The Romanian Holocaust Begins: June 1941

Iaşi [= Jassy, rhymes with Josh] was the location of the first large-scale massacre of the Romanian Holocaust. In addition to its anti-Semitic traditions of over a century, because of its proximity to the Soviet fronter, “it became the focus of many of the anti-Semitic measures that accompanied plans to join Germany’s invasion of the USSR.” The terms “Jew” and “Communist” were virtually interchangeable, as in the order by Ion Antonescu, the Romanian head of state, to compile lists of “all Jews, Communist agents, or sympathizers in each region.” Worse was Order No. 4147, issued at about the same time, which demanded the expulsion of all Jews between the ages of eighteen and sixty from northeastern Moldavia (the Iaşi region) in expectation of fighting there. The presence of large numbers of Jews in the region was anathema to both the German and Romanian officials. Fully half of Iaşi’s population of 100,000 was Jewish. In cooperation with the German Gestapo and the SD (the intelligence arm of the SS), the Romanian Secretariat of the Secret Intelligence Service (SSI) prepared the expulsions. At the same time, former Iron Guardists (also called legionaries because of the virtually equivalent organizational name of Legion of the Archangel St. Michael) were informed of the impending expulsions and likelihood of a pogrom.

A raid against Iaşi by the Soviet air force provided the spark for the pogrom. Damage was minor but rumors spread that the entire Jewish population of Iaşi was in league with the Red Army. Further rumors of Iaşi natives flying Soviet aircraft fanned the flames still further. On June 20th, four days after the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the pogrom began in earnest. It lasted over a week, until June 29. Although it is difficult to gain accurate estimates of the number of Jews killed, the minimum is probably around 900, with a more forthright testimony from a witness estimating the number of dead at 3,000–4,000.

But worse was yet to come. Several thousand Jews had been interned in police stations and special camps as “dangers” to Romanian security. At the end of June, these Jews were loaded onto death trains to be transported out of the region. The cars were decorated with signs stating that inside were “Communist Jews” or “killers of German and Romanian soldiers.” Several destinations were chosen and ultimately few survived the densely packed, poorly ventilated cars. No food or water was allowed. Jews, who frantically jumped from train cars to drink at a river crossing were shot or forcibly drowned. Those who survived were forced to hand over their valuables in a pattern of voracious looting that would be characteristic of the entire Holocaust, and of other genocides as well. Of 2,530 Jews who were transported in the first train, some 1,400 died. Of 1,902 Jews who boarded the second train, 1,194 died.

Iaşi was only the first of many massacres of Jews that were to take place in nearby Bessarabia and Bukovina, territories that had been transferred to Soviet control in 1940, but were now under German and Romanian authority. Mihai Antonescu, a relative of Ion Antonescu and deputy premier, supported the forced “migration” of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina. The attitude of “blame” for the loss of these territories in 1940 was to characterize much of Romanian Jewish policy. Frequent massacres occurred immediately after the German invasion. During July alone, Raul Hilberg estimates that more than 10,000 Jews were murdered by the Romanian and German military, as well as the native Ukrainian peasantry. These massacres were to be followed by mass deportations to work camps in Ukraine and ultimately death camps in Poland. At first, the Germans resisted the massive relocation of Jews from northern Bessarabia into German military-controlled districts. The number of Jews in each of these attempted transports was in the tens of thousands. The Germans conjured up the specter of more than half a million Jews to be added to the many indigenous Ukrainian Jews now being murdered by Einsatzgruppe D with only 600 men. Consequently, the German legation informed Mihai Antonescu that the Jews were to be eliminated in “a slow and systematic manner.”

Jews were now interned in transit camps throughout Bessarabia. In October, deportations to Ukraine began. During the first months of the war, it is estimated that at least 65,000 Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina were killed in mass murders, in the transit camps and during deportation. If we add the number of Jews deported who died in southwestern Ukraine (called Transnistria by the Romanians), the number reaches approximately 130,000. If we add to this the number of native Ukrainian Jews in Odessa and elsewhere killed by the Romanian and German authorities, the number reaches approximately 250,000 murdered under Romanian jurisdiction. According to Raul Hilberg, “no country, besides Germany, was involved in massacres of Jews on such a scale.”

SOURCE: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), pp. 205-207

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