Washington– United States Helsinki Commission leaders lauded Romania’s first Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 12, 2004. President Ion Iliescu presided over a ceremony marking the event in the Romanian Parliament. The ceremony — attended by national religious leaders, Holocaust survivors and Romanian schoolchildren — attempted to bring national attention to Romania’s wartime complicity for the brutal ethnic cleansing and stressed the importance of educating Romanians about their history.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) noted, “Over the last decade, our concerns regarding anti-Semitic trends in Romania, as well as efforts by some groups in Romania to rehabilitate Marshall Antonescu and honor him as a war hero, have been raised often.”
“The establishment of a National Day of Holocaust Remembrance, the work of the Wiesel Commission, and President Iliescu’s direct statements about Romania’s role in that tragedy are important steps in reversing those trends and in educating the people of Romania about that dark and important part of their country’s history,” said Smith.
“It is important that this tragic chapter in Romania’s history be publicly commemorated and the victims mourned,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). “Only by learning from its past can Romania look forward to a bright, democratic future.”
In his address, President Iliescu stated, “Holocaust Day must represent a moment of reflection to us all, an opportunity to ponder on totalitarianism and its tragic consequences, on community relations and the values of human solidarity, the perennial democracy, legality and observance of fundamental citizen rights and freedoms.”
During the communist era, Romania’s education system was silent regarding the extent of Romania’s role in the Holocaust. This legacy has denied many Romanians a proper understanding of their history. By directly confronting the issue of the Holocaust, President Iliescu’s speech and the events of the Holocaust Memorial Day serve to strengthen Romania against resurgent anti-Semitism and the dangers of extreme nationalism.
In the past year, Romania’s government has made encouraging strides toward bringing a dark period of its history into the public consciousness. Romania has added curriculum changes and textbooks teaching the history of the Holocaust to primary school students and at the National Defense College. President Iliescu also established an International Historic Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, a panel of experts and historians led by Dr. Elie Wiesel, to make recommendations on how Romania can address its role in the Holocaust. Dr. Wiesel is a Romanian-born Jew, Holocaust survivor and the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Under the Fascist government of Marshall Ion Antonescu, Romanian soldiers and gendarmeries targeted Jews and Roma in pogroms, deportations, confiscation of property and genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Romania’s 760,000 pre-war Jewish population were killed in the Holocaust. Today an estimated 6,000 Jews live in Romania. Approximately 25,000 Roma were deported from Romania en masse to Transnistria in 1942 where half of them perished.