Romania’s Forgotten Holocaust: Filmmaker Confronts Leaders Over Silence
In a new documentary film, director Florin Iepan confronts Romania’s leaders over their ongoing silence about the country’s role in the Holocaust. But in a place where war criminals are still lauded as national heroes, his aim of getting them to acknowledge the past remains a daunting task.
“Hello, Mr. President,” filmmaker Florin Iepan shouts. “I would like to introduce you to somebody.” The man he is speaking to is Romania’s former President Emil Constantinescu, who was in office from 1996 to 2000. He’s wearing an elegant white suit and leaving a conference room. “I know what this is about,” he says reluctantly. “But I have already expressed my regrets publicly.”
“But perhaps you can say something to this man personally,” Iepan says. “He came from Odessa just for this.” Constantinescu looks at the old man with sympathy and then quickly turns away. “Perhaps another time,” he says.
The man is 87-year-old Michail Zaslawski, the sole survivor of one of the biggest crimes committed by Romania during World War II — the Odessa, Ukraine massacre of Oct. 22-24, 1941. In this short stretch of time, the Romanian army, which was occupying the area as an ally of Nazi Germany, rounded up some 23,000 Jews from around the city and killed them, shooting many and burning others alive in warehouses. Soldiers lobbed grenades at people who tried to flee.
Zaslawski’s parents, three sisters and brother — his entire family — were murdered. The massacre was in reprisal for a bomb attack by Soviets on the Romanian military headquarters, and was personally ordered by the then pro-fascist dictator Ion Antonescu.
The scene where former Romanian President Constantinescu declines to express his sympathies or even offer his hand to Zaslawski for his loss took place in Bucharest in October 2011, around the time of the 70th anniversary of the massacre. It is one among many such moments in Iepan’s documentary film “Odessa,” which explores how Romania’s political and intellectual elite refuse to address their country’s involvement in the Holocaust, not to mention engage in a public debate about who was responsible and how it ought to be remembered.