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October 22, 2014 / 28 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Romanian’

Iasi, Seventy Years Later: A Stain On History, An Ache In My Heart

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

My late father was a special man – scholarly, pious, wise. A man whose eyes spoke of understandings unfathomable to me when I was young and whose strength and full impressiveness only come into clearest focus as I myself have gotten older.

Parents are always something of a mystery to their children. Those parents who lived during the horrors of the Shoah often remained a particularly unknowable mystery to their children, as if the pain of that time rendered parts of them unreachable. It wasn’t until a few short months before my father passed away that I began to truly unlock that awful part of his life.

As I was going through his briefcase where he kept his most important and closely held papers, I found a document written in Romanian, a language I knew to be part of my family history but which I could neither read nor understand.

I turned to my sister, Miriam, for help. Miriam, ten years my senior, had been born in Iasi. Romanian had been her first language.

When I handed the document to her, she studied it closely. Her expression began to change. Her hand began to tremble. She dropped the document to the floor as her face became a mask of grief and tears sprang to her eyes.

“Miriam, what is it?” I asked, troubled by her reaction.

It was several minutes before she could speak. “Now I understand,” she whispered, bending down and picking up the document I had given her. “Now I understand everything “

“Everything?”

My sister had suffered throughout her life, tormented by unimaginable nightmares that robbed her of sleep and sanctuary. The document I had given her described her nightmares perfectly – skeletons tossed haphazardly to the side of the road, bodies hanging from lampposts, Jews driven to their knees, shamed in the public square.

The document recorded the testimony of a survivor of the Iasi pogrom.

It was not the fantasy of a nightmare she read in that document. It was cold, harsh truth.

Miriam had been just three years old when the pogrom occurred but the images the witness documented had been seared into her young imagination, returning in nightmares to torment her anew throughout her life.

The “nightmare” had been real.

* * *

Iasi was not the first, nor the last, of the pogroms visited upon Jewish communities throughout Europe during those horrible years. But Iasi was the community where my father was chief rabbi. Iasi was his community and the community that, after three days of terror during which he was shot in the leg, called on him for leadership as never before.

The Jews had been in Iasi for over four hundred years in June of 1941. Established in the sixteenth century, the community was highly developed religiously and culturally, as comfortable with its chassidism and its Zionism as it was with its Yiddish theater.

Between 1930 and 1940, the Jewish population grew from approximately 30,000 to over 50,000. On the one hand, it was a perfect, inviting Jewish community. On the other, Iasi was anything but inviting. It was known for its virulent anti-Semitism. Romanian fascists and anti-Semitic students had visited pogroms on the Jewish community in 1899 and 1923.

The Romanian government never honored its obligation of the 1919 Versailles Conference to grant Jews citizenship. Jews were never safe there. But for all the pain and hardship the community had endured, nothing prepared it for what was to come on June 28, 1941. It was then, as the Axis prepared for war against the Soviets, that the horror began.

There had been rumors circulating for days, weeks, and months. False rumors promulgated by the authorities, lies that sought to deflect blame from the authorities and place it on the Jews for the difficulties of the war. Outlandish lies so preposterous as to be unimaginable. Lies that accused Jews of helping the Soviets in their bombardment of the city. Lies accepted and embraced in the non-Jewish community.

Like the electricity in a perfectly blue sky when a thunderstorm approaches, there was no doubt what was coming. Non-Jews protected themselves from the inevitable violence by displaying signs on their homes reading, “Here live Christians, NOT Jydani!”

It was coming. It seemed that all Iasi held its breath, awaiting its arrival. And arrive it did. With a vengeance.

Title: The Ransom Of The Jews – The Story Of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania And Israel

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

Title: The Ransom Of The Jews – The Story Of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania And Israel
Author: Radu Ioanid
Foreword by Elie Wiesel
Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, IL

 

Throughout Jewish history, we have unfortunately grown accustomed to ransoming our people from being held hostage by many evil empires. In fact, we pray daily for the redemption of our people from the many galuyot, and the act of redeeming beleaguered communities (such as Soviet Jewry) and prisoners is considered one of the greatest mitzvos that one can accomplish.

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise, Israel has been instrumental in delivering entire endangered Jewish communities. One such community was that of the Romanian Jews.

