A recent speech by a former chief rabbi of Romania has revived a controversy over that country’s role in the Holocaust.
The controversy has stretched all the way to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where officials criticized the conciliatory remarks made by Alexandre Safran in a speech before the Romanian Senate.
Safran, 84, now the chief rabbi of Geneva, focused on a few examples of Romanians who helped save Jewish lives during World War II.
But there was no mention of the atrocities that occurred.
Toward the end of the speech, presented to a body that has no Jewish members, Safran said:
“From the point of view of the deportation of the Jews to Poland, Romania belongs to the few European countries invaded by Hitler’s armies, such as Bulgaria, Denmark and Finland, which did not send their children of Jewish extraction to perish in the gas and fire of Auschwitz.”
The rabbi also in the speech blessed “with plenties the beautiful Romania and the kind and beloved Romanian people.”
However, in Safran’s memoirs, “Resisting the Storm,” which was published in 1987, he told a different story, registering the painful events of the lives of Romanian Jews as a whole, as well as his traumatic personal experiences during the war.
As chief rabbi of Romania from 1940 to 1946, prior to the tenure of Rabbi Moses Rosen, Safran represented 800,000 Jews.
As a result of World War II, that number was cut in half. Now, about 18,000 Jews live in Romania.
In his memoirs, Safran made specific references to official Romanian policy during the war.
“The Jassy pogrom was organized and carried out by the Romanian army and civil authorities with the help of German units present in the city,” he wrote, referring to one of the worst atrocities against Romanian Jewry.
“When the Romanian troops entered Bessarabia and took control of the region, all the hatred for the Jews there erupted in general massacres” he also wrote.
“Those Jews who had survived the massacres in Bessarabia, as well as Bukovinean Jewry and the Jews of Dorohoi, were chastened by the Romanian government by a wave of deportations to Transnistria under inhuman conditions.”
Historians and Jewish leaders have reacted negatively to the speech, which was delivered March 28.
Michael Berenbaum, director of the United States Holocaust Research Institute, wrote in an letter to the rabbi that the speech “saddened me and worried me.”
“You told the Parliament not what they had to hear, but what they wanted to hear, namely that the Romanian people are good and that the Romanian Jews were saved,” Berenbaum wrote.
Referring to Safran’s statement that Romania is among those nations that did not deport Jews, Berenbaum said: “Romania, Finland and Bulgaria were not invaded by the Nazis. Moreover the [Fascist Ion] Antonescu regime allowed the Nazis to deport at least 4,500 Jews from France, Germany and Austria.
A group of scholars of Romania also protested the address. In an open letter to the rabbi, they wrote, “You lent your prestige as the rabbit of Geneva and former chief rabbi of Romania to tell the Romanian Senate — and through it to the world at large — what the Romanian nationalists wanted to hear.
“Through your speech you contributed to the history of the cleansing efforts of those Romanians who are interested in whitewashing Romania’s role in the destruction of close to 270,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews.”
Safran has since responded to the outcry over his speech in a April 19 letter to his critics, written in French.
According to Radu Ioanid, one of the scholars who sent Safran the open reply, the rabbi “tried to gently defend his speech” in his letter.
The rabbi did not apologize for what he said in front of the Senate, said Ioanid, the director of the registry of Holocaust survivors at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ioanid, also an expert on the Holocaust period in Romania, sent a separate letter to Safran on April 21.
In that letter, Ioanid reiterated his position: “Your speech in the Romania Senate is a missed opportunity which will never return. They very same people who invited you there are tolerating and very often encouraging the ongoing rehabilitation of Ion Antonescu and the erection of his statues.
“I am convinced that the main problem of your speech is that you ignored the perpetrators. You did not mention even once Ion Antonescu and his regime, who are responsible for the mass murder of part of Romanian Jewry.”
Indeed, the rabbi’s speech before the Senate apparently has elicited the precise reactions feared by historians.
Adrian Paunescu, a member of the Romanian Senate, said, “I am happy to have reached the moment when a great personality of Europe, a great sufferer, a great sage, came to tell the truth about the Romanian people and about what they did for the Jews during the long, bloody bight of World War II: the Romanians defended the Jews.
“I thank you, chief rabbi, for the historical justice you did to the Romanian people by stating, with your prestige and from the perspective your suffering, that the Romanians” did not deport the Jews.