January 22, 1941 – Atrocities Against Jews in Bucharest, Romania

Romania had a long history of vehement anti-Semitism even before the Nazis came to power. In fact, after World War I, as William I. Brustein and Ryan D. King report in “Balkan Anti-Semitism: The Cases of Bulgaria and Romania before the Holocaust,” East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 18, No. 3, pages 430–454:

Romanian anti-Semitism during the interwar period served as a principal recruiting theme for such popular and notorious political parties as the League of National Christian Defense, which preached the physical liquidation of the Jews; the Iron Guard [a far-right ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic movement]. . . which in the December 1937 national elections obtained 16 percent of the popular vote (making it the third strongest party); and the National Christian Party (PNC) . . . which in the same election garnered more than 9 percent of the national vote.”

The new government elected in 1937 not only approved of official anti-Semitic laws, but, as Brustein and King write, “largely acquiesced to widespread anti-Semitic violence in the country, particularly during the interwar period, and anti-Semitism on the eve of WWII was nearly as rampant in Romania as in Germany.”

On September 6, 1940, King Carol abdicated, and Ion Antonescu, who had been minister of defense in the previous government, came to power. His government included ministers from the ranks of the Iron Guard. Romania was declared a Nationalist-Legionary State (the members of the Iron Guard styled themselves “legionnaires”). As the Virtual Jewish History Library explains:

The ‘legionary police’ was organized on Nazi lines with the help of the S.S. and the S.D. There followed a period of anti-Semitic terrorism that lasted for five months. It began with the confiscation of Jewish-owned shops, together with the posting of signs marked ‘Jewish shop’ and picketing by the green-shirted ‘legionary police.’”

Romania in 1942

The period of terror reached its height with the arrest and torture of Jewish leaders by bands of legionnaires. They also confiscated money from their victims, which threw the Romanian economy in turmoil. Therefore Antonescu tried on several occasions to stem the wave of terrorism.

On January 21, 1941, the Iron Guard members revolted against Antonescu and attempted to seize power and carry out its anti-Semitic program in full. They began with a pogrom on Bucharest Jews, looting and burning Jewish homes and synagogues.

The next day, up to 200 Jews in Bucharest (reports of the numbers vary widely) were rounded up by the Iron Guard, put into trucks, and taken to the slaughterhouse. There they were forced to undress and led to the chopping blocks. They were tortured and killed. Some were stuffed down the manholes to the sewers used to carry animal remains. Others were hung like cattle from the slaughterhouse iron hooks, and tagged with signs reading “kosher meat.”

The Legionnaires also killed Jews outside of the slaughterhouse. For example, they drove ninety Jews to the nearby Jilava forest, made them strip, and shot them from a two-foot distance. Afterwards, they ripped gold teeth out of the mouths of the bodies. This pogrom was also said to have introduced the chapter of mass abuse of Jewish women, who were sometimes raped in the presence of their families.

As a result of these anti-semitic riots that took place over the period of January 21-23, 1,274 businesses, shops, workshops and homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Some 200 trucks were filled with looted items, not including money and jewelry. Some synagogues escaped being set aflame only because the Guard did not have enough fuel.

Because Ion Antonescu saw the Iron Guard as a threat to his own power, he had the action investigated. The secretary of Mihai Antonescu, Romania’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during World War II, confirmed the military prosecutor’s description of what happened at the abattoir and added that some of the victims were hooked up while still alive, to allow the torturers to “chop up” their bodies. Ion Antonescu fired the persons responsible for the terror acts and used the army to destroy the Iron Guard.

Ion Antonescu

Antonescu was not, however, in any way sympathetic to Jews, but was just using the situation to consolidate his own power. He went on to enforce policies responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 people, most of them Bessarabian, Ukrainian and Romanian Jews. The regime’s complicity in the Holocaust combined pogroms and mass murders with ethnic cleansing, systematic deportations, and widespread criminal negligence. Following the war, Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and executed.

After the war, most of the surviving Jews in Romania emigrated to Israel. Modern-day Romania hosts a modest Jewish population; in the 2011 census, 3,271 declared themselves to be Jewish. But although most of the Jews are gone, anti-Semitism is still alive and well in Romania.

Jewish cemeteries continue to be vandalized in Romania, and in 2016 the Bucharest State Jewish Theatre was also broken into and its costumes and decor damaged.

According to a 2014 report by the Center for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism, 65 websites in Romanian, as well as other Romanian blogs and online publications, spread anti-semitism, and 27 are constantly updated.

Dr. Marius Cazan, Researcher at the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania reported:

At the level of the Romanian society there is still little known of the Holocaust in Romania. In [a recent] survey, only 68% of those interviews have heard of the Holocaust. Out of these, only 33% knew that the Holocaust happened in Romania as well. When they were asked to identify the main responsible for the Holocaust in Romania, 55% indicated Germany and only 22% did correctly identify the Antonescu government. It is extremely worrisome the percentage of those who consider the Jews are the most responsible for the Holocaust in Romania (7%), with a significant growth since the 2015 survey when only 1% of the respondents indicated the Jews are the ones to blame for the Holocaust in Romania. Although additional research is necessary in order to explain, with arguments, this growth, the link it has with the negationism and antisemitism that still prevail in certain segments of the Romanian society is unequivocally. The online environment and especially the social networks are the main space for hate speech and extremist messages to develop and start getting an audience.”

July 8, 1941 – Ion Antonescu of Romania Exhorts His Ministers to Have No Mercy on Jews

Ion Antonescu was the Prime Minister of Romania during most of World War II. An anti-semite, he entered Romania into an alliance with Nazi Germany. His close friend (but no relation) Mihai Antonescu served as Vice President of the Council of Ministers.

On July 3, 1941, Mihai Antonescu delivered a speech at the Ministry of the Interior later published in a brochure under the title “Directives and Guidelines Given to the Civilian Inspectors and Pretors sent to Bessarabia and Bukovina.” In the Tenth Directive, designs for the Jewish population are put forth:

We are now at the moment in time most favorable to ethnic liberation, national revision and the purification of our nation from all those elements alien to her soul, which have grown like weeds, darkening her future. In order that this unique moment not be lost, we must be implacable.”

Less than a week later, on this day in history, Ion Antonescu added important clarifications to Mihai’s directives. At a Cabinet meeting, he addressed his ministers:

I beg you, be implacable. Saccharine and vaporous humanitarianism have no place here. At the risk of being misunderstood by some traditionalists who may still be among you, I am for the forced migration of the entire Jewish element from Bessarabia and Bukovina, which must be thrown over the border. I also favor the forced migration of the Ukrainian element, which has nothing to seek here at this time.

. . . You must be merciless… I do not know when, after how many centuries, the Romanian nation will again enjoy this total freedom of action, with the possibility for ethnic purification and national revision. This is the hour when we are masters on our territory. Let it be used! I do not mind if history judges us barbarians. . . . There are no other favorable moments in our history. If need be, shoot with machine guns, and I say that there is no law. . . . I take full legal responsibility and I tell you, there is no law!”

After the war, both Antonescus were convicted of war crimes and executed.

Ion Antonescu

Ion Antonescu