Radu Ioanid, of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., researched the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews whom Israel ransomed from the Romanian government during the 1950′s and 60′s. Although Romania’s leaders, including Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu, ran maverick governments within the Soviet eastern bloc, Communist Romania remained a repressive country, with children trained to report on the “traitorous” activities of their parents, and religious expression repressed.

In fact, the Romanians were such prolific wiretappers that in 1967, when Nahum Goldman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress visited Bucharest to make a speech at the Athenee Palace Hotel, he wanted to have the speech taped, but his technician bungled the job and was unable to make the recording. This was reported by Rabbi Rosen, the head of the Jewish community, to Emil Bodnaras, a member of Romania’s Politburo, who retorted: “Tell Goldman not to worry; we have a tape of the entire speech.”

By 1989, 40 years after the beginning of the Romanian aliyah, more than 380,000 Jews had emigrated to Israel at the cost of many millions. This aliyah was conducted under such secretive terms that a special law was passed by the Knesset which referred to it as the “sha-sha aliyah” (the hush-hush aliyah).

The one million dollar payoff money was carried aboard a plane at Zurich airport by a Romanian diplomat headed for Bucharest. He arrived minus the suitcase containing the ransom money sent from Israeli intelligence to Gheorghiu-Dej. The suitcase later turned up intact (or else the operative might have lost his head). Part of the ransom was paid in investments in factories and agricultural commodities desperately needed by Romania’s anti-Semitic officials.

The other side of the coin was that this arrangement made possible Israel’s only embassy within an Iron Curtain country during the Cold War period, and even assisted the efforts of The United States in using Romania as a lever within the Communist world to further its own aims.

A Chassidic Court Comes Alive

Wednesday, November 24th, 2004

Prior to World War II, Jewish religious culture, customs and style varied from country to country in Eastern Europe. Differences also manifested themselves along ideological grounds among and between chassidim, followers of the derech (philosophy) of the Chasam Sofer, followers of the Lithuanian yeshivishe derech, and just simple Orthodox folk.

The chassidic movement was divided into many different groups, with each dynasty formulating its own particular derech in chassidut, patterned to fit the needs of the Jews of a particular region.

The Eastern Romanian districts of Moldavia, Bessarabia, and Bukowina were areas populated by hearty simple Jews. In many cases these Jews were not particularly learned, but had a strong and powerful attachment to things Jewish. They especially had the highest regard for tzaddikim – Jewish holy men. These areas were served by numerous chassidic dynasties – among them the Twersky rabbinical dynasty.

Although the Twersky rebbes were basically centered in the Ukraine, a branch of this dynasty served Eastern Romania as of the late 19th century. Amongst the leading lights of Bessarabian chassidut in the last generation was Grand Rabbi Morechai Israel Twersky of Chotin. He was the sixth-generation descendant of Rav Nachum of Chernobel (known as the Meor Eynayim after his mystical treatise which became a classic work of chassidic thought).

Rabbi Twersky’s court in Chotin was a magnet for tens of thousands of “amcha” (simple Jews) from throughout the area. Here on Shabbosim and Yomim Tovim they received spiritual sustenance for the whole year. Besides the folk Jews who regularly traveled to see the Rebbe, other visitors included rabbis, shochtim, teachers, and learned men.

The rebbe’s court also served as a welfare center to which destitute Jews from all over Romania came to receive assistance for their financial as well as spiritual problems. The rebbe was known as a poel yeshuoth – a miracle worker – and the local Jews and even non-Jews regarded him as such.

As was the case with most of European Jewry, the Chotiner Rebbe, his family, and his followers were killed by the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators in the tragic years of 1939-1945. Unfortunately, the particular brand of East Romanian chassidut led by the Chotiner Rebbe was not resurrected after the war.

The Chotiner Rebbe’s son Rabbi Jacob Joseph Twersky survived the war and came to America where he married the daughter of one of the greatest rebbes in the U.S., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Kapishnetz, a leading member of the Council of Torah sages. In 1960 he established a synagogue in the Bronx called the Bronx Park East Chotiner Jewish Center.

Rabbi Twersky’s court served the poor, as well as new immigrants to the U.S. Like his father before him, Rabbi Twersky provided both spiritual and material sustenance to his flock. At first it was Holocaust survivors who were spiritually enriched by this shul; later, with the arrival of large numbers of Russian Jews in the 1970′s, the shul took on added importance. This writer merited meeting Rabbi Twersky and was greatly impressed by his humility and lack of any airs. He was a true Baal Shemske Yid. Rabbi Twersky passed away in 2001 at the age of 75.

