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Michael Berenbaum
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The political roadblocks to building a Romanian Holocaust museum

Is it antisemitism or a desire to dodge an honest confrontation with history that has torpedoed establishing this important institute?

Of all the countries in Eastern Europe, Romania has been most diligent in compiling its historical record, honestly and painfully.

Under former president Ion Iliescu, Romania asked Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel to chair the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania in 2003, understanding full well that with Wiesel as chairman, the Romanian government would not be in a position to contest its findings and Wiesel could not be pressured to submit a report that would compromise the truth.

They also named Dr. Radu Ioanid, a distinguished historian of the Holocaust in Romania, then working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—and currently Romania’s Ambassador to Israel—as its Vice Chairman, also knowing full well that he had the historical competence to produce a report that would withstand all scrutiny. Dr. Jean Ancel, then Israel’s preeminent historian of Romania during the Holocaust, and the late Professor Randolph Braham, were also named to the Commission. Braham was the pre-eminent historian of this regime and was not reticent to tangle with the Hungarians as they attempted to rewrite their history of the Holocaust — casting all blame on the Germans and cleansing the Hungarians of all major responsibility. Other prominent historians and public figures inside and outside Romania were also part of the Commission, and its report was a model of historical integrity and scholarship. It was written to withstand all scrutiny and it did.

Its conclusions were stark: between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered or died under Romanian supervision and as a result of the deliberate policies of Romanian civilian and military authorities. Over 11,000 Romani were also murdered.

As a result, Romania undertook the important task of creating a museum to tell the story of Romanian Jewry, with a significant emphasis on the Holocaust in Romania. Subsequent presidents endorsed the project, the Parliament approved it, funding was forthcoming from Germany, the EU, and the Romanian government itself. A site was chosen, tenders were issued, an international competition ensued — my colleagues and I were privileged to have been chosen to  design the exhibition — an appropriate name was chosen as the sponsoring institution — The Elie Wiesel Institute — and the project seemed well on its way.

And then, the process became politicized.

The government of Bucharest, Romania’s capital city, objected to the site. Understating the case, some observers noted a measure of antisemitism — so the process had to begin all over again. A new site was chosen, this time under national, not local, auspices, new tenders were issued, an international competition was held, the tender was awarded both for the design of the building and the creation of the Permanent Exhibition, once again we were chosen, and the planning process began in earnest. It was completed last fall with enthusiastic support of the Institute and the project seemed well underway. One could imagine that by now, months later, building the edifice would be well underway for a museum that would tell the full story of Romanian Jews, including the intriguing chapters of the Holocaust and the post-Holocaust era in which the majority of the Romanian Jewish community emigrated to Israel with permission of the government — while the basic infrastructure of the Jewish community, synagogues and schools, old age homes and kosher food were sustained under an ever dwindling and aging population, which was a unparalleled achievement under Communism.

And then, once again, the process became politicized.

President Klaus Iohannis continued to support the project enthusiastically. Prime Minister Ion-Marcel Ciolacu continued his support, the Mayor of Bucharest, Nicușor Dan, who had only the most limited say in one small part of the project objected to an interior staircase and halted the project from going forward. He has even refused to take calls from the prime minister relating to the plans for the Elie Wiesel Institute.

This is another political struggle as the mayor exercises his most limited approval process to halt this significant project. Given the past history of the project, one must wonder why a relatively minor disagreement about the exterior of a building can torpedo the building of this important historical institute.

Something is amiss. One wonders if there is antisemitism afoot and/or is a deep desire to thwart an honest confrontation with Romanian history — both positive and negative — that is the task of this museum.

Without the mayor’s approval, again, a new site will have to be chosen, one that does not come under Bucharest’s municipal jurisdiction. A new tender will have to be posted, a new international competition held, a new planning process for the new site undertaken–and then what?

Will Romania, which charted such a powerful new direction in confronting its own history, join its revisionist neighbors who do not have the courage to face their pasts and accept responsibility for that history?

Will Romania betray the integrity of its previous efforts and the work of its most illustrious commission? Will this be their last chance to do the right thing by history? Or will it be “Three strikes, you’re out”?

About the Author
Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, author and Emmy-Award Filmmaker. Former Project Director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and former President and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
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