On This Day: Romania orders Iași purged of Jews in pogrom in 1941

This pogrom took place in the city of Iași saw where Romania's Nazi-aligned regime slaughtered over 13,000 Jews. It remains one of the worst pogroms of all time, even in the Holocaust.

 Death train from Iaşi during the pogrom. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Death train from Iaşi during the pogrom.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

June 27, 2022 marks 81 years since the order was given to launch the Iași pogrom, one of the most brutal pogroms in Jewish history.

This pogrom took place in the city of Iași saw where Romania's Nazi-aligned regime slaughtered over 13,000 Jews.

It remains one of the worst pogroms of all time, even during the Holocaust.

Background

During World War II, Romania was ruled by fascist dictator (Conducător) Ion Antonescu, who came to power in 1940. A year earlier, the country had given up certain territories it had gained following World War I. These territories were home to many Jews, who became used as a scapegoat by the state and press amid public dissatisfaction with losing these lands.

Antisemitic policies soon became widespread in Romania, which in turn helped fuel widespread preexisting antisemitic sentiments.

 Iron Guard Legionnaires are seen marching in Bucharest. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Iron Guard Legionnaires are seen marching in Bucharest. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this, Romania was nonetheless home to a sizeable Jewish community, though most of them were concentrated in Bucharest.

However, Iași, the second-biggest city in Romania, also had a sizeable Jewish population and it was relatively close to the Soviet border.

This would be an issue, as the Jews were seen as aligned with the Soviets and Communism, and Antonescu began enacting a number of antisemitic decrees in the preceding days.

This only worsened on June 22, when the Nazis began Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. 

At this time, there were rumors that Jews were outright collaborating with the Soviets and engaging in subterfuge against Romania.

Also around this time, the city's police released members of the Iron Guard from prison. They were a nationalist fascist paramilitary organization that, in January of that same year, attempted to carry out a coup against Antonescu. Said coup also involved a pogrom in Bucharest, which saw at least 125 Jews killed.

Indeed, despite the differences between the Iron Guard and Antonescue's regime, both were fascist and both were deeply antisemitic. 

Soon enough, though the plans were already in place, on June 27, Antonescu called the Iași garrison commander and ordered him to purge the city's Jews. 

At this time, the city had a Jewish population of around 51,000 as Jews from the surrounding villages and towns had gathered in the city, according to Yad Vashem.

The pogrom

The pogrom itself began the next day, with mass assaults by Romanian and German soldiers, local police and the city residents struck out at the city's Jews. 

It started in the morning, with a group of soldiers robbing and abusing several Jews. At the same time, posters were put up on walls throughout the city openly urging that the Jews be killed. 

"I saw posters glued to the walls of houses, calling for a pogrom. For instance: 'Romanians! Each k*** killed is a dead Communist. The time for revenge is now!'"

Israel Schreier

"I saw posters glued to the walls of houses, calling for a pogrom. For instance: 'Romanians! Each k*** killed is a dead Communist. The time for revenge is now!'" recounted Israel Schreier, a witness whose testimony was later used in a war crimes trial.

On the evening of June 28, a plane launched a signal rocket, after which gunfire was heard throughout the city. The pogrom had begun.

Germans and Romanians both began attacking, killing and looting throughout Iași. Thousands were killed in their homes and in the streets, and thousands more were arrested.

This continued the following day, with Jews – men and women, adults and children – being forced into columns and marched through the streets as they were spat on and hit with stones, rifle butts, crowbars and more, according to Radu Ioanid, a Holocaust historian and the current Romanian ambassador to Israel. Anyone who couldn't walk was shot.

Many other Jews who were arrested the previous day were also shot and killed.

Around 4,300 Jews who survived the initial massacre were forced onto train cars, referred to by many historians as "death trains," where they were left for days while the train traveled back and forth across the countryside, killing most of the occupants through suffocation, dehydration and starvation.

"The corpses looked strange, frozen in the position in which they had fallen, as if welded together in one mass. The smell in the car was horrible; a mixture of blood, corpses and feces. It took us a great effort to unglue ourselves from the mass of bodies."

Israel Schreier

"The corpses looked strange, frozen in the position in which they had fallen, as if welded together in one mass. The smell in the car was horrible; a mixture of blood, corpses and feces. It took us a great effort to unglue ourselves from the mass of bodies," recounted Schreier in his testimony.

The death toll among the death trains would have likely been much higher on the trains had it not been for the mayor of the nearby village of Tirgu Frumos, who was able to give water to the Jews in the train cars and managed to remove most, if not all, of the corpses, according to Ioanid.

Those Jews left behind in Iași were forced into a designated section of the town set up as an open ghetto, under curfew, where they lived in constant fear of deportation to labor camps and endured regular beatings and cruelty by both German and Romanian soldiers.

The exact death toll is unknown. Romania itself estimated the number to be at least 13,266. However, others claim at least 15,000 Jews were killed.

“Jews from Romania, we went through hell, and they didn’t recognize it. We were persecuted and wore yellow stars and the hunger that we went through and everything. I don’t know every place, but I know in Iași what we went through.”

Frances Flescher

“Jews from Romania, we went through hell, and they didn’t recognize it. We were persecuted and wore yellow stars and the hunger that we went through and everything,” Iași pogrom survivor Frances Flescher noted. “I don’t know every place, but I know in Iași what we went through.”

The Victims of Iaşi Pogrom Monument is seen in Iasi, Romania. (credit: WORLD ZIONIST ORGANIZATION)The Victims of Iaşi Pogrom Monument is seen in Iasi, Romania. (credit: WORLD ZIONIST ORGANIZATION)
Aftermath

The pogrom is recognized for its brutality and horrific death toll, as well as the fact that it was a collective effort and massacre and carried out openly, rather than the method in which the Nazis typically exterminated Jews.

"It is relatively clear who was responsible for the collective murders at Iași. The murders bear the distinct characteristics of a pogrom rather than the cold, systematic efficiency of the Final Solution," sources were cited by Ioanid as saying. 

In 1946, war crimes trials were held by the post-war Romanian government, which saw 57 people tried for the pogrom and saw testimonies from around 165 witnesses, including many survivors. Most received life sentences with hard labor, while Antonescu was executed.

The Jews who survived were eventually granted compensation pensions in 2017 from the German government following negotiations between Germany and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference). 

The pogrom is also commemorated with a memorial in the city itself to this day.

Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.