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Survival in Romania

In response to:

Survivors from the March 5, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

…[In the review entitled “Survivors” NYR, March 5] Professor Deák seems to attribute to particular Romanian characteristics attitudes largely due to both the Zeitgeist and Realpolitik of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Moreover, his acknowledgement that the art of survival was (as it always has been) of paramount importance for small nations and that the tragic justification for Romania’s joining the international race for the favour of Hitler occurred “because both France and Great Britain had utterly failed as Romania’s protectors,” renders the statement that this country was “Germany’s most devoted satellite” somewhat unjustified, if not tendentious. Had the author included amongst the books reviewed, say, Ivor Porter’s Operation Autonomous, he would have found therein ample material that substantiates the opposite, namely that a large and important segment of the body politic, with King Michael at the top and including political leaders with the prestige of Maniu or Bratianu maintained regular contacts with the Allies and constantly attempted, against all odds, to reverse Romania’s position in the war effort….

The inauspicious and perverse role of the Romanian Communist Party in the interbellic period, in view of the ensuing calamitous developments, should not have been dismissed so lightly. Interesting details could have been found in, for example, Victor Frunza’s Istoria Partidului Comunist Roman (The History of the Romanian Communist Party) published by Nord, in Denmark, in 1984. The Socialist-Communist Party (The Romanian Section of the Communist International), to give it the complete name under which it assumed its existence in 1921, had striven, from its inception, to eliminate the social-democratic parties and their leadership, advocating the necessity of clandestine action and preparation for revolutionary activity. This is attested by the reports sent to the 3rd International (Comintern) by prominent leaders of the Communist Party (and Comintern) such as Al Constantinescu, H. Sternberg and Ghita Moscu….

The advocacy of the dismemberment of “bourgeois-boyar” Greater Romania, to which the author alludes, was perpetrated, in various articles, signed by some of those who were the power behind the (communist) throne, namely Timotei Marin (Tima) and Ghita Moscu, who demanded that the Act of December 1, 1918, sanctioning the unification of Transylvania with Romania, be declared null and void. Walter Roman was not only “a member of the International Brigade in Spain” but also a prominent coryphaeus of the Communist Party and of the Comintern, who became also, after the communist take-over of Romania, the political leader of the Romanian army. The dynastic aspect of the communist institution in Romania is mentioned by Professor Deák, but, besides Petre Roman (Walter’s son), there are quite a few other red princes popping up in the most unexpected places and being up to no good.

The most vexed point raised by Professor Deák is the Jewish question. That the Bucharest government “no longer pretends that the Romanian Holocaust never took place” is hardly surprising. They have every interest to be perceived, by the international—and especially Jewish—public opinion as the only barrier that exists between the small Jewish population of Romania and a pogrom. They have also every interest to compromise, by implication, King Michael and the opposition parties, whom they regard—not without justification—as a real threat to them. I believe that the confusion has arisen from an error, I am convinced unintentional, made by the otherwise eminent and leading political thinker, Hannah Arendt. On the suggestion (as far as I am aware, first made by Hannah Arendt), that some 400,000 of Romania’s Jews were exterminated during the war, I refer to a report, published also as an article in Genus, Vol. 13 (1957), written by Dr. Sabin Manuila, former Director General of the Romanian Central Institute of Statistics and Dr. Wm. Filderman, who was the leader of Romanian Jewry between 1922 and 1940 and continued to fight on their behalf during the period 1940–1948, and to the letter in the Times (of London) of January 21, 1978, written by the latter’s son, G. Filderman. According to them, the total Jewish population of Romania before 1939 amounted to 756,930 people (in agreement with Professor Deák’s own estimate), of whom 275,419,138,917, and 807 were in territories ceded in early 1940 (following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 and the Ribbentrop-Ciano Vienna “Diktat” of 1940) to the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Bulgaria respectively (i.e., mostly in Northern Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina). Thus, only 312,972 were left in what remained Romanian territory, in agreement with Professor Deák’s own figure for 1943, and they were successfully protected against the German Nazis. This is acknowledged by Professor Deák and also by Jean Ancel (to whom Professor Deák makes reference) in the Foreword to the Documents selected and edited by him in 1987.

