Reviving Memory in a Killing Field

New monuments to the ill-remembered slaughter of Romanian Jews.

Spiegel Online

December 2008

As an 11-year-old boy, Alexander Bantush watched Fascist soldiers beat a Jewish fiddler in the village of Brichevo with sticks. They forced him to play his violin and dance barefoot on broken glass. The scene is so iconic of the Holocaust it might be from a war film, or a painting by Chagall, an image of the shtetl where the details fill in themselves. But the soldiers weren’t Nazis. Bantush is Moldovan, born in Romania, and the Romanian soldiers were acting on orders from their own dictator, Ion Antonescu, instead of Hitler.

This year a small organization in Moldova has been reviving memories about the Holocaust in a corner of Eastern Europe where it’s in danger of being forgotten. Nemurire, a nonprofit run by a local historian named Iurie Zargocha, has installed a number of stone monuments across the northern Moldovan countryside to commemorate the path of death marches and the sites of mass Jewish graves during World War II.

“You hear about the Holocaust on a mass-number scale, six million,” said Daria Fane, an officer at the US embassy in Moldova who has helped Nemurire. “But here it’s village by village.” Locals like Bantush, who remember watching the atrocities as children, are invited to speak at the ceremonies. “They’ve lived with these memories for years, and nobody cared,” said Fane. “It was taboo in the Soviet era.”

On Sunday, Nemurire dedicated its sixth Moldovan monument in Frasin, not far from Brichevo. It commemorated a death march that stopped here one day in 1941. Romanian soldiers decided to kill 300 of the Jews they were marching from the town of Edinet. They forced the prisoners to undress, and started pulling gold-filled teeth from their jaws with pliers while they were still alive, said Alexander Bantush, who gave a statement. Bantush isn’t Jewish, but for some Moldovans it’s a source of pride to distance themselves from official Romanian wartime policy.

“The Jews that lived in Brichevo were good people,” he said on Sunday. “I remember people sneaking milk to the Jews (who) marched through the village … People were risking their lives and gave the last milk they had.” He added, “The people of Frasin will respect this monument, will guard it and teach our children what ‘Holocaust’ means. The Jews were our friends and they deserve for this history to be known.”

Layers of History

Romania and the now-independent state of Moldova have suffered so much grim history since 1945 that the Holocaust is rarely discussed. But Romania was allied with Nazi Germany in the war. When the Nazis crossed through here to invade Russia in 1941, Romania took the opportunity to move its Jews to a region across the Dniester River, which now separates the Romanian-speaking part of Moldova from its Slavic part known as Transnistria. This ethnic-cleansing policy is one of the most ill-remembered chapters of the Holocaust.

“Once they had gotten a taste of the license which prevailed in the first days of the war (among the Germans),” writes Avigdor Shachan, a witness and historian of the Romanian Holocaust, in his book Burning Ice, “Romanian soldiers embarked on operations at their own initiative, engaging in murder and torture in every Jewish settlement which they passed.” Shachan quotes an address to the Romanian government by the country’s dictator, Ion Antonescu, who argued in favor of “expelling the Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina (now, roughly, Moldova) to the other side of the border … There is nothing for them to do here and I don’t mind if we appear in history as barbarians.”

The result of this policy was a series of death marches behind the front line of German and Romanian soldiers. The number of dead and deported is impossible to determine, but a 2004 report by the Romanian government estimates the range at 280,000 to 380,000.

The Holocaust was taboo in post-war Romania because Jews weren’t remembered in official Soviet history as Hitler’s main victims: communists were. In Soviet history books, it was communists across Eastern Europe who helped Russia beat back the Nazis. A whole generation of Romanians were raised to believe they and their parents were heroes for participating in Russia’s great struggle with Hitler.

“These small countries don’t feel any responsibility,” said Judit Miklos, a Romanian living in Berlin, referring to Eastern Europe. “They were on the victim side (of history) … Small countries always have such a complex, and they use it as an excuse — that they always were part of the game of larger powers. The arguments tend in this direction in Romania.”

