The grave of the Jews
Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Philip Ó Ceallaigh
It is late November 2012, and I am in the home of Vasile Enache in the small village of Cuza Vodă, in eastern Romania. Enache is eighty-seven years old. His hair is completely white and he is blind. But he sits erect on a narrow bench, back to the wall, and his blue eyes dart about, as though still seeing, as he recounts the details of a massacre he witnessed in the summer of 1941, when he was sixteen, in the woods outside the village. The victims were Jewish civilians, the perpetrators Romanian soldiers. In October 2010, before he lost his sight, he led researchers to the scene of the killing. Opposite Enache, holding a tape recorder, sits Adrian Cioflâncă, the thirty-nine-year-old historian who directed the team that excavated the site.
The outskirts of Iași, a city of over a quarter of a million people, lie only five kilometres from Cuza Vodă, over the hills. But the journey Cioflâncă and I made to get here, along a winding dirt road, through chill November mist, was a trip back in time. Here, water is drawn from wells, in the yards of the tiny houses or by the roadside, and in each yard stands a wooden privy, like a sentry box. The vegetable gardens and orchards are bare in this season and the leaves have fallen from the vines. Geese waddle down to a muddy creek, across overgrazed common land. Landslides have taken bites from the hillsides.
Enache sits next to a brick stove. The stove is built into the wall, its sides plastered over and whitewashed. This is the winter room. The ceiling is so low you have to crouch a little as you enter. The windows are small, squinting. I sit to Enache’s right, on the bench. On the bed, which is as long as the room is wide, sits Enache’s wife. They have been married for sixty-eight years. Two of their five children are still alive. Standing by the door – there is no more room to sit – is Enache’s daughter, Parascheva, an energetic cheerful woman in her fifties. She has her father’s bright blue eyes.
‘We finished the excavation, Mr Enache,’ says Cioflâncă loudly, leaning forward. Enache’s hearing is not so good these days. This is the first time that Cioflâncă and Enache have spoken in two years, since the completion of the excavation.
‘You found them?’
‘They’re reburied now, in Iași. There’s a monument.’
Enache nods and seems to disappear into himself for a moment.
‘Thirty-six? There were many more than that. At least a hundred.’
‘We only opened one grave.’
Cioflâncă knows Enache’s story better than anyone. But he takes him through it again, hoping to elicit one more useful detail about this incident in one of the most terrible massacres of the war – the Iași pogrom, in which upward of ten thousand Jews were killed.
‘Mr Enache, what time of the day was it when the soldiers took you? Was it morning?’
‘Morning. Around ten o’clock.’
In 2010, when the excavation was underway, Enache recounted his story a number of times – to Cioflâncă, to a local journalist and to researchers from the Wiesel Institute. While none of those interviews could be described as exhaustive, and while Enache might not have been completely sober when giving them, the accounts are consistent with each other and with his retelling, now, in my presence.
Towards the end of the month of June, grazing a few cattle at the edge of Vulturi woods, several kilometres from his home, Enache was seized by Romanian soldiers. War had just been declared by Germany and its allies, of which Romania was one, against the Soviet Union. The front lay only a few kilometres from Cuza Vodă. The soldiers were escorting a column of over a hundred Jewish prisoners. They might have suspected, wrongly, that Enache was Jewish. Or they might simply have wished to teach the boy a lesson for straying into a military area. They took him to a clearing in the forest, where he was held by two soldiers. He watched as the civilians were forced to dig their own graves. There were three pits. Those who had better clothes were made to undress and the clothing was piled beside the pit. The civilians were ordered, in groups of around ten, to sit with their backs to the soldiers, their legs dangling in the hole. The commander then asked for volunteers to perform the execution. Volunteers came forward. The civilians were shot from behind, from a distance of about three metres. Four prisoners were made to arrange the bodies in the pit so that more could fit, and a second group was lined up, facing the dead, and shot. Enache is unclear about how many times this happened. He speaks of people trying to escape, unsuccessfully. The area was completely ringed with soldiers.
Enache is not the easiest subject to interview. He has difficulty hearing. He is missing teeth, and mumbles. He has a heavy accent and uses regionalisms I am unfamiliar with. You do not always get a response to the question you ask. Cioflâncă does not get a clear answer as to why the soldiers might have thought, or claimed to believe, that Enache was Jewish. When asked where the executioners stood in relation to the victims – the grave is on a hillside – Enache is unable to remember or does not understand what he is being asked. But when Cioflâncă interrupts to ask if he remembers the rank of the commander, Enache replies after a brief pause:
‘A Captain. I don’t know his name.’