Moreover, since in the 1950s there were some 300,000 Israeli citizens of Romanian origin and since some 23,000 Jews are still in Romania, the implications of the review are misleading. Romania steadfastly refused to deliver one single “consignment” of Jews to the gas chambers. The losses suffered by the Jewish population in what remained Romanian territory, as a consequence of the war, amounted to approximately 15,000, which included about 3,000 killed under the short existence of the Iron Guard government, 3–4,000 killed as a result of reprisals in the Iasi area and losses caused by deportation to Transnistria. Any crime is odious and must be unreservedly condemned, but its extent must be kept in perspective and the historic truth respected. In general, for all territories that were Romanian in 1939, Jewish losses are estimated at a total of 209,214, which is half the figure given by Professor Deák, whose information comes (directly or indirectly) from Yad Vashem (or so I believe). In what the crimes committed during the war in the territories under military occupation are concerned, the situation is far from being clear, as attested also by Jean Ancel. Rapid changes of borders and lack of documentary materials concerning this period obscure the issue. It is not unambiguous whether in the territories under military occupation, the German or Romanian command had the last word. It is quite clear that atrocities were committed, but much less so who exactly is responsible for them. In this context, perhaps Professor Deák should have included, amongst the books reviewed, Chief Rabbi Alexandru Safran’s memoirs, Resisting the Storm: Romania 1940–47, published by Yad Vashem. However, I subscribe wholeheartedly to Professor Deák’s observation, namely that “much more needs to be written on the years between 1938 and 1944.”

Another topic lightly dismissed is that of the events that took place in December 1989, which are referred to as the “revolution.” Perhaps those happenings are too close to us and still stir up passions. For the final verdict, perhaps we ought to wait until the KGB or Securitate archives will be opened and hope that documents found therein will throw light upon what really took place and how. However, no one could doubt, even now, that the “shadow” of KGB was paramount “in the planning and execution” of the Romanian putsch, as it was active in all changes that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in that annus mirabilis, 1989. In this context, Professor Deák might have included in his list of books Radu Portocala’s Autopsie du Coup d’État Roumain—Au pays du mensonge triomphant (Calmann-Lévy, 1990).

There are other observations that could be made, but there has never been a text to which such comment could not be applied. Professor Deák deserves our congratulations and gratitude for an extensive, profound, and erudite study, that presents in a coherent manner disparate material. He has succeeded in offering a remarkable perspective to an important topic and this is no mean feat.

George Ross
Vice-President of the
British-Romanian Association
London, England

István Deák replies:

The precise number of Jewish deaths during World War II cannot be established, least of all for Romania, whose boundaries changed three times during that conflict. There is no doubt, however, that, in 1941, the Romanian authorities instituted their own Holocaust without any German prompting. Nor is there any doubt that, as a result, at least 200,000 Jews perished. Some of these were Romanian citizens; others were former Romanian citizens who between 1940 and 1941 came under Soviet rule; and still others were Soviet citizens who had fallen into Romanian hands in 1941. It is also true that an additional 150,000 Jews, all of them Romanian citizens but, for the most part, Hungarian speaking, were deported in 1944 by the German SS and the Hungarian authorities from Hungarian-occupied northern Transylvania to Auschwitz. Finally, it is important to remember that the same Romanian authorities who in 1941 took steps to organize their own private Holocaust later successfully protected the lives of the several hundred thousand Romanian Jews they had not managed to murder earlier. This is a poor record but it is not the worst in Europe during World War II. Rather than protesting, Mr. Ross would do a great service to the Romanian people in helping them to learn and to accept their own past.

All of Germany’s allies maintained secret contacts with the Western powers, especially after the war had turned against Germany. What made the Romanian case remarkable was that the very same country whose leader. Marshal Ion Antonescu, was the Führer’s favorite, and which had contributed the largest military contingent to the anti-Bolshevik war in Russia, accomplished the most successful volte-face among all the satellites. Romania also contributed more soldiers to the final Allied war effort than any other European country, including France. King Michael, his mother Helen, the Peasant Party leader Juliu Maniu, and many others were brave and honorable people who deserve our respect. Yet the fact remains that not until after the Red Army had penetrated deep into Romania in August 1944 did these leaders succeed in turning their country against the Nazis. A Romanian Communist court later sentenced the anti-Nazi Maniu to life imprisonment, and he died in prison. These, too, are historical events about which most Romanians have never been told.

Not only the Romanian Communist Party but the other Central and East European Communist parties condemned the Paris peace treaties of 1919–1920 during the interwar period. The Communists argued that the treaties had hastened the enslavement of the European workers by monopoly capitalists and that, rather than promoting the cause of peace, the treaties exacerbated nationalist conflicts and contributed to the rise of fascism.

This position made the Communist parties, which were mostly illegal in the 1920s and composed in large part of internationalist intellectuals, unpopular in their own countries; but, for once, the Communists had a point. It made little sense for the peacemakers in Paris to preach ethnic self-determination while being more interested in economic and strategic considerations. And as events during World War II as well as in recent times show, such post-1918 creations as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, or Greater Romania have not had an easy time in coping with the resentment of their neighbors, the bitterness of their minorities, and the dissatisfaction of such second-class “state-nations” as the Croats and Slovaks.

Finally, I doubt that the KGB was active in bringing about the revolutionary changes that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. No proof of this has so far been offered; besides, it is not a good idea to promote, without evidence, the popular notion—today cultivated especially in the United States—that nothing is ever what it appears to be, and that we are all victims of assorted secret police conspiracies.

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