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Romania commemorated its national Holocaust day on Monday with ceremonies marking 65 years since the beginning of deportations of hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps in the occupied Soviet Union.
President Traian Basescu laid the first stone of a national monument being built to commemorate Holocaust victims in central Bucharest. He reminded participants that Romania only recently began to confront its role in the Holocaust after decades of denial.
"The Holocaust Memorial is a monument which confirms Romania's decision to recover its real history," said Basescu. "It is a difficult process which means changing mentalities and the capacity to accept reality after 50-60 years when history was falsified," Basescu said.
Other events held Monday included laying of flowers at the Jewish Coral Temple in the capital, a photo exhibit and the launching of books at the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust.
Israeli Ambassador Rodica Radian Gordon hailed efforts by Romania to confront its past.
"I believe that something profound is changing in Romania about the way the country is dealing with its past," she said. "It was hard to believe, when I arrived here in 2003, that this will happen in such a short time."
During communist times, the country's official history taught that Germans were the sole perpetrators of the Holocaust, ignoring the involvement of Romania's wartime leaders.
In 2004 after a dispute with Israel over comments about the Holocaust, then-President Ion Iliescu assembled an international panel led by Nobel-prize winner Elie Wiesel to investigate the Holocaust in Romania.
The panel concluded that the pro-Nazi government of Marshal Ion Antonescu was responsible for the deaths of 280,000-380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Gypsies, or Roma.
"This was a country where the Holocaust was a taboo subject," Paul Shapiro, Director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington told The Associated Press.
Shapiro said Romania was now following the panel's recommendations by creating an institution to study the Holocaust and a national monument to commemorate the victims.
The US-based museum has offered more than 1.5 million documents related to the Holocaust in Romania to the Elie Wiesel institute and helped design the monument.
Dozens of elderly Jewish and Roma survivors of the deportations were present at the ceremonies and hailed the decision to build the monument.
"The fact that, despite the delay, the Romanian government has acknowledged the responsibility of state authorities of the time for what happened ... is encouraging for us survivors," said author Oliver Lustig.
Lustig, now 79, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 17 with his parents and six siblings by Hungarian authorities who controlled northern Romania at the time.
Roma survivor Dumitru Tranca, 71, also insisted that new generations "must know what happened, what we suffered." Tranca, was deported with his family of coppersmiths to camps in an area in the occupied Soviet Union, where his parents and two sisters died.
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