Enache saw over a hundred people killed, but he always remembers one victim in particular: ‘There was one young woman. She had a child in her arms and she was begging for it to be spared. She was saying, “I beg you, let my child grow up, we’ve done nothing wrong, we’re not animals.” But it made no difference to them.’
Nobody speaks for a moment. Old Mrs Enache passes a hand over her face, whispers something I do not catch.
‘After that, it was like I was turned to stone. I could have been killed myself. Can you imagine what that is like, looking into the grave, knowing they’re aiming at your back? The ground shook with the cries of that that poor woman. And there were other people screaming. There was a terrible noise.’
When the pit was filled, the four men forced to arrange the corpses covered them with soil. Two pits were filled in this way. Finally, these four men were then lined up by a third pit and executed. The soldiers buried them.
The soldiers brought Enache to his village. Neighbours attested that he was a local Christian and he was freed.
‘When I took the cows to graze after that, I was unable to pass by that place. I couldn’t look at where they ended up, lifeless in the ground, and for no reason.’
The talk moves on to other subjects. Enache complains that Parascheva lets him have wine only on Thursdays and Sundays.
‘It’s for your health, father. Because of the medication.’
‘At my age, it’s about time I moved along,’ he sputters, indignant.
‘But at the appointed hour. Not from drinking.’
Parascheva’s home is in Bucharest, eight hours away by train, where she has raised her family, but she spends alternate months in the village, looking after her elderly parents. When she is in Bucharest, it is the turn of her sister, who still lives in Cuza Vodă.
Our visit has lasted perhaps forty or fifty minutes when Enache begins to get agitated. He says he wants to go outside. It is time for us to leave. Cioflâncă takes a picture of Enache and he senses the flash. His eyes can still distinguish light from dark. As we get up to leave, Cioflâncă asks if he can photograph him outside, in what is left of the daylight.
Enache knows his way about his home and does not need to be guided. A wooden porch runs along the front of the house. It is a traditional dwelling made of mud and straw, plastered over and painted. Enache stands patiently on the porch and has his picture taken, alone and then with Cioflâncă. Beside Cioflâncă he looks very small. Then he says goodbye to us, raises his hand in a wave, and goes back indoors. Parascheva sees us to the gate. Cioflâncă and I get in the car and drive back along the winding dirt road, towards Iași.
The hillsides and woods around here are littered with unmarked graves; some contain a single body, others hundreds. Though many of these graves were soon forgotten, with the dispersal of the killers and any witnesses, in places such as Cuza Vodă an entire community knew and those who are still alive can tell you what they saw. But until very recently, nobody ever asked.
From the establishment of a Romanian state in the second half of the nineteenth century, antisemitism was enshrined in law. Jews faced restrictions on freedom of movement, ownership of property and the practising of professions. A ban on residence in small towns and rural areas meant that Jewish communities were frequently expelled and expropriated. Romanian independence from the Ottoman sphere of influence was recognized by the Congress of Berlin in 1878, in exchange for guarantees against religious discrimination. These commitments were soon reneged upon.
The treaties that followed the First World War produced a Greater Romania. The country doubled in size and population, and for the first time in history nearly all ethnic Romanians lived within a unitary state. At the same time, a third of the population of Greater Romania was not ethnically Romanian. The new state was obliged by the treaties to grant citizenship to all its residents; Romania thus became the last state in Europe to grant citizenship to its Jews, who comprised slightly over 4 per cent of the population. By 1938, with antisemitism again on the rise, Jews were stripped of their citizenship. Three quarters of a million people – Europe’s third largest Jewish population, after those of Poland and the Soviet Union – became aliens in their own land.
At the end of June 1940, Romania received a Soviet ultimatum for the cession of its territory between the rivers Prut and Dniester in the east (foreseen in a secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1938). Three days were allowed for the withdrawal of Romanian troops. The only shots fired by the Romanian army as it hurried to get out of the path of the Soviets were in the direction of Jewish civilians. The first massacre took place in the locality of Mihoreni. Among the most useful sources for what happened to the Jews there, and elsewhere in Romania during the war, is Cartea Neagră, or The Black Book, based on testimonials and documentary sources gathered by Matatias Carp, a Romanian Jewish lawyer, and first published in 1947. On the orders of a Major Goilav, Carp writes, ‘Soldiers arrested and tortured Shloime Weiner, his son Usher Weiner, his daughters Roza Weiner and Fani Zekler (the latter with a two-year-old infant in her arms). They were brought to Tureatca forest, where the crippled shoemaker Moscovici was already held, along with his wife and two children, as well as the wife of a certain Isac Moscovici with two little girls. They were lined up in front of a pit and shot.’
