Denying the past

Ukrainian ambassador backs out of Holocaust conference on Romania's atrocities.

Jewish conference 521 (photo credit: Sergey Vladykin)
Jewish conference 521
(photo credit: Sergey Vladykin)
KIEV – Oleksandr Feldman, a Jewish philanthropist, businessman and Ukrainian lawmaker, was not deterred when the guest of honor didn’t show up to his November 9 conference on the fascist Romanian government’s crimes against the Jews of Ukraine and Moldova during World War II.
Held in Kiev under the auspices of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, of which Feldman is president, the event brought together some 70 Ukrainian and Moldovan historians, survivors and Jewish-community professionals to hear testimony on Romania’s atrocities against Jews outside its borders during the Holocaust.
The conference passed several resolutions asking Romania to issue “a formal, unequivocal apology to the Jewish communities of Ukraine and Moldova for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews who died as a direct result of the genocide authorized by the World War II Romanian leadership,” as well as to take an active role in memorializing the Jews it killed and instituting educational programs on its history.These resolutions represent “a small first step in a long journey before us,” Feldman said.
But the request fell on deaf ears, as notably absent from the conference was the Romanian ambassador to Kiev, who, though invited, backed out at the last minute. Several phone calls and e-mails to the embassy in Kiev were unanswered, and the embassy in Odessa refused to comment on the absence, or on the government’s official position.
However, representatives from the Austrian, Azerbaijani and Israeli embassies, as well as Ukrainian and Moldovan lawmakers, did attend.
Feldman, donning a black kippa, downplayed the fact that the ambassador hadn’t shown up.
“The fact that the Romanian representative isn’t here is no big deal,” he told the delegates, calling on them to join him in pressuring the Romanian government for an apology.
Later, during an interview in his ultra-modern, under-construction office in Kiev, the 51-year-old lawmaker opened up more about the lack of Romanian representation.
“I cannot judge the reason why they did not show up,” he said, adding, though, that “[the ambassador] was very nervous about this conference.”
Feldman’s son, Alexander, the spitting image of his father, stood beside the office’s fireplace while Ukrainian Jewish Committee Director-General Eduard Dolinsky translated the elder Feldman’s Ukrainian into English. All three men wore thin red bracelets around their wrists – traditionally seen among believers in Kabbala, to ward off the evil eye.
NOVEMBER 9-10 marked 73 years since Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when the Nazis carried out a terrifying campaign that destroyed Jewish property in Germany and Austria. The event set in motion Hitler’s implementation of the Final Solution across Europe.
But in his opening remarks, Feldman emphasized that “it was not only the Nazis that are to blame for this crime.”
Other conference participants echoed this sentiment.
For too long, Nazi satellite states have blamed the Nazis for crimes they in fact committed willingly, said Arkady Monastyrskye of the Jewish Forum of Ukraine.
“It’s high time... to see the picture clearly,” declared Prof. Vasiliy Shetnikov of the Odessa National University.
Next to the Nazis, Romania was responsible for the deaths of more Jews during the Holocaust than was any other German-allied country: approximately 400,000, both on its own soil and in villages and forests throughout Romanianoccupied Ukraine and Moldova, according to the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania. The country’s Jewish population in 1941 was an estimated 641,000. The commission – which was led by Elie Wiesel and released its findings in 2004 – concluded that Romanian fascists were responsible for the murders of 300,000 Jews on Ukrainian territory, including those killed during the horrific Odessa massacre.
Murky is the distinction drawn in Eastern European countries that were invaded by the Nazis, over who holds responsibility for the genocide. Fascist Romania under Ion Antonescu (1940-1944) has been clouded in such ambiguity for years, the conference speakers argued.
“[They] displayed so much cruelty toward Jews, it impressed the Germans,” said Feldman in his opening remarks.
The Wiesel Commission was launched after the Romanian government issued a shocking statement in 2003 that “within the borders of Romania between 1940 and 1945, there was no Holocaust.” While there has been progress since then – Romania did accept Wiesel’s conclusions – Feldman said it has officially only apologized for murdering and deporting Romanian Jews.
Today, Romania has a Holocaust memorial and a national day to remember victims (October 9), but Ukrainian and Moldovans are excluded from its collective memory, and Antonescu is hailed as a national hero.
Mikhail Zaslavsky, a survivor of the 1941 Odessa massacre, recalled for the delegates the horrific scenes of Romanian soldiers beating and arresting Jews in the streets, burning property and people alive.
“I saw how these buildings were on fire,” said Zaslavsky, a member of a Ukrainian association of former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners. “Just imagine. . . People were burned alive without having charges brought against them.”