Rabbi Twersky’s son has taken it upon himself to build a monument to his father, the chassidut of Chotin and Eastern Romania, and the Twersky dynasty. Yitzchak Twersky of Flushing, New York, has established a research institute dedicated to Chotiner chassidut. As this branch of chassidut and the general branch of East Romanian chassidut is fast disappearing, this project is of immense importance.

Mr. Twersky has published a lavishly illustrated and extremely well-researched biography of his father and grandfather and a history of the Romanian branch of the Twersky dynasty. Titled Mi Yiranu Tov, the book has been well received by both the scholarly and the chassidic communities.

As a supplement to the volume Mr. Twersky issued a compact disk with his late father and other chassidic singers singing authentic Chotiner and Romanian chassidic songs. Especially moving is the late Rabbi Twersky singing these moving melodies of hope and dedication to

G-d. Last year Mr. Twersky published Malchus Bais Chernobel, a monumental photo album – many of the pictures had never before been published – of all the male descandents of the Meor Eynaim who functioned as rebbes. The pictures include facsimilies of their signatures and photos of their gravestones.This book is an especially fitting monument to many of the rebbes who have no successor dynasties and perished under the Nazi rule or under the Stalinist repression of Judaism.

Yitzhak Twersky has accumulated much research over the past years, and though young in age, he is old in wisdom. Hopefully the fruits of his research will soon see print, for the benefit of the chassidic community as well as the scholarly community. He is currently concluding a DVD project that includes all known audio and film footage of his grandfather Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Kapishnitz. A third scholarly volume, a compilation of the correspondence of various members of the Twersky dynasty, is to be completed by April 2005.

The proceeds of Mr.Twersky’s project are donated to charity.

Zalman Alpert is reference librarian at the Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University.

The Girl From Transylvania

Wednesday, March 17th, 2004

“You will never see your land of Israel, your precious Jerusalem, your Carmel, your Galilee. It will never happen. You will never leave Romania.”

The Securitate agent glared at her in anger.

The Romanian Securitate was the feared secret police, the foundation block of the totalitarian regime imposed on Transylvania by Stalin, and it controlled Romania until the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Years later, after Russia itself had junked its rusty communist regime, the methods and secrets of the Securitate would be exposed, its files opened and scrutinized. There were files on millions of ordinary Romanian citizens. More than 700,000 people had been employed as informants.

“You will tell us everything you know about the Zionist underground in Romania. You will tell us the names. Or you will never see the sun again.”

She was born Magdalena Fisher in 1920 inside Hungary, but while she was still a toddler her parents moved to the Transylvanian town of Brasov. Hungarian Jews, including those in Transylvania, were a heterogeneous lot. They ranged from the ultra-Orthodox in their black coats to the modernist secularists. Large numbers belonged to the “Neolog” movement, something roughly analogous to the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States.

While Jews had been murdered and brutalized by the Romanian fascists during World War II, especially those from the Iron Guard, most survived the Holocaust years. Jews from the northern part of Transylvania had been deported to the death camps by the Hungarian fascists. But Brasov was in southern Transylvania and most of its Jews had survived the war.

Transylvania: The name conjures up late-night horror movies and Count Dracula. But in fact Transylvania had been a center of culture, including Jewish culture, for centuries. The first Jews had settled there in Roman times. The Khazars probably had contact and influence with Transylvanian Jews.

Transylvania became a multicultural wonderland, a mix of Magyars, Romanians, Vlachs, Tartars, Gypsies, Swabian Germans, and Jews. Many of the Transylvanian Jews were Magyarized, migrants from other Hungarian areas, while others were German-speaking, and there were also communities of Sephardim mixed among them.

World War I found Hungary still under the Habsburg rule, and so on the losing side of the war. The Trianon Treaty of 1920, which officially ended the war, stripped Hungary of many of its territories and awarded Transylvania to Romania. It remained an enclave of predominantly Hungarian speakers within the Romanian state. The resentment at this played a role in Hungary aligning itself with Hitler in World War II.

A Leader Of Betar

Magdalena’s father was a Czech-born engineer who worked with the sugar factories concentrated in Brasov. They were modern Jews, Neologs. The Jewish day school went only up to the fourth grade, after which she attended Catholic school, excused from the religion classes, and with classes in Judaism with the local rabbi, Dr. Deutsch, after school. She was an only child. Her classmates would argue over what they were – Hungarians, Romanians, Transylvanians, Magyars – but for her the question was easy. She was a Jew.

