Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lawyer saved nearly 20,000 Romanian Jews from deportation 

“Each time I see a Jew, I am tempted to approach him, greet him, and tell him: ‘Sir, please believe me, I have nothing to do with this.’ The sad thing is that no one admits having anything to do with it. Everybody disapproves, everybody is revolted, yet to a no lesser extent everyone is a cog in this huge antisemitic factory that is the Romanian state … ”

The reaction of Romanian diplomat Constantin Visoianu upon learning of the Iasi Massacre, in which more than a thousand Jews were murdered in 1941, tells us a great deal about the silence of the vast majority of non-Jews that enabled the tragedy of the Holocaust to be carried out.

On Thursday, April 19th, Holocaust Remembrance Day, survivors Bianca Rosenthal and Irving Klein will share their stories at Congregation Beth David, 10180 Los Osos Valley Road, San Luis Obispo. The event is free and begins at 7 p.m.

Rosenthal joined the Languages Department at Cal Poly in 1971. I was unaware of the remarkable details of her survival.

Rosenthal is from Czernowitz, a city that was once part of Romania; today, it’s in Ukraine and known as Chernivtsi. From the 18th century through the 1930s, it was the cultural center of both the Romanian and Ukrainian national movements. It was known as the “little Vienna” or the “European Alexandria.” For European Jewry it was known as “Jerusalem upon the (River) Prut.”

In 1908, the city hosted “The Czernowitz Conference for the Yiddish Language,” where Jewish leaders and scholars intended to promote Yiddish as “a national language of the Jewish people.” The destruction of millions of Yiddish speakers in the Holocaust virtually ensured the adoption of Hebrew rather than Yiddish.

In 1940, the Red Army occupied Czernowitz under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu reacted to this seizure by allying his country with Nazi Germany in July 1941. The Romanian Army retook the city as part of Hitler’s massive onslaught against the Soviet Union in July 1941.

Antonescu ordered the creation of a ghetto where 50,000 Bukovina Jews were crammed in a small, unhealthy area. He promised the Nazis that most of these would be deported to almost certain death in Transnistria in October 1941.

Rosenthal survived thanks to Traian Popovici, a career lawyer, who was sent to the town of Cernauti as mayor to facilitate the process of ghettoization and deportation. Instead, he became the advocate for the Jews. He argued with government officials, insisting that Jews were essential to Cernauti’s economy and couldn’t be deported until replacements could be found. Ultimately, he saved 19,600 from deportation to Transnistria.

Recently, Dustin Hoffman, whose parents were Romanian Jews, agreed to play the role of Popovici in a movie tentatively titled “20,000 Saints.”

In his book, “Confession of Conscience,” Popovici wrote that he found strength to oppose Antonescu thanks to his upbringing in a family of Eastern Orthodox priests: “To be a true human being … means to love mankind.”

There were many others, from train engineers to students, who saved Jews in Romania.

Col. Eugen Agapiescu was the commander of a 3,000-person work camp at Cotroceni, a suburb of Bucharest. He illegally reduced the work schedule for Jews there to nine hours a day — and to only five hours a day for Jews with large families. He also forged documents for those too ill to work.

After the war, he wrote, “Is there a greater satisfaction than being greeted by unknown people in the street? I know they cannot be but the Jews who worked under my command.”

Today’s column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.


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