Report: Romania’s entangled traumatic pasts

Authors: Vladimir Costea, Delia Cocora, Alice Chempf, Irina Baciu, Monica Tache, Letitia Roman, Robert Ticalau. Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest

Romania became a member of the European Union in 2007 after having experienced two totalitarianism in the 20th century, an extreme-right wing regime (1938-1944) and a communist regime (1948-1989). Their shadows still cover the post-1990 Romanian political and memorial landscape. While the Romanian state has addressed the traumatic past through such initiatives as the Wiesel Report (2004) and the Tismăneanu Commission (2006), which documented the Romanian Holocaust and respectively condemned the “criminal communist dictatorship”, Romanian society has been less adamant to share this official condemnation. This travelling seminar introduced students and scholars to the memory of the Holocaust in Romania and its traces, as well as to the memorialization of the communist past, both at the official level and in what concerns memory sites. Participants visited some of the most emblematic sites, such as the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest, the Jilava memorial, “80 east” (a communist apartment), and also joined a walking tour on totalitarianism in downtown Bucharest.

  • 13 March 2019

The memory of the Holocaust in Romania”

The first day of the travelling seminar was divided into two parts: the first part of the day was focused on the memory of the Holocaust, while the second part on the communist past in Romania.

Traces of (In) humanity in Holocaust Related Killing Sites in Romania and Moldova. 

Adrian CIOFLÂNCĂ, Director of The Center for the Study of the History of the Jews in Romania

The first part of the seminar took place at the Center for the Study of the History of the Jews in Romania (CSIER). Founded in 1977, The Center for the Study of the History of the Jews in Romania – Centrul pentru Studiul Istoriei Evreilor din România- (CSIER) is a structure of scientific research, documentation, and archival preservation and operates within the Culture, Science, Media section of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania.

Adrian Cioflâncă presented his “Traces of (In)humanity in Holocaust Related Killing Sites in Romania and Moldova” which highlighted the extent of the atrocities that took place in Romania and Moldova through the so-called massacres against the Jews and the attempt to show the importance of commemorative monuments, mass graves and unmarked killing sites of the Jews.

He discussed several case studies of mass perpetrated crimes on the Romanian territory during the Holocaust like: the Iaşi Pogrom (June-July 1941); the Massacre in Stânca Roznovanu (June 1941); the Massacre in the Vulturi Forest (June 1941); The Massacre in Gura Căinari- Mărculeşti (July 1941). In the first instance, Adrian Cioflâncă stressed the historical context of the beginning of the Holocaust in Romania. In this regard, Romania took part in the Holocaust by bullets and “representatives of authorities, former Iron Guard members and civilians, sometimes assisted by German officers and soldiers, started to kill Jews in north-eastern Romania, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina”. He continued with the most representatives massacres. The Iaşi Pogrom was perpetrated in 29 of June 1941 by officers from the General Staff and disbanded soldiers, policemen, public guardians, gendarmes, agents of secret services, civilians and 14.000 Jews, mostly men, were killed. Concerning commemorative monuments in Iaşi, we can find a monument in the memory of the victims of the Iaşi Pogrom which was built in 1976 during communism. Also, in 2000, the Canadian film director Simcha Jacobovici illegally installed a plaque on the building of the former Police Headquarter in Iaşi and it remained there till 2011. Adrian Cioflâncă highlighted the fact that two monuments were erected in 2010, by Jewish organizations, in the memory of the Jews killed in Sculeni and Stânca Roznovanu. Another massacre was in Mărculeşti- Gura Căinari (July 1941) where the Jewish population of Mărculeşti (The Republic of Moldova) was evacuated and killed near Gura Căinari.