More than six hundred Jews are known to have been killed across the country over the following twelve months, though the frequent complicity of the police and the army make it certain that many incidents went unrecorded. The attacks were characterized by a spectacular degree of cruelty, including instances of people being thrown from trains, burned alive, or tortured prior to execution. Dismembered or eviscerated corpses were often left in public view. Old antisemitic narratives had gained new virulence by merging with the rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of the state. Stories invented in 1940 of retreating Romanian soldiers being insulted and attacked by jubilant Jews have endured to this day.
Territorial losses and the strengthening of German power across the continent accelerated the collapse of Romania’s fragile political institutions. In September 1940 Romania became a ‘National Legionary State’, run by an alliance of the fascist Legionary movement (the ‘Iron Guard’) and the army under General Ion Antonescu. In November Romania officially allied itself with the Axis powers. A policy of ‘Romanianization’, intended to eliminate Jewish influence in the professions, public life and the economy, was applied. Jews were stripped of their assets, sometimes under a quasi-legal procedure, more often as a result of plain intimidation and robbery. In January, Antonescu himself expressed his dissatisfaction with the degree of disorder: ‘They [members of the Iron Guard] go to the shops of the jidani [derogatory word for Jew] and take their stock, destroying both commerce and credit. At this rate, within two months we’ll be witnessing an economic catastrophe. The factories will no longer supply their goods because the jidani shopkeepers aren’t renewing their stock.’
Romania was at this time the second-largest oil producer in Europe, after the Soviet Union. By January 1941, with plans for Operation Barbarossa already being laid in Berlin, the Germans were counting upon this resource. Hitler had worries about the Iron Guard’s potential to destabilize Romania economically and politically. Meeting on 14 January in Germany, he told Antonescu: ‘You need to unyoke yourself from them [the Iron Guard]: in every militant movement there are fanatics who consider it their duty to destroy everything … Such people need to be prevented from causing harm.’ On 20 January, an Iron Guard attempt to wrest power from Antonescu became the occasion for a pogrom in Bucharest. Homes and businesses were attacked, and synagogues destroyed. Jews were beaten and tortured, and over 120 killed. The corpses of thirteen Jews murdered at an abattoir were hung from meat-hooks under the inscription ‘Kosher meat’.
On 22 June, the Axis declared war on the Soviet Union, and the authorities immediately began to put into effect Antonescu’s order to ‘cleanse’ the area between the rivers Siret and Prut in the east of the country by transferring all Jews between the ages of eighteen and sixty to a concentration camp in the interior. This order was quickly superseded by more general instructions to ‘cleanse’ the front of Jews. Iași, the largest Romanian city on the Soviet frontier, had a population slightly above 100,000. It was over one third Jewish, even before the influx of Jewish refugees from the surrounding countryside.
The panic and paranoia of war were exacerbated by the presence in Iași by Legionary elements – used as agitators by the Romanian secret services – who circulated rumours that Jews were signalling to the Soviet air force or staging attacks on the Romanian army. (Though Antonescu had suppressed the Iron Guard as an organization, many of its supporters were absorbed into the state.) The journal of the Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian, who lived in Bucharest, records on 24 June the appearance of propaganda posters in the capital that asked ‘Who are the masters of Bolshevism?’ above a cartoon of the guilty party: ‘A Jew in a red gown, with side curls, skull cap, and beard, holding a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other. Concealed beneath his coat are three Soviet soldiers. I have heard that the posters were put up by police sergeants.’
The war against the Soviet Union was to be a war against the Jews.
The Iași pogrom began on 28 June and continued over three days. Many of the victims died in their homes or in the street. Hundreds, or even thousands – reports vary, and it is impossible now to know – were shot down by Romanian police and German soldiers in a mass execution in the courtyard of the city’s police headquarters, where they had been summoned, ostensibly, to receive documents guaranteeing their continued liberty. The killing at the police station took hours.
For days, in the absence of any plan for the burial of so many victims, the streets of Iași were littered with corpses. Bodies were buried in unmarked graves, left on rubbish tips or thrown into the river.
On 30 June two trains left Iași railway station with some 4,400 people packed onto goods wagons, daubed with slogans such as ‘communist jidani’ en route to an internment camp. The trains shuffled for days in the summer heat between local stations, and over 2,700 of the deportees died of suffocation or dehydration.
Had there remained any doubt that war had been declared against the Jews, an official communiqué, reprinted in all the Bucharest newspapers on 2 July, would have dispelled it: ‘In recent days there have been incidents of hostile alien elements opposed to our interests opening fire on German and Romanian soldiers. Any attempt to repeat these vile attacks will be ruthlessly crushed. For each German or Romanian warrior, fifty Judeo-Communists will be executed.’
