Mon August 18, 2003
By Dina Kyriakidou
IASI (Reuters) --At
79, Leizer Finkelstein drinks his beer cold, likes to
tell Jewish jokes and loves his wife of 50 years as much
as on his wedding day.
But when this
tall, jovial man recounts the horrors of his youth, his
eyes fill with tears and his voice breaks although about
60 years have passed since he survived fascist Romania's
extermination of hundreds of thousands of
"When I was 17 I
took my first train ride and it was on a death train...to
this day, I can see everything in my mind," he said. "Now
I am drinking beer but back then I also drank
One of the few
living survivors of the death trains that killed
thousands of Jews in the northeastern city of Iasi,
Finkelstein bears witness to a tragic moment in the
ex-communist country's past, one that its leaders seem to
prefer to forget.
regime under Marshal Ion Antonescu allied with the Nazis
and in a climate of rabid anti-Semitism exterminated over
half the country's Jews, often branding them communists
who cooperated with the Soviet Union against
But as recently as
in June Romania denied the Holocaust happened within its
statement that "no Holocaust took place in Romania"
prompted the fury of Israel and condemnations from Jewish
groups, pushing the country to at last begin to confront
this chapter of its history.
a Sunday morning in June 1941 when Romanian soldiers
raided Iasi's Jewish district, forcing his family at
gunpoint out of their home and taking thousands of men to
the police station yard where SS soldiers killed many
with baseball bats.
The next day the
rest were crammed on trains, 120 people to a wagon, the
air vents nailed shut.
They rode crushed
against each other for most of the hot summer day at a
snail's-pace around a 20 km (12 miles) radius, most
suffocating from the heat, lack of air and
"Who had this idea,
to make these gas chambers without fire and smoke, I
can't imagine," Finkelstein told Reuters. "When somebody
died and fell on your foot, you didn't have the strength
to pull it out from under the body."
The 22 or 23 people
who survived on his wagon were forced to dig mass graves
for the dead in the fields outside the town of Podul
Iloaiei, west of Iasi.
discovered their sons and sons their fathers among the
dead," he said. "We virtually threw the bodies into the
graves. It was terrifying. They would bounce when thrown
on top of each other as if they were still
About 1,240 dead
were accounted by the Jews who buried them at Podul
Iloaiei alone. More than 10,000 Iasi Jews were murdered
during the pogroms and on the death trains. Many more
died in forced labour and concentration camps in the
neighbouring Moldova region of Dnestr.
According to the
Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, from Romania's pre-war
Jewish communityof 750,000 about 420,000 perished,
including more than 100,000 Jews of Transylvania + then
under Hungarian rule + who were deported to
once-flourishing Jewish community, which numbered over
50,000 and boasted 127 synagogues, was nearly wiped
It was in this city
of stately public buildings and tree-shaded boulevards
that "Tevye the Milkman" and "The Witch" were performed
by the world's first professional Yiddish theatre founded
Today 480, mostly
elderly Jews remain in Iasi and community officials say
no birth has been recorded for over eight
"More than 60
percent are over 60 and we have about 20 deaths a year,"
said the community's secretary, Boris Resch.
Most of those who
survived the war fled during Romania's communist years to
Israel and other countries.
"Some say the Jews
brought communism to Romania but it was communism that
drove Jews out of Romania," Resch told
Sanie, director of Iasi's small Jewish Museum inside the
last functioning synagogue, said Romania owes its
reluctance to deal with its past to Antonescu, still seen
by many Romanians as a hero who fought off the Soviet
Adolf Hitler in June 1941 and immediately unleashed the
wrath of his fascist Iron Guard on Romania's Jews.
Pogroms in Bucharest, Iasi and other towns left hundreds
dead. He was later tried and executed as a war criminal
but no other Romanian was ever brought to justice over
In a bid to clean
up its image ahead of winning NATO membership and joining
the European Union, Romania has banned all fascist
symbols, including statues of Antonescu.
But it has done
little to uncover the truth about its role in the
Holocaust. After the diplomatic incident with Israel, the
ex-communist government announced measures, including
declaring a Holocaust memorial day and expanding
education on the issue.
telling the story of the death trains and labour camps is
a noble mission and his one wish is for the government to
tell the truth.
"It gives me no
pleasure to tell this story but I thank God for giving me
these years so I can tell it," he said. "This is what
happened. You can't live in a lie. Every lie you tell,
you twist the future."