Iasi, Romania - Seventy Years Later

From the Jewish Press by Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

...Iasi was not the first, nor the last, of the pogroms visited upon Jewish communities throughout Europe during those horrible years. But Iasi was the community where my father was chief rabbi. Iasi was his community and the community that, after three days of terror during which he was shot in the leg, called on him for leadership as never before.

The Jews had been in Iasi for over four hundred years in June of 1941. Established in the sixteenth century, the community was highly developed religiously and culturally, as comfortable with its chassidism and its Zionism as it was with its Yiddish theater.

Between 1930 and 1940, the Jewish population grew from approximately 30,000 to over 50,000. On the one hand, it was a perfect, inviting Jewish community. On the other, Iasi was anything but inviting. It was known for its virulent anti-Semitism. Romanian fascists and anti-Semitic students had visited pogroms on the Jewish community in 1899 and 1923.

The Romanian government never honored its obligation of the 1919 Versailles Conference to grant Jews citizenship. Jews were never safe there. But for all the pain and hardship the community had endured, nothing prepared it for what was to come on June 28, 1941. It was then, as the Axis prepared for war against the Soviets, that the horror began.

There had been rumors circulating for days, weeks, and months. False rumors promulgated by the authorities, lies that sought to deflect blame from the authorities and place it on the Jews for the difficulties of the war. Outlandish lies so preposterous as to be unimaginable. Lies that accused Jews of helping the Soviets in their bombardment of the city. Lies accepted and embraced in the non-Jewish community.

Like the electricity in a perfectly blue sky when a thunderstorm approaches, there was no doubt what was coming. Non-Jews protected themselves from the inevitable violence by displaying signs on their homes reading, "Here live Christians, NOT Jydani!"

It was coming. It seemed that all Iasi held its breath, awaiting its arrival. And arrive it did. With a vengeance.

The facts:

A rocket was launched to signal the start. The rocket's flare had not faded before death and destruction was visited upon everyJewish district in the city. The attacks had been timed to coincide with the movement of Romanian and German troops toward the Russian front.

"The Jews are firing on the Romanian Army!"

The troops, who had been moving silently forward, suddenly started firing at the houses from which they believed they were being attacked. Panic broke out.

A "thorough" investigation was ordered into the shooting of the troops. Though not a single soldier was found to have been killed or wounded, Jews were randomly arrested throughout the night and taken to a number of collection centers - most of them to police headquarters.

   Jews were dragged from their homes, from their beds, from their families, and brought to the courtyard of police headquarters. By dawn on that Sabbath morning, more than two thousand Jews had been rounded up. By noon, the number was six thousand.

June 29, 1941. Duminica Aceia. That Sunday. The bloodiest day in the history of the Jews of Romania.

With the mass of Jews corralled into the courtyard of police headquarters, soldiers opened fire, killing several hundred even as other soldiers beat individual Jews to death.

Did the wails of the defenseless victims elicit the slightest bit of mercy in the hearts of the soldiers? No. Their hearts were closed to the cries of the innocents.

Not just the soldiers. The community had exploded in an outburst of hatred and evil. Even as the massacre was taking place at police headquarters, a pogrom raged like a wildfire throughout the city, striking terror in every Jewish home.

Some 12,000 Jews were arrested and shot outside police headquarters. Some 4,300 more were stuffed into closed cargo vans and cattle cars. Some 2,650 died of thirst or suffocation. It could be argued that those who perished were the lucky ones. The survivors suffered excessive physical and mental trauma that would torment them throughout their lives.

So began the Romanian chapter of Hitler's Final Solution.

I.C. Butnaru, in The Silent Holocaust, records that during a cabinet session on July 8, 1941, Antonescu proclaimed that his government's policy regarding the Jews did not trouble him: "It makes no difference to me that 'we'll go down in history as barbarian.' The Roman Empire performed a series of acts of barbarism according to our present standards, and nevertheless it was the most magnificent political establishment. There has not existed a more favorable moment in our history. If it is needed, shoot all of them with machine guns."

The savagery was so brutal that even Hans Frank, the German governor general of Poland, seemed to view the Iasi massacre with some distaste. "Has anyone ever seen a massacre of Jews in the streets of a German town? We use the art of surgery, not of butchery!"

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