The Holocaust can be divided roughly into two periods. In the first, from the outbreak of the war in the east in June 1941 and into 1942, the advancing fascist armies exterminated Jewish civilians in mass shootings conducted over hours or even days, mostly by specialist mobile German death squads called Einsatzgruppen. The second stage involved the use of extermination camps and gas chambers, methods adopted for reasons of speed and efficiency. The second phase of the Holocaust is better documented than the first and has greater prominence in the contemporary consciousness, despite the fact that similar numbers of Jews died by bullet and by gas.
What Vasile Enache witnessed in Vulturi woods was the beginning of the first phase of the Holocaust; by the end of the year, across a front extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, over a million Jews would be shot dead. Romanian troops were massacring Jewish civilians, of all ages and both sexes, from the first week of the war, and continued to do so in the weeks and months ahead, as they advanced north and east against the frantically retreating Soviet forces. They operated more or less spontaneously, in the absence of detailed instructions from above. Massacres committed by Germans, by contrast, tended to be orderly, planned events, often following the registration of the victims and their imprisonment in ghettos. We know that 33,771 people were shot by German troops on the outskirts of Kiev on the last two days of September 1941, but for the Iași massacre the margin of error is in the thousands; modern historians put the death toll between ten and fourteen thousand.
A report by an SS unit stationed in Romania, dated July 1941, complains about Romanian sloppiness: ‘The Romanians act against Jews with no preconceived plan. Nobody would have anything to say about the very many executions of Jews if their technical preparation, as well as the way they are carried out, were not deficient. The Romanians leave executed people to lie where they fall, without burying them. Einsatzcommando has demanded that the Romanian police proceed in a more orderly fashion in this respect.’
Over 300,000 Romanian Jews would die in the Holocaust. In addition, more than 100,000 Soviet Jews would die in Transnistria, the swathe of Ukraine between the Dniester and the Bug that was placed under Romanian wartime administration.
I first met Adrian Cioflâncă in the autumn of 2012, having learned of his role in the excavation of the mass grave at Vulturi woods. I was curious to hear how he had first become aware of the Iași pogrom, and he told me that, as an adolescent, he had heard an account of an incident in that city when Romanian soldiers took revenge on some Jews who had attacked them. Although information about the massacre had reached the Jewish community in Bucharest within weeks – Mihail Sebastian’s diary contains references to the death trains and the slaughter at the police station – the propaganda versions of events given by the Antonescu regime at the time have retained currency.
Romanian communism, as nationalist as it was socialist, did not discuss anything that might complicate the story of Romanian national destiny, and that included mention of the genocide committed in the nation’s name. Even in the 1990s, school and university history courses ended with the outbreak of war in 1940. When socialism was officially ditched, the nationalist residue remained. ‘I went on to study history in Iași myself in the 1990s and never learned about the pogrom in that city,’ Cioflâncă told me. ‘In the ’90s, contemporary history was taboo, an area that couldn’t be properly investigated. And there was the dominance of nationalist “party” historians from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who wrote ideological books. You had nowhere to find out about the war. I didn’t learn about the pogrom until about ten years ago, when I was working for a newspaper in Iași and they published a series of eyewitness accounts.’
Our discussion was taking place at Cioflâncă’s office at the headquarters of the National Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate, or CNSAS. The CNSAS was established in 1999 in order to put in the public domain the hoard of documents amassed by the Securitate – Romania’s internal security apparatus – under communism, including records from military courts. It is one of the archives that Cioflâncă has used to begin the laborious task of building a database of victims of the Iași pogrom.
In 1946, a tribunal was instigated to examine war crimes by the Antonescu regime. Cases were followed up by civilian and military courts and resulted in 187 convictions. By 1959, hundreds more trials had resulted in convictions. The major massacres, such as those in Iași and in Odessa (where the Romanian army massacred 23,000 Jews), were given particular attention, though a number of cases involving small numbers of victims were also tried. In some cases, says Cioflâncă, the investigations of the events were thorough, while in others they were superficial and propagandistic. Most of the killings were carried out by small units of the Romanian army which for reasons of secrecy did not issue written orders, so no documentary evidence of their acts remains. This explains how a massacre in a rural area, such as that at Vulturi, could go unregistered at the official level.
The trials were carried out in an atmosphere of terror by a nascent Stalinist state set on eliminating ideological opponents of every hue. There was an accent upon the criminal nature of the fascist regime, but – as in the Soviet Union – a reluctance to examine the killing of Jews as a distinct phenomenon. Then, in the 1960s, Romania’s communist regime became increasingly nationalistic, and the Holocaust remained a taboo subject for the quarter century of Ceaușescu’s rule. Romania’s Holocaust was buried in silence.
