June 26, 1941. The first deaths in what became an all-out pogrom in Iasi, Romania. According to Radu Ioanid’s story of the events in Iasi,
The Iasi pogrom is probably the best-known event in the history of the Romanian Holocaust. It was a major outbreak of violent anti-semitism, yet it was neither isolated nor fortuitous; rather it was part of a long series of mass murders committed by Romanian fascists.
Yesterday, I mentioned that Mircea Eliade had supported an attempted putsch by the ultra-right Iron Guard in Romania. I did not mention that this uprising led to the arrests and murder of thousands of Jews in and around Bucharest where Mihail Sebastian lived. His narrative of the chaos begins on Tuesday, 21 January 1941 and continues through Saturday, 25 January. It is quite gripping. For instance, on Friday of that week he ventured out of his apartment to check on a crowd around candles burning on the sidewalk opposite. A “stuttering half-wit” was ranting that “a yid woman” had shot a trooper from the roof of Sebastian’s building the night before.
I looked closely at the people listening. Not one of them had the least doubt about the truth of this absurd story. For a moment I thought of interrupting and saying something myself: that it was completely stupid; how could they imagine a Jew, especially a woman, could be so mad as to fire with a revolver from the roof (!!) of a nine-story building, or that she could have aimed so precisely from that distance? Did they not know that the soldier fell yesterday in a real street battle, in which hundreds of bullets were fired? But what is the point of asking these questions? Who would have listened? Who would have tried to think rationally? Isn’t it easier and quicker to believe what others tell you?—’A yid woman opened fire.’
Fortunately, Sebastian walked away. When he returned, others had joined the crowd and the story had changed to a Jewish man firing from the fourth floor “(where no one has lived since the earthquake).”
Later I spent a little while at the window, watching how the news spread, how the groups became larger and more agitated. Was it far short of an attack on all the Jewish apartments in the building? Look, that’s how a pogrom begins.
When the “official toll of civilian deaths” was published the following week, Sebastian thought that “a little over three hundred” was too low.
It is still being said that more than six thousand Jews died. But maybe it will never be possible to know for sure. Many Jews were killed in Bǎneasa forest and dumped there (most of them naked), but another batch seems to have been executed at the Strǎuleștu abattoir. In both cases it is likely that they were horribly mutilated before being killed.
If the January 1941 pogrom occurred in the midst of an armed uprising, the June pogrom in Iasi represented the start of the implementation of Romania’s planned participation in the slaughter of Jews as part of the invasion of the Soviet Union that began on June 21, 1941. As with the German Army, the Romanian Army was accompanied by special units, police, and Iron Guard whose charge was to gather, deport, and murder Jews in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Sebastian could only rely on hearsay about what happened. That was enough for him to describe Iasi as “a dark and somber nightmare.” As the persecution of the Jews in Bucharest increased in July and as “small groups of pale, famished, ragged Jews, carrying wretched bundles of sacks, head toward the center of town,” the massacre in Iasi became “an obsession we cannot shake off.”
What happened in Iasi (and I still can’t make up my mind to write everything I have meanwhile heard about it) can be repeated here at any time.
Like Sebastian it is hard for me to write about the details of the suffering and death of the Jews in Iasi. When the Soviet Air Force bombed Iasi on June 26 as part of resistance to the Romanian invasion, Jews were accused of helping mark targets and of assisting downed Soviet pilots. A number of Jews were seized and murdered. The large-scale round-up and murder of Jews began on June 28. In the end more than 12,000 Jews were shot by Romanian forces, accompanied by widespread civilian attacks on Jewish persons and property.
The most horrifying method of killing Jews began on June 29. As Ioanid tells us,
Two death trains left Iasi. The first one consisted of from 33 to 39 carriages — sealed freight cars containing between 2,430 and 2,530 Jews. … In order to crowd 80 to 150 Jews into a single carriage, they were hit with rifle butts and bayonets. In the process some were seriously wounded. German soldiers and Romanian police … loaded the train. Before the train left, planks were nailed over the small air vents, making breathing for the enclosed people most difficult. The freight cars bore the inscription ‘Communist Kikes’ or ‘Murderers of German and Romanian Soldiers’.
In the heat of summer with no air and water, the first death train did not stop until July 1. Bodies were removed. The trains moved on over 500 kilometres for six and a half days before the survivors were finally taken off, more dying in the following days. Over 1400 men, women, and children died in this agonizing manner. The journey of the second death train was shorter, but equally horrifying. Out of the 1,902 people on that train 1,194 perished.
Words fail us in the face of such evil. But speak out we must.