Anti-Semitism and Other Liberties in the New Romania

ELIE WIESEL

August 06, 1991|By ELIE WIESEL

It is with a heavy and a troubled heart that I returned to Romania, my native land: An unhealthy ambience of uncertainty and anxiety reigns there that compels us to question the success and the sense of its revolution.

When I went there last month with various Jewish representatives from the United States and Europe to participate in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Iasi (Jassy), I had the opportunity to see for myself: The system worked poorly.

Nicolae Ceausescu has fallen, but an unknown number of his underlings, linked to his old secret service, still occupy positions of power. Consequently, too many people, belonging to too many sectors of the population, live in a kind of fear that, seemingly, ought to be all but unfounded.

Certainly, freedom of expression now exists. Its enemies abuse it, while its defenders have neither the strength nor the courage to protect it with more dedication.

As a Jew, I was naturally sensitive to the situation of the Jews there. Their number continues to fall. From 850,000 in 1939 and 400,000 in 1945, there remain only 15,000 to 17,000; the others have emigrated to Israel.

How, then, explain the hate that the anti-Semites persist in showing them in public? In what way can this small number of men and women, mostly aged, cause them trouble?

Two weeklies are openly, vulgarly anti-Semitic. The articles that they publish regularly shock by their coarse and senseless brutality. They could have appeared in Europe's fascist press of the 1930s and 1940s.

Seeing in the Jew the traditional scapegoat, they burden him with all imaginable sins and accuse him of everything on earth that goes wrong. All the classic cliches are used. If one were to believe them, Jews are gougers, cheaters, thieves, selfish, manipulators the ultimate enemy who seeks to control the whole world. At its worst, this propaganda constitutes a veritable incitement to hate, to collective violence.

In the city of Iasi, the commemoration ceremony was interrupted by the shrieks of a woman, shouting that the Jews are liars, that none of their relatives were massacred, either in Romania or elsewhere. She was not the only one of that opinion. She had accomplices. Strategically seated throughout the hall, they did not hide their sympathy for the anti-Semitic remarks that have scandalized Jewish communities in Romania and abroad.

And the others, all the others, those who are not anti-Semites, what are they doing? The reaction of the authorities has been regrettably timid, therefore ineffectual. The intellectuals? I met several: poets, essayists, novelists. I had a friendly, fruitful exchange with them. I tried to understand: Why don't they raise their voices? Why doesn't anyone hear their indignation? They answered me.

Their frankness is at once painful and disconcerting. They dare not speak up; the anti-Semites are capable of doing anything. Is that the reason that the mainstream Romanian press remained silent about the commemorations at Bucharest and Iasi?

If writers and officials are afraid, why wouldn't the Jews, in turn, be afraid? So it's not surprising that the chief rabbi, Moses Rosen, remarked that, if things worsen, an aerial bridge between Bucharest and Jerusalem might be necessary, as in Ethiopia.

The political leaders seem concerned only with the economic difficulties or, better, catastrophes, which the country is undergoing. President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Petru Roman said this to me emphatically. Apparently, they do not understand that, owing to the anti-Semitic campaign, the image of Romania abroad is so bad that their efforts have no chance of succeeding anywhere.

There, once again, is the lesson that history is trying to teach us: Hate targets not only its victims; it hurts the surrounding society, which it poisons and conditions so as to allow hate to grow and expand.

The enemy of the Jews, or of any other social or ethnic group, is also the enemy of the others. The Jews are not the only ones to suffer because of the anti-Semites in Romania; the Romanian people, in their totality, feel the effects.

Thus it is that, in instilling fear in Romania, the country where I was born, the anti-Semites bring it poverty and dishonor.

And more than anything, they cover it with shame.

This article by the Nobel laureate was written for Newsday and translated from French into English by David Kahn.

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