Despite instances of anti-Semitism especially on social media, Romania’s ambassador to Israel, Radu Ioanid, claims his country’s political class is a ‘model’ in terms of recognizing the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The historian who is the premier researcher of the Holocaust in Romania was appointed ambassador to Israel by President Klaus Iohannis in February 2020. Romania had not had an ambassador there since 2017.
He is one of the best-known Romanian-Jewish scholars after Nobel prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.
In the post-communist era, Mr Ioanid worked to document the Holocaust for Romanian officials and create a legal framework to make Holocaust denial illegal.
“Slowly but surely, Romania went from a country where Holocaust denial was extremely strong and powerful, to a country that at the level of the political class, became a model in Europe,” Ambassador Radu Ioanid told the Jerusalem Post.
“I’m not going to say there is no anti-Semitism in Romania today. It is a strong cultural tradition. Even though there are no Jews in Romania anymore, it does exist on social media, but the political class is very careful.”
Between 280,000-380,000 Jews were killed on Romanian-held territory during World War II. Romania’s Jewish population plummeted from 800,000 before the war, to a few thousand today.
After he emigrated to the U.S. under the communist regime, Radu Ioanid became a member of the team of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a position he held for 30 years.
The Jerusalem Post recently interviewed him about his life and work dedicated to research of the Holocaust.
Doctorate on fascism
During the communist regime, Radu Ioanid wrote his doctorate on fascism at the University of Cluj in northwest Romania, under an advisor who had survived the Holocaust.
Although he had no access to primary sources, as the communist regime had locked up its archives, the university library had old Romanian fascist newspapers and the testimonies at trials of Romanian war criminals, among other sources.
“Unlike the regime, which officially said Romanian fascists were the fifth column of Nazi Germany, I demonstrated in my thesis that it had grassroots origins,” he told the publication. “It was a mystical, religious, clerical Orthodox Christian type of fascism and not a Nazi political party.”
The Ceausescu regime did not like his dissertation and he was unable to take part in international conferences or publish his thesis in Romania until after 1989.
After 1989, he read his Securitate secret police file and discovered who spied on him, which included well regarded sociologists, he said.
The Holocaust scholar worked with Elie Wiesel on helping Romania come to terms with its history.
“The country was in denial because there was a lack of access to the archives during communism, and the extreme right that denied the Holocaust and existence of anti-Semitism in Romania,” he said.
Elie Wiesel led a commission on the Holocaust in Romania. that included Israeli and Romanian vice presidents. Radu Ioanid was the American vice president.
“The Wiesel Report turned the country around,” he said. “Our recommendations started the establishment of the Holocaust monument and education in Romania, as well as the Wiesel Institute under the orders of the prime minister of Romania, to fight Holocaust denial.”
After he arrived in the U.S. he began working at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, where he continued his research of the Holocaust in Romania.
In 1989, the year that communism fell, he became part of the team that put together the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was responsible for selecting photos for the permanent exhibition.
“Every non-moving image in that museum went through my hands,” he said. “ It was fascinating… It was very traumatic every day for over two years to see dozens of photos showing murder and maiming and bodies and killing.”
He ran the registry of Holocaust survivors, and he became director of the International Archival Programs Division in 2000 for 20 years.
When he began, the museum’s archive had a few thousand pages, and when he left to become ambassador in February 2020, it had 135 million pages.
When the museum was completed, he gave a tour to Mr. Wiesel, and they became close friends. He wrote the foreword to The Ransom of the Jews. “Elie was a rock star,” Prof. Ioanid said. “He was mobbed everywhere he went. Everybody loved him.”
The Ransom of the Jews tells the story of the secret bargain between Romania and Israel, and revealed that Israel paid Ceausescu’s Romania thousands of dollars per person to allow more than 100,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel.
He says he is proud of the work he did at the Holocaust Museum, especially that 90% of its 1.7 million annual visitors before the pandemic were not Jewish. He says the average American does not know enough about the Holocaust.
Commenting on Central and Eastern European countries that have laws and policies that distort history, he said: “If you allow politicians to manipulate history, it will hit them in the teeth badly. It’s that simple.
Certain neighbors of Romania are falsifying history because they think it helps them. It could help for a short time, but it will come back to haunt them.”