Memorialization of the Holocaust in post-communist Romania

Felicia WALDMAN, Assistant  Professor of Modern Hebrew and Jewish thought at the Faculty of Letters, University of Bucharest

The presentation of Felicia Waldman highlighted the subject of “Memorialization of the Holocaust in postcommunist Romania, especially in the visual arts field. Her presentation discussed the very close relationship established between the social-political reality presented by Adrian Cioflâncă and the subsequent artistic representations that demonstrate the impact that some past events have on the artistic achievements of a country or even at the European and international level. Her presentation started with some Romanian documentaries, such as Struma (Radu Gabrea and Stelian Tănase, 2001), Holocaust under the Antonescu Government (Cristian Hadji-Culea, 2009) and the most recent, The Dead Nation, produced by Radu Jude in 2017. The last one presents the rising of the anti-Semitism policy and eventually a harrowing depiction of the Romanian Holocaust, a topic which is not very talked about in the contemporary Romanian society. About the Roma victims, there are several documentaries, such as Hidden Sorrows: The persecution of Romanian Gypsies during World War II (Michelle Kelso, 2005), Valley of Sighs (Mihai Leaha, Iulia Hossu, and Andrei Crișan, 2013) or The exile from Bessarabia (Sergiu Ene, 2013).

Theatre also deals with the Holocaust as is the case of The kings’ game (Pavel Kohout), Born for never (Andras Visky) or At your service, Fuhrer (Mihai Maniutiu). Concerning the educational theatre, inter@FACE 3 is an experimental show combining avant-garde musical composition, technological innovation and documentary theatre. Shoah – The Survival is a multimedia interactive sound installation-performance about survival, inspired by the events that occur in Transylvania during the Holocaust and by the survivor testimonies. Bucharest 41 – Round trip is a 4 hour travelling show which starts at the State Jewish Theatre and continues to the Great Synagogue, the Hammer Vocational School and the Jilava Forest. Along the way, the spectators are accompanied by a guide who explains what happened in Bucharest in 1941.

Felicia Waldman’s presentation also introduced a series of museums in Romania which emphasize the traumatic heritage of the Holocaust: The Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest, The Elie Wiesel Memorial House, and Maramureș Jewish Culture Museum or the memorial plaques in different departments of the country.

The Holocaust Memorial

Our seminar continued with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest. We found out that The Memorial of Holocaust Victims in Romania was inaugurated on 8 October 2009 and the marking of this day was established by law in 2004 with the foundation of the National Institute for Holocaust Studies “Elie Wiesel” and the approval of the law punishing the anti-Semitism. The building of the Memorial was initiated in 2005 by the Ministry of Culture following the recommendations of the International Commission of the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) as an expression of the duty to recognize and assume the crimes committed during the Second World War against the Jewish and Roma community. We could see on an area of nearly 3,000 meters the Central Memorial and the five sculptures: the Memorial Column, Via Dolorosa, the Roma Wheel, David’s Star and the Epitaph.               

Totalitarianism tour, a walking tour in downtown Bucharest 

The day continued with a walk in the centre of Bucharest where the group discovered where the Secret Police Service had its headquarters. Being accompanied by the historian Mihai Burcea who described every historical building or monument such as the Police headquarters, Cercul Militar National, the former National Theater, the group had the chance to learn more about Romania’s traumatic pasts. Mihai Burcea highlighted the meaning of buildings for the communist regime and for the Revolution. One of the most important points was the Square of Revolution, where he explained the meaning of December ‘89 for the Romanian democratic future. Moreover, he explained how Ceausescu managed to escape from the former Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party but was afterward caught and executed together with his wife.

Visit of the 80 east – the communist apartment, with the participation of Alexandra Bârdan (University of Bucharest)

After the walking tour of Bucharest, the group visited “80 east communist apartment” (a civic initiative of the NGO “Funky Citizens”) with the participation of Alexandra Bârdan. The purpose of the apartment is to be the setting for a lesson of human rights for pupils in order to contrast the narrative of the discussion with the communist decorations, which remind of the communist dictatorial regime. Two representatives from Funky Citizens explained to us the meaning of each room and the meaning of the objects. The apartment intends to replicate a classic familial communist flat presenting the living room, a child’s bedroom, and the couple’s bedroom. The tour of the house encapsulated the daily life of people in Romania during communism.

