Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yigash 5769/ January 3, 2009

Tenth of Tevet, General Kaddish for Holocaust Victims

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

The Scroll of the Destruction of Romanian Jewry (1940-1944)

An Anonymous Manuscript

Dr. Yaakov Geller

Center for Basic Jewish Studies

 

On the eve of the Second World War the Jews of Greater Romania (Romania Mare) numbered approximately 800,000, and by the end of the war only some 450,000 remained.  In the first few years after the end of the war a scroll was written documenting the holocaust in Romania and recording most of the tragic events that took place in this country during the four years of the war.  The author’s purpose in writing this document is set forth as follows:

We wish to maintain for future generations a memory of those frightful days …for we are to remember what Amalek did to us … and not forget.  To all eternity we must never forget the cry of those put to death, burned, hanged, slaughtered, and buried alive.  We shall remember forever what was done to us…  Let this scroll bemoan, along with all the other scrolls written in blood and tears, the holocaust that was wrought to millions of our brothers and sisters, our fellow Jews. [1]

The scroll is divided in six parts:   an introduction, four chapters detailing the tragic events, and a concluding chapter.  The introduction deals with the regime of the “accursed tyrant,” “the destroyer, crazy with hatred,” the despot who ruled for four years – Marshall Ion Antonescu, the “leader of the state” in whose day:

entire communities were wiped out; extended families, including young children, were executed; synagogues and houses of study were burned; public institutions and schools were leveled and destroyed; … hundreds of thousands of Jews were uprooted and exiled to distant realms; … rivers of innocent blood were shed like water.   Leaders and rabbis, Jewish scholars and teachers, humanists and active members of the community, the pride and glory of Romanian Jewry – all fell by the wayside.

In the first chapter the author lists the steps taken by the authorities against the Jews of Romania:  instigating hatred of the Jews among the populace and publishing new decrees against them daily; removing Judaism from the recognized religions in the land; nationalizing Jewish homes and real-estate and plundering Jewish property; expelling thousands of Jewish families from their residences; obligating Jewish merchants and workmen to keep their businesses open on the High Holy Days; confiscating and setting fire to synagogues and desecrating Torah scrolls.

This chapter also mentions the first pogroms:   the first massacre, in Dorohoi, on the first of July, 1940, in which around one hundred Jews were slaughtered, among them infants, children and women, men and elderly, and ten soldiers.   The second massacre, in Bucharest, from January 21 to 23, 1941, in which some 130 Jews were killed, among them the brothers Jacob and Joseph Guttman, the sons of Rabbi Tzvi Guttman, who was the head of the Beit Din (rabbinical court) in the city, who himself was imprisoned and shot twice but was saved from death by his sons.  The bodies of 15 of the slaughtered were hung like animals on hooks in the slaughterhouse, with signs reading “Kosher meat” pasted on them.  The Legionaries, members of the Nazi party Garda de Fier (Iron Guard), who aspired to take over the state and impose a terrorist regime and wipe out all the Jews, attacked 25 synagogues in the city and set fire to the Great Sephardic Synagogue, Kahal Granda, and the ancient Ashkenazi beit midrash.   Hundreds of Jews were kidnapped from their homes, from synagogues, and off the streets and taken to the barracks of the Legionaries, where they were beaten and tortured.

The second chapter mentions another two pogroms:   the third massacre, in Iasi, the capital of Moldova, in late June-early July 1941, in which over 10,000 Jews were killed, among them several thousand who were loaded into 33 airless cattle-cars and carted around on the train tracks for many days, during which time half of them died of thirst, heat, suffocation or dementia.   The fourth massacre, in Stanca Rosnovanu, in the town of Skolny, not far from Iasi, on June 27, 1941, two days before the beginning of the Iasi massacre.  In this massacre 311 Jews were killed, among them seven infants in their mothers’ arms, who were thrown into a pit.

The third chapter deals with the expulsion to Transniestria of the Jews of Dorohoi Province and of Bessarabia and Bucovina.   Of the 150,000 who were expelled, some 90,000 died of cold, hunger, typhus and dysentery epidemics, or were killed by the Germans or Romanians.  Only 60,000 ever returned to their homes. [2]

In the fourth chapter the author of the document bemoans the difficult condition of the 150,000 Jews of northern Transylvania, who, by the Vienna Dictate, were transferred from Romanian rule to Hungarian rule in the summer of 1940.  In June 1944 large ghettos were established in Transylvania, and several weeks later their residents were expelled to the extermination-camp at Auschwitz.   At the end of the war, in May 1945, only 29,405 Jews returned to Romania.   Over 120,000 Jewish martyrs had been burned in the crematoria.  Among these victims were yeshiva students and rabbis from the once-flourishing Jewish communities of Cluj, Oradea-Mare, Satu-Mare, and other places.

