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What are we to do with the Romanian memory of the Holocaust?

Marius Ghincea

Marius Ghincea is a Romanian Ph.D. Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence and a Senior Teaching Assistant at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna. He previously studied at the University of Bucharest, in Romania.

 

Half a century ago, in his memoir of his Holocaust years in the Sighet ghetto and at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was saying that “to forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Erasing the memory of the past, of our reprehensible deeds, of the crimes of our ancestors, will not make us better beings. It will only make us more ignorant, ready to repeat again and again what we now consider improbable, even impossible. Because, as Wiesel put it, “in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences” on how we, as individuals and as a society, perceive our past, build and rebuild our identity. The memory of the past shapes our existence, contributes to the way we perceive social reality and helps us to shape our vision of the future we want for ourselves and our descendants.

Accepting the past as it was, preserving and passing on the memory of the Holocaust, and commemorating the Jewish, Roma, homosexuals, and other victims of this deliberate mass extermination process is a sign of maturity, a sign the a society has overcome its cultural and nationalistic infancy. It shows that a society is ready to accepts its reprehensible deeds of the past and can finally overcome them. Recognising the misdeeds of the past is only the first step in a long road towards a more inclusive, tolerant, accepting, and free society that embraces cultural, ethnic, and social differences as catalysts for progress and development.

Half a century ago, the Romanian state was engaged in a systematic process of mass extermination of the Romanian Jewish population, of the Roma and other ‘undesirable’ people. Almost half a million people were exterminated through barbaric methods by the Nazi-allied military dictatorship of Ion Antonescu. Particularly revealing is the fact that Romania was the only ally of Nazi Germany who exterminated its own Jewish population and other discriminated groups. If in the rest of Europe the general practice was that of deportation of the local Jews to German extermination camps, the Romanians were the only German allies who built their own in the occupied territories of Transnistria, in current-day Republic of Moldova.

The Romanian society still avoids facing the reality of its own past and the common culpability for the extermination of Jews and Roma people during the Antonescu regime and the national-legionary state. Things are on the right track, though. After decades of refusing even to recognize the role of the Romanian state in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Roma, the Romanian state finally recognises the reprehensible facts of the past and has adopted public policies and programs to protect the memory of the Holocaust and support Holocaust survivors and their descendants. However, far too many members of the Romanian cultural elite, as well as significant parts of the public, refuse to recognize or even learn about the Romanian Holocaust. From members of the Romania Academy that evoke anti-Semitic messages to political leaders who deny the very existence of extermination on Romanian territories, the signs that the Romanian society has not yet accepted its own past abound.

Anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism are rarely chastised and moral, social, and legal penalties are often delayed. Public reactions are weak and limited to a liberal-progressive core or come from state institutions that are rather driven by a desire to prove to Western partners that the state is reacting to anti-Semitism. Sixteen years have passed since the publication of the Elie Wiesel Report on the Holocaust in Romania and the National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania still needs to fight against the most primitive forms of denialism and anti-Semitism. It even needs to fight for a national museum of the Holocaust and the history of the Romanian Jewry.

 

The memory of the Holocaust: a more inclusive history and identity

Accepting the past and recognizing the Holocaust in Romania involves reconstructing the historical narratives that are promoted in mass education, culture, and society at large. This is not only limited to the reprehensible action of the national-legionary state and the military dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, but more broadly to periods before and after the Holocaust. Recognition of the Holocaust entails not only rewriting history textbooks to include adequate information and acknowledgement of the phenomenon, but also entails recognising the structural and long-lasting denial that has characterised public historical narratives for much of its postwar history. Additionally, the memory of the Holocaust must be integrated into the identity framework of the Romanian nation, together with a strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism that defines Romanian nationalism. The dichotomous identity relationship between Romanians and Jews, built on differentiation between Romanians and Jews as belonging to distinct political and social communities, inspired by 19thcentury German romantic nationalism, must be taken into account and acknowledged. Jews born in Romania, especially those with long, historical roots in the Danubian Principalities, are and have always been part of the Romanian culture, making great contributions to the development of the country, its economy, culture, and society.

Defining the Romanian Jewry as not belonging to the Romanian nation by using an ethnic identity language to the detriment of a civic one has represented one of the catalysts that allowed for their demonization and the construction of narratives based on a so-called cleavage between Romanians (good) and Jews (bad). Therefore, protecting the memory of the Holocaust does not only consist in bureaucratic measures in schools and public institutions. It requires a redefinition of the national historical narratives and people’s conception of what it means to be Romanian. Romania must follow the German model, which has restructured its entire identity by integrating and recognising the crimes of the Nazi regime as part of its national identity narrative.

The preservation of the memory of the Holocaust should not be a perfunctory activity undertaken to please Western partners. It should be a well-thought and systematic engagement with people’s own history, their deeds and misdeeds, which should produce changes in the way they understand themselves in historical context, how they seek to overcome their past and, more importantly, how they can learn to live together with those they see as ‘the other’.

The memory of the Holocaust is a lesson for the future, not only about the past. In a world increasingly divided, with flows of refugees and increasing social conflict, the proper acknowledgement of our past can become the beacon driving our future.

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