Furthermore, at the end of the tours, Alexandra Bârdan joined the discussion and explained the feeling of nostalgia for communism in Romania nowadays. She remarked that in Romania there is no real nostalgia for the past in terms of wanting back the communist regime. Not only did she highlight the fact that Romanians do not want the regime back, but she also advanced the idea that this feeling of nostalgia is manifested mainly for the objects. In addition, she underlined the aim of the apartment is for young people to remember and to get to know the communist regime.

  • 14 March 2019

Memorialization and dealing with the communist past” at the Institute of Political Research, University of Bucharest

The Communist Dictatorship in Romania: Coercion, Consent, and Dissent

Cristina PETRESCU, Professor at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Political Science

The second day of the seminar started with Prof. Cristina Petrescu’s presentation, which highlighted the particularities of the Communist Regime through the use of powerful pictures. The main features of the Communist regime were perfectly summarized by the syntagma “One party, one leader, one ideology”, illustrated through two distinct communist leaders in Romania – Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej (1945-1965) and Nicolae Ceausescu (1965- 1989).

In regards to the implementation of Communism in Romania, professor Cristina Petrescu stressed the idea that although ideologically the Romanian society was classless (from a socio-economic and cultural point of view), equality was inexistent in front of the law. From a legal perspective, Petrescu explains, Nomenklatura (administrative and bureaucratic elites) and the New Class were privileged.

She furthered her argument by accurately describing how the centrally planned economy leads to a lack of goods for the broader society, which forced people to wait in cues for products that wouldn’t even be available for the population, such as diary products, fresh meat or even bread. Although during the Communist Regime in Romania the Dacia cars were produced on a large scale, the citizens could hardly acquire a car due to a lack of money or even if they eventually got the car, she explains, it was almost impossible to afford the fuel.

In terms of the coercive dimension of the regime, Cristina Petrescu pointed to the existence of the Sighet Memorial the former prison where the Romanian elites were brutally exterminated in the first years of communism in Romania.

In order to create a holistic image, the professor described briefly the famous case of Herta Müller, a recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of the Socialist Republic of Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime, which she has experienced herself.

For a better understanding of the practices of communist leaders, professor Cristina Petrescu explained how the leaders appealed to the masses through compulsory demonstration or mass rallies in which the citizens were forced to acclaim the leaders for several hours in public places. Adding details to this elaborate picture, Cristina Petrescu re-enforces the concept of Public Obedience attained by the regime through compulsory membership in Party- controlled organizations or compulsory “voluntary” work.

The Professor also shares the way in which the population was able to escape the monopoly on the information held by the Communist Party through western literature, music or films that illegally made it into the country.

The discussion ended with professor Cristina Petrescu stressing the means of remembering Communism, by showing pictures of films realized on the topic such as I’m an old communist hag (Stere Gulea, 2013) in which a specific Communist family gathering in a typical communist house is shown. In this vein, she concluded by emphasizing the importance of remembering and keeping the image of a society crippled by the Communist Regime alive, in order for the Romanian society not to experience the same historical path.

Public Exposure without Lustration: Dealing with the Secret Police Files in Post-communism

Dragoș PETRESCU, Professor at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Political Science

The second presentation was that of Prof. Dragos Petrescu, who began his presentation with the 2008 decision of the Romanian Constitutional Court, which ruled law 187/1999 as unconstitutional, contextualizing the crisis of the post-communist process of dealing with the files of the secret political police, known as the Securitate. He highlighted the relevance of the government’s response, which assumed responsibility and assured the continuation of the process

He introduced the syntagma “informal lustration”, defining it as a process that encourages both moral and institutional changes, as a side effect of the access to the secret files, the systematic public exposure of the wrongdoings of the communist regime and moral condemnation of the act of providing the secret police with information on fellow citizens.

