An evil cooperation

What was presented as liberation from Soviet occupation quickly proved to be the beginning of systematic deportations, hunger and mortal danger.

Hehalutz members in Bucharest 1941 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Beit Hatfutsot)
Hehalutz members in Bucharest 1941 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Beit Hatfutsot)
CHISINAU/BUCHAREST – Eighty-three-year-old Liviu Beris is a short man with lively, smiling eyes. He leads the Romanian Association of the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust. His office is in the center of Bucharest, in an old house not far from the Jewish Theater. Sitting at his desk, he tells his story, while the radio plays classical music in the background. And he has a long story to tell.
He was born in Hertza, a small shtetl in the North of historic Moldova, where 2,000 Jews and 2,000 Romanians used to live side by side before the war. In early 1940, “life there still seemed normal,” says Beris. Liviu was 12 back then, and spoke Yiddish and Romanian at home, as Hertza was part of the Kingdom of Romania.
He grew up in his father’s bakery. “We used to buy flour from miller Kisslinger, the only German in our shtetl. And we had 20 employees – all Romanian.”
Then one morning in June 1940, as the tanks of the Red Army rolled into Hertza’s main street, normal life ended suddenly. As a consequence of the pact between Hitler and Stalin, the Soviet dictator issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the Romanian government – and occupied Bessarabia, Bukovina and the region around Beris’s shtetl. “Less than a week after that, they started the collectivization and confiscated our bakery,” he says. Early the following year, the rumor spread that the “kulaks and bourgeois” would soon be sent to Siberia. On June 15, 1941, the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, summoned a first group of 39 middle-class families and transported them in horse-drawn carriages to the nearest railway station.
“Luckily, we were on the list for a later transport,” says Beris, smiling. A second transport to Siberia never took place. Three weeks later, the Romanian Army marched into the town and pushed the Soviets back toward the East. Operation Barbarossa had begun on June 22. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact was rubbish. In Bucharest, the Fascist Marshal Ion Antonescu had managed to take power, using among other things the lost territories as a pretext. He favoured an alliance with Hitler’s Germany and promised the population he would reconquer “Romanian soil” as soon as possible.
Before World War II, many cultural groups called the Kingdom of Romania their homeland. According to Lucian Boia, a historian and teacher at the University of Bucharest, “The provinces Bessarabia and Bukovina resembled a patchwork, where Jews, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and Roma mingled.” However, he says, “after conquering back these territories, the ambition of the Romanian Fascists was to wipe out this very plurality. For many, the initial joy of being liberated from the Soviet occupation turned into the horror of the next tragedy.”
Liviu Beris remembers his first encounter with the “liberators.”
“A neighbor came to my father and told him that the Romanian troops were at Kisslinger’s mill. My father took my hand and said: ‘Come, boy! We will meet them on the way. We will escape Siberia!’ And we went toward the mill, accompanied by 10 other Jews and 20 Romanians from our town. Yet instead of returning our greeting, the Romanian captain shouted: ‘Who is Jewish here?’ The 12 of us were separated from the Romanians, and the soldiers pointed their machine guns at us. But one of our Romanian neighbors stepped between us and the soldiers, made the sign of the cross and shouted, ‘What are you doing, captain? These are people who suffered together with us!’ And the captain really let us go.”
Two days later, Hertza’s Jews had to gather in the synagogue nevertheless. The order police, called “Gendarmerie” in Romania, came with lists of names, took 100 Jews out and shot them close to Kisslinger’s mill. “But we were not on the list this time either,” says Beris.
He then falls silent and looks out the window, at the roof of the synagogue. After a moment, he continues. “Three weeks later, the gendarmes gathered all Jews on the main square of our shtetl. There had been progress eastwards on the front and the deportations could start. None of us could stay in Hertza. We survived the deportation, the forced labor, the hunger and the cold,” he says, before again falling silent.
After the war, he returned to Romania from Transnistria. He received a PhD in biology and moved to Bucharest, where he still lives today.
Despite Antonescu’s initial promises, the Romanian Army didn’t stop at the Dniester, the river marking the former border with the Soviet Union. It went further and further, together with the Wehrmacht, all the way to Stalingrad. In exchange for their loyalty, Hitler granted the Romanian authorities the right to govern and economically exploit not only their former provinces Bessarabia and Bukovina, but also a part of the historical Ukraine.
Antonescu appointed a Romanian governor for this territory beyond the River Dniester, the so-called Transnistria, and used it as his backyard. Far from the eyes of the public, concentration camps were built for the Jews, Roma and political opponents he deported there. Thus, the Romanian government pursued its plan to ethnically cleanse huge parts of the country. According to conservative estimates, at least 300,000 people were killed in Transnistria.
