Diana Dumitru. The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 268 S. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-13196-5.
Simon Geissbühler, ed. Romania and the Holocaust: Events, Contexts, Aftermath. Stuttgart: Ibidem Verlag, 2016. 340 pp. $44.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-0954-8.
Reviewed by Ștefan Cristian Ionescu (Uppsala University)
Published on H-Nationalism (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel
Two new books have substantially enriched the scholarship on the Holocaust perpetrated by the Ion Antonescu regime in the borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union.
During the last few decades, several scholars of the Holocaust and World War II history—including Yitzhak Arad, Amir Weiner, Ray Brandon, and Wendy Lower—have noted that long-time Soviet civilians were less inclined to join the Nazi campaign against Jews than more recent residents of the western parts of the Soviet Union. Historian Yehuda Bauer also noted this aspect and urged for more detailed studies on this topic in order to back such statements with extensive empirical research. Diana Dumitru’s book, The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union, is one of the first outstanding responses to Bauer’s suggestion for this new direction in Holocaust research. Adding to the works of such scholars as Jean Ancel, Dennis Deletant, Armin Heinen, Mariana Hausleitner, Hildrun Glass, Radu Ioanid, Dalia Ofer, Vladimir Solonari, and Raphael Vago, who uncovered significant aspects of the Romanian chapter of the Holocaust, Dumitru’s book compares relations between Jews and non-Jews in the provinces of Bessarabia and Transnistria during the Antonescu regime, focusing on the behavior and attitudes of local gentiles toward Jews. Dumitru complements previous studies by mapping the extent of local Christians’ participation, opposition, or indifference toward the Jews of Bessarabia and Transnistria, who were targeted by the Romanian authorities’ campaign of persecution, deportation, and mass murder, and provides an explanation for the differences between popular attitudes in these two regions.
The first chapter surveys the Jews and gentile-Jewish relations during the tsarist era in the Pale of Settlement, focusing on the Russian tsarist empire’s contradictory policies toward Jews, discrimination, and antisemitism, especially in Bessarabia and Transnistria. In the second chapter, the author examines the status of Jews in interwar Romania, particularly the government’s efforts to centralize and integrate the newly acquired provinces; the government’s policies targeting minorities, especially Jews; and Romanian political, social, and cultural elites’ legitimization of antisemitism and contribution to right-wing and fascist parties’ growing violence against their Jewish countrymen. The third chapter explores the Soviet Union’s nationalities policies, focusing on substantial efforts to integrate Jews into the Soviet community and to eradicate antisemitism as well as on Soviet Jews’ perceptions of such efforts and their relations with gentiles. In the fourth chapter, Dumitru analyzes the Bessarabian population’s attitudes toward Jews between 1941 and 1944—usually suspicious, hostile, and sometimes violent—in the context of the antisemitic policies pursued by the Romanian military and civilian authorities. The fifth chapter investigates the attitude of the local population toward Jews in Transnistria under Romanian and, partially, German occupation. According to Dumitru’s findings, Jewish survivors encountered more benevolent gentiles in Transnistria, gentiles who, in general, showed empathy, offered them food and shelter, and did not engage in spontaneous pogroms against Jews as they did in Bessarabia. The sixth concluding chapter discusses the main findings, especially from a quantitative perspective, in the context of gentiles’ attitudes toward Jews in other parts of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, particularly the status of Jews and the reality of antisemitism at the end of the war.
One of the major strengths of the book is the way the author skillfully corroborates archival official documents with numerous testimonies of Jewish survivors and gentile eyewitnesses. She thereby scrutinizes the behavior of local inhabitants through various lenses of analysis. The author collected primary sources in archives located in Moldova, Romania, Israel, and the United States—a special mention for the extraordinary vast collections of the USHMM (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)—and has also conducted her own oral history interviews with gentile and Jewish eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, which add another layer to previous written documents and interviews.
Dumitru persuasively argues that Soviet rule of the territory that would become World War II Transnistria achieved a decrease of interethnic antagonisms in general and of antisemitism among the local gentile population in particular, due to Soviet leaders’ strong political will to root out antisemitism through a policy of equality, integration, and affirmative action; intense propaganda campaign; education policy; and nationalization of property of all citizens. Dumitru convincingly contends that while some antisemitism survived into the World War II period among Soviet citizens in Transnistria, Jewish survivors perceived it as much lower than the antisemitism they encountered in interwar and wartime Bessarabia.