Impending EU membership put pressure on the Romanian government to acknowledge the country’s role in the Holocaust. In 2004, the country’s leaders participated for the first time in remembrance ceremonies, a monument to Holocaust victims was erected in Bucharest and the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Holocaust Research was established, under the Ministry of Culture. Romania joined the EU in 2007 and the Holocaust now figures in school textbooks, but only as part of an optional course; students can still leave school without ever hearing of the mass killing of Romanian Jews.
In the spring of 2010, Adrian Cioflâncă (who had since 2005 been teaching a master’s degree course in Jewish history at Iași University) was contracted by the Wiesel Institute to compile an oral history of a cluster of villages north of the city, including Cuza Vodă. By collating local recollections with the patchy archival evidence, it was hoped he could locate at least one of the unmarked graves reputed to be in the locality.
The villagers were able to provide Cioflâncă with unexpectedly detailed information. Older people in Cuza Vodă and other villages told of groups of between twenty and eighty Jews passing in columns along the roads over several weeks in the summer of 1941, escorted by Romanian troops. The locals sometimes recognized individual prisoners, and they remembered the civilians being taken into Vulturi and other woods. Screams and the sound of automatic gunfire would be heard. A local man, Stefan Clim from the village of Carlig, was engaged by the army to sell the victims’ clothes, and witnesses remembered seeing him transporting them by cart. (Clim is believed to have died in hospital in 1945.) After the war, when the forests were demilitarized, the villagers came across the graves. One site in Vulturi woods, in a small valley called Climoaiei, was even known locally as ‘the grave of the Jews’ and a preliminary investigation by archaeologists from Iași University indicated an area where the ground had been disturbed. When Cioflâncă asked locals why they had never before spoken about the graves in the woods, they responded that nobody had ever asked them.
Since the excavation in September 1945 of mass graves some three kilometres from Vulturi – a place called Stânca Roznoveanu – there had never been any serious effort by the Romanian authorities to physically investigate the sites of wartime massacres. At Stânca Roznoveanu, 311 bodies were recovered from three pits. Military documents had acknowledged the killing there of forty people – ‘which warns us’, Cioflâncă told me, ‘that documents aren’t final evidence for any serious investigation’.
The reports of ‘the grave of the Jews’ in Vulturi were significant because there was no documentary evidence of a massacre there. It was an opportunity, however small or apparently symbolic, to bring to light events previously unrecorded or officially suppressed.
‘What we do know is that the same regiment implicated in the Stânca Roznoveanu massacre and others in the area – the 6th Vânători – also had jurisdiction over the woods at Vulturi,’ Cioflâncă told me. ‘It was an elite unit on a mission to “cleanse” the area just behind the front.’
The Vulturi grave would have been difficult to locate without local help. The woodland can be crossed in under an hour by foot, but it covers a series of small valleys, from which radiate even smaller ridges and gullies that look identical to the untrained eye. The area was militarized during the war and for a time was the front line. The ground has been dug over and banked up in many places and surveys with metal detectors indicate numerous areas with concentrations of spent ammunition.
And then it was discovered that an eyewitness to the killing at Vulturi was living in Cuza Vodă. On a wet autumn day in 2010, Adrian Cioflâncă, accompanied by the archaeologist Neculai Bolohan, called to the home of Vasile Enache. They explained that they wished him to confirm the massacre site before they began excavating.
Enache was confused. ‘Historical research? Archaeological survey? What’s that?’ he asked.
Vasile Enache had always lived in Cuza Vodă and had never travelled far from it. He had spent most of his adult life under one of Europe’s most repressive and paranoid communist dictatorships, and the authorities had never shown any interest in the massacre he had witnessed. So he could not understand why, after so many years, somebody wanted to escort him back to Vulturi woods so that he could point to the place where he had seen people shot.
The edge of Vulturi woods is less than two kilometres from Vasile Enache’s home, across fields and hills. But the journey by road is a circuitous eight kilometres, and the last section is up a steep and rutted forestry road that deteriorates in wet weather.
‘We got stuck in the mud,’ Cioflâncă told me. ‘It had started raining and we were wearing very brightly coloured raincoats, one red, one blue. We looked kind of like a special operations squad. And it was like in the films. We got out of the jeep, and he asked us to turn around so he could relieve himself. Then he took off, running through the woods. The more we ran after him, shouting, “Come back, nothing’s going to happen”, the faster he went, saying “Don’t kill me! Leave me alone!” If someone had come along and seen us chasing this old man … We had to let him go.’
Enache returned home by foot, cross-country.
‘He couldn’t understand, either then or later, what we were doing there,’ says Cioflâncă. ‘We were Jews who’d come for revenge, that was his explanation.’
