Just off the main thoroughfare here, hidden among endless blocks of massive Stalinist high-rise apartments, stands a bronze bust of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the Romanian fascist dictator who cooperated with Hitler and whose war crimes led to the deaths of 250,000 Jews during World War II.
In recent years the statue, along with five other Antonescu monuments around this vast country, hardly seemed to embarrass the Romanian government, though they enraged world Jewish leaders who urged that the statutes be dismantled.
The statues were erected and streets were named for Antonescu in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Socialist dictatorship, when much of the Romanian public felt an affinity to anything anti-Soviet.
But now Romania’s self-interest is spurring it to action. The country hopes to join the NATO military alliance in November, and is stepping up its cooperation with Jewish groups and Western governments concerned about how Eastern European governments handle Jewish affairs.
Antonescu ruled Romania from 1940 to 1944. He was responsible for the deaths of about 250,000 Jews and 25,000 gypsies, either by having them murdered in Romania — such as the infamous pogrom in Iasi — or by deporting them to death camps abroad.
In 1944, with two Soviet armies advancing deep into Romania, Romania’s King Michael arrested Antonescu. He was tried and executed as a war criminal on June 1, 1946.
The government passed an emergency ordinance last month prohibiting all fascist remnants and the glorification of war criminals.
The move comes just four months after the U.S. Ambassador to NATO was quoted as saying that Romania would not enter NATO as long as it continues to honor Antonescu.
Jewish leaders concur that the emergency legislation is a “good first step,” but some wonder about a loophole in the law that may not ensure Antonescu will be laid to rest.
The law mandates the removal of Romania’s six Antonescu statues. It also requires the renaming of some 30 streets and parks that honor Antonescu, and prohibits fascist organizations like the Antonescu Foundation, a historical foundation that promotes the dictator’s legacy.
The government already blocked plans by four municipalities to erect Antonescu monuments since October 2001, when Prime Minister Adrian Nastase visited the United States and discussed the matter with President Bush.
“The statues send the wrong message at a particular time when Romania is seeking to enter Europe’s mainstream,” said Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai Brith International, who has discussed the matter with Romanian officials.
Under the emergency law, it is forbidden to erect or maintain such statues “in public places, except museums.” But four of Romania’s six Antonescu statues stand on private property, including the one in Bucharest, which rests in the garden of an Orthodox Church that Antonescu founded.
“What is a public place?” asked a prominent Romanian diplomat who requested anonymity. “Are we talking about ownership of land, or in public sight? It’s not clear.”
“In theory they could have passed a law banning such statues completely. But unfortunately that was not done,” said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel. “You have a government tying to have its cake and eat it too — banning statues in public places and knowing full well that the majority exist on private property. Well, people will be happy because they will still have their Antonescu statues.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, international director of the American Jewish Committee, who has actively prodded Romanian leaders to remove the statues, said the public-versus-private debate is of no concern.
The Romanian government “has its ways of persuading” private groups to take down the statues — “if it wants to,” Baker said.
“If there is a will to remove them, a way can be found,” Mariaschin agreed.
The Romanian President’s Office, Culture Ministry and Ministry of Public Administration all refused to answer questions about Antonescu.
The MPA, which oversees the renaming of streets, couldn’t provide a list of the streets named for Antonescu or even say how many public areas will be affected by the new legislation, which took effect on March 28.
Thus far, only one statue — which stood on public property — has been removed.
Radu Ioanid, a Romanian who directs the international archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says Nastase and Romanian President Ion Iliescu are sincerely committed to the cause, but “people working under them are trying to undermine them.”
Another barrier, Ioanid says, is opposition from right-wing extremists.
Antonescu remains a national hero because he joined the Germans and declared war against the Soviet army in 1941, after it occupied parts of eastern Romania.
His record for killing Jews is largely unknown here, where the public has been fed Soviet-style propaganda for the past two generations, preventing them from learning the truth about their history.
Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a nationalist senator and runner-up in the 2000 race for president, recently told The Associated Press, “I love Antonescu.”
“It is very hard to explain this to the Romanian public,” the Romanian diplomat said. “In Europe armies are looked upon with great national pride, so it’s pretty hard to admit that a leader of the army was a criminal of war. People here look with great respect to the army, and this is part of the problem.”
Antonescu is especially revered by the 40 percent of Romanians who live in poverty and whose lives were easier under the Communists. Many lack the patience to build a new democracy and believe an authoritarian leader like Antonescu could cure the country’s woes.
Dorian Dorel, a Romanian Jewish leader and member of Parliament, says removing the statues is not enough.
“We need to stop the new extremist movement and their activity and the mentality of people through discussion,” Dorel said. “I don’t know if our hopes will be confirmed in a few days, but in time it’s a fight we must win.”
Mariaschin hopes the statues will be removed at the same time as a Holocaust Education Program may be implemented in the military and secondary schools.