For years, a section of Romania was the site of a forgotten corner of the Holocaust, a place where hundreds of thousands of Jews were imprisoned and killed during World War II.
Romanian officials tried to sweep the nation’s wartime history under the carpet – but they never counted on the determined efforts of 75-year-old Issie Veisfeld.
Some 330,000 Jews – nearly half of Romania’s prewar Jewish population – was deported to the region of Transnistria, where they toiled in labor camps from 1941 to 1945.
During that time, more than half of those laborers were worked to death in places like Mogilev, Skasinitz, Vinnitsa, Varvarovca, Trihati and Nicolaev.
The Romanians and the Germans created Transnistria. Nazi Germany had promised Romania that it would be given this chunk of the Ukraine after the war to form part of a greater Romania.
Romania’s prewar Jewish population of more than 700,000 became victims of the wartime regime of Gen. Ion Antonescu, who was propped up by the ruthless Iron Guard that was part of his government.
The Tussians executed Antonescu at the war’s end, but his murderous legacy lived on in the memories of Holocaust survivors.
Yet subsequent Romanian governments refused to admit complicity, blaming the virtual extinction of its Jews on the Nazis.
As far as those governments were concerned, “there were no Romanian atrocities, period,” says Veisfeld. “They would rather believe that Germany killed 6 million Jews single-handedly.
“But the reality is, between 1941 and 1945, the Romanian gendarmes and the local police” participated in the killing of Jews “at random, without the help of the Nazis. They did a very good job of wiping out Jews without German involvement.”
For years, Transnistria was not even included on many of the maps detailing Holocaust death camps.
Veisfeld has been working to change this.
He now lives in Montreal, but hails from the Romanian town of Iasi, whose prewar population of 70,000 was made up mostly of Jews – 47,000 in all.
Until the morning of June 29, 1941, Jews lived there relatively undisturbed – at least in comparison to what was happening elsewhere in Europe.
“From the 1700s on, Romanian Jews were tolerated, although we were often beaten and terrorized,” said Veisfeld, now 75. “We expected it, but we were used to it and we lived with it.”
That day in 1941 – memories of which cause Veisfeld to react noticeably almost 60 years later – began with a message from the local police.
“It was a Sunday,” he recalls. “The local police came to advise everyone to go to the city hall, the Prefectura de Politia, to change their ID cards. Otherwise, we could not go free on the streets without them.
“People went out and never came back.”
Veisfeld’s parents suspected the worst.
From an attic hideout in their home, the boy and his father watched in horror as men and boys were assembled and taken away.
“The authorities closed the gates, mounted machine guns on roofs and shot people,” says Veisfeld.
“They went into homes shooting people. Christians said later they never thought they would see anything like this. Some of them helped, but most stayed inside behind locked doors.
Some 6,000 Jews from the town were later put aboard a death train, about 120 to 130 per compartment, he recalls.
“It was a cattle train. There was no air, no water,” says Veisfeld. “They kept the train on a dead track for 48 hours, still with no air or water. People drank their own urine and sweat to try to stay alive and they went crazy, beating each other.”
The train was then taken to a small village named Podul Iloie, where the dead bodies were unloaded and thrown into common graves.
About 13,000 Jews died as a result of the pogroms in Iasi, according to Radu Ioanid, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
To this day, the tenacious survivor, who stayed alive in Iasi’s Jewish ghetto because his father was an upholsterer for the military – has been attempting to get the Romanian government to acknowledge the nation’s wartime guilt.
Twenty-five years ago, when he was president of the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression, Veisfeld called then-President Nicolae Ceausescu at his office and managed to get him on the line.
“I told him we would like him to accept responsibility for the wrongdoing of the Antonescu government,” says Veisfeld. “He responded that he could not do that, that he was not an anti-Semite and that he didn’t differentiate between Jews and non-Jews. He then said goodbye and hung up.”
But Veisfeld was not about to take no for an answer.
Those who know him say he has the determination of a bulldog.
“He’s unforgiving and never quits,” says Henry Ungariano, a Romanian survivor who serves with Veisfeld on the board of the Association of Romanian Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust and has known him for 25 years.
“People want him to quit, especially the current government of Romania. But he won’t until he reaches his goal – their admission that they did terrible things to their Jews. I admire Issie one hell of a lot and I feel sorry for anyone who takes him on.”
Veisfeld has for years pressed Romania with a list of demands:
To erect memorials at all common grave sites where Romanian Jews are buried;
To implement programs in all Romanian schools that focus on the nation’s history of anti-Semitism;
To acknowledge that Antonescu supported Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jewry;
To join other nations in instituting restitution programs for Jewish Holocaust survivors.
In May 1998, Veisfeld presented his demands to Romanian President Emil Constantinescu during a meeting in Montreal.
One of his demands was subsequently met: Romania agreed to implement a Holocaust-studies program in its schools.
Veisfeld is now pressing on with his other demands, particularly securing restitution for Jewish property confiscated under the Antonescu regime.
Veisfeld was in Romania earlier this summer to meet with government ministers. He also met with Dr. Nicolae Cajal, president of the Bucharest Jewish community, who asked if Veisfeld could send the community a badly needed ambulance.
Veisfeld is currently trying to fulfill the request – but there was another that he will not accede to.
“Dr. Cajal also asked if I would move there and take over when he retired,” says Veisfeld.
“But I have no desire to live there again.”