In Memoriam: Jean Ancel, 1940–2008
A tremendous loss befell Holocaust scholars on April 30, 2008, when Dr. Jean Ancel, founder of the field of Romanian Holocaust studies, passed away in Jerusalem after a losing battle with an uncompromising illness.
Ancel was born in 1940 in Iaşi, Romania, where many members of his family were murdered during the infamous pogrom of June 29, 1941. This loss influenced, and perhaps predetermined, Ancel's lifelong devotion to the study of Romanian Jewish history, in particular the prewar period and World War II. Although he began his historical studies in his native city, the fulfillment of his dream became possible only after Ancel's emigration to Israel in 1959. Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and work as an archivist for Yad Vashem (1966–1989) prepared him for his vocation.
In his work Ancel demonstrated a keen insight not universal to scholars of his generation. At a time when most Holocaust scholars delimited their sphere at the borders of Germany and the territories it occupied, Jean Ancel saw a more complex and diverse history. That Romania occupies an important place in Holocaust historiography today is in large part the result of Ancel's prolific work. Jean Ancel was rewarded for his decades of effort in October 2003 when the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania was established by then-president Ion Iliescu. Ancel was the primus inter pares in the commission's working group, composed of scholars from Israel, Romania, the US, and Germany. In fall 2004 the commission released its final report, which conclusively outlined the pervasive antisemitism in prewar Romania and state-sponsored violence against the Jews during World War II. It was as a result of this effort that the Romanian government officially acknowledged that the regime of General Ion Antonescu had organized its own Holocaust, independently of German suasion.
I remember meeting Ancel in spring 2003 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, during one of the meetings of the Commission. I can still picture him, discernibly focused on distilling as much as possible from his encyclopedic knowledge and lifelong experience of research, analysis, and explication. He had the aura and gravitas of a person in the midst of a crucial historical event, an event that was simultaneously the culmination of his life's work and a precious legacy to future generations. On October 9th of that year Romania observed its first Holocaust Commemoration Day.
Trained in traditional methodology, Ancel relied in his research first and foremost on archival documents. He worked extensively with archival materials from Israel, Romania, Russia, Moldova, the US, and Germany. He regularly bewildered specialists with the information he could bring to bear on a question from memory alone. His monumental twelve-volume Documents Concerning the Fate of Romanian Jewry during the Holocaust (1986) represented the result of many years of painstaking work. Nor did he ever stop looking for new documentation. His analyses of documents were [End Page 605] impressive in their breadth and subtlety. In 2003 Jean Ancel published an outstanding three-volume collection of documents and studies entitled Transnistria, 1941–42: The Romanian Mass Murder Campaigns, another seminal work sure to remain a major reference for years to come.
The steadfast consistency of Jean Ancel's work in shedding light on both the Antonescu regime and the Romanian tradition of antisemitism served as a source of constant irritation to many contemporary Romanian intellectuals and political figures, and elicited occasional furious reactions in the Romanian mass media. Although pained by denialist statements, Jean usually refrained from entering into exchanges with their authors, but rather drove himself the harder to bring to light ever more documentation of the Antonescu government's persecution, humiliation, robbery, exploitation, and murder of its defenseless victims. His best response to Romanian denialists and relativists was the publication in Romanian of his four-volume Contribuţii la Istoria României: Problema evreiască 1933–1944 (2001, 2003). Another book published in Romanian, Preludiu la asasinat: Pogromul de la Iaşi, 29 iunie 1941 (2005), incriminated Antonescu and his associates in the organization and coordination of the Iaşi pogrom, an event...