A member of Romania's Jewish community points to devastated graves at a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest February 14, 2007. Police officials said the damage was caused by children and was not part of any organised anti-Semitic activity..
(photo credit: REUTERS/BOGDAN CRISTEL)
Fifteen years ago, Romania earned praise for establishing an international commission, chaired by the late Elie Wiesel, to study and confront the country’s wartime enabling of the Holocaust. Now, the country’s commitment to combat antisemitism appears to be weakening.
Based on a Wiesel committee recommendation, the government agreed in 2016 to establish a National Museum of the History of Romanian Jewry and the Holocaust. With support from Bucharest city authorities, a prominent building in downtown Bucharest was designated for this purpose.
But last week, after taking up the issue again over a technicality, the city rescinded the site designation. And the debate leading to that decision summoned up strikingly antisemitic pronouncements that only highlight the very real need for such a museum.
In that debate, a deputy mayor of the city asserted that a museum on Jews and the Holocaust has no legitimate place in the center of Bucharest. She added that if created, the museum should be located “in the Jewish quarter.” Another deputy mayor announced his intention to erect a downtown monument to Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator who allied Romania with Nazi Germany and mobilized the deportation of at least 280,000 Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, this incident, while telling, is hardly an isolated antisemitic occurrence. In violation of specific legal prohibitions, nine streets in Romania remain named after Antonescu; many others are named in honor of other condemned war criminals. Jewish cemeteries are vandalized with tragic regularity. Recently, following the destruction of 73 tombstones in one Jewish cemetery, that town’s mayor and prosecutor announced that the culprit was the wind.
Romania’s political elite – its president, parliament, and government – support Holocaust education and combating antisemitism. Indeed, last February and March, Romania organized programs in Brussels and in Bucharest reiterating this interest.
So it would be wrong to condemn Romania’s entire political class for the antisemitic attitudes that we see taking hold. And some might choose to see the rescission of the museum’s building site, after thousands of dollars of design work had been spent, as just another sad example of a legal climate in which promises made are too often broken.
Yet the negative comments that preceded the vote on the museum cannot be put aside. And the disregard shown by Romanian authorities in enforcing national antisemitic laws only underscores that the political-level commitment to confront Romania’s antisemitic past is incomplete at best.
Recent shootings at synagogues in Pennsylvania and California remind us that the US is not immune from antisemitic attitudes. Most Americans view these acts as extremist, however, and local, state and national leaders condemn them.
Unless the Romanian government makes a more concerted effort to combat lingering antisemitic attitudes, and to ensure that laws against antisemitism are honored, the praise that Romania has earned on this issue will dissipate, and Romania’s once promising future sadly could follow the way of its past.
Elie Wiesel dedicated some of his last years to shedding light on the history of Romanian culpability in the Holocaust. His efforts were NOT to condemn Romanians with a sense of collective guilt. Rather, he sought to ensure through knowledge that such a thing could never happen again.
Denying a public and central home to the Romanian Holocaust Museum extinguishes the source of that light before it can shine. The walk-back on this decision dishonors Wiesel, the Commission he led and the political leaders of modern Romania who have worked to integrate Romania into transatlantic institutions and values.The writers served as US ambassadors to Romania (1993-2012).