After reading one of my recent columns in the Times of Israel, a reader named Geraldine Cohen contacted me with a startling request.
“My father Martin Bercovici was a remarkable man – he saved hundreds of Jews in Romania during the Holocaust,” she said. “Would you write about his story?”
My first reaction was skepticism tinged with a spot of fatigue. Haven’t we heard enough about Holocaust heroes? At best, the Bercovici tale sounded like another chapter of Schindler’s List or the Warsaw Zookeeper, gentiles who for a variety of noble and less noble reasons rose to the ranks of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by hiding, protecting and saving their endangered Jewish fellow compatriots.
But after speaking with Dr. Cohen, a London-based business school professor, the story about her father seemed worth exploring. It was different and exceptional in several key respects: It is about a Jew saving his fellow Jews. This prominent Romanian Jew didn’t take up arms as happened in the Warsaw Ghetto or the Belarus forests. It raises important questions about the ability of Jewish leaders to protect their fellow Jews as the German death machine gathered speed.
Here’s what I have learned so far: Pre-war Martin Bercovici was a Romanian electrical engineer, instrumental in building the country’s electricity network during the 1920s and 1930s. He was the director of the Gas and Electricity Company of Bucharest.
In 1940, with Romania ruled by a vicious anti-Semitic regime allied with Nazi Germany, Martin Bercovici was allowed to open an engineering school for Jewish students expelled from state universities. Called the ‘Cursuri de Pregatire Tehnica’ (Courses for Technical Preparation), later known as the Bercovici School, it taught a variety of technical courses and took in students from all over Romania.
The Bercovici School, was successful. By 1942, it counted 500 students and 50 professors. By the time Soviet troops liberated Bucharest in August 1944, hundreds of Jewish students of the Bercovici School had completed their studies in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, mathematics, architecture, chemistry, industrial and decorative drawing and dentistry. After the war, the students had their courses and degrees recognized by the Romanian educational authorities and pursued successful careers in their chosen fields.
Most students were destitute and under threat of deportation. For many, Dr. Bercovici arranged to have their ID passes changed, showing that their place of residence was Bucharest. He helped them find lodgings and had their school fees waived. Through his pre-war contacts he arranged for his students to serve their obligatory forced labour at the National Institute of Statistics – a desk job – instead of being sent to remove the snow or to dig trenches where they would be in great danger of being picked up by the Nazi hoodlums and deported. He arranged for the work at the Institute of Statistics to be done in the mornings. The afternoons were reserved for study at the Bercovici School.
After the war, Professor Bercovici stayed in Romania and became an influential figure in the country’s reconstruction. He became the dean to the then newly founded Faculty of Energy Engineering within the Polytechnic University of Bucharest. In 1969, near the end of his life, he visited his former students living safely in Israel. He wanted to see for himself their professional and personal achievements before it was too late.
Although these are the bare bones of the Bercovici story, we lack the details. We don’t have many testimonies, letters or documents, from the surviving students. We don’t have the government records about the Bercovici School. We don’t know exactly how the professor saved his students, whether he was forced to make dubious deals or compromises.
The purpose of this column is to encourage anybody, anywhere with knowledge of this stirring story to come forth and contact Dr. Cohen, the daughter of Martin Bercovici. Her email is email@example.com
Filling in the blanks for the Bercovici story could add to our understanding of the Holocaust in Romania. While my new study on Holocaust revisionism details how many other Central European governments are rehabilitating World War II collaborators and minimizing their own guilt in the death of Jews, one former communist country has gone in the other direction – Romania. It has recognized the findings of an international commission that the country’s wartime government is responsible for the murder of up to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma. Laws outlaw revisionism and rehabilitation of war criminals. Holocaust educational programs are widespread, even at the National College of Defense, where the army’s top officers learn about wartime history and the responsibility to disobey illegal, immoral orders.
To Dr. Cohen, I apologise for sounding uninterested in our initial contact. You have taught me that there is no “boring” Holocaust hero story. The slaughter of six million European Jews keeps turning up tales of horror, suffering, grief, and rare glimpses of humanity. Please help us shed light on Martin Bercovici and his little-documented but extraordinary saga.