Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
1st place: Ariel Mia Iarovici Katz
School: Durham Academy
The Sinagoga Mare, or Grand Synagogue, in Bucharest, Romania, rises against a backdrop of Communist-era apartments, its regality out of place in the surrounding urban area. Within the synagogue, behind ornate metal gates, lies a beautiful sanctuary. Chandeliers and Stars of David decorate the interior. The place seems as if its beauty is uninterrupted, as if its current calm has prevailed for centuries. However, this is the exact opposite of the truth; no one has worshipped here for many years. Lining the walls is an exhibit filled with pictures and stories about the brutality of the Holocaust in Romania, and sitting in the sanctuary with my family is a Romanian Holocaust survivor, telling his story, the grave Romanian words echoing off the empty sanctuary walls. Even though I can’t understand his words, I understand his message. My mother, sitting next to me, translates every so often, bringing the story into clear, frightening focus for a moment before it slips back into a blurry foreign language. Words like death, family, camps, and pain ring in my ears and go straight to my heart. I am deeply moved by his story, as well as interested. I have heard stories of the Holocaust in Germany from my father’s parents, and I hadn’t expected the same brutality in Romania, where my mother’s family came from, for there is never much mention of the Holocaust in Romania in history books or in the news. This aroused my interest in the subject. The question now is: how does this relate to me? What interested me in this?
This summer, my family and I traveled to Romania. My grandparents lived a large portion of their lives in Romania, and my mother was born there. Journeying back to Romania was a moving experience for all of us-my grandparents, revisiting their home, witnessing the events of time; my mother, imagining that Romania could have been her home; and my brother and I, drinking in knowledge of a foreign country that was only distantly our own. Along the way, we learned fragments of Jewish-Romanian history, visiting synagogues and museums, talking with survivors, curators and members of the Romanian Jewish Federation. All this sparked my interest in the event that the Romanian government had buried and ignored for so long-the Holocaust in Romania. From this I learned the true importance of remembering, and more important yet, understanding. Now that Romania has acknowledged that the Holocaust actually happened, they can begin to understand the terrible things that took place within their borders. The understanding that I took away from my trip to Romania was that the Holocaust hit Jews every where with a harsh blow, no matter where they lived.
People often say that we must study the past to avoid repeating it in the future. In the case of the Holocaust, the past must not only be studied, but understood. Understanding requires knowledge, information, and communication, things which Romania and Romanian citizens lacked up until recently. According to my mother, my grandparents would often say that they were lucky because Romania was not hit hard by the Holocaust. But the fact is that Romanians were not lucky.
Unknown to much of the world, Romania, a medium-sized country in Eastern Europe, suffered the many monstrosities of the Holocaust, and the impact on the country’s people, politics, economy, and society was never fully overcome. The website of the US Holocaust Museum states that, “under the wartime leadership of General Ion Antonescu, Romania was directly responsible for the murder of more Jews than any country other than Germany.”
Anti-Semitism was present in Romania long before the Holocaust. Pogroms in cities such as Iasi brutally murdered hundreds of Jews. During the war a concentration camp called Transnistria was established. Thousands of Jews were murdered there, and more still were deported to ghettos there. Jews were considered to be “madmen” and the cause of illnesses such as syphilis, as well as the cause of prostitution and divorce. The anti-Semitism before the war made Romanian Jews an easy target for Nazi propaganda. 1941 and 1942 marked the beginning of government-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Romania, when thirty-two laws were passed restricting the participation of Jews in scholarly, artistic, and professional pursuits. The laws forbade Jews to pursue legal or artistic professions, own a radio, have a higher education, or hold a public office. The worst part of the Holocaust was, of course, the heartless murder of thousands of innocent people. After the war ended, much of the remaining Jewish population emigrated to Israel due to lack of rights and opportunities.
Much of the evil of the Holocaust sprouted from rumors, blame, and suspicion, all things rooted in lack of knowledge. This is one of the things that my family and being in Romania helped me to understand. The government acted rashly and awfully towards the Jews partially because they lacked knowledge, and one of the restrictions on the Jews was the law barring higher education, or acquisition of knowledge. And even now people are not aware of the seriousness of the Holocaust in Romania because the Romanian government did not release information about the Holocaust in Romania until very recently. In fact, in 2002, President Ion Iliescu said that there had been no Holocaust. However, the international community reacted, and research was done, leading President Iliescu to say, in 2004, at Romania’s first-ever Holocaust Commemoration Day that, “Assuming our past, with good and bad parts, is not just an exercise in honesty, but also a proof of our democratic conscience…”
So what I wish the reader to take from this is what I took from this research most: that in terms of history, knowledge and communication are everything, and that these things must be applied today to keep history from repeating itself. Something that parallels the Holocaust is the genocide happening today in Darfur. We have used our knowledge of the past to arouse a response from the international community, and hopefully that response will help save lives in Darfur. Today, Romania is still struggling to recover from the horrific events of the Holocaust. The population of Jews in Romania is around 9,000, tiny compared to before World War II, when Romania had the third largest Jewish population in the world..
Romania is just beginning to make an effort to release information about the Holocaust to its people and the world. Hopefully it will continue along this vein until true understanding of the Holocaust can be reached.
As I sat in the Grand Synagogue in Bucharest, listening to the depressing story that emerged from the lips of the elderly Holocaust survivor, I had an admiration for him that I only realized later. He was brave, spreading the word, spreading the knowledge, to a family whom he didn’t know. Between him and me there was hope, hope for the future, hope for understanding the events of the past. This hope and knowledge are intertwined, and they branch, together, into understanding. These concepts, this knowledge, this understanding of an aspect of the Holocaust followed me home and seeped into my everyday life, and I hope it will seep into yours.