Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania

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Alexandru Florian
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent years Eastern Europe has slipped back into populism and nationalism. Hungarian politicians have become bolder in expressing strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-modern, anti-European multiculturalism, and covertly anti-Semitic messages. Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime-minister, and his supporters are openly speaking about the need to protect Christian Europe from a Muslim invasion and from other “ills” of modern society. These attitudes are manifesting in neighboring countries too. Since 2015 Poland has witnessed grand scale neo-Nazi marches, initiatives to pass some of the heaviest anti-abortion laws in the world, and a scandalous project to re-write the country’s recent history. It has created false tensions, such as the claim that too many people use the term “Polish death camps,” in order to impose anti-defamation laws against anyone who dares to research and speak about Poles’ participation in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. In such a context, Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania, edited by Alexandru Florian, the Director of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania, is an excellent and timely addition to European historiography. The book consists of eight chapters, most of them written by scholars affiliated with the Elie Wiesel Institute. It not only shows the challenges faced in remembering Romania’s involvement in the Holocaust, but provides an excellent comparative analysis with other countries in the region.            

From 1989 to 2004 in Romania, as in Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European states, there was a battle between two narratives: one, developed during communism, denied local involvement in the Holocaust, blamed others, and insisted on telling stories of rescue. The other, put forward by respected historians outside and inside the country, brought to light the Romanians’ murderous campaign against Jews during WWII. In 2003, as Romania sought to join NATO and the EU, a great scandal erupted when several officials denied local participation in the Holocaust and minimized the number of victims. Western organizations protested against such declarations and Israel threatened to remove its ambassador from Bucharest. In such a context, Ion Iliescu, the Romanian president, created The Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, headed by the Transylvanian born, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel. After one year of work, the Commission, comprised of thirty-three historians and other public figures, published a four hundred-page Final Report acknowledging the crimes of the Antonescu regime and Romania’s involvement in the destruction of the Jewish community. The Report was acknowledged by the president and the government, who promised to implement its recommendations. As Michael Shafir shows in chapter four, since 2004 Romania has implemented some of those recommendations, but failed to implement others.

The year 2004 was a “year zero” in official Holocaust remembrance and the Final Report has prevented – generally speaking – blatant Holocaust denial from politicians. However, not everything is rosy in Romania. As the first chapter shows, there is a heavy discrepancy between the official public remembrance of the Holocaust and the public’s misunderstandings on this topic. As Ana Bărbulescu argues, Jews were not seen as truly Romanian and, as a consequence, their murder is not considered part of Romanian collective memory. Another problem has been the legislative ambiguity and/or nationalistic interpretations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust related legal framework. As the third chapter explains, although Romania has had since 2002 laws against veneration of anti-Semitic individuals and organizations, several known war criminals were legally rehabilitated in the last fifteen years. In 2015 the Elie Wiesel Institute successfully insisted that the law be amended. The Iron Guard was clearly named as a criminal organization and any public veneration of condemned war criminals was forbidden. However, that led to a backlash, as many intellectuals protested that the law did not include, for the sake of symmetry, the crimes of communism also. Two great chapters of the book, written by George Voicu and Michael Shafir, detail these tensions, which are visible in intellectual circles across Eastern Europe, between the Holocaust and the Gulag. 

Many intellectuals argue that the crimes of communism are deliberately obliterated, while the Holocaust is very much talked about; that communism is the absolute evil, and that Nazism/fascism, and thus the Holocaust, is a lesser crime. As George Voicu rightly argues, for many Romanian intellectuals, “if Nazism is not as evil as communism, then the Holocaust does not deserve the special place in memory it is usually granted” (58). Another trace of this mentality insists on the role played by Jews in communization, which in the eyes of these intellectuals should exculpate local collaboration with the Nazis. This is nothing else than deflecting the guilt for the Holocaust onto the Jews themselves. Many of those tried and imprisoned after the war are considered victims of communism: “prison saints.” As they were devoted Orthodox Christians, their anticommunism and their belief in Christian Orthodoxy is seen as an absolute value, making these people worthy models today, regardless of their past crimes. In chapter six, Alexandru Florian discusses claims that communist trials of war criminals were illegitimate, rightly arguing that they were based on the same Allied Commission laws that functioned at the Nuremberg trials. 

The book offers excellent direct and indirect comparisons between Romania and other countries in the region in terms of remembrance of local involvement in the Holocaust, competitive narratives between the Holocaust and communism, rehabilitation of interwar anti-Semites, legal frameworks dealing with veneration of war criminals, the “prison saints” phenomenon, and intellectual debates on the legitimacy of communist trials. The book assumes that these problems are largely restricted to Eastern Europe, but voices questioning local participation in the Holocaust have become bolder in Western Europe too. During the last French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen often questioned the accepted historiography about France’s involvement in the persecution and deportation of Jews. In such a context, more in-depth research into the role of the locals in the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust is essential, as a healthy remembrance of the past is a safeguard for the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexandru Florian is Director of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania.


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