*Editor’s Note: This is part XI in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part X, here
In 1941, the condition of European Jews continued to deteriorate. There were almost daily accounts of confiscation of Jewish property; proliferation of new anti-Jewish measures designed to exclude them from European economic daily life; of mass expulsions and deportations, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Jews; of mass arrests; forced labor and wanton executions and of the brutal conditions in the ghettos. The JTA and special correspondents of the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press provided most of the significant information about these events, which were accorded prominent coverage in their periodicals.
The Iron Guard in Romania
To appreciate the importance of the news available in the press, it is instructive to examine some of the major stories and revelations of this period. On September 6, 1940 the Iron Guard, the fascist movement and political party, formed an alliance with General Ion Antonescu to assume power in Romania. As of 1930, there were 756,930 Jews living in the country, the third largest community in Europe, according to The Holocaust Encyclopedia. In addition to the government enacting harsh antisemitic legislation, the Iron Guard began confiscating Jewish property and dismissing Jews from their occupations throughout the nation.
In late January 1941, the Jewish press published the “first” eyewitness account of the Iron Guard’s attempt to depose General Ion Antonescu in Romania. Antonescu quashed the rebellion in three days, during which at least 1,000 Jews were murdered in Bucharest alone. Jewish leaders in Romania believed that more than 2,000 Jews were killed throughout the country.
Atrocities in Bucharest Revealed
Correspondent Leigh White of the Overseas News Agency left Bucharest for Sofia, Bulgaria in order to transmit his uncensored report. White observed that like most newspapermen, he had initially been reluctant to accept the atrocity stories as being true. During World War I, the press reported many horror stories only to learn afterwards that they had been duped into reporting propaganda. After his experiences in Bucharest, White was forced to admit that atrocities did occur and that those which occurred in Rumania far exceeded anything he could ever have imagined. To illustrate his point, he told of how Jews were randomly abducted from the streets in the Jewish quarter of Bucharest and “were beaten senseless, robbed, [and] then doused with gasoline and set afire.”
White also said that “trusted friends have told me, and officials confirmed, numerous cases of Jewish women whose breasts were cut off, not to mention sadistic mutilations like gouged out eyes, brandings and bone-breakings.” He added that “perhaps the most horrifying single episode of the pogrom was the ‘kosher butchering…of more than 200 Jews in the municipal slaughtering house…”
“The Jews,” he said, “who had been rounded up after several of Iran Guard raids, were put into several trucks and carried off to the slaughterhouse. There the Greenshirts forced them to undress and led them to the chopping blocks, where they cut their throats in a horrible parody of the traditional Jewish methods of slaughtering fowls and livestock. Tiring of this sport after a few score had been thus dispatched, 40 to 50 armed legionnaires, mad with hate, beheaded the rest with axes and knives. Some mangled bodies were disposed of by pouring them down manholes to the sewers usually used to carry off animal remains.” Other incidents included looting and burning down of Jewish homes, shops, buildings and synagogues, Many Jews were unable to escape and were burned alive.
White concluded that “The only other episode comparable to the slaughterhouse massacre—in point of numbers only—was the mass execution in a field near [Bucharest] Jilava prison of 160 Jewish leaders who had been imprisoned in the office of the Jewish community.”
Reports of these atrocities were published in the JTA, Congress Weekly, The National Jewish Monthly, Forward, Contemporary Jewish Record, The New York Times, The Jewish Advocate (Boston) and the American Jewish Yearbook.
American Jews Respond to the Savage Outburst
American Jewry responded to this latest savage frenzy with outrage. The American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress submitted a protest to the Romania Minister in Washington, DC on February 4. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the executive of the World Jewish Congress, and president of the American Jewish Congress, deemed the riots disastrous to Romanian Jewry. The “reward meted out to Romanian Jews in depriving them of their rights and cruelly persecuting them,” he said, “will remain forever a dark blot on the history of mankind.” His remarks were published in the JTA and The New York Times and a number of Jewish publications.
The American Jewish Congress asked US Secretary of State Cordell Hull to have the State department discuss these atrocities with the Romanian Government. On February 16, they learned that Secretary Hull had sent a note to the Romanian Government expressing America’s “indignation and shock” about these atrocities.
Samuel Margoshes, editor of the Der Tog, viewed the American Government’s exchange with the Romanian Government positively, because the good will of the US was considered important by the Romanian authorities. America was in position to cause great harm economically and in other areas to the Romanians, which is why he urged the US to continue to use its influence with the Romanians.
The Jewish Frontier reported the Labor Zionists had little hope Washington could accomplish much with its intercession, except by reminding the Romanians that a record of their crimes was being kept. At the end of the war, Romania and “its future existence as a state” would be judged by world opinion. Romanian’s leaders, must be made to understand how America feels about the brutalities. The “only consoling factor” in this entire episode, declared the American Jewish Committee, in the Contemporary Jewish Record was that many Christians were disturbed by the action of the Guardists and risked their lives to protect the Jews. This reflected the underlying theme of many other editorials as well. The Forward attacked the “systematic way in which the pogroms were conducted” and called for action against such abuses. The Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Congress demanded that Palestine be open for Romanian Jewry.
The New York Times reported on February 23, 1941 300 hundred delegates of the United Romanian Jews of America adopted a resolution urging the US government to admit Jewish children from Romania and called upon all Romanian groups to contribute financial assistance for the rehabilitation of Jews throughout Europe. The JTA reported that American Jewish leaders had been negotiating with the US Treasury Department to release part of the frozen Romanian funds in the US. This would enable Romanian Jews to emigrate to Palestine and other overseas countries.
Om May 21, the Forward reported that Romanian Jews has planned to dispatch a delegation to America for consultations with Jewish leaders. They wanted American Jews to assist them in finding a country for their youth in South America.
When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Romania, an ally of Germany, joined the war with them. Within the first days of hostilities, units of the Romanian army, police, and gendarmerie began participating in the massacring Jews.