Romania: An Anti – Semitic History
Dating all the way back to the 16th century, Jews were persecuted in this Christian orthodox state. They were viewed as foreigners; prohibited from the privileges and rights of true citizens. As seen as a trend with anti-Semitism across Europe, they were often used as the scapegoat, and had to suffer the consequences for a wrongdoing they did not commit. For instance, in the after math of WWI Romania received a multitude of valuable territory, nearly doubling the size of the country. However, in 1940 Romania lost 30 percent of this territory to the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Jews were associated with Soviet communism and accused of siding with the enemy over this territorial struggle. This accusation, however wrong as it was, served as validation that the Jews were the most prevalent threat to Romanianism. Romanianism was the desire to bring Romania to its former glory and claim the boarder land provinces believed to rightfully belong to them. Ethnic and cultural minorities were targeted, as they were seen as the largest obstacle preventing Romania from achieving a class of purity, strength, and honor. Jews, naturally, were identified as the primary targets. Before the war, Romania had a reputation of being the most anti – Semitic country in Europe. Yet, the 441,000 Jews living in Romania at the time were successful, prosperous, and safe. Romania was their home.
Anti- Semitic acts were not a new phenomenon in Romania. Their prejudices and hatred had been manifesting in discriminatory legislation for centuries. The 19th century in particular was a time of ethnic and religious discrimination for the Jews of Romania. In 1838, Romania enacted its first constitution stating, “Jews that could not identify their usefulness could be expelled from the concerned localities.” In other words, Jews were required to register with local authorities and identify their occupation, or risk deportation. On May 5th, 1851, a commission was established in Lasi with the supposed purpose of establishing vagrancy, and thus allowing for the appropriate acts to eradicate it. In actuality, its purpose was to restrict the settlement of Jews in Moldavia. In 1864, Jews were forbidden from practicing law and the right to vote was restricted only to those who had served as an officer in the army, graduated from University, or owned an industrial plant. In 1882 what was known as the “Laws against Nihilists” were passed, making it significantly easier to expel Jews form the country. Under this decree, 1,177 Jews were deported by 1906. In the early 1900’s Jews were restricted in practicing healthcare. In 1915, the Law for Monitoring Foreigners allowed for the relocation of hundreds of Jews from their homes at the boarder to district capitals, so they could be closely monitored by authorities. The Christian National Defense League (LANC), the political party lead by Alexander C. Cuza, did not allow for any Jewish representation, participation or membership. LANC was the first organization to use the Swastika as their official symbol, which came to be synonymous with anti – Semitism and hatred of minorities. The Iron Guard, a branch of LANC, carried out the brutal and violent acts of the regime. They were responsible for the burning of Jewish homes, destruction of synagogues, and the beating of Jews in the street.
“ The anti- Semitic violence in Romania… was but an indication of what was about to happen on a local initiative in much of Eastern Europe.”- Friedlander
Beatrice (Hirsch) Becker was born on April 30, 1925 in Lasi, Romania. She grew up in an apartment above the factory her father managed. Living with her father, Joseph Hirsch, mother, Rebecca Hirsch, grandmother, and sister; she had a typical childhood. The family was quit comfortable economically, thus Beatrice’s upbringing was perhaps graced with more privileges than most. Both her parents were Jewish, and in the technical sense of the term, so was she. However, her family was only moderately religious or observant. They did not keep kosher and they did not attend temple regularly. The only prevalent evidence that they were Jewish was their weekly Shabbat dinners. Beatrice, nor her family, could have ever foreseen the implication such a minor aspect of their lives would bring.
Beatrice was happy. Her childhood was filled with adventure, joy, excitement, and heartbreak; as any childhood should. As a young girl, the only true tragedy Beatrice experienced was the death of her brother. Though nothing could have prepared her for the coming months of persecution, violence, brutality, and suffering.
It began in August of 1940, at approximately the same time the Soviet Union singed the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, annexing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from Romania. The threat of the Soviet Union was a catalyst to a new and extreme age of anti – Semitism in Romania. Romanian nationalists portrayed Jews as a pro – Communist community in full support of the Soviet Union. The Jews were labeled as the enemy, and this fueled a new wave of anti –Semitic acts. Although no official legislation was passed, anti- Jewish decrees were posted all over town. Beatings and verbal attacks on the streets became a daily occurrence for Jews in Romania. People were afraid to leave their homes for fear of the brutality and harassement that would greet them.
Joseph Hirsch was American and served in the American Navy until he was 27. He was given
permission from the American Consulate to leave Romania and come back to America with Beatrice and her sister. However, this would mean leaving Rebecca, who was a full Romanian, behind. Her father could not bare the thought of leaving her mother alone, in a country that was becoming more hostile and dangerous by the day. He declined the offer and the whole family stayed.
Beatrice, along with all other Jewish children, was kicked out of school. Her friends abandoned her, refusing to associate with a Jew and cursing her on the street…
“There was a lot of anti- Semitism… your own neighbors, your own people, would go against you.”
Alone, scared, and ostracized from the town that was once her home, she was convinced it could not possibly get any worse; she was wrong. In June of 1941, a pogrom was implanted in Lasi.
Beatrice and her family met a kinder fate than most; they survived. A friend of the family turned them into authorities and they were arrested. They were held in a jail cell for the entirety of the pogrom, which in hindsight, kept them safe from the savagery and bloodshed taking place outside. At the completion of the pogrom, the family was released and allowed to return to their home.