Her father, one of the early leaders of the Betar movement of Transylvania, raised her not only as a Jew, but as a militant Zionist. In 1923, the mainstream Zionist movement had been split when Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Federation, which was dominated by socialists seeking to create a Jewish state through cooperation with the Arabs.

Jabotinsky was a skeptic and a realist. He correctly expected the Arabs to oppose any form of Jewish sovereignty and concluded that the Jewish state must be created through uprising and armed struggle by the Jews. He expounded his views in his most famous essay, “The Iron Wall.”

Jabotinsky had set up his own dissident Zionist movement outside the Zionist Federation. He named it Betar, a play on words. Betar had been one of the last holdouts in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, but it was also the acronym for Brit Trumpeldor, the Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor, named for the martyred hero of the Zionist militias in the Ottoman Galilee.

Jabotinsky called his movement “Revisionist Zionism” – revisionist in the sense that it wanted some revisions in the British Mandate for Palestine, such as restoration of Transjordan, which had been stripped away from what Jabotinsky regarded as the Jewish homeland. Betar grew to a mass movement in Eastern Europe. Its Romanian headquarters were in Bucharest. Brasov in Transylvania had a large chapter. Its members leafleted, organized, lectured, published, harangued.

From the time she was in high school, Magdalena was one of the central leaders in Betar in her town. It was one of the high points in her life when Jabotinsky himself came to Romania. She and the other leaders met him in Bucharest. Asher Diament, the chairman of Betar in Braslov, introduced her to Jabotinsky as the most effective leader in the local chapter, the leader who “works with her heart,” and her face beamed with pride.

Before World War II, Romania had the third largest Jewish population in Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland. At the start of the war, the Romanian government, headed by Ion Gigurtu, introduced draconian anti-Jewish legislature, which was openly inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Antonescu, who followed Gigurtu as leader of the nation, created the “Legionnaire State” in coalition with the Iron Guard. Many Jews sought ways to escape to Palestine.

She continued her Zionist work at the university in Bucharest, until all Jewish students were expelled in 1943. Jews were also being barred from a long list of professions in Romania. In June of 1941, the Iasi pogrom had taken place. After false rumors that the local Iasi Jews were collaborating with Soviet paratroopers, the Romanian police had carried out a massacre of Jews, the worst in Romania during the war.

Meanwhile, Jabotinsky had died in the United States and was buried in the Catskills. (Jabotinsky’s remains would not be moved to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem until after David Ben Gurion, Israel?s first prime minister and a bitter opponent of Revisionist Zionism, left office.)

The war ended when Romania was liberated by the Red Army, but in a wink of an eye the Soviets had imposed a totalitarian communist regime on the country. The Romanian king was forced to resign. The Romanian communist party, which had perhaps a few hundred members before the war, was installed as the single political party, with a monopoly on the state. Industry was nationalized, agriculture collectivized, rival parties banned, gulag camps set up.

Magdalena had not planned to marry until she reached Israel, but she met Ladislau (Laszlo) Rosenberg, an engineering student. He was a member of the rival socialist Zionist movement, a cause of some early ideological debates between them, but she agreed to his proposal of marriage anyway. Some of her Betar comrades were displeased, preferring that she had chosen an ideologically purer mate. Together they dreamed of moving to Israel

Communist Harassment

Ironically, the Zionist movements had been legal in fascist Romania during World War II. Now the communist regime banned them altogether. She continued her work with Betar. She ran the local Keren Kayemet fund. She was the liaison of the movement for “Aliya Bet,” the illegal smuggling of Jews out of Europe and into Palestine in defiance of the British White Paper and its restrictions on entry of Jews into the Jewish homeland.

She would get a call late at night that several spaces on a ship had come open. People chosen for the ordeal had to leave before dawn the next morning, leaving behind everything except a small handbag.

The passage was dangerous. Even if they reached the ships safely, there was no guarantee – several had already sunk en route to Palestine, their human cargos drowning. She sent out not only Betar activists, but any Jew prepared to go. Her goal was to send one more Jew to Israel, and one more, and then one more.

The very first time the Securitate confronted her, she and Ladislau were at home. The agent barged in and informed her that she would have to report to Securitate headquarters the next day. But he began the interrogation in their home. We understand there are Zionist organizations that operate in Brasov, he said, reciting the names of all the movements except Betar.