On the other hand, the author rightfully emphasizes that during the interwar period Romanian authorities pursued ethno-nationalism, targeting minorities, especially Jews. Dumitru stresses that the prewar and World War II antisemitism of Bessarabian peasants was mainly driven by economic resentments and envy against their Jewish neighbors perceived as wealthy and as conducting exploitative businesses with local peasantry, which was exacerbated by interwar radical antisemitic fascist parties, such as the Legion of the Archangel Michael, A.C. Cuza’s League for National Christian Defense, and National Christian Party. Driven by radical antisemitism, Antonescu and the Nazis mobilized their participation into their antisemitic policies. These wartime genocidal policies influenced the gentile population of Transnistria as well, and by the end of the war, the returning Soviet authorities witnessed a strong level of antisemitism. Matching the conclusions of other scholars of Soviet history, Dumitru argues that this postwar antisemitism was related to the desire of many local inhabitants to keep the former Jewish property they acquired during the Nazi era, which makes the author reach the disheartening conclusion that if Nazi rule on those Soviet territories would have persisted for a longer time, “local gentiles would have developed an even deeper animosity towards Jews, perhaps matching or even surpassing the antisemitism of the tsarist era” (p. 245).
What would have given the book a more comprehensive character is further examination of the role and motivations of local residents as state actors in the Holocaust perpetrated in Bessarabia and Transnistria since many Jews were murdered by local militias organized and led by Romanian and German authorities. While some of these aspects (the role of Transnistrian ethnic Germans) have been examined by Eric C. Steinhart’s recent book, The Holocaust and the Germanization of Ukraine (2015), Dumitru makes clear her methodological choice to focus only on civil non-state actors from the very beginning and emphasizes that it would take another book—which has the potential to be another engaging study—to address this category of Holocaust participants.
One of the problematic aspects of the book is the title, which is rather misleading as it refers to “the state” while the author clearly specifies in the introduction that her study examines “non-state (civilian) actors” and explicitly leaves aside—“these are not the questions being addressed by this work”—the motivations and actions of the state and its agents (p. 4). The same goes for the “collaboration” of local civilians in the Holocaust, which is relegated by the author to a future book (p. 5). As it often happens, publishers have a decisive role in influencing the titles of their books and this might have contributed to these misleading terms.
Overall, Dumitru’s book provides a fascinating study of the ordinary civilians who chose to victimize Jews or to help them during the perilous times of Nazi occupation. It represents a major contribution to this understudied topic outside the realm of direct Nazi rule. The entire book would fit greatly into Holocaust studies and East European history classes, and should not be omitted from the reading list of scholars of Romanian and Ukrainian history.
Complementing Dumitru’s comparative study of the behavior of local gentiles toward their Jewish neighbors in Bessarabia and Transnistria, the book edited by Simon Geissbühler adds another layer to our understanding of the Antonescu regime’s participation in the Holocaust perpetrated in the East. Continuing his research on the Romanian chapter of the Holocaust—examining the traces of Jewish memory in Romania (Jewish cemeteries in Bukovina) and the mass murder campaign targeting the Jews of Iași, northern Bukovina, and Bessarabia in the summer of 1941—historian Simon Geissbühler has edited an important volume, Romania and the Holocaust: Events, Contexts, Aftermath. Resulting from a conference organized in Yad Vashem, the volume addresses the interethnic violence in the borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union during World War II, particularly the mass murder of Jews by Romanian authorities, their German allies, and local collaborators. Contributors also point to the legacy of the Holocaust in Romania.