The researchers let several days elapse before approaching Enache again. This time they went in the company of a local, and after having spoken with his daughter, Parascheva, who managed to convince him that the researchers meant no harm. Parascheva also instructed the researchers to walk ahead of her father when visiting the site.
‘We approached very slowly,’ says Cioflâncă, ‘and he pointed out the area where the preliminary survey already suggested the grave was.’
The Wiesel Institute directed Cioflâncă and his team from Iași University to carry out an excavation. The dig began on 27 October 2010.
‘There’s a grave in Valea Climoaiei, I know that,’ said Enache, speaking to a local journalist as the excavation commenced. ‘And someone wants to dig them up, even if they’re just bones now. But maybe there are people alive now who have relatives or loved ones who were thrown in those holes. So I went back in the woods, a second time, to show them where it was. I went with a man from Cârlig, to be sure nobody did us any harm.’
The public prosecutor was informed of the excavation on the day it began. With a living eyewitness to the massacre, Vulturi had the peculiar status of being both an archaeological investigation and a crime scene.
Initially, the authorities showed little interest. They instructed the researchers to put any human remains in bags and let them know when they were finished. ‘Which was very good,’ Cioflâncă said, ‘because it meant we were able to work without pressure from the media and the authorities, who would have taken over if they’d been involved. … we decided to release the information in a controlled way.’
The skeletons unearthed included those of children. Remnants of clothing and personal effects were found, including buttons, a belt buckle, the sole of a woman’s shoe and a lady’s watch. The ammunition found was Romanian army issue and had left the factory in 1939 and 1940. Even without Enache’s testimony, everything pointed to the killing of civilians by the Romanian army. Despite this, the Chief Public Prosecutor in Iași, Cornelia Prisăcariu, made the following statement:
Notwithstanding the Chief Public Prosecutor’s remarks, the evidence for Romanian Army involvement in the killing was sufficient for the case to be immediately turned over to the Military Prosecutor. The military authorities allowed part of the original research team to remain in place, and the military were furnished with the documentary evidence that provided the context for the crime.
The excavation continued for another two weeks, through November, under pressure to finish before winter set in. A rabbinical group protested that the disturbance of the remains was in contravention of Jewish tradition. But the site was now that of a criminal investigation, and this trumped the religious objections.
By the end of November all the skeletons had been removed from the grave and placed in individual bags. There were also several bags of ‘unattributed’ bones. Laboratory analysis determined that the remains came from thirty-six individuals: twelve children, nine women and fifteen men. The oldest victim was perhaps eighty years of age. The youngest was a child of two or three.
There are witness reports and documentary evidence of other massacre sites elsewhere in the region, but Cioflâncă has not been able to secure permission and funding to conduct further excavations. ‘Only recently, I was looking at the cases of captured Romanian soldiers who were convicted of war crimes, many of them from the regiment we’ve incriminated in the Vulturi massacre, the 6th Vânători,’ says Cioflâncă. ‘We have the charge sheets of Romanian prisoners who were sent home from the Soviet Union in 1955, and they’re very valuable to historians, because they show that there were numerous small massacres of this type – I mean, of tens or even hundreds of people – which we’ve never known about. We’re only finding out today that there were people arrested, tried and who served long sentences for these crimes.’
The historiography of the Holocaust has, naturally, emphasized the leading role of Germany. This has been facilitated by the accessibility and comprehensiveness of German archives, and by German willingness to confront the past. In contrast, a number of the post-war communist states of eastern Europe adopted, to varying degrees, policies of what would now be called Holocaust denial; archival material and the testimony of witnesses was neglected or suppressed. The Romanian and Soviet states in particular took care not to damage nationalist narratives with stories of collaboration. In the areas where most of Europe’s Jews lived and died, they have been most readily forgotten. And the old nationalist historical narratives, having never been challenged, have retained their potency.
On 4 April 2011, the remains of the victims of the Vulturi massacre were reinterred at the Jewish cemetery in Iași. Eleven months later, on 5 March 2012, Dan Șova, the thirty-nine-year-old spokesman for the Party of Social Democracy (PSD), gave an interview on television. ‘On Romanian territory, no Jews were made to suffer,’ said Șova, ‘and this is thanks to Antonescu.’ He went on to refer specifically to the Iași pogrom: ‘Unfortunately, twenty-three or -four Romanian citizens of Jewish origin were killed by German soldiers … Romanians were not involved in the massacre in Iași. This is a historical fact.’
Though a lawyer by profession, Dan Șova graduated with a degree in History from Bucharest University in 2001. His party, the PSD, is not a fringe grouping. It is Romania’s largest political party. The day after the interview, PSD leader Victor Ponta relieved Șova of his responsibilities as party spokesman and stated that as a result of his ‘enormous gaffe’ Șova would be sent on a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
In his first statements after his ‘gaffe’, Șova regretted that his comments had been ‘misunderstood’. He had not meant to deny Romanian involvement in the Holocaust, he claimed, and only wanted to say that the Romanian people had never desired such a thing, which had occurred only due to the country being pushed into an alliance with Nazi Germany.