The author also mentions the fifth massacre in Sarmas, a city near Turda, where 126 Jews, men women and children, young and old, were killed on the night between September 16 and 17, 1944, on the eve of the New Year, 5705.   He also decries the sinking of two boats of ma’apilim, the Struma on February 24, 1942, and the Mefkura, on August 5, 1944, which set sail for the land of Israel from the port of Constanta on the Black Sea, carrying over 1,100 illegal immigrants, among them refugees from Poland and Hungary and orphans from Transniestria who were drowned in the sea outside the port of Istanbul.

In the concluding chapter the author describes the Fascists’ intention to make Romania judenrein.  They even prepared train cars for transporting the Jews to extermination camps in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Deliverance came when the country was liberated by the Soviet army, thus saving over 400,000 Jews. [3]

The author of this document praised the Socialist Romanian regime:

It was the democratic regime that helped us rehabilitate our ravaged community, rebuilding our communities and expanding our religious life…  We also have been developing closer relations with the remaining Jewish populations of Europe and the entire world.

Who was the author of this document, and why did he not sign his name to it openly, or even give an oblique hint (such as an acronym)?  Why did he wish to remain nameless, leaving this piece of writing anonymous?

After thoroughgoing investigation we can say almost for certain that the author of this document was Rabbi Benjamin Vilner, who during the war years (1940-1944) was incarcerated in the Targu-Jiu concentration camp in Romania proper, and in the Vapniarca and Grosolovo camps in Transylvania, under suspicion of allegedly being a communist sympathizer. [4]   He wished to remain anonymous due to the great praise that he voiced for the Socialist-Democratic regime in Romania, which had impoverished the Jews, seizing their assets and eliminating them from the economic life of the country, and for the Red Army, that attacked the Germans and expelled them from the country, thus saving most of Romanian Jewry from annihilation.

Rabbi Vilner was born in Jerusalem in 1899.   His parents left Palestine in 1901 and returned to Galicia, from whence they fled to Czechia at the beginning of the First World War.  Between 1915 and 1918 Rabbi Vilner studied in a yeshiva in Vienna.   In 1920 he came to Romania to study at the Baia-Mare and Satu-Mare yeshivas in Transylvania.  He was ordained to the rabbinate by Rabbis Moses Berger and Zussia Landman of Bucharest and Rabbi Dr. Alexander ùôøï , the Chief Rabbi of Romania.   Rabbi Vilner served as ùå"á and îå"õ in the city of Liteni from 1925 to 1929, at which time he moved to Frumusica, inhabited in 1930 by some 434 Jews.  In 1960 Rabbi Vilner immigrated to Israel, where he lived out his days in Petah-Tikvah and died in 1978.

                                                                                                                                         

 



[1] Thus far I have seen six scrolls written about the Holocaust:   1) Moses Prager, Megillat ha-Shoah, a lament of the destruction of European Jewry, Jerusalem 1967; 2)   Michal Sharf, Megillat Hitler be-Tzefon Africa (Jewish literature in Morocco and Tunisia about the defeat of the Nazis), Haberman Institute for Studies of Literature, Lod 1988; Abba Kovner, Megillat ha-Edut (edited and prepared for publication by Shalom Luria), Mosad Bialik, Jeruslaem 1993 (a book containing five scrolls about the Holocaust); Avigdor Shinan, Megillat ha-Shoah (in Hebrew and English), Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 2003,2004;   5) Behr Mark, Megillat Auschwitz (in Yiddish), Prolog Yisrael Buch, Tel Aviv 1977;  6) Yitzhak Menahem Mendel Steinmetz, “ Kinah le-Shoat Auschwitz” (in Hebrew and Yiddish), in Edut Hayyah, London 1998, p. 283-292.

[2] The story of the dreadful extermination of the Jews of Transniestria, dubbed Romania’s Auschwitz, is almost unknown to the youth and general population of Israel and the world at large.

[3] The number of those killed or missing totaled 385,306.   According to the post-war report of the World Jewish Congress in Bucharest, the fascist regime of Romania was directly responsible for 271,306 holocaust victims, and the fascist regime of Hungary was responsible for some 114,000 victims.  Cf. The World Jewish Congress, Romanian Jewry after the War (no place or date of publication), pp. 4-5.

[4] One of the things indicating that he was the author of this document is a comparison of the handwriting of the manuscript (written in the calligraphic style used for Torah scrolls, mezuzot and tefillin) with the writing of Rabbi Vilner, who was a Torah scribe, combined with testimony from the two sons of Rabbi Tzvi Guttman, for whom Rabbi Vilner did scribal work.