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Romanian Jews recall "death trains", demand truth
( 2003-08-14 11:31) (Agencies)

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 Jews.

"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 urine."

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.

Romania's fascist 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 Romania.

But as recently as in June Romania denied the Holocaust happened within its borders.

A government 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.

Finkelstein recalls 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 water.

"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.

"Fathers 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 alive."

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 community of 750,000 about 420,000 perished, including more than 100,000 Jews of Transylvania + then under Hungarian rule + who were deported to Auschwitz.

Iasi's once-flourishing Jewish community, which numbered over 50,000 and boasted 127 synagogues, was nearly wiped out.

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 in 1876.


Today 480, mostly elderly Jews remain in Iasi and community officials say no birth has been recorded for over eight years.

"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 Reuters.

Professor Silviu 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 army.

Antonescu joined 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 the Holocaust.

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.

For Finkelstein, 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."

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