It soon became clear to the young politician that historically inaccurate equivocation on the subject of the Holocaust would cripple his career in a party that cherishes its EU photo opportunities. In his subsequent public statements, including an open letter to the Israeli ambassador, he managed to say all the right things. He has not stopped apologizing since.
Late in 2012, when I first began to research the Iași massacre and the excavation at Vulturi, I contacted the historian Radu Ioanid, the author of the most authoritative work on the Holocaust in Romania, Evreii sub Regimul Antonescu (an English version was published as The Holocaust in Romania). Ioanid directs the International Archival Division at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and in that role he had been been pressing since 2002 for the mass graves around Iași to be located and examined. In 2010, he directed efforts to assemble the team that conducted the excavation at Vulturi. Ioanid was on a brief visit to Romania and I was keen to meet him, both to talk about Vulturi and to find out if Șova had actually paid an educational visit to the museum.
Ioanid described receiving a telephone call from Victor Ponta, the PSD leader: ‘Ponta called me on the phone. He asked me if I’d take Șova. I told him anyone was free to visit the museum, he didn’t need special permission. So he came for three days. I had someone assist him with the archives, particularly the documents and photographs from the Iași pogrom. When he was finished he sat down with me in my office and I asked him how he had come to make such an insane affirmation. He told me something about doing history under Buzatu.’
Gheorghe Buzatu, a mainstream nationalist historian during the communist period, continued lecturing, writing and publishing after the overthrow of Ceaușescu, and represented Iași as Senator for the far-right Greater Romania Party from 2000 to 2004. In his published works, Buzatu cited as an academic authority David Irving, the British Holocaust-denier. Buzatu did not become marginalized in academic circles in Romania until after 2004, when Romania’s impending membership of the EU produced the state’s first official acknowledgment of Romanian involvement in the Holocaust.
Ioanid and I were sitting on a first-floor balcony of the Bucharest Hilton, overlooking a stretch of downtown Bucharest that could be read as a summary of a couple of centuries of Romanian history. We could see the Royal Palace (now an art museum), the imposing relic of a royal family imported, Balkan-style, in the nineteenth century; the last king, Carol II, had tried to become dictator in 1938, only to be sidelined by the fascists and finally deposed by the communists. Across the street from the Royal Palace was the blocky Soviet-style headquarters of the Communist Party of Romania (today the Interior Ministry), from the balcony of which Ceaușescu had given his last speech. With the crowd turning on him, he made his escape from the roof by helicopter, only to be captured and shot three days later. The Communist Party disbanded itself or, some might say, renamed itself and entered the democratic era as the National Salvation Front. The Front soon split into factions, of which the most successful today is Șova’s party, the PSD. Several months after Șova’s trip to Washington, the PSD found itself in government. Victor Ponta became prime minister, and appointed Dan Șova as Minister for Liaison with Parliament.
Asked about Șova’s visit to Washington, Ioanid shrugged. ‘He made a mistake, he acknowledged it. I don’t think you should be hounded for a mistake.’ Was Șova really repentant, I wondered, or just going through the motions? Another shrug, suggesting it did not matter terribly much. ‘He’s a politician,’ said Ioanid. ‘Time will tell.’
Certainly, when I went back later to examine the statements on Șova’s blog, it was the politician I saw. On National Holocaust Remembrance Day (9 October) Minister Șova posted a statement that reads like a copy-paste pastiche of what public figures say on such occasions (‘… the great tragedy of the Holocaust … our duty to the memory of those who perished … that it may never happen again’). Șova went on declare his involvement in a number of initiatives ‘to transmit to the younger generations the lessons of history which we were not able to learn in school and which are absolutely necessary for a civilized country’.
Minister Șova does not offer to explain how he had failed, in the twenty-two years since the fall of communism, to hear about the Romanian Holocaust. It is a pity, because his explanation might tell us something important about contemporary Romania. It might tell us something about a virulent strain of Romanian nationalism that preceded communism, thrived within it, and has outlived it. As it is, all we have learned is how easy it is, even within the EU, to go from being a Holocaust denier to being a government minister. In a matter of months.
In November 2012, I took a train from Bucharest, where I live, to the city of Iași, where I was to meet up with Adrian Cioflâncă for our visit to Vasile Enache in Cuza Vodă. I arrived shortly before midnight and walked through cold and almost deserted streets to my hotel.