In the first part of the presentation, Dragoș Petrescu addressed the legal framework, from the passing of Law 187 in December 1999, and the establishment of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS), until 2008. He highlighted the inspiration drawn from the German model of dealing with the documents of the Stasi, explaining its influence in Eastern Europe. He analysed the role of former political prisoners, who formed the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania, which played a pivotal role in the promotion of reparations for everybody who was politically persecuted under communism. He underlined the importance of Law 187, passed in 1999, law which allowed citizens to read their Securitate files and the creation of CNSAS, a necessary institution in the administration of secret files. Petrescu addressed the transfer of the Securitate files, an ardent problem during 2000-2005, and the following improvements of the 2006-2008 period.

In the second part of the presentation, professor Petrescu introduced the second period of reference for the CNSAS, starting from 2008, with the decision of the Constitutional Court upon the unconstitutionality of Law 187/1999. He underlined that even though this decision was seen as an attempt of the Neo-communist forces to stop a promising process, there was a systemic issue that needed to be solved, specifically the status of CNSAS as a parallel judicial structure. He noted the two Emergency Governmental Ordinances issued in February and March 2008. He explained the change brought by the new legislation, under which CNSAS was assigned exclusively the role of prosecutor and underlined the improvement in transparency gained under the new law.

In the last part of the presentation, professor Petrescu addressed the failure to adopt a lustration law in 2005-2010. He contextualized the debates following the presidential elections of 2004. He added that in 2005, a group of members of Parliament belonging to the National Liberal Party formulated a bill meant to limit the access to public office of persons who held positions in the power structures of the communist regime. The project was voted by the Senate in 2006 and by the Chamber of Deputies in 2010 but was not enforced since the Constitutional Court found it unconstitutional. Professor Petrescu highlighted how this decision ended in an abrupt manner the ongoing debates on this subject.

Dragos Petrescu’s presentation has been extremely valuable for understanding both the mechanisms behind the CNSAS and its relevance for the broader society nowadays. He stressed the idea that many young adults are curious about finding either if there had been an association between their relatives and the Securitate or acknowledging the abuses made by the Secret police. He dynamically responded to several questions from the public such as if the archives are available to everyone under no special conditions – to which he responded positively or if there is a social stigma for youngsters who had in their family relatives who worked hand in hand with the Securitate, to which he responded that there is no stigma in the society for the second generations, as they are not responsible for past actions.

 “The politics of forgetting and the politicization of memory of the communist past after December 1989”

Alexandru GUSSI, Professor at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Political Science

The last presentation of the second day of our Travelling Seminar “Romania’s Entangled Traumatic Pasts” entitled “The politics of forgetting and the politicization of memory of the communist past after December 1989” was made by Alexandru Gussi, Professor at the University of Bucharest, Faculty of Political Science.

Alexandru Gussi started by highlighting the importance that political legitimacy has had especially for the post-communist states like Romania, given the contradiction between the continuity of the Romanian state and the effects of the 1989 revolution. Gussi explained that the legitimacy of the state was a high priority for the Romanian politicians, most of them part of the former communist nomenklatura, especially at the beginning of the Romanian democracy, despite the fact that the violent regime change that occurred in December 1989, hindered the political, social and economic development of Romania.

He then focused his attention on describing the present Romanian political regime, the attitudes of the politicians regarding the crimes committed by the communist regime (oblivion, denial, and irresponsibility) as well as evaluating two periods of time, 2006-2012-the most active in transitional justice and the other 2012-2016-one in which the communist past has been ignored. According to Gussi, this evaluation revealed four fundamental aspects. First of all, the transitional justice issues present in almost all state institutions were abolished. The process of de-communization was not accomplished, and in addition, the responsibility for becoming accustomed to the past is recognized only for memory institutions. Secondly, the executive branch regained control over the discourse about the past, and many pro-transitional justice civil society representatives and academics became members of the CNSAS and other institutions. Third, the anticommunist camp was torn apart regarding the concerns about the communist past rather than the activity of memory institution, especially their independence from the political parties. These new concerns overshadowed the debate on the past, affected the credibility of the transitional justice supporters, and weakened the public influence of the anticommunists. Fourth, the author revealed the way that, some memory institutions, especially after 2012, lost relevance for the general public, the mass media.