In her engaging chapter, Mariana Hausleitner examines the stories and stereotypes of the anti-Romanian violence perpetrated in the summer of 1940 by “Jewish gangs” in Czernowitz, the capital of northern Bukovina; the impact of anti-Jewish agitation on Jews; and the evolution of Judeo-Bolshevik stereotypes after 1989. Triggered by the chaos and fears among Romanian authorities and refugees faced with the Soviet ultimatum and the fast arrival of the Red Army in the summer of 1940, and the attacks of some pro-Communist inhabitants of diverse backgrounds on the local prison and the refugee convoys heading to the railway station, Romania’s intensive antisemitic propaganda—the Jewish Communist enemy—was largely exaggerated by Romanian authorities to justify the loss of the provinces and their lack of response and inadequate planning for such events. Hausleitner also notes that few Jews received positions of power in the new Soviet administration of northern Bukovina and that many Jews suffered as a result of Sovietization policies due to their social and political background.
Henry L. Eaton offers a chapter focused mainly on the Iași pogrom. He discusses how Romanian military and civilian authorities tried to distort the truth and depict a false picture of the victims and perpetrators that blamed mainly the Germans for the mass murder of Iași Jews. The denial and distortion of the Romanian involvement in the Holocaust continued after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. Eaton himself witnessed a case of such denial during his 1991 visit to Iași, when some local inhabitants tried to disturb Elie Wiesel’s lecture during an event commemorating the 1941 Iași pogrom.
Following the interest of many Holocaust scholars in Jews’ diaries—which represent valuable primary sources—Sarah Rosen examines the suffering and survival of Jews in the Djurin ghetto in Transnistria as depicted in the diary of Eliezer Lipman Kunstadt. A Jewish intellectual and former notable from Rădăuți, Kunstadt was appointed as the secretary of the Djurin ghetto committee. In this position, Kunstadt had a good insider perspective to observe and record—as a dedicated journalist and as a human being trying to cope with the harsh ghetto life—Romanian authorities’ persecutions of Jews, the daily life in the ghetto, and, especially, the activity of the Djurin Jewish council to deal with the antisemitic policies of the Antonescu regime. Rosen pays particular attention to the complex relations established between local and deported Jews, emphasizing the differences in cultural and social background, mentality, and financial means, as well as collaboration and tensions, and the relations between Jews and the gentile Ukrainian population.
In another study of Transnistrian ghettos, focused on the Moghilev district, Gali Tibon explores the controversial topic of “alternative leadership” to the official Jewish councils and their disputes over the proper way to handle social, economic, and religious life; the meager available resources; and relations with Romanian authorities. Tibon’s study underlines the difficult situation of local Ukrainian Jews or deportees from Dorohoi who struggled with the wealthier and more influential southern Bukovinian Jewish council members’ way of managing ghetto life and with Romanian authorities. Overall, Tibon argues that critics of the official Jewish councils did not offer an actual alternative leadership in the Moghilev district ghettos because they did not call for rebellion against Romanian authorities, they openly criticized the Jewish councils only from 1943 on, and they did not establish an alternative administrative structure but just imitated the methods of the existing Jewish elders when they (temporarily) seized power.
Even though they are not directly focused on Romania and the Holocaust, two chapters—by Kai Struve and Witold Medykowski—examine the role of German and local perpetrators in the anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Galicia (and the Baltic states) on the eve of and during Operation Barbarossa. They bring an important comparative perspective on the topic of Holocaust perpetrators. Alti Rodal’s chapter pursues a similar research path for northern Bukovina, examining the role of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in the first anti-Jewish pogroms.
One of the strengths of the volume is that it includes chapters that explore the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, in her chapter, Dumitru examines the impact of de-Stalinization on war crime trials in postwar Soviet Union, particularly on those sentenced for counterrevolutionary activity (the infamous 54-1 article—including “treason of the Motherland,” which amounted to collaboration with Romanian and German authorities in Bessarabia and Bukovina between 1941 and 1944). Emphasizing that only a minority of cases were considered problematic in terms of evidence and were actually reviewed, Dumitru argues that despite the fact that Soviet investigators sometimes used physical and psychological coercion against suspected collaborators and were overall “ready to cut corners,” the accusations usually reflected the reality of Holocaust crimes and the “findings were credible” (p. 172). While during their post-1953 reassessment of earlier trials, Soviet investigators sometimes found contradictions in previous testimonies or encountered eyewitnesses who were reluctant or fearful to re-testify in the new political (antisemitic) post-Stalinist context, they overturned only a few previous sentences because most of the eyewitnesses’ new “depositions provided abundant evidence of horrendous crimes committed by gentiles in 1941” (p. 189).
