Behind the Headlines: for Romanian Jews, Precarious Past Gives Way to Unpredictable Future

There were few, if any, Jews on the barricades during the bloody uprising in Romania these past two weeks, which overthrew the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed with his wife, Elena, on Dec. 25.

For one thing, about half of the country’s 30,000 Jews are over 65 years of age, too old for street fighting. But mainly, Romanian Jews have ambiguous feelings about the momentous events in their country.

While their relationship with Ceausescu was precarious but comfortable, their fate under the new regime is unpredictable.

Given Romania’s long history of indigenous anti-Semitism, Jewish fears are understandable, as nationalistic passions replace Communist dogma in a deteriorating economic situation.

The small Jewish community played a role disproportionate to its size in Romania’s academies of medicine, science, and even history and literature. Several Jews are tenured university professors, and others belong to the country’s top scientific bodies.

Jews will not forget that Ceausescu’s Romania was the only Warsaw Pact country to oppose the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the so-called Prague Spring of democratic reforms in 1968.

Most important was the fact that Ceausescu, alone among East bloc leaders, continued to maintain full diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War.

HAVE ENJOYED RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

On the domestic front, Romanian Jews enjoyed considerable religious freedom under Ceausescu. Their communal institutions were allowed to function. They were allowed to maintain ties with international Jewish organizations and received much needed aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

There are close to 70 Jewish communities in the country, with 120 synagogues still in use.

In some small villages where a few dozen Jewish families survive, the shuts are often wooden structures dating from the early 19th century.

A Jewish federation provides homes for the aged, some of them up to Western standards, as well as medical facilities, kosher canteens and a rich cultural life.

But if during the 24 years of Ceausescu’s rule Jews enjoyed certain privileges denied most Romanians, including the right to emigrate, theirs was a nervous existence.

They were aware of their unofficial status as hostages to Romania’s relations with the superpowers, particularly the United States, where Ceausescu believed Jewish political clout was the key to trade benefits.

If disappointed, he could at any time turn against the tiny Romanian Jewish community, as he often made clear to its leader, Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen.

Rosen, who sat in Parliament in Bucharest, was in fact the chief Jewish hostage. If there was manifest unfriendliness toward Romania in Washington or any Western capital, he was held responsible by Ceausescu.

There have been many moments of high tension.

A few years ago, the popular journalist and writer Corneliu Vadim Tudor published a volume of anti-Semitic poems, some of which exceeded in virulence the worst of the Nazi era in Germany.

Rosen, who was abroad at the time, hurried home to try to prevent their dissemination.

The problem was that Tudor was a close friend of Ceausescu’s son, Nicu, whose personal protection he enjoyed.

Rosen, half cajoling but also warning that the Western world would not remain silent, managed to have the offensive book withdrawn.

FEARS OF NEW ANTI-SEMITISM

But Jews have little leverage with the new regime in Bucharest. Unlike East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, where Jewish intellectuals were closely involved with the forces for democratic change, Romanian Jews know little about their county’s new leaders.

The new president, Ion Iliescu, is a 59-year-old former Communist Party official who fell out of favor with Ceausescu.

Moreover, his newly assembled government will hold office only until April, when Romania is scheduled to have its first free elections since World War II.

That in itself holds no fear for Jews. But they are seriously concerned about resurgent popular anti-Semitism.

A groundswell of anti-Jewish sentiment surfaced in Poland, despite the fact that the new regime there has strong liberal wings and two leading Solidarity members, Adam Michnik and Bronislaw Geremek, are Jews.

There are also reports from Hungary and Czechoslovakia of right-wing nationalist movements reawakening anti-Semitism among the poorest and least-educated segments of society.

In recent days, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has been in contact with several Romanian Jews living in Bucharest. None of them seemed to regret the fall of the dictator. But many had grave misgivings about the future.

They hope the promised free elections will take place next spring and bring Western-style liberal democratic parties into power.

Nevertheless, many Jews, even the elderly, plan to leave the country before then.

“We have seen too much bloodshed and too much turmoil,” said one Romanian Jew. “We feel, whatever the economic sacrifice involved and the risk of starting a new life at an advanced age, that the time has come for us to leave.”

NEXT STORY