Inna Supac, a lawmaker in the Moldovan parliament, spoke about the “Romaniazation” of her country, which has, she said as an example, required for years that text books teach more Romanian history than Moldovan – burying the facts of Romanian cruelty against Moldova’s Jews deep in the recesses of history.
“Romanians either tried to hush [the] voices of survivors or tried to show that the Romanian authorities acted reasonably...Some historians prefer to put the entire blame on the threshold of German Nazis,” she said of “this position of distortion.”
Feldman, meanwhile, assured me he was seeking neither revenge nor financial compensation from Romania.
“They cannot revive the people they killed,” he said, “but the word ‘sorry’ is a very human word.”
To receive the apology, he plans to push forward with rallies outside the Romanian government and urge the international community to exert pressure.
“We will take this course until justice is done,” he said with resolve.
“I believe it is much easier to admit the guilt than to change the history and to lie,” he said. “Only a thief never admits his guilt.”
BUT RABBI Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who served on the Wiesel Commission, recalled visiting the US Holocaust Museum in 2005 with Romanian President Traian Basescu. He said Basescu had spoken about Romanian responsibility that day, as he later did in 2009 at the dedication of the Romanian Holocaust memorial in Bucharest.
“Of course there’s always more to be done, but there has been substantial progress,” Baker wrote in an e-mail to the Magazine. He questioned whether Ukraine perhaps needed to review its own record before pointing a finger at Romania.
“There is still no explanation of what happened at Babi Yar at that memorial site and no real confrontation in Ukraine about its own Holocaust-era past,” he said.
“I know these issues concern Mr. Feldman, and they are better suited for a conference in Kiev.”
Feldman said recently that he was working toward building a memorial at Babi Yar and a museum of Jewish heritage in Kiev that would chronicle Ukrainian Jewish history since the 8th century.
“We are in the process of getting the land from the city authorities” and gathering pieces for the museum, he told the Magazine after the conference. “I would like this museum to become a center for tolerance in Ukraine,” which has an estimated Jewish population of 100,000.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, agreed with Feldman that Romania had not yet owned up to its past, but said this was the case for most former communist countries in Eastern Europe, where the local collaborators actively participated in mass murder. Only since the countries became independent – in Romania’s case, 1989 – have they been able to honestly confront what their governments did during the Holocaust. But many still either try to hide the truth or minimize the role their local authorities played.
“It’s proven to be a very difficult problem,” Zuroff said during an interview on Sunday. “Telling the truth about what happened during the Shoah means admitting your own guilt. This is a very unpopular subject.”
However, he added, it’s ironic that Ukraine – “a country that’s done nothing, absolutely nothing, to bring Nazi collaborators to trial” and has even honored “notorious anti-Semites” such as Stepan Bandero – is the one holding Romania in judgment.
Bandero headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, but Jewish groups accuse him of collaborating with the Nazis as well and condoning mass murder of Jews. Others hail Bandero as a national hero in the struggle for Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union and Poland. In 2010, then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko bestowed the Hero of Ukraine award on Bandero, but current President Viktor Yanukovych renounced the prize a year later.
“Both countries share the problem,” Zuroff said. “On a certain level, the Romanians could say this is the height of hypocrisy. Both countries have very poor records of dealing with all the Holocaustrelated issues, from education to documentation to prosecution of local collaborators. From the outside, it’s ludicrous.”
The larger issue, Zuroff said, is an attempt by Eastern European countries to equate Nazi crimes with Soviet crimes, and thereby avoid discussing local collaboration with the Nazis.
“They want to deflect attention from the crimes they committed during World War II to the crimes they suffered after World War II,” he said. “They want to rewrite the textbooks throughout Europe to reflect that the two crimes are equal.”
SOME 35 Ukrainians in their 20s and 30s attended the November 9 conference as part of an effort by Feldman to recruit young leadership in the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
For several of these young people, Romania formally accepting responsibility for its crimes in Ukraine and Moldova matters less than educational projects throughout Eastern Europe to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
Michael Bielgrai, 21, said “an apology from some guy in a tie” means little; rather, “if we can change the opinions of usual citizens, it’s much better.”
Victoria Godik, 28, vice president of the European Union of Jewish Students, said a statement from Romania should only come with a program for educating Romanian students on its history. If it does take responsibility, Godik is hopeful the move could help combat anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.
Nonetheless, Marc Rughgaizer, 34, felt it was “very important” to press Romania for an apology.
“It’s our obligation for the people that died,” he said. ■