Scene Four: The Butcher’s Shop

Gustav Mahler–Symphony No. 5 in C# Minor–1. Trauermarsch

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SCENE FOUR: THE BUTCHER’S SHOP

On November 11, 2004, the final report from the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, with members from the Romanian government, Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors, was presented to President Ion Iliescu of Romania. “The Commission’s aim was to research the facts and determine the truth about the Holocaust in Romania during World War II.” (1)

An important point made by the Commission is that Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania’s military leader and dictator during the Holocaust from September 1940-44, did not need to follow Hitler’s practice of anti-Semitism. Rather, a strong anti-Semitic culture in Romania had preceded the Nazi era. Fascism in Romania only allowed anti-Semitism to come out in the open and flourish. The Commission report states, “The anti-Semitism that manifested itself in Romania between the two world wars grew directly from seeds sewn at the major turning points of the country’s development starting in the mid-19th century.” (2)

More than 250,000 Romanians of a population of 756,930 Jews in 1930, were killed during the Holocaust from areas of Bessarabia, Bukovina, Transylvania and territories under Romanian rule, for the only reason that they were born Jewish. (3)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Romanian politicians and writers condemned the Jews in their country. (4) In the 1930’s, the government in power passed laws that systematically stripped away the rights of the Jewish people. (5) The Romanian government used, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to formalize their propaganda in Romanian villages. (6)

King Carol II tried to impart his power and enforced a Royal Dictatorship. (8)

At the end of the 1930’s, the King made it clear to Hitler and von Ribbentrop that Romania was willing to follow Germany’s “Nuremberg Laws.” (9) In 1940, King Carol abdicated his power to Antonescu so he could leave Romania with his Jewish mistress, actress Magda Lupescu. They left with trainloads of treasures for Portugal.

King Carol and Magda Lupescu
King Carol II and Magda Lupescu

Under the leadership of General Antonescu, more than a quarter million Jews tragically suffered because of Anti-Semitic pogroms and deportation to the Romanian-occupied detention/labor camp, Transnistria, in the Ukraine. A reign of terror was installed throughout Romania. Lands owned by Jews were confiscated and Fascism was officially implemented with secret police, army and inhuman intelligence service. Their policies consisted of mass tortures, deportations and murders of thousands of Jews.

In January 1941, Antonescu met Hitler in Obersalzberg and they agreed to work together. Antonescu committed Romanian troops to occupy Odessa and to join the Germans as soldiers from both countries marched in the Battle of Stalingrad and Seige of Leningrad from the Eastern Front.

 

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General Antonescu and Adolf Hitler

The Pogrom of Iasi illustrates the barbaric treatment of the Jews in Moldova under the rule of Antonescu. On June 27, 1941, General Antonescu telephoned Col. Lupu, commander of the Romanian Army garrison in Iasi to tell him to “cleanse Iasi of its Jewish population.” A manhunt was launched. Houses were marked by crosses if the residents were Christian. (A reminder of Moses and the Pharoah during ancient Egypt.)

The next day, Romanian soldiers and police rounded up those who were not killed and forced them on trains. Innocent people were stuffed into train wagons without water or food or air. For seven days they traveled in the summer heat without stopping until most of them had died inside the trains. The total number of victims is unknown, but the amount is calculated to be between 13,000 and 15,000.

Despite criticism to Antonescu from Eichmann, who was the German Senior Nazi officer in charge of mass deportations of Jews in Eastern Europe, that Romanians were being too sloppy with their Jews, Antonescu defended himself, “Romania needs to escape from that plague (of Jews). This cannot be discussed,” he told Eichmann. (12)

Before World War II, Romania had the third largest Jewish population after Russia and Poland. Jews in Romania, as elswhere during this horrific time, were not welcomed.

