The first session of this two-pronged workshop was a tour de force through two centuries’ worth of legal, social and political discrimination against the Jewish and Roma communities. Participants from five countries (Moldova, Romania, Germany, UK and the US) covered in their presentations a variety of historically specific case studies and exchanged ideas and comments regarding broader trends and research challenges.
As Irina Marin (University of Leicester) stressed in her introduction to the workshop, notwithstanding the title, this is not a workshop about anti-Semitism, or not only about anti-Semitism: trying to talk about anti-Semitism without reference to the broader context, to the system as a whole and the rest of the population, is like trying to clap with one hand. The workshop has thus inevitably been an exploration of the complex relationship between minorities and majorities, of the growing pains of young states as well as the trials and tribulations of defining the nation. Most relevantly from the point of view of today’s international politics, the workshop has been a historically specific analysis of a surprisingly enduring knee-jerk reaction, that of criminalising whole communities for the sins of a few or for imaginary crimes born of the social and economic fears of the majority of the population.
Why Romania and Moldova? Because we are talking about two states currently on the border of the EU (one inside: Romania; the other, outside, having just signed an agreement with the European Union), whose entangled histories, complex, interrelated pattern of minorities and conflicted relationship with Russia make them relevant to the evolution of today’s Ukrainian crisis (both states sharing a border with the Ukraine). Also because the workshop is an attempt to revive an older UK-based research network (Romanian Moldovan Studies Group) studying various aspects of Romanian and Moldovan politics, history and culture, which is all the more important given (1) the disappearance of Romanian Studies as a university Chair in the UK; (2) the anti-immigration hysteria fomented of late by UKIP; (3) the academic neglect of the Republic of Moldova, which somehow falls in between the two stools of Russian studies and Eastern European studies.
Outline of Papers
Andrei Cușco (University of Iași/State University of Moldova, Chișinău) analysed the orchestration of violence against the Jewish community in the Tsarist province of Bessarabia (the case of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom): he explored the social/political context, instances of instigation, the official channels of propagation (the church and the press), the perpetrators and the reaction of the state (condoning violence and blaming it on the Jews). The pogrom moreover was a symptom of the advent of mass politics and part of the critique of modernisation that the Jews were inextricably bound up with. It also constituted the thin end of the wedge, that is, it initiated a cycle of violence which would feed into the Russian revolution of 1905-1907.
Looking at turn-of-the-century memoirs by Romanian Jewish émigrés in the United States, Dana Mihăilescu (University of Bucharest) provided a thorough explanation of the discriminatory legal framework in place in Romania by the end of the 19th-, beginning of the 20th century, as well as of the ‘policy of hidden hostility and indirect expulsion’ practiced by the Romanian authorities at the time. As pointed out in one of these memoirs, the persecution of the Jews was symptomatic of a state and its political elites who blatantly disregarded the well-being not only of Jews but also of the largest social class in the state, the peasantry, which was trapped in a condition of neo-serfdom.
Raul Cârstocea (European Centre for Minority Issues) showed how university student networks in the 1920s were instrumental in creating the ideology and power base of the Romanian fascist movement, the Legion of Archangel Michael, later on the Iron Guard. Raul accounted for the centrality of anti-Semitism in the ideology of the Iron Guard as well as other factors that boosted the appeal of the movement. The Jewish population as the largest urban minority constituted the main competition for students and the target of their attacks in the context of state-directed efforts at expanding the education system and creating autochthonous elites to replace the old, non-ethnically Romanian ones. Relying on Freudian theory, Raul talked about the process of ‘transference of the real challenges facing Romania into a clearly identifiable agency: the Jewish minority’ and emphasised the singularity of the Romanian fascist movement as culturally (instead of racially) anti-Semitic.
Here you can access Raul Cârstocea’s latest publication on the topic:
Daniel Brett (Open University) presented the obverse of the coin, that is, anti-Semitism as political reorientation or opportunism rather than deeply held belief. He based his argument on an exploration of one of the few extant personal archives from members of the Romanian Peasant Party, that of Mihail Șerban. The uncatalogued archive material currently to be found in the History Museum in Cluj, Romania, shows the owner’s trajectory from National Peasantism to national anti-Semitism.
Viorel Achim (Nicolae Iorga History Institute) compared and contrasted anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism in the 1930s and 1940s in Romania. Unlike anti-Semitism, which dated back to at least the 19th century and the period of state building, anti-Gypsyism as state policy came into being in the 1930s as the brainchild of eugenicists, while widespread prejudice existed before, deriving from Roma enslavement prior to the 1860s. Before the 1930s there was no Gypsy question the way there was a Jewish question and the Roma were viewed as more of a social category than an ethnic group. Viorel Achim looked at the Roma parties in the interwar period and their relations with the other political parties, as well as their own brand of anti-Semitism.
Benjamin Thorne (Wingate University) concentrated on Roma in the context of deportations to Transnistria, dwelling in particular on the ‘dual meaning’ that the home front acquired as Roma deportations started in 1942. The Roma who were not deported were subject to discrimination, threats and the whims of the local authorities, who used the threat of deportation ‘to pursue their own greed or a radical agenda of ethnic cleansing’. The Roma were subjected to forced labour in towns but also on agricultural estates. Petitions opposing the deportation of the Roma were couched not in civic but rather economic terms: the shortage of work hands would damage the local economy. There were places where the locals still referred to the Roma as slaves, testifying to the enduring legacy of slavery which informed Romanians’ perception of the Roma as ‘useful tools, yet hopelessly uncivilised’.
Continuing the topic of deportations to Transnistria, Ana Bărbulescu (Elie Wiesel Institute/University of Bucharest) described the other side of deportation: the world of Transnistrian ghettos. She focused in particular on the survival networks developed under the virtually exterminatory conditions of the ghettos, the parallel realities of official rules and reports and of the inmates, the ghettos as ‘total institutions’. Survival in the ghettos happened against all odds (if you obeyed the rules, you died, if you disobeyed, you died) by virtue of networks of trust, new forms of social capital and ‘ritual disobedience.’
Ion Popa (University of Manchester) closed the first session of this Collaborative Workshop with a presentation on the revival of anti-Semitism within the Romanian Orthodox Church after 1989. The Romanian Orthodox Church emerged as a major player after the fall of Communism and one of the few state institutions that still enjoyed the confidence of the population. Although it never overtly showed anti-Semitic attitudes after 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church has encouraged in indirect ways the promotion of anti-Semitism: through ‘the return to interwar Orthodox nationalism, the rehabilitation of well-known anti-Semites, the support for individuals/organisations affiliated with the Church who/which promote anti-Semitism.’
Professor Aubrey Newman (University of Leicester): ‘Can I say how proud I am of this workshop because when we set up the Stanley Burton Centre in the 1990s we were the only centre that was teaching the Holocaust at university level in this country. And when we set it up we thought in terms of teaching undergraduates, of outreach amongst non-university people, but equally to promote research in all sorts of ways into the Holocaust. And this I think is one of the most fruitful programmes of the Stanley Burton Centre.’