She smelled a rat. Yes, she said, those are all Zionist organizations, but you left out one, an organization named Betar. The Securitate man grinned.

“You are a very lucky young woman,” he said. “Had you not volunteered the name of Betar, you would already be under arrest and would never have been heard from again.”

The interrogations at Securitate headquarters took place about once a month for the next two years. We demand the names of the Zionist leaders, they would repeat. She would give them names, lots of names, but only those of local Zionists who had already left Romania and were in Israel. As for those left behind, she would sigh and complain to the interrogators about how selfish it had been of those leaders to just abandon the simple folks left behind, people with no leaders at all.

She risked her life by refusing to name the actual leaders still operating in the Zionist underground. One day the interrogators demanded that she tell them everything she knew about Moshe Fogel, one of the local Betar leaders. The Securitate claimed he was planning to blow up a local factory. We have a problem, she said. You see, every Jew has two names – one modern or ordinary, in Hungarian or Romanian, and one Jewish name. If you do not believe me, just go to the synagogue and ask the people there if this is so. I am afraid I only know people by their Jewish names and so, alas, I do not know whom you are talking about.

The Securitate interrogators were not amused. When she denied she knew what “Irgun Zvai Leumi” (the name of the Betar militia in Palestine) meant, their anger grew. She had said it so convincingly that even her husband momentarily thought it was true. If you tell Fogel we asked about him, you will be imprisoned, they threatened. The next day, Ladislau met Fogel in an alley and warned him of the investigation.

You will never be allowed to leave Romania, they promised. Emigration of Jews from Romania had begun, allowed in trickles, mainly people with immediate relatives abroad. She corresponded with those Betar leaders from her town now in Israel. Her mother managed to get an exit visa and was already living in Israel. They had hoped this would be a sufficient “family reunification” basis for obtaining a visa, but the regime was being vindictive with those who had been Zionist activists.

Home At Last

For eleven years Magdalena and her husband waited. They sang songs of the Jewish homeland from their small apartment on Stalin Street. They dreamed of setting up house some place in the Land of Israel. She learned that one of the leaders from Romanian Betar was now in Australia. He had gone there to settle the affairs of an aunt who had died, then stayed on, and she asked him to file an affidavit to sponsor their immigration to Australia. It worked.

They got papers to allow them to leave Romania, to go to Australia. They left for Austria as if they were en route to Australia, and the first thing they did in Vienna was to contact the Jewish Agency, in charge of immigration to Israel. It was 1960. We want to go home, they announced.

They were moved to the port in Italy from which they would embark. They could not believe their eyes. An indescribably lovely white ship was waiting for them – a ship called the Theodore Herzl, no less. They were on their way home at last.

On the ship, they were “processed” by the absorption bureaucrats. The clerks were sending everyone to the depressed Negev town of Dimona. They had had their share of experiences with bureaucrats before. Ladislau wanted to set up his own factory using some of his know-how, and Dimona obviously was not the place. Diament, the Betar commander from Transylvania, invited them to live in Tel Aviv near him. When the ship landed in Haifa, they looked up at the green mountain. By hook or by crook, they swore, we will live in this lovely town.

They agreed to forgo the nearly-free housing offered them in Dimona. They decided to pay their own way and live in Haifa. They set up a small furniture workshop, in which they both worked 16-hour days. They never had any children. Israel was their family and Haifa was their home. The Carmel, about which they had sung in the Transylvanian underground, was now theirs.

***************

Israel is a country of modest apartments and simple ordinary doors, behind which quietly live the most extraordinary of people. She bites her lip in pain as she limps across the floor. Ladislau died many years ago, and she lives alone, 83 years old, with a helper from Romania. She has been handicapped since a careless bus driver last year started the engine while she was only half on board, knocking her down and breaking her thigh.

But she is as energetic and optimistic as she had been back in Transylvania as a young girl. She lives every single moment that the state of Israel lives; she celebrates every moment of triumph and she suffers from every moment of tragedy.

There is only one thing I do not understand, my dear next-door neighbor, she says to me as I make notes for this article. The Chanukah candles are still flickering as we chat.

I am just an ordinary person, a girl from Transylvania, a Jew and a Zionist who loves all Jews and who loves her land and her country with all her heart – a simple Jewish woman whose life is of no interest. Why on earth do you think my story is worth telling?

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-girl-from-transylvania/2004/03/17/

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