In the twenty years leading up to World War II, the Romanian nation-state engaged in a systematic attempt to privilege ethnic Romanians by disempowering and persecuting Jews in the historical region of Bessarabia. During this same period, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic emphasized “national equality” and “the friendship of peoples” through a policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) (94). In this striking book, The State, Antisemitism, and Collaboration in the Holocaust: The Borderlands of Romania and the Soviet Union, Diana Dumitru argues that different state policies toward ethnic minorities during the interwar period resulted in locals treating Jews differently during the Holocaust. Bessarabians had watched the Romanian state persecute Jews since 1918, and between 1940 and 1944 Bessarabians actively participated in the mass murder of Jews. The inhabitants of the newly created region known as Transnistria, on the other hand, had seen the Ukrainian SSR treat Jews as equals, and Transnistrians not only did not participate in violence against Jews to the extent that Bessarabians had done, but also helped Jews in greater numbers than did Bessarabians. Violence against Jews began in Bessarabia during the summer of 1940, when the region passed from Romania into the hands of the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. With the help of sympathetic locals, retreating Romanian soldiers carried out pogroms in a number of towns and villages, during the largest of which roughly two hundred Jews were killed. Massacres began again when Romanian soldiers reconquered the region as part of Operation Barbarossa, beginning in June of 1941. Locals accused Jews of sympathizing with the Soviet regime and participated enthusiastically—together with Romanian and German soldiers—in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Jews (144). Axis armies had penetrated well into the Soviet Union by mid-August 1941, and the Romanian state designated the region between the Dniester and Southern Bug Rivers as an occupied territory known as Transnistria. The authorities systematically massacred local Jews in Transnistria and established ghettos and concentration camps where they interned and massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews deported from elsewhere in Romania. Bessarabians robbed and murdered deportees as they passed through their region, but Dumitru notes that “archival materials and hundreds upon hundreds of testimonies show not a single anti-Jewish episode of mass violence initiated or carried out by local civilians in Transnistria in the wake of the invasion” (143). Some locals in Transnistria did assist in genocidal actions against Jews, but never on the scale or with the frequency seen in Bessarabia. Moreover, oral history interviews record numerous incidents of locals giving food to deportees, paying them for work done, sheltering Jews, and adopting Jewish children. We know of far fewer stories of this nature about locals in Bessarabia. Dumitru ignores the fact that most Bessarabian gentiles saw the Romanian army as liberators whereas Transnistrians experienced them as an occupying force, and she marginalizes the influence that grassroots antisemitic activists had in interwar Bessarabia, but otherwise she is convincing when she argues that there are few explanations for the differences in local collaboration other than the influence of state policies during the interwar period. Ethnic Ukrainians were no less antisemitic than Romanians; nor were there significant differences between the two populations in terms of resentment against Jews, fear of a Soviet victory, the temptation to plunder, or the length and timing of Christian-Jewish interactions. “Thus,” Dumitru writes, “the only major difference between the two populations is an intervening two-decade period during which one state, the USSR, actively fought against antisemitism and aggressively pursued the integration of the Jewish minority” (5). The two neighboring regions therefore constitute an almost ideal experiment about the impact of long-term state policy on civilian collaboration with state-level perpetrators of genocide, namely, that “Soviet citizens who received this sustained, inclusivist ‘treatment’ were less likely to abuse and more likely to aid their Jewish neighbors than was the majority population of the other territory” (5). In addition to contemporary published sources in both Romanian and Russian, Dumitru draws on archival collections held in five different countries, as well as on hundreds of oral history interviews, many of which she conducted herself. She also received responses to a postal survey from over sixty survivors. Dumitru coded these responses for evidence of “‘conflictual’ or ‘cooperative’ behavior experienced by Jews” in the two regions (14). Dumitru’s methodology makes the book invaluable for teaching because she takes two very different approaches to her sources. Throughout most of the book, Dumitru analyzes traces of collaboration found in oral histories and archival records relating to both regions. Then, in the final chapter, she quantifies her findings and graphs the frequency of conflict or cooperation according to which prewar region they took place in. The quantitative findings strongly reinforce the patterns that Dumitru had already identified in her qualitative analysis, showing convincingly how historians can use both approaches in complementary ways. Not only does Dumitru’s book enrich our empirical understanding of the Holocaust in Romania, it also raises important questions about the impact of state policy on subject populations and the causes of interethnic conflict, making it a valuable study indeed. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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