The next day, I walked around, trying to get a sense of a city I knew only from books. Iași was the capital of the principality of Moldova, and after the principalities of Moldova and Wallachia united in 1859 the city was briefly, with Bucharest, joint capital of the new entity. At that time, Iași rivalled Bucharest in size and cultural prestige. Something of old Iași remains today, in the form of some especially grand civic architecture, such as the Palace of Culture, and in the very beautiful Church of the Three Kings, and in the university. It is perhaps because of these echoes of a grand past that today the city feels oddly shrunken, depleted, as though there is insufficient human energy to animate what is left. New suburbs were built during the decades after the war, but they were built on nothing very solid, and the population has declined by nearly a quarter since the fall of communism. Iași is now a provincial backwater. Recovery from the failures of communism has not been helped by the city’s location, in the depressed east of the country, on the border with what was the Soviet Union, now that Romania’s trade is geared decisively westward. But I couldn’t help thinking of the proportion of the city’s population in 1941 that was Jewish. In this part of Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, it is not possible to talk of the growth of cities and urban institutions, or the development of commerce and the arts, without talking of the Jews. They Jewish people were part of what once linked Europe together, before civilization turned on itself, murderously, and destroyed its own fabric.
If you are especially interested, you can examine the traces of Jewish life in Iași: the silent walls of the main synagogue, or the little monument that marks the location of what was once a Yiddish theatre (the world’s first). Along with being one of Romania’s most important Jewish centres, Iași was also the cradle of its most violent antisemitic political movements including, finally and decisively, the Iron Guard. In judging the decline of Iași, it could be argued that the city has had an unfortunate history. It could be argued just as easily that Iași did its best to destroy itself, and that this happened over a few bloody days in the early summer of 1941.
The day before I visited Cuza Vodă and heard Vasile Enache’s story, I went to the Jewish cemetery in Iași. The cemetery is on a hillside at the edge of the city, and as you climb the road to its gates the city spreads out below you. A pack of barking, snarling dogs appeared as I approached the entrance. They had surrounded me and were getting dangerous by the time an old woman appeared from the dilapidated gate lodge and called them off. I told her I had come to see the monument for the people who had died in Vulturi wood. She showed me the way, muttered something about a donation. I had no kippa and she had none to lend me and did not seem to care about the breach of protocol. I kept my hood up instead, and we walked to the monument, eight or ten dogs at our heels. ‘They won’t do anything,’ the old woman said, irritated at my nervousness. ‘We don’t have guards here. They do the job.’
The monument is a large piece of black marble. The inscription states that it marks the place of rest of reinterred victims of the Antonescu regime, and gives the place and month of their death. Along the ground in front of the headstone is a long slab with a row of thirty-six identical horizontal stones upon it, one for each of the anonymous victims. It has not been possible to identify any of them, nor even to establish whether they were from Iași itself or from an outlying town or village.
The monument for the victims of the Vulturi massacre stands near an older mass grave and monument to the victims of the Iași pogrom. The rows of sarcophogi in front of the monument are symbolic, because these dead too are anonymous.
On 20 June 1941, a full week before the start of the pogrom, the head of a forced-labour battalion comprising 110 young Jewish men received an order to begin digging, as a matter of urgency, two pits at the Jewish cemetery. The pits were completed by 26 June and measured thirty and fifteen metres in length respectively. They were two metres deep and two metres wide. At least 254 of the victims of the mass shooting at the police headquarters of 29 June were buried here. The bodies were transported in two trucks and twenty-four carts, over two days. The dead were buried with the dying. Walking over to read the inscription, I wandered too far from the old woman. The dogs decided to attack, bounding towards me over the tops of sarcophogi. The biggest dog, barking and snarling, knocked over a candle in its holder. It rolled off the top of the sarcophagus, onto the grass by my feet. The old woman came running, shouting at the dogs. I picked the candle up and replaced it. Weeds and young trees were coming through the cracks in the monument and beyond it stretched the city of Iași. A string of little Israeli flags draped the monument, incongruous, like bunting. They fluttered in the cold breeze. Did many visitors come from Israel? I asked the old woman. ‘Oh yes, in the summer. Now isn’t the season.’
No, it was not the season, and we walked back towards the gate, past older stones inscribed in Hebrew characters, and the graveyard ran in grassy alleys up the hillside. One big tree had fallen between the rows. The graveyard extended over twenty-six hectares, said the old woman. I would have liked to walk it alone, and to take my time, but that was impossible. More dogs appeared. There might have been twenty of them. What do you feed them? I asked the old woman. She shrugged. ‘Whatever I have. Bones.’ We reached the gate, where the tombstones alternated with kennels hammered together out of bits of plywood, and I gave the old woman some money.
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