For Romania, the 2004 government report marked a tentative departure from consistent denial. Following mid-2002 statements by then-President Ion Iliescu to the effect that there had been no Holocaust in Romania — and the resulting outcry — a commission was appointed to look into the country’s World War II treatment of Jews. The 2004 report resulted, and on October 9 of that year, the country marked its first ever Holocaust Commemoration Day.

In Moldova, the process has been a different one. Between the world wars it was called the “Moldavian Republic,” but Romania always had claims on the land. Some Romanian soldiers who joined the Nazi invasion of Russia stayed behind in Moldavia as an occupying force. Later the Soviet army invaded, on its way to Germany, and until 1991 the region was called the Moldovian SSR.

“This whole country has a victim complex,” said Amy Dunayevich, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has helped Nemurire dedicate five monuments this year. “They were victims of the Soviet Union, and so there’s actually a joke out here that the best time in Moldova was when Romania left and before Russia came,” near the end of World War II. “That lasted like a month.”

Dunayevich said Moldovans had a largely untroubled relationship with local Jews. It was “separate, but peaceful,” she said. “So when Moldovans talk about Jews you don’t hear the hate.” Nevertheless, the Romanian Holocaust is “not something that they advertise. It’s not something they talk about in schools.”

Iurie Zagorcha and his wife started Nemurire in 2002. Zagorcha, who speaks no English, is Moldovan but not Jewish. He taught history during the Soviet era. “His grandparents hid Jews during the war and I think he feels it is his responsibility to speak for the victims who can’t speak for themselves,” Dunayevich said.

The monuments focus on “instances of mass murder” in the northern Moldovan district of Edinet, where the city of Edinet (pronounced “Yedinitz”) is located. Once 80 percent Jewish, the city was largely a ghetto during World War II. Now there are very few Jews in Moldova, and almost no one inclined to remember the Holocaust. In fact a day before the Nemurire ceremony, on November 29, a small group of right-wing Romanians staged an annual march in a forest north of Bucharest, with torches, to commemorate the leader of Romania’s Fascist paramilitary wing, the notorious Iron Guard.

“We talk a lot about tolerance but might not understand entirely what it means,” Zagorcha said at the Nemurire ceremony on Sunday, before about 70 people. “The children who are here today … can (now) understand what it means to be of different religions or nationalities but still be respectful to one another. These children will ensure that this monument will not be defaced and that it will continue to stand as a reminder of intolerance leading to horrific tragedy, and these children are our hope that this kind of tragedy will never happen again.”

Alexander Bantush said that on the day he remembered, in 1941, about 300 Jews were ordered to stand naked beside a trench. After the soldiers took their jewelry and pulled out their gold teeth, he said, they “began to push people, still alive, into the ditch … People were trying to climb out. Understanding they were being buried alive, they began to scream, ‘Kill us! Kill us!’ … The ground breathed, up and down — I had never seen anything like it in my life and wish for no one to ever see what I saw that day.”

The image of shifting, breathing soil also occurs in Burning Ice, which is the definitive history of the Romanian Holocaust. Live burial seems to have been a method in a number of mass graves, sometimes just to save ammunition. The image also appears in more than one witness account collected by Nemurire. “The ground,” as Dunayevich puts it, “was moving all over the north of Moldova in 1941.”

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Michael Scott Moore is a journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He’s won Fulbright, Logan, and Pulitzer Center grants for his nonfiction, as well as a Silver Nautilus Award in Journalism and Investigative Reporting; and Yaddo, MacDowell, and DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest fellowships for his fiction.

He’s been a visiting professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and UC Riverside. He worked for several years as an editor and writer at Spiegel Online in Berlin. Michael was kidnapped in early 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage by pirates for 32 months. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, became an international bestseller.

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