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Transnistria

Other than Germany, Romania was directly responsible for the murder of more Jews than any country during World War II. The vast majority of these murders took place in Ukraine. Between 105,000 and 120,000 Jews died as a result of their expulsion from Romania to Transnistria (in addition, of the 25,000 Roma sent to Transnistria approximately 11,000 perished). In 1941 alone, Romanian and German forces killed between 45,000 and 60,000 Jews in Bessarabia and Bukovina. Between 115,000 and 180,000 Jews indigenous to Transnistria were killed, especially in Odessa and the districts of Holta and Berezivka. Most of the deaths in Transnistria resulted from inhuman treatment and a callous disregard for life.

The Romanian authorities were the main perpetrators of the Holocaust in these regions, in both its planning and implementation. Its key components were a systematic, lethal deportation to Transnistria of nearly all the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina (as well as some Jews from central Romania), and the mass killing there of Romanian/Moldavian and Ukrainian Jews.

State Leader Ion Antonescu demonstrably ordered that the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina be condemned to death, simply because of their Jewish origin. Conversely this extermination ended in October 1942 when Antonescu’s regime changed its mind, mainly in view of the course of the war, and decided to stop it. The deportations came to a halt in April 1943. The turnabout was quite unlike the Nazi Holocaust, which kept escalating. The Romanian-conducted Holocaust really stood apart: even though at first the Romanian leadership and bureaucracy shared Germany’s desire to liquidate the Jews, they coordinated their efforts with the Germans (such as Einsatzgruppe D) only with difficulty, and for limited periods.        

Romania’s leadership considered the German-led invasion of the expanded Soviet Union a unique opportunity to implement plans for an “ethnic cleansing,” as the stenographic report of a cabinet meeting on 8 July 1941 shows. [Document E01] Those in attendance all knew about the murderous pogrom in the Moldovian city of Iaşi of 28–29 June 1941. Deputy Prime Minister Mihai Antonescu (1904–1946) demanded the expropriation and expulsion of the Jews in the Bessarabian countryside. In fact, all Jews were to be forced “across the borders” of Bessarabia and Bukovina, along with the local Ukrainians. In his view, peace could only be obtained by a radical approach that also fundamentally altered property rights. “I don’t care if history will call us barbarians,” Antonescu added. “Shoot with the machine gun if necessary.” He emphatically rejected formalities and humanitarian approaches, which he merely considered a cover for the protection of hostile races. He saw this as a time for revenge. None of those attending objected in any way.

In the first half of July 1941, at least 4,500 Jews were murdered in northern Bukovina, and about 7,500 in northern Bessarabia. In the second half of July and in August, at least 6,500 more were killed in northern Bukovina, and perhaps 5,000 in northern Bessarabia. Already in early August 1941, the Istanbul office of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported the killing of about ten thousand Jews “in Rumania” since the start of the German invasion; the report stated (erroneously) that no Jew had remained alive in Bukovina and Bessarabia. [Document E02]

This report—probably the first in the world about these killings—implies an aspect that deserves special mention: the invaders and their local accomplices killed thousands of people who before 1940 had been Romanian citizens, and these included men, women, and children. The killers were regular Romanian soldiers, a Special Unit (Eşalon Special) modeled on the German Einsatzgruppen, and Romanian and Ukrainian locals. It seems that these pogrom-like murders did not even require directives from the center. They were typical for the former Soviet zone of occupation and provide a contrast with the “old” Soviet lands. During the prewar Soviet period, the Soviet state’s official prohibition of antisemitism had significantly improved the relations between Jews and non-Jews in Soviet Ukraine as a whole. A person’s “nationality” was often not even known or considered of interest, particularly among the younger generation. Although the Romanian invaders encouraged local anti-Jewish pogroms even beyond the 1940 Soviet zone of occupation, there seems to be no evidence for any such outbreaks in Transnistria.

In October 1941, Governor Gheorghe Alexianu of Transnistria described the deportation of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina in a message to the Romanian Fourth Army command. [Document E03] Already over 15,000 Jews had arrived in the region west of the Bug River. Alexianu wrote nothing about the many deaths there.

The Massacre in Odessa

As in Kiev, there was a time-delayed Soviet bomb attack in Odessa, Transnistria’s main city. The detonation was preceded by rumors and warnings from locals. On 22 October 1941, a mine in the Romanian army headquarters in the former NKVD building killed a general and sixty officers and soldiers. As in Kiev, the occupiers targeted in the attack blamed the Jews and killed them in revenge. A day later, Ion Antonescu sent his orders to the Fourth Army by telegram formalizing the vengeful mass execution already underway. The State Leader called for a drastic “reprisal”: the shooting of two hundred “Communists” for each Romanian or German officer killed in the attack and the shooting of a hundred for each soldier killed, as well as the taking as hostages of all other “Communists,” and one person from each Jewish family. One day later he ordered all of these prisoners killed, by copying the Soviet bombing: they would thus either be torn apart or burnt alive. That was not all: the Jewish refugees from Bessarabia in Odessa were also to be killed. [See Document E04]

Thus, approximately 25,000 of the about 90,000 Jews present were murdered in just two days. German military intelligence laconically reported the events in early November [Document E05].

The news also reached the Allies. During the war with Germany, Stalin and about sixty close associates received first-hand knowledge of news by way of a top-secret bulletin prepared by TASS, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union. Usually referred to in the inner circle as the agency’s “office bulletin,” it was a mimeographed digest of translated reports from foreign publications, radio programs, and agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press. On 13 November 1941 the TASS bulletin offered for circulation and possible reporting a quite accurate report on the events in Odessa. [Document E06] In this case, Stalin personally edited the text for publication, and it appeared in Soviet newspapers on 16 November. It spoke about “one of the worst mass murders of Jews in history” and referred to the high number of casualties. This was in line with Stalin’s October Revolution day speech of 6 November, where he had referred to “Jewish pogroms” that the Nazis were arranging (Berkhoff, Motherland in Danger, 118-119, 141). At this stage of the war, the notion that not only Jews but all peoples of the Soviet Union were targeted for extermination did not bar reports focusing on Jews. However, Stalin cut from the draft that the massacre had followed the killing of Romanians by a Soviet mine.

In the middle of November 1941, Odessa’s Jews were ordered to move to a ghetto in the Slobodka city district, but implementation was not strict. On 2 January 1942, Alexianu publicly announced in “Order Number 35” that Odessa’s Jews would be deported from the city altogether to perform forced labor further north and east, in the Berezivka (Rom. Berezovca) and Ochakiv (Rom. Oceacov) districts, while their property would be confiscated. The governor also provided detailed instructions [Document E07; Romanian version in Traşcă, Ocuparea oraşului Odessa, 416–417]. The army command based in Odessa ordered all the Jews to settle in Slobodka within three days. In the massive exodus beginning on 11 January, at least one in four deportees died on the way. Early official reports refer to almost 21,000 deportees; a later one to 33,000. The increase was partly due to Jews in hiding being denounced and found.

Large numbers of the Jewish deportees did not live to see the Transnistrian camps, for their guards shot them during the marches. Moreover, of the Jews who did arrive in these camps, the vast majority did not survive either. Survival depended on clandestine trips outside the camps, where locals might offer food or other aid.

Desperate appeals for help traveled across the border of Transnistria, reaching Romania and other countries, such as Palestine. On 23 October 1942, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published such an appeal [Document E08]. The conditions in the region were truly appalling, as survivors recall. [Document E09, Document E10] That there were any survivors at all was purely because as noted, Romania’s leaders changed course and dropped their policy of killing all the Jews.

Karel Berkhoff