onwards, more and more to the extreme right political spectre and sympathised with the notorious Iron Guard. This has put an enormous burden on his friendship with Mihail Sebastian (real name Iosif Hechter), another respected Romanian writer of Jewish decent. The participants learned from Prof. Oisteanu’s presentation, how to work with personal archives and personal diaries. They are valuable treasures, which can not only reveal extensive information about the authors but also about societal conditions in general. A review of Mihail Sebastian’s diary Journal 1932 – 1945. The Fascist Years can be found here.
The conference day ended with the screening of the movie “The Iasi Pogrom. The Popricani Mass Grave“. The film showed the Elie Wiesel institute in action, securing archaeological evidences of the Holocaust and paying respects to Jewish victims from a mass grave near Iasi.
On Wednesday morning, Andrei Muraru spoke about the war crime trails organized right after the end of the war. The Romanian war crime trails were contrasted with the international legal prosecutions. Nevertheless, both on a national and on an international level, only very few people were held responsible for their misdeeds and the slaughtering of innocent men, women and children, whose only fault was having another ethnic or political affiliation.
However, these things would have been much easier for all involved, if the Holocaust were only a mere invention and had not really existed. Such outrageous claims have been made since the very first days of the Holocaust and these absurd denials still continue to exist even after more than 6 million people have lost their lives. Michael Shafir walked us through the history of Holocaust denial and its many facets. Sometimes even allegedly innocent comparisons can aim at trivializing and minimizing the Shoah.
Shafir’s presentation encouraged a very deep and controversial discussion among the participants on the question whether the Shoah is unique or to what extent comparisons could be drawn to other genocides and crimes against humanity.
A second movie was shown on Wednesday night. The Struma tells the story of 800 Jewish refugees, who fled Romania by ship to Palestine. Unfortunately, their journey ended in the raging, freezing cold and dark waters of the Black Sea a couple of miles away from the Turkish Coast of Istanbul.
The remaining thematic sessions were dedicated to the exploration of different possibilities of engaging in archival work. The EHRI Portal offers access to Holocaust-related documents stored by institutions in archives all across Europe and beyond. Important materials concerning the events in Romania and the occupied territories are currently held, amongst others, by the Diplomatic Archives Unit and the National Archives of Romania. Fortunately, both now offer an easy access to researchers. However, this a quite recent innovation and has not always been the case.
Very impressive was the visit to Popesti Leordeni, to the CNSAS archives, where the documents of the former Romanian communist secret service Securitate are being stored. Even a brief glimpse into the files of some of the millions of collaborators, which are by the way accessible to everybody in accordance with a law from 1999, could indicate a terrifying picture of the grotesqueness of totalitarian regimes.
The seminar ended with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, which has been inaugurated in 2009 in Bucharest. Peter Jacobi’s conceptual work, on which the Memorial is based, is full of deeply symbolic meanings, starting from the placement of the monument: right in the heart of the capital’s centre in front of the building, which used to accommodate the Gendarmerie during the Second World War. Be sure not to miss visiting it!
After decades of silence and confused narratives, this conference represents a definitive and clear ray of light in the darkness of the disfigured historic misconceptions which stood for Holocaust remembrance in Romania up until a few years ago. The work of the Elie Wiesel Institute and its associates provides a more differentiated and fact-based writing of history and certainly plays a role to shed more light on this chapter of the Holocaust. In this very same vein our project aims to do its part for the advancement of this discourse and understanding.