Antonescu was the uncontested ruler of Romania, and he, not the Germans, gave orders that Jews in Bessarabia, Bukovina, Ukraine, and Moldova should be eliminated, by any means. Yet, under his regime, 400,000 Jews survived the War, mostly from Bucharest. In addition, Antonescu opposed Hitler twice to implement mass deportation specifically of Bucharest Jews and did not oblige them to wear yellow stars or live in ghettos.

The question is why? Why did he have this lenient policy toward the Bucharest Jews? Was it because Antonescu realized that Germany would eventually lose the War? He did experience defeat in 1941-43 at the Eastern Front when he allied Romanian troops with the German Army to invade Russia. He had experienced how the tides of war change. Is this why he “protected” the Bucharest Jews? To use them as future collateral? As a bargaining chip? To have them bare witness so he would receive leniency in a post-War criminal trial?

It should not be forgotten that he willingly allied himself with Hitler and shared many anti-Semitic beliefs with the Führer. Did he do this because he wanted to get back territories that Russia had annexed and he believed that the Germans would be victors of the War and help him? Or was he a Nationalist, a military hero who had entered the War because he was a rabid anti-Communist? Or was Germany his “calling card” to protect his country from future Soviet control? Did he ally his country with Germany because he was afraid that Germany with thousands of troops at his front door, would conquer Romania as they did with his neighbors?

In trying to understand why the Bucharest Jews were saved, I realize that Antonescu

was not only Romania’s leader, a General, but also a businessman. The question is, did he keep the Bucharest Jews safe because he was waiting to receive money from President Roosevelt and the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau? Is it true that Antonescu was negotiating a price for each Romanian Jew that he would keep alive until the end of the War?

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President Roosevelt and U.S. Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau

Morgenthau promised Antonescu that money to pay for the Jews would come if he protected them. Yet, President Roosevelt stalled for months. It was an election year. Allowing Jewish immigrants to enter the U.S. was not popular with voters. President Roosevelt deliberatley procrastinated to set up an independent Agency to allocate the funds and allow them to enter the U.S.

Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, persisted and wrote an editorial, asking 20,000 Leis ($50) to save a refugee from Romania. Henry Morgenthau took the editorial to President Roosevelt, but the President continued to stall.

It was not until January 1944 that Roosevelt finally created the War Refugee Board. But at this point, the Allies were winning; King Mihai of Romania returned to Romania from Switzerland and he had taken power with Russia’s help. It was too late for Antonescu to collect money for the Bucharest Jews he had saved. But the fact is that the Bucharest Jews had not been sent to a concentration camp or killed. They survived.

Once the war was over, King Mihai summoned Antonescu to meet him at the Royal Palace. The King and was fortified by Russia’s support.

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King Mihai of Romania

Hitler had warned Antonescu, “Don’t go to the Palace,” (13) The Führer remembered how Mussolini had been arrested by the same ruse. But Antonesu felt secure in his role as General and went to see the King. Antonescu was arrested and executed for war crimes.

After the war in 1948, with the creation of the state of Israel, we do see an open-market of selling Jews to leave Romania and emigrate. The Romanian communist government made millions of dollars in cash from this human trade as well as acquisitions of thousands of apartments, Art treasures, gold, diamonds, and coveted jobs.

 

As we analyze the historical period of Fascism in Romania, we see clear evidence that the Holocaust in Romania had its seeds from much earlier periods of their history than Germany’s Third Reich. I include the scene of the Butcher Shop in “The Gift of Diamonds” as an example of such barbaric times. The Bucharest slaughterhouse was where Jews were tortured and shot to death. “The bodies of the dead were hanged on hooks used by butchers. Some of the victims were hooked up while still alive.” (11) Underneath their body was the hand-written sign, KOSHER.

The scene also has personal resonance: My husband relates how his Nanny, Teresa, an ethnic German from Sibiu in Transylvania, went to see the Butcher Shop on her day-off. He remembers how outraged and unforgiving his parents were at her heinous curiosity. The story of the Butcher Shop remained carved in my husband’s psyche.

And it took a rightful place in my memory chest.

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