Today marks 73 years since the lives of Jews in the city of Jassy, Romania were completely devastated by one of the most brutal and egregious pogroms to have ever been perpetrated during the long Second World War.
On the 27th of June, 1941, the military body as well as the police of Jassy, under Marshall Antonescu’s orders, began to plan to empty the city of it’s Jewish population for the unthinkable. In fact the telephone call to the head of the military garrison explicitly said to
“cleanse Iaşi of its Jewish population”
The authorities accused the entire Jewish Community at the time not only of collaborating with the Soviets, but also attacking Romanian soldiers in the streets.This fabrication unfortunately served to further promote fear amid the already indoctrinated Romanian, and predominantly Christian populace, who would later join the army in conducting the wide-spread murder of Jews.
However, the signs of something terrible to come were already there as only days earlier Jewish men were arrested and forced to dig large and wide ditches in the Jewish Cemetery of Jassy for no particular reason. This only exacerbated by the fact that the local police began raiding people’s houses for the sake of inducing fear.
However, despite the relatively minor occurrences on the 27th of June, the next day Jews were taken out of their homes in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jassy and beaten severely, humiliated and robbed of their belongings. The houses of Romanians, however, each had a cross in their window signifying the fact that they were not Jews. A great deal of women were raped, and children killed. However, this interestingly was not only at the hands of the authorities but also that of common Romanians.
Reports and testimonies were given after the Second World War that suggest that people beat and humiliated their own neighbors which lived side by side for years, simply to join in the spark of violence caused by the widespread xenophobia of Romanian fascism. A relevant example would be Lazar Leibovici famous testimony:
“Our Christian neighbors, whom I considered my friends, came out of their homes with iron bars, hoes, spades and guns and began to hit us.”
On the outset of this preliminary outburst from the Romanian military, which starkly resembled Germany’s Kristallnacht, it might have seemed that it would end on the night of June 28th, however it became clear that the authorities meant to do a lot more. They began to organize people into groups and march them across town to the local police precinct, where for a full day men and children would be fostered into lines and shot. This, of course, all the while trucks were constantly backing in and out to remove the bodies.
When shooting stopped for several minutes, the iron bars and clubs were used and dozens and dozens of dead bodies gathered in front of the gates.
Close to 8000 people died in the initial stage of the pogrom, most of which were murdered by firing squads or beaten to death near the police precinct of Jassy, in the middle of the city. However, according to Leibovici on the 29th at 12 am, the Romanian troops were ordered out, only to be replaced by the Germans.
Soon, Lazar, along with 4,400 other Jews were transported to the railway yard in Jassy where they were again stripped of all of their few remaining possessions and herded into railway cars- approximately some 100 in each car, giving them no room to move, let alone breath. On the 29th and 30th of June two trains departed from Jassy, in a German-Romanian plan to evacuate the city completely of its Jewish presence. The first train bound for Calarsi held 2,600 people, and the second to Podu Iloie held about 1,900.
The conditions on the trains were ghastly and most inhumane. The first train rode around without stopping for 17 hours straight, only to later stop under the orders of a Romanian officer to empty its carts of the bodies who died of exhaustion and most likely due to the lack of air. This first “death train” as they have been famously nicknamed, continued to stop every day in numerous location only to remove the bodies of Jews who succumbed to thirst.
Testimonies show that when the train stationed and the people wanted to drink water from puddles around the train tracks they were beaten and thrown back unto the train. The bodies were carried out by Roma prisoners, under the directions of the Romanian army.
On the 6th of July, after days of riding around aimlessly the train finally stopped, and the Jews on board were allowed to leave the train carts into a internment camp at the town of Calarasi. Only about 1000 people survived from the original 2500.
The Second train took 8 hours to reach Podu Iloie, which was only 20 km away from Jassy. As a result of the terrible conditions inside the wagons, as well as the brutality of the army only 700 made it to its destination.
Those coming out could hardly be called human after this ordeal.-Lazar
Some 13,300 Jews died between the 27th of June and the 6th of July.
The Romanian People’s Tribunal conducted war trials for the entire nation in 1946, among which 56 people were brought in front of a judge for the evens at Iasi. Most of them were military personnel, but also a hand full of civilians. However, only 23 received full life sentences and hard labor, while the rest only a few years.
However, amid all the horrible pain there is also a story of hope, and a glimpse of humanity. In the town of Roman where one of the trains stopped, Viorica Agarici, a nurse for the Red Cross heard sounds from one of the trains and used her position to persuade the guards to let her handout food and water to the people in the train cars. She was later flogged by the residents of Roman which forced her to move to Bucharest. Viorica is one of the Righteous among Nations.
The exact reasons for the spark of the Iasi Pogrom is not known, however we can be sure of one thing: the rise of antisemitism and fascism in Romania was an unyielding force resembling that of Germany’s Nazism. Historians theorize that this was not by any means a spark from the blue, but rather a well thought out and planned insurrection by the Antonescu regime, under German guidance. It is thus this very aspect which makes this event so interesting, as well as so tragic.
The Romanians, were the only ones besides the Germans, to completely conduct their own murder of Jews under their own autonomy, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland and the Ukraine where the German Eintzgruppen and later SS units propagated the destruction of Jewry.
Whatever the case maybe, for some, it is difficult to forget the pain and sorrow even 70 years on. Perhaps the best way to put it is in Andrei Calarasu’s(a survivor of the pogrom) own words:
There is pain in my heart.
The community today continues to prosper amid arduous memories. However, they still continue to know that they live in a place that was once the home of a rich Jewish culture and heritage. In fact, Jassy once had a substantial Jewish population numbering somewhere in the 40 to 50 thousand range in the 1930’s. Very few people know that Jassy is the home of klezmer music, the first professional Yiddish theater led by Goldfaden, as well as the place where Herz Imber wrote the poem “Hatikvah” which gave it’s words to Israel’s current national anthem.
Lazar Leibovici’s Testimony
Yad Vashem War Trials Report
Andrei Calarasu’s Testimony
Further Reading Here