Once again, Beatrice told herself it could not possibly get any worse. She thought this had to be it. She still had a sliver of hope that this would all disappear. Once again, she was wrong. Her life was about to unravel in ways she could not have imagined.
It was a normal day, quiet and peaceful, until suddenly, German planes could be seen overhead. The Germans were bombing the city, and no one was prepared. Lasi was caught in a state of panic. There simply were not the proper facilities to cope with such an attack. They desperately rushed to the make shift bomb shelter (which in actuality was a storage unit for food), but even with people piled form floor to ceiling, there simply was not enough room. Snipers passing overhead shot those at the top of the pile, and their blood trickled down, covering those below. Despairingly, the decision was made to pull the men out of the shelter so the women and children could be protected. That was the last time Beatrice saw her father.
Throughout the remainder of the war, somehow, despite the atrocities she witnessed, she held on to the hope that her father was alive. She later found out that he had been sent to a concentration camp, and did not even live long enough to reach the gate. Perhaps it was for the best; he eluded months, perhaps even years of suffering in the concentration camp. If anything, this provided a bit of solace for Beatrice.
The After Math
The bomb raid was over, and Beatrice, her mother, and sister set out on their journey home – if there was even a home to go back to. Their view as they walked was that of death and destruction. A state of shock consumed them. The places and the faces they passed as they walked were unrecognizable. They might not have even believed they were in Lasi until they were greeted with a disturbing proof. Her uncle was lying before them in the street, dead. Her mother, helpless, tried to help him. She did not see the German behind her, witnessing her futile attempts. Though even if she did, weak from hunger, exhaustion, and pain, she could not have prevented him from hitting her over the head with a brick. With no father and a severely injured mother, Beatrice and her sister managed to make it home. The answer was suddenly clear. Yes, this was Lasi; yes, this was their house; but no, this was no longer their home.
These four walls and a roof could only provide them with temporary refuge. As soon as Beatrice stepped out her front door, she was greeted with growing persecution, brutality, and cruelty. As official anti- Semitic legislation was passed, Jews lost what little freedom they still possessed. They were required to wear yellow stars of David on their clothing, they were only permitted to leave their homes at designated hours of the day, and when they did leave, they were subject to brutal and vicious attacks. Germans used Jewish homes as sleeping quarters, terrorizing the home’s inhabitants from dawn to dusk.
Beatrice and her sister held on to hope. They refused to bow their heads submissively and accept their fate. They remained defiant. Beatrice’s sister could not sit idly by and watch German soldiers invade their home. She put acid in the German women’s face cream so they would burn their face. She was 12 years old at the time. Beatrice remained determined to discover what had truly happened to her father. She approached German authorities time and time again demanding for answers, but they did not give her any legitimate information. Beatrice and her sister were just children, but they faced their adversity with courage and perseverance. The Germans could take away their freedom and humanity, but they couldn’t take away their hope. Through it all they remained hopeful, despite the constant debilitating tragedy facing them. In 1944, Rebecca Hirsch died, and so Beatrice and her sister went to live with a friend of the family. In a matter of 3 years, Beatrice had lost her father, her mother, and her home.
Living in the ghetto was like living as a prisoner. Jews were forbidden to walk freely around the ghetto and were under a strict curfew. When they actually were permitted to leave their homes, avoiding grenades was a genuine concern, and so most simply did not take the risk. Food was sparse and starvation was a common occurrence. Their days were littered with a constant fear of air raids.
Air raids became so common that Beatrice began spending more time in bomb shelters than in her home. More prevalent than the fear of bombings was the fear deportation to concentration camps. She began to have nightmares, “I see how they’re marching us; people screaming; I wake up… I can’t go to sleep because I’ll dream again and I’m terrified. But I could hear it, I could actually hear it… the music. Everything.” Beatrice could have let the fear paralyze her, but instead she allowed it to fuel her defiance. Her neighbors were caught attempting to cross the Romanian border to Russia and were now running from German authorities. They came to Beatrice’s home, begging for refuge. Beatrice could have easily refused and thought of her own safety first. She could have given in to the fear and turned her back on them. She could have even turned them into the German authorities herself; but she did not. She opened her home to them, risking her life for complete strangers.
Her final act of defiance occurred in August 1944, when Romania was liberated. Russian soldiers invaded Romania, and after a violent and bloody battle, relinquished the country from German control. In the midst of the chaos, a German soldier found his way to Beatrice’s house. She did not know what to do, but she did know if she did not act fast, the soldier would most definitely kill her and her sister. She acted on impulse. She filled up a bucket with scolding hot water, and threw it over the soldier. She did not stay to see what happened next, but she is certain she killed him. This final act of defiance did not leave her feeling like a hero. She did not feel courageous or valiant. All she could think about was the look in the soldier’s eye. The knowledge that she might have killed a mind is something she can never forget.
Becker, Beatrice. Interview 7294. Visual History Archive. USC Shoah foundation.
Staten Island: 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2011
Eliyahu Saffran, Rabbi. “The Lasi Pogrom.” Holocaust Studies (2011): n. pag. AISH. Web.
Friedlander, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, abridged Orna Kenan. Harper Collins Books, 2009.
Ioanid, Radu. The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the
Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. Print.