Sabs Roif also personally experienced “liberation” at the hands of Antonescu’s troops. Today, he is the president of the Moldovan Association of the Holocaust Victims. In the summer of 1941, when the Romanian administration returned to his native Bessarabian village of Duruitoarea Veche, Roif was 11 and lived in his parents’ farmhouse.
“Whatever the Soviets didn’t have time to finish during their collectivization became an immediate first priority of the Romanian gendarmes: They confiscated all our belongings and sent us to the camp. Not because we were kulaks, but because we were Jews,” remembers Roif.
Shortly after that the deportation to Transnistria began. Unlike many other members of their families, Roif and his neighbor Zelda survived. After the war they went back to school, both started teaching and became husband and wife.
The province of Bessarabia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and later gained independence as the Republic of Moldova. Today, Sabs and Zelda Roif, both 81, live in the capital, Chisinau.
The genocide of the Roma was, much like the “solution to the Jewish question,” part of the so-called master plan of the Fascist government in Bucharest. For decades, national historiography has been trying to cover up this chapter of Romanian history. Only as recently as 2003, an international historians’ commission led by Elie Wiesel was created to study the genocide more closely. Shortly after the commission published its report, Romania finally officially recognized the existence of a Holocaust on its own territory.
In 2005, the Institute for the Study of the Holocaust was founded. Its mission is to continue the research and denounce the covering up of the crimes.
“The efforts of the Romanian government amounted to much more than simple loyalty gestures or lip service to allied Germany. This truth now has to be presented publicly and sink into historical consciousness,” says Alexandru Florian, director of the institute.
Aglaia Arap, 75, receives her guests in her little garden and makes coffee in a small copper pot, as an old Romanian custom demands. She wears a head scarf, and her clothes remind one of the traditional dress of the Roma. Arap’s mother tongue is Romany, but she also speaks Russian and the Romanian dialect spoken by Moldovans.
When she was born, her small native village of Ursari was in Romania, in the province Bessarabia. Ursari shared the fate of the whole region: in 1940 it was occupied by the Soviets, and in the summer of 1941 it was reconquered by the Romanian army. Today, this forgotten village is in the Republic of Moldova, about 60 kilometers from Chisinau.
Arap’s father was a coppersmith, but the family had four children and, like many other villagers, they had barely enough to eat. The woman tells how the Romanians lured them into a trap: “The gendarmes came to our village and promised us houses and land in Transnistria. And we signed the papers,” remembers Arap with tear in her eyes. “My father packed only a few of our belongings in the horse carriage. ‘You are not going to need much,’ the gendarmes told us.” The Roma’s forced march to Transnistria lasted several months.
The feeling of being completely at the mercy of the abusive order police was omnipresent. “One day, they poured petrol on some people and set them on fire. Out of 60 families, only 20 returned to our village over two years later,” she says. When her family returned, their old house was nothing but a sad ruin. But they built a new one. Arap worked for 40 years as a cleaner in the village school, and is now the mother of 10 and grandmother of 17.
The bureaucratic capacities, discipline and assertiveness of the Romanian planners often fell short of the SS attachés’ expectations, as proved by the diplomatic cables sent by the German embassy to the Foreign Office in Berlin. But historical research proves beyond doubt that there was a holocaust under Romanian direction, a holocaust planned and executed sometimes in a chaotic and corrupt manner, the details of which are in many respects still little known.
Despite historians’ efforts, this issue is still either an insufficiently or simply not discussed taboo for Romanians, including many politicians. Romanian President Traian Basescu caused a diplomatic scandal when he said during an interview that Romania’s participation in the Nazi attack against the Soviet Union was “justified from a national point of view.”
He went on to say that, had he been in Antonescu’s place, he would have given the same attack order. “At that moment we had an ally and we had lost territories that we had to conquer back,” declared the president, obviously referring to Nazi Germany and the historical provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina.
Basescu’s governing style and his way of communicating has been polarizing Romanian public opinion for years. His comments in that interview shocked even some of his closest supporters. Radu Alexandru, a member of the Romanian Parliament with Basescu’s center- right Democratic Liberal Party declared at the time that he was “bitterly disappointed by the unforgivable ignorance” of the head of state.
Star author and former foreign minister Andrei Plesu also distanced himself from Basescu’s assertions. In an op-ed for one of the leading Romanian papers, Plesu questioned the Basescu’s motivation and accused him of populism and nationalism.
According to Basescu’s statements, this shady side of Romanian history is quite new to him. In a conversation with representatives of the Jewish community back in 2005, soon after his inauguration, he indicated that he had heard about a Romanian holocaust only very recently.
“His knowledge of the historical facts was either vague or outright flawed,” remembers Paul Schwarz, vice-president of the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Romania. “But this is not surprising: this is unfortunately how things are with most Romanians.”