A Mass Grave Raises Ghosts of Romania's Holocaust Past

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Elisabeth Ungureanu

One day in 1941, Vasile Enache was tending his cows in the forest of Vulturi, near the city of Iasi, 260 miles (420 km) northeast of Bucharest, when he heard people sobbing. He went to investigate and saw hundreds of civilians being marched through the forest by Romanian army soldiers. Enache didn't know it at the time, but he was witnessing part of Romania's "Iasi pogrom," which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 14,000 Jews.

For almost 70 years, successive Romanian governments have downplayed the nation's role in the Holocaust. But now a suspected mass grave has been found in the Vulturi forest, and some are hoping that the discovery will help Romania face up to one of the darkest periods in its history.

Rumors about a mass grave in the Vulturi forest had been circulating for years; when a similar grave was found near Iasi in 1945, it led to a trial that ended with several top military commanders being sentenced to jail. After persuading Enache to show him the exact location of the Vulturi grave, local historian Adrian Cioflinca organized a team of people from Romania's Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust to start excavating the site last month. They uncovered the remains of 16 bodies — including the skeletons of children, a lady's shoe and Romanian-army bullets from 1939 — but have since called a halt to the dig while they wait for rabbis to bless the site.

Now 86, Enache is a bit wobbly on his legs, but his eyes are still clear blue, and his memory of what happened that day in 1941 is fresh. He describes how he was grabbed by a couple of Romanian soldiers who said, "You are a Jew! Come with us." They arrived at a series of deep graves where the civilians were made to sit down, 10 at a time, and then shot. Others were ordered into the grave to arrange the bodies so more victims could be thrown in. The killings continued all day, but Enache managed to convince his captors that he was a local, an Orthodox Christian, and when this was confirmed by the local forester, he was released.

The Vulturi forester who saved Enache died in 1945, but his daughter still lives nearby. Sitting in her kitchen, Lucia Baltaru describes what she remembers from 1941, when she was 6 years old. "We used to go and play at the grave," she says. "There was a thin layer of soil over the grave, and when we played, the bodies would move around. I think there are thousands of bodies buried there."

The site is currently sealed off by the Romanian police, who are guarding the bones and artifacts still on the site, and both journalists and the public are forbidden access. Outside the forest, an old couple had walked up from a nearby village to look at the grave. Ioan Aftanase was 7 years old in 1941 and vividly remembers columns of civilians being marched through the village. "They were in a terrible state," he says. "They were obviously hungry and thirsty and were being marched to their deaths. It was a terrible thing to do." During Romania's communist regime, it was dangerous to talk about the country's role in the Holocaust, and as a result, says Aftanase, "the young people today in the village have no idea about what happened in this forest."

Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born survivor of Auschwitz, has described Romania's approach to the Holocaust as "ambivalent." Anti-Semitism was virulent in the country from the mid–19th century to the end of World War II. In 2004, President Ion Iliescu apologized for Romania's role in the Holocaust, saying in a speech before the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, "The Holocaust was one of those serious historical issues which was avoided both during the communist period and after 1990."

According to the 1930 Census, there were 759,000 Jews in Romania before World War II. Historians estimate that 280,000 to 380,000 were killed by Romanian forces during the war, mainly in the areas of Moldova and Ukraine they occupied as part of the German thrust into the Soviet Union. Today there are fewer than 10,000 Jews living in Romania.

The communist regime, which was in power in Romania from 1945 to 1989, developed a strong nationalistic streak which, according to Holocaust historian Radu Ioanid, "tried to dilute or completely deny the responsibility of Romanians in the slaughter of the Jews, placing all the blame on the Germans." The education system has changed little since the fall of communism, and many Romanians still believe that their country's role in the Holocaust was minimal.

This ambivalence is reflected in the Romanian media coverage of the latest mass-grave discovery. The country's main private TV channels are skeptical, basing their reports on a statement by the chief prosecutor in Iasi, Cornelia Prisacaru, who said, "At this moment we don't know if these are civilian or military bodies. Or could they be Russian or German soldiers? The front line was in that area during World War II. We can't confirm that they are Jews." But such comments make no sense to the investigators who found so many civilian items in the grave — or to Vasile Enache, who still remembers being dragged off to the killing ground on the assumption that he was a Jew.