Arguments over whether former fascists are entitled to state compensation as victims of communism are awakening anti-Jewish sentiments that never went away in Romania.
By Marcel Gascón Barberá*
The exclusion of former fascists from state compensation for having been persecuted under the communist regime has riled many nationalists in Romania, who are back at blaming Jews for the Soviet occupation and subsequent terror.
On 5 November 2020, an amended version of the law from 1990, granting financial compensation to both victims of the communist regime and their descendants, came into force after being published in Romania’s official gazette.
Parliament adopted the new law after it was tabled by three MPs representing national minorities, among them the Jewish community’s representative, Silviu Vexler.
One of its new provisions excluded those who had been “condemned for crimes against humanity” or who had undertaken “fascist and/or legionnaire activity in the ranks of an organisation of this type”. The same exclusion applied to the children of fascist victims of communist repression. [The Legion of the Archangel Michael was an anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist and fascist organisation.]
The changes have not gone down well with everyone involved in promoting the memory of the anti-communist resistance.
The Association of Former Political Prisoners complained that it had not been consulted on the law changes. It also accused the law’s promoters of excusing the Stalinist show trials in which Romania’s new communist rulers used accusations of fascism as an excuse to jail or even execute any dissenters.
“Do you want us to be reminded of who the first bosses of the Securitate [the communist secret police] were? … Who were the vanguard of the Soviet-communist regime of occupation, and what their origins were?” the association said in a statement.
It was a clear reference to the prominence of Romanian Jews in the early days of the communist movement and in the early phase of Romania’s communist regime. Similar claims and accusations have appeared in nationalist websites and publications.
While the law is still in force, the disputed provision has been challenged by amendments tabled by two MPs from the ruling National Liberal Party.
This, in turn, has been denounced by Vexler, the Jewish community MP. “It is unacceptable in a democratic state for those who committed, coordinated or ordered crimes against their fellow citizens to be ‘compensated’,” Vexler wrote on Facebook on 18 February.
“The fact that some of them fought against the communist dictatorship does not excuse the fact that they had belonged to another dictatorial regime,” he added.
When the issue was debated in parliament on 8 March, an MP from the right-wing populist Alliance for the Union of Romanians, AUR, Sorin Lavric, voiced his own “veneration” for “the martyrs” and “heroes” who suffered persecution under communism, while singling out the figures of Mircea Vulcanescu and Grigore Gafencu.
Vulcanescu, who died in 1952 in a communist-era prison, was deputy secretary of state in the Nazi-aligned government of Marshal Ion Antonescu, whose fiercely anti-Semitic dictatorship murdered of at least 280,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews.
Gafencu was Romania’s Foreign Minister between 1939 and 1940 and an active member of the anti-Semitic Legionnaire Movement.
In that same session, Vexler accused Lavric of “trying to rewrite history”, and called attempts to reintroduce state compensation for pro-Nazi war criminals and fascists a “terrible humiliation for the victims of the Holocaust”.
A week after the controversy in parliament, Prime Minister Florin Citu, from the National Liberal Party, sacked the deputy secretary of state for the recognition of those who fought the communist dictatorship in Romania, Octav Bjoza.
Bjoza, a political prisoner under the communists, is also president of the Association of Former Political Prisoners, and recently opposed excluding former political prisoners with a fascist past from state compensation. He had also alluded to the Jewish origins of some of the most brutal communist repressors in Romania.
“To charge the Jewish community with having brought communism to Romania is not only an attempt to manipulate history but it is also a dangerous gesture for democratic values,” the Prime Minister said, explaining his decision.
Romanian scholar Felicia Waldman, who specializes in Jewish studies and education about the Holocaust, told BIRN that two aspects are important when it comes to the arguments made by critics of the law championed by Vexler.
“On the one hand, many in Romania say: ‘What do I care about what happened to the Jews when my parents and grandparents suffered so much?’” Waldman said, referring to widespread indifference about the Holocaust.
This apathy towards a global historic tragedy, she added, is often accompanied by admiration for figures like Antonescu, who is commonly regarded as a hero who “fought for Romania” and “stood up to the communists” during World War II.
Antonescu’s apologists further stress that, unlike Nazi puppet governments elsewhere, at least he did not deport Jews under his jurisdiction to Auschwitz or other Nazi concentration camps, which enabled roughly half the Jewish population in Romania to survive.
But Waldman begs to differ. “[Romanian-born French Jewish] Historian Carol Iancu used to say that he had two brothers; one of them survived the Holocaust and the other was murdered by Antonescu. Should I then consider him a saviour?” she asked.
Besides indifference, she continued, there is another attitude that goes well beyond a lack of empathy for Jews towards full-on anti-Semitism, which blames the entire Jewish community for the imposition of communism in Romania because members of the minority were prominent in the movement.
This leads to a false generalization that all Jews were communists and traitors, and suggests that the members of the Jewish minority did not suffer under communism in the same way as their fellow countrymen.
Waldman partly blames the strength of these ideas on the fact that Holocaust history is poorly taught in Romanian schools and universities.
Nationalist professors, she said, who still draw on the chauvinist narratives fostered under former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, still dominate the history faculties – where old stereotypes about Jew are more often legitimized than debunked.