Last but not the least, Alexandru Gussi talked about the evolution of the Romanian party system after the end of the communist regime and the role that the creation of the memory institutions has had for the Romanian society. He also underlined that the unconsolidated Romanian democratic regime, the fragility of the new parties which do not have a well-defined ideological as well as a political platform, and the lack of civil society are all responsible for the absence of the transitional justice policies in our country. Finally, professor Gussi stressed the idea that in order to succeed, the transitional justice process needs the support of the most important Romanian politicians capable of developing transitional justice programs as soon as possible, that one may change the country’s position regarding its communist past.

Visit of the Jilava Memorial

Together with Cristian Mihai Velicea, chief commissar at the Jilava Prison, we explored the specific history and location of Fort no. 13 Jilava, where interwar historical, political, and cultural personalities were tortured.

The Jilava Fort 13’ initially purpose was to defend the city of Bucharest, but after 1907 it was used as a prison (one of the worst in Romania). Jilava was the location of a fort built by King Carol I of Romania, as part of the capital’s defense system. After 1907, the fort was converted into a prison. The rooms here tell very traumatic and sad stories about prisoners who were deprived of food, rest and dignity. It is now a historical monument.

This prison is the site where, on November 26-27, 1940, the Iron Guard authorities of the National Legionary State killed 64 political prisoners as revenge for the previous killing of their leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu; it was also here that Ion Antonescu, dictator of Romania during World War II, was executed for war crimes in 1946. The prison was also a detention site for political prisoners after the start of Communist rule in Romania.

Between 1948 and 1964, Jilava executed prison sentences of common law, men and women under trial or convicted, detainees, investigated or convicted of „crimes against security” (members of historical parties, legionaries, spies, “War criminals” and members of the “anti-Communist subversive organizations”). The detention regime in Jilava was one of the exterminations of political prisoners. The constants of this regime were the beating, torture, and starvation of those imprisoned, as well as insufficient medical assistance to the medical problems of detainees. In this area of imprisonment were kept those waiting for a trial, but also detainees from the other penitentiaries either for an investigation supplement or for transfer to another place of detention. Generally, the period in which a detainee remained in Jilava was for several months. Because of the large number of inmates who went through Fort 13, Jilava was the only source of information for detainees about the world around them.

For the political prisoners, the only right specified by the detention and security rules of the detainees was that of the walk, but this was not always respected. After 1970, following the change of the detention sites, some of the Fort 13 cells were decommissioned, and some of the detainees, the majority of the common law, were transferred to the new prison building.

The Soviet cemetery

The last part of the travelling seminar “Romania’s entangled traumatic pasts” was dedicated to the reflection on the memory of the communist past, referring to the striking image of the monument of the Soviet heroes, the work of the sculptor Constantin Baraschi.

The monument was inaugurated in 1946, with a ceremony attended by King Michael I, Petru Groza – President of the Council of Ministers, General Mayor of General Victor Dombrowski, General Ivan Susaikov and other Romanian and Soviet officials.

On a 12 m marble obelisk on which a 3 m bronze statue used to stand to honor Soviet soldiers, the monument of the Soviet soldier was placed in Victory Square until the 1980s when it was moved on the Kiseleff Boulevard and after 1989 was removed. Today, the monument is in the Soviet Cemetery in the Pipera neighborhood of northern Bucharest.

The memorial complex to the Soviet soldiers was created in 1947 and is the largest Soviet military cemetery in Romania. Here are buried the remains of more than 600 people. In total, on the territory of Romania in World War II, about 65,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and buried.


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