The Iasi Pogrom: A Solemn Jewish Anniversary
Jerrold L. Sobel
Historically speaking, it's never difficult for writers of Jewish history to find an anniversary date connected with a tragedy. For example, a couple days ago I was enjoying an evening surfing the web to see if anything stood out in Jewish history on my birthday, June 28. Unfortunately, I came upon one of the all-time most heinous pogroms ever to have befallen the Jewish people during their remarkable but often calamitous history. Today, the Jews of Romania, at least what remains of them, solemnly commemorate a massacre of epic proportions: it's the 71st anniversary of the Iasi pogrom.
Romania, an ally of Germany, closely mirrored the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis during the Second World War. Throughout the first half of 1941 alone, 31 laws and decrees along with 17 anti-Jewish resolutions were passed by the vehemently anti-Semitic Antonescu government. They were a precursor to the events which were to unfold on June 28/29 -- namely, the cleansing of Romanian Jews from Romania's second-largest city after Bucharest, the city of Iasi.
In the days and weeks approaching June 28, 1941, the situation for the Jews of Iasi became increasingly ominous. In a similar pattern of depravity from which Jews have suffered throughout the ages, they became isolated and alienated by the Romanian authorities. To avoid the mobs, houses of Christians were marked with crosses. All Jews were forced to wear the Star of David on their clothing, Jewish men were forced to dig ditches in the Jewish cemetery, and Jewish homes and shops were broken into and looted. Synagogues were burned, and random acts of violence against Jews in the streets were commonplace throughout the city.
No stranger to pogroms in Romania and Eastern Europe in general, a rabid press, always the catalyst, began falsely accusing the Jews of sabotage and collaborating with their enemy, the Soviet Union. Specialists from the Ministry of Propaganda in Bucharest were sent to Iasi to intensify the brainwashing campaign. Vehicles with powerful loudspeakers raced through the streets, inciting the population by falsely informing them that the Jews were signaling to the Soviet air force identifying locations of targets to be bombed. Newspapers printed allegations stating that electric lamps, signaling the Soviet air force at night, had been "discovered" in the chimneys of Jewish houses. Other reports alleged that gigantic quantities of weapons and explosives had been found in Jewish homes.
At the behest of the dictator Ion Antonescu, the manhunt and massacre of the Jews of Iasi officially began in earnest on the nights of June 28/29, 1941. The following is an eyewitness account given by what was at the time a 14-year-old Jewish boy who was able to escape from arrest, Dov Shmuel:
I was born in 1921 in a small town in East Moldova. At age 14, I went to Iasi to learn how to be a tailor. I worked there until the pogrom. Then I was taken as a hostage and held in one of the schools in Iasi. We were there for a week but for the last three days before the pogrom, no-one was allowed to visit us and bring us food[.] ...
On the Saturday night, the pogrom began. By chance I was standing outside and saw colored flares in the sky. This apparently marked the beginning of the pogrom. They came at four in the morning and took us to the police station. I saw convoys of people walking with their hands up whilst policemen beat them with the butts of their rifles ... whoever fell was stepped upon.
Joining the police of Iasi were units from Bessarabia, army soldiers, youth gangs, and mobs of people. Most disturbingly, in many instances, former friends and neighbors partook in the mayhem. Following the pillage, rapine, and mass murder of innocent people, the Jews of Iasi were rounded up and herded to the train station for deportation to detention camps and urban ghettos throughout the country. Thus began what came to be known as the death trains.
By all accounts and according to a report accepted by the Romanian government, in one train alone, better than 8,000 Jews were murdered in the initial pogrom. Five thousand more were rounded up, arrested, forced into non-ventilated cattle cars, and shipped off to Calarasi, a town in southern Romania. Upon reaching their destination, only 1,011 arrived alive. At the war's conclusion, other surviving eyewitnesses corroborated Mr. Shmuel's account of the barbarity. They too reported that people not moving fast enough for their tormentors were shot dead in the street. Others were beaten along the way and killed if they faltered and didn't get to their feet fast enough. Those lucky enough (my emphasis) to reach the train station were then packed 100 or more into each car. Bristling hot, without water or food and sandwiched like sardines, they remained standing for interminable hours as the trains slowly wound their way to different locales throughout Romania.
Last year, at the 70th commemoration of the Iasi pogrom, descendants and survivors showed up to pay tribute to the estimated 15,000 Jews out of 45,000 living in the city who were murdered. Another survivor of the pogrom, Leizer Finchelstein, now 89 but at the time 17, gave the following account:
I saw lots of bodies in the streets of Iasi, lots of blood in the gutter[.]
Finchelstein then went on to say he was crammed with hundreds of others into a train carriage. Doors were locked from the outside, all small windows and cracks were sealed, and the summer heat was unbearable.
Finally, he was carried out of the train in a village 20 kilometers from Iasi and forced to help bury those who died in huge ditches dug beforehand by other Jews.
Due to the dumping of bodies into mass graves, exact figures are not available, but an international commission has estimated that at war's end, between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered in Romania. At its peak before the war, 750,000 Jews had lived there; today, between 8,000 and 10,000 still call it home.
As for Hitler's ally, Ion Antonescu, the brutally anti-Semitic dictator of Romania, his hateful words uttered to the Council of Ministers on April 15, 1941 came back to haunt him at his trial in 1946:
"I give the mob complete license to massacre [the Jews]. I will withdraw to my fortress, and after the slaughter, I will restore order."
Further into the trial another transcript conversation between Antonescu and his number 2 man, Gheorghe Alexianu was brought out:
Antonescu: Has the repression been sufficiently severe?
Alexianu: It has been, Marshal.
Antonescu: What do you mean by "sufficiently severe"? ...
Alexianu: It was very severe, Marshal.
Antonescu: I said that for every dead Romanian, 200 Jews [should die] and that for every Romanian wounded 100 Jews [should die]. Did you [see to] that?
Alexianu: The Jews of Odessa were executed and hung in the streets. ...
Antonescu: Do it, because I am the one who answers for the country and to history. [If the Jews of America don't like this] let them come and settle the score with me.
And answer he did. On June 1, 1946, along with the aforementioned Alexianu and Minister of Internal Affairs, Constantin Vasily, Antonescu was executed by firing squad in the woods outside the town of Jilava. The actual execution was filmed in black and white by the executioners and is in the YouTube archives. You can access it here, but please be aware that it's quite graphic.