Michael Shafir, who played a key role in Holocaust memory in his native Romania, dies at 78

Michael Shafir was known in his work and in his personal life for his straightforward and often humorous presentation of difficult times.

 Romanian flag. (photo credit: TIIA MONTO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Romanian flag.
(photo credit: TIIA MONTO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

When Michael Shafir moved to Israel from his native Romania as a teenager in the 1960s, it wasn’t because the Jewish teen was burning with Zionist fervor. Instead, it was the first country that agreed to take him.

“I would have left for wherever there was no communism because I could no longer live with the feeling that you say one thing outside the house and another at home,” Shafir once said in an interview with Romanian media.

More than four decades later, Shafir would return to the country where he was born, as a professor of international relations. From his post at Babes-Bolyai University, in northwestern Romania, Shafir studied and published extensively on how post-communist right-wing nationalists distorted the past and trivialized or denied the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

“Shafir meant a lot to me; he’s been a reference for his honesty and intellectual courage, and someone capable, like not many others, to review his positions when new data or historical sources asked for it,”

Romanian-American software engineer-turned-historian Andrei Ursu 

Shafir, who died Nov. 9 at 78, was known in his work and in his personal life for his straightforward and often humorous presentation of difficult truths.

 ROMANIAN PRESIDENT Klaus Iohannis visits the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in 2016 (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) ROMANIAN PRESIDENT Klaus Iohannis visits the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in 2016 (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

“He was among the first to see the early emergence of nationalism in the [Romanian] communist regime’s politics,” his friend and colleague Liviu Rotman, an Israeli historian of Romanian Jewry, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rotman said Shafir’s 2004 book “Between denial and trivialization. Holocaust denial in post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe” represented a “real encyclopedia” of Holocaust denial, as it outlined three forms that Shafir observed in post-communist states — outright, deflective (which “minimizes own-nation participation”) and selective (a combination of the other two). Shafir also took aim at what he called the “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust, or denying its uniqueness by equating it with communist crimes.

“I used to joke with Michael and told him that he produced a Mendeleev Table of Holocaust denial,” Rotman wrote on Facebook after his friend’s death, referring to the formal name for the periodic table that organizes elements according to their characteristics.

Known in Romania for his irreverent sense of humor and his chain-smoking, Shafir’s massive figure wearing a trench coat — and occasionally a hat — could often be seen on the threshold of the conferences and events he attended.

“He was a person with an exceptional sense of humor, who always sent his friends jokes, who always found things to laugh about,” Jewish studies scholar Felicia Waldman told JTA.

“He liked to share everything he discovered, everything he thought,” added Waldman, who also recalled Shafir’s “undiplomatic” vehemence. “Sometimes that created problems for him.”

Shafir promoted his ideas in books and scholarly writing and conferences, but also in the Romanian press, where he proved to be a redoubtable polemicist. As a member of the International Commission for the Holocaust in Romania, he worked to make sure that people in his country understood the truth about the Holocaust and Romanian authorities’ collaboration with the Nazi regime. That history was obscured during the communist era and contested after it.

The commission was established in 2003

The commission was established by Romanian president Ion Iliescu in 2003 and headed by Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Shafir and his fellow commission members concluded that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered in territories under Romanian control during World War II.

In 2004, their report was officially adopted by the Romanian state, which for the first time acknowledged its participation in the destruction of the European Jews.

“Today’s negationism can no longer have the excuse ‘I’ve not read, I haven’t access to information,’” Shafir said in a podcast by the Wiesel Institute in 2021, in which he warns about the crafty and convoluted nature of most contemporary Holocaust denial.

Shafir's life

Shafir was still working with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania at the time of his death, which the institute and his family members confirmed.

Born in Bucharest in 1944, Shafir managed to move to Israel as a teenager in 1961, during one of the periods when Romania relaxed emigration rules for its Jews. He had run afoul of the Communist regime and sought to escape it.

In Israel, Shafir served in the army before moving to Munich, to work as a researcher on audiences at Radio Free Europe, the US-funded radio station for communist Europe. From then on he balanced journalism with academic work: He then returned to Israel, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and English literature at Hebrew University while directing foreign news at the Kol Israel radio station, a position he held until 1982. He had just earned a political science PhD at Hebrew University after writing a thesis on the Romanian intelligentsia under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Shafir rejoined Radio Free Europe in the mid-1980s and held positions there until well after the fall of the Iron Curtain. His return to Romania and reclamation of his Romanian citizenship in 2005 inspired the country’s progressive left.

“Shafir meant a lot to me; he’s been a reference for his honesty and intellectual courage, and someone capable, like not many others, to review his positions when new data or historical sources asked for it,” Romanian-American software engineer-turned-historian Andrei Ursu told JTA.

Ursu was recently appointed scientific director of the Institute of the Romanian 1989 Revolution, an organization whose mission is to study that year’s Romanian anticommunist revolution. Two of his great-grandparents and a grandfather were killed during the Holocaust.

Ursu — whose father Gheorghe died after being savagely beaten while in politically motivated detention by Romania’s Communist secret police, the infamous Securitate — has been fighting for decades to combat the whitewashing of the Securitate in the country’s public discourse.

He described Shafir as “a person with an endless humor” and “without the exaggerated vanity common to many Romanian intellectuals.” Despite his frail health, Ursu said, Shafir agreed to review part of Ursu’s latest editorial project on the 1989 Romanian anti-communist revolution, “The Fall of a Dictator.”

Like other specialists who collaborated with Shafir, Ursu praised his work ethics and the precision of his sourcing and investigative work.

His media comments and public appearances were frequently peppered with jokes and anecdotes. In 2019, while speaking in an interview about the tens of thousands of Jews whom Ceausescu let emigrate in exchange for cash payments from Israel, Shafir told an old Romanian joke that starts with the Romanian dictator visiting a cooperative producing corn.

“How much do you get for a ton of maize?” Ceausescu asked the apparatchik in charge of the cooperative. “Just that? I get more if I sell 10 Jews.” To which the apparatchik retorts: “Then it’d be good if we start sowing Jews.”

In the interview, Shafir also recalled that the Jewish community headquarters in Bucharest used to display a sign warning gentiles desperate to get a visa to Israel and escape communism that “no conversions are accepted.”

“In the end, a conversion is much less dangerous than crossing the Danube swimming,” Shafir observed.

Although Shafir left Israel, he remained close to his family there and invested in the country’s politics. An activist with Peace Now who defined himself as a “critical Zionist,” Shafir rejected characterizations of Israel as an apartheid state but saw the Israeli continued military presence in the Palestinian territories as incompatible with democracy in the long term.

“He was very much worried about our future here in a country that is drifting to the right,” his daughter, Maurit Beeri, wrote on Facebook after her father’s death. She said he had recently spent time in Israel with his family, including his grandchildren.

Shafir’s body lay in state Nov. 13 at one of his university’s buildings in Cluj, Romania, where he lived with his wife, Aneta Feldman-Shafir.