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  • Prelude to Mass Murder: The Pogrom in Iaşi, Romania, June 29, 1941 and Thereafter by Jean Ancel
  • Dennis Deletant
Prelude to Mass Murder: The Pogrom in Iaşi, Romania, June 29, 1941 and Thereafter, Jean Ancel, edited by Leon Volovici and Miriam Caloianu (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2013), 682 pp., hardcover $58.00.

Jean Ancel’s academic life was devoted to the study of the Holocaust in Romania. Born in the northern city of Iaşi in 1940, Ancel emigrated in 1959 to Israel, where he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After graduating, he worked as an archivist for Yad Vashem—a job that gave him unfettered access to the institution’s rich archival holdings. He drew meticulously and authoritatively upon these sources to produce a body of scholarship that provides a reference point for all historians of the Holocaust in Romania. It is therefore not surprising that one focus of Ancel’s investigation should have been the pogrom in his native city. This imposing volume, first published in Romanian in 2005, casts fresh light upon some of the [End Page 355] most appalling acts of inhumanity to be perpetrated against the Jews by the Romanian authorities during the Second World War.

In the scholarship, it has become a convention to include a succession of events that took place over the period June 29–July 6 in Iaşi—including deportations of Jews by train—under the term “pogrom.” Ancel follows this convention. It can be argued, however, that the pogrom itself, strictly speaking, spanned the days 29 and 30 June.

Reconstructing these events is no simple matter. Scholars’ estimates of the numbers of Jews massacred in Iaşi range from 1,000 to 14,000; a further 2,713 died during deportation southward by train. The number of Jews shot in the city is the subject of dispute. The self-serving nature of official reports—some of which contradict each other in essential details—and the absence of an accurate record of the number of victims are impediments to providing a clear account of the murderous behavior of the German and Romanian forces, as well as of the criminal incompetence of the Romanian military authorities. Ancel puts the number of those murdered at “about one-third of the city’s Jews, over 14,000” (p. 19), but he does not explain clearly how he reaches this figure.

Since this book is addressed to an Anglophone readership that is largely unaware of the actions of Romania’s wartime pro-German leader, General (later Marshal) Ion Antonescu, and his responsibility for the deaths of more than 250,000 Jews, it is essential that the context in which the events of late June 1941 took place be adequately explained. To many Romanians, including historians, Antonescu remains a brave anti-Soviet patriot. While for the Jews of Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transnistria Antonescu was a murderous antisemite, for those of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Southern Transylvania—who never were deported—he was also, to borrow a term coined by William Oldson when discussing Romanian antisemitism, a “providential” one. This ambiguity, Ancel points out, is manifest in the fact that despite the summer 1941 murders in Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia, and despite the bestial conditions of the survivors’ deportation and then ghettoization in Transnistria, Romanian treatment of the Jews afterwards followed a course different from that meted out by the Germans: deportation did not lead to the gas chamber. Tens of thousands of Jews were shot in Transnistria between winter 1941 and spring 1942, but the Jews’ plight there subsequently was characterized rather by degradation, abuse, and criminal neglect. Just beyond, in German-occupied Ukraine, Jews were systematically massacred. In Transnistria, many died from typhus or starvation, but equally many survived. Indeed the region with the largest proportion of Jews surviving in Axis-ruled Soviet territory was Transnistria.

Greater clarity would have been brought to the background of the events in Iaşi had Ancel told the reader that in preparation for the German-Romanian attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the three armies in the “General Antonescu Army Group” each took up a position along the river Prut...


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