The Romanian Orthodox Church and the Holocaust

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Ion Popa
Studies in Antisemitism
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , September
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $50.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780253029560.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

**to read this review in Romanian, click here**

The present book is an important addition to the study of the Holocaust in Romania and also fills a major gap in scholarship on the Romanian Orthodox Church, the country’s largest religious denomination. Chronologically, the book begins around 1938, just before World War II, and covers the period until about 2015. The Holocaust was not discussed in Romania until after 1989, because Romania officially denied that the Holocaust ever took place on its territory, pretending instead that it was only Romanian Jews from the Hungarian-occupied territories who lost their lives in German concentration camps. Nor was the collaboration of Orthodox priests with the fascist Iron Guard or Legionary Movement seriously considered in scholarship on Romania. True, in 1940, Romania lost northern Transylvania to Hungary, because Hitler decided to revisit the borders drawn at Versailles at the end of World War I and award some territory to its ally, Hungary. According to the official history purveyed under communism, Romanian Jews from northern Transylvania, including Elie Wiesel and his family, were deported to Auschwitz and other camps, but otherwise Romanians were very friendly toward the Jews. However, the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (whose final report was commissioned by the country’s president, Ion Iliescu, in 2003 and adopted as the official narrative in 2004) and subsequent scholarship on the topic has amply demonstrated that the Holocaust did take place even in the territories Romania controlled during WWII (such as Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria), not just in those areas lost to neighboring Hungary. Let us not forget that during WWII, Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany. As such, it is now documented that some 350,000-400,000 Jews lost their lives in the territories still controlled by Romania’s war-time dictator, Marshall Ion Antonescu.

After WWII, the Romanian Orthodox Church made serious efforts to hide its involvement in the Holocaust and present itself instead as a defender of the Jews. Ion Popa’s book begins with an examination of the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Romanian state, a state that became increasingly fascist, until September 1940, when it allied itself with Nazi Germany and then fought a war against the Soviet Union on the side of the Axis powers until August 23, 1944, when King Michael I decided to arrest Marshall Ion Antonescu and side with the Allies. Popa demonstrates convincingly that during this time, the Orthodox Church, through the decisions and actions of its leadership (patriarch, synod, and various anti-Semitic bishops) and individual priests, was no savior or bystander in the unfolding tragedy taking place among the country’s Jewish and Roma population, but a perpetrator. One notable event is the 1938 Law for the Revision of Citizenship, introduced by the Romanian government, which was lead at the time by Patriarch Miron Cristea of the Orthodox Church as Prime Minister, to strip some 225,000 Jews (about one third of the country’s Jewish population) of their Romanian citizenship, thus making them extremely vulnerable to tragedy that was about to unfold. Even in 1942, when Antonescu became concerned about Germany winning the war following its failure to conquer Leningrad, and ordered a temporary halt of the deportation of Jews to Transnistria, the Orthodox Church continued to demonize the country’s Jewish population and refused to even guarantee protection for its own baptized Jews, despite the fact that other Romanian churches were defending their own baptized Jewish population and even baptizing Jews in order to protect them in defiance of the government.

Popa then details how the Orthodox Church tried to cover its past and rewrite its history. This rewriting first took place shortly after 1945, at the beginning of the communist period. The arguments presented then by several theologians in favor of the Orthodox Church as a protector of the Jews were repeated later, including after 1989, the year when the communist regime collapsed under pressure from street protests. The communist attitude of encouraging good relations among the country’s legal denominations also came in handy for the Orthodox Church, which endeavored to cultivate amiable relations with the Jewish community. The Chief Rabbi of Romania under communism, Moses Rosen (in office, 1948-1994), did not want to uncover Romania’s fascist past and revisit recent Holocaust history, but instead struggled to get as many Jews as possible out of Romania and help them relocate to Israel. In a sense, like Justinian Marina, the first Patriarch of the Orthodox Church under communism (in office, 1948-1977), Moses Rosen was socialist in his views and enjoyed somewhat cordial relations with the regime, while trying to help his community.

According to Popa, the attitude of Moses Rosen, combined with the interests of the state of Israel to bring as many Jews as possible out of Romania, led to a disregard of the devastation caused by the Holocaust in the Romanian Jewish population. But newer research has helped uncover the dark past in which the Romanian Orthodox Church was involved. There are few signs that the majority church of the country shows any regrets for what it did during the Holocaust, and for the most part continues to be in denial. This reviewer hopes that Popa’s excellent book, with its strong evidence and clear message, will perhaps begin the process of re-examination of conscience among the Orthodox clergy. The process will likely be a painful one and that is why the Church does not want to revisit its past, both fascist and communist. The support the Church continues to lend to various neo-fascist groups promoting the cult and memory of the interwar fascist Legionary Movement members, and the pressure some right-wing Orthodox groups put on their leaders to declare former members of the movement as saints, is likely to continue to harm relations between the Church and the tiny Jewish community that still survives in Romania. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in examining the Holocaust in Romania, the relations between Christians and Jews, and the role of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Holocaust and the rewriting of its past.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lucian Turcescu is Professor of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ion Popa is a Claims Conference Saul Kagan Postdoctoral Fellow in Advanced Shoah Studies and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester, UK.

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