Michael Shafir examines the evolution of the depiction of the Holocaust in Romania’s official and unofficial memory, focusing on the persistence of various forms of denial and trivialization strategies related to the cult of the dictator Antonescu; competitive martyrdom; and attacks against legislation (Ordinance 31/2002, Law 107/2006, and Law 217/2015) outlawing the promotion of fascist, racist, and xenophobic organizations and symbols. He also addresses the commemoration of persons sentenced for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Shafir persuasively claims that in spite of existing research, public education, and legislation banning Holocaust denial, the unofficial memory of the Holocaust—promoted by many local nationalist public intellectuals and other agents of memory—is still pervasive and sometimes more influential than the official memory.
As one of the former vice chairs—together with Radu Ioanid and Mihail Ionescu—of the Elie Wiesel Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, Tuvia Friling offers a fascinating insider’s view on the commission’s activities.(Shafir also briefly discusses the commission in his chapter.) Friling emphasizes the commission’s complex tasks, aims, challenges, tensions, negotiations, and achievements. He also points to the members’ diverse backgrounds and interests. Friling skillfully shows that disagreements appeared between various groups and subgroups of the commission, particularly in discussions related to the number of Holocaust victims in Romania, the territory under Romanian authority, the inclusion of the Roma, time shortages, and the production of accurate and symmetric Romanian and English versions of the final report.
What could have been improved in the book is its structure: in its present format, the book is heavily focused on Transnistria and Bukovina, except the study on the Iași pogrom by Eaton. More chapters on what happened in other parts of World War II Romania could have made the book more balanced, because, from a spatial perspective, Transnistria, while extremely important for understanding the dynamics of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Antonescu regime, was just one part of the territory under Romania’s rule and many other Jews lived outside of that area, in Bessarabia, Moldova, Muntenia, southern Transylvania, and Banat. From a thematic point of view, the book could have explored other important aspects of the Holocaust in addition to the crucial topics of mass murder, pogroms, ghettoization, deportation, and memorialization. For example, studies of Romania’s antisemitic legislation; forced labor system; confiscation of Jewish property, businesses, and jobs; pre-Antonescu violent antisemitism; and local fascist organizations would have elucidated the roots of wartime mass violence and would have strengthened the book. However, the editor does briefly discuss some of these topics in the concluding chapter and the truth is that it is always difficult to assemble a perfectly balanced edited volume resulting from a conference when the contributions depend a lot on who applies and participates in the conference and less to the editors’ efforts.
The volume ends with an inspired chapter by the book editor, which functions as the concluding essay summarizing the main findings of the contributors, skillfully placing them and the genocide implemented by the Antonescu regime in the broader context of current scholarly literature on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and suggesting further directions for Holocaust research. Geissbühler argues that the Romanian chapter of the Holocaust is still rather unknown and unaccepted as the responsibility of World War II Romania by large sections of contemporary Romanian society who prefer to blame the Germans for the genocide against the Jews and the Roma. Even the basic facts about this process “have not yet entirely reached the mainstream of Holocaust studies” (p. 243). While he notes some recent encouraging signs concerning research and education, Geissbühler emphasizes the importance of studying the perpetrators of the “Holocaust by bullets” (and by other methods) and the role of antisemitism in motivating the horrendous murder of Jews during the intimate and often public violence that plagued the western parts of the Soviet Union during World War II.
In conclusion, both books represent major contributions to the study of the Holocaust in Romania and the Soviet Union. They will enrich the scholarly literature on gentile-Jewish relations during one of the darkest chapters of European history.
. His earlier work includes Simon Geissbühler, Cimitire evreiești din Bucovina (Bucharest: Noi Media Print, 2009); and Simon Geissbühler, Blutiger Juli: Rumäniens Vernichtungskrieg und der vergessene Massenmord an den Juden 1941 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2013).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-nationalism.
Ștefan Cristian Ionescu. Review of Dumitru, Diana, The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union and
Geissbühler, Simon, ed., Romania and the Holocaust: Events, Contexts, Aftermath.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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