Survivor pushes Romania to admit role in Holocaust

MONTREAL — For years, a section of Romania was the site of a forgotten corner of the Holocaust, a place where hundreds of thousands of Jews were imprisoned and killed during World War II.

Romanian officials tried to sweep the nation's wartime history under the carpet — but they never counted on the determined efforts of 75-year-old Issie Veisfeld.

Some 330,000 Jews — nearly half of Romania's prewar Jewish population — were deported to the region of Transnistria, where they toiled in labor camps from 1941 to 1945.

During that time, more than half of those laborers were worked to death in places like Mogilev, Skasinitz, Vinnitsa, Varvarovca, Trihati and Nicolaev.

The Romanians and the Germans created Transnistria. Nazi Germany had promised Romania that it would be given this chunk of the Ukraine after the war to form part of a greater Romania.

Romania's Jewish population of roughly 700,000 became victims of the wartime regime of Gen. Ion Antonescu, who was propped up by the ruthless Iron Guard that was part of his government.

Antonescu was executed at the war's end, but his murderous legacy lived on in the memories of Holocaust survivors.

Yet subsequent Romanian governments refused to admit complicity, blaming the virtual extinction of its Jews on the Nazis.

"They would rather believe that Germany killed 6 million Jews single-handedly," says Veisfeld.

For years, Transnistria was not even included on many of the maps detailing Holocaust death camps.

Veisfeld has been working to change this.

He now lives in Montreal, but hails from the Romanian town of Iasi, whose prewar population of 70,000 was made up mostly of Jews — 47,000 in all.

Until the morning of June 29, 1941, Jews lived there relatively undisturbed — at least in comparison to what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

That day in 1941 — memories that cause Veisfeld to react noticeably almost 60 years later — began with a message from the local police to go to the city hall to change their identification cards, or be subject to capture.

"People went out and never came back," he recalled

From an attic hideout in their home, he and his father watched in horror as villagers were taken away. "The authorities closed the gates, mounted machine guns on roofs and shot people," says Veisfeld.

Some 6,000 Jews from the town were later put aboard a death train, he recalls.

"They kept the train on a dead track for 48 hours, still with no air or water. People drank their own urine and sweat to try to stay alive and they went crazy, beating each other," recalls Veisfeld.

The train was taken to a small village, Podul Iloie, where dead bodies were unloaded and thrown into common graves. Historians estimate about 13,000 Jews died as a result of the pogroms in Iasi.

Veisfeld, who stayed alive in Iasi's Jewish ghetto because his father was an upholsterer for the military — has for years been attempting to get the Romanian government to acknowledge the nation's wartime guilt.

In 1975, as president of the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression, Veisfeld called then-President Nicolae Ceausescu and managed to get him on the line.

"I told him we would like him to accept responsibility for the wrongdoing of the Antonescu government," says Veisfeld. "He responded that he could not do that…He then said goodbye and hung up."

But Veisfeld was not about to take "no" for an answer.

Veisfeld is still pressing Romania with a list of demands, including erecting memorials; implementing programs in all schools that focus on the nation's history of anti-Semitism; acknowledging that Antonescu supported Hitler's plan to exterminate European Jewry; and instituting restitution programs for Jewish Holocaust survivors.

In May 1998, Veisfeld presented his demands to Romanian President Emil Constantinescu during a meeting in Montreal.

One of his demands was subsequently met: Romania agreed to implement a Holocaust studies program in its schools.

Veisfeld has vowed to not quit until all demands are met.