One day in 1941, Vasile Enache was tending his cows in the forest of Vulturi, near the city of Iasi, 260 miles (420 km) northeast of Bucharest, when he heard people sobbing. He went to investigate and saw hundreds of civilians being marched through the forest by Romanian army soldiers. Enache didn't know it at the time, but he was witnessing part of Romania's "Iasi pogrom," which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 14,000 Jews. For almost 70 years, successive Romanian governments have downplayed the nation's role in the Holocaust. But now a suspected mass grave has been found in the Vulturi forest, and some are hoping that the discovery will help Romania face up to one of the darkest periods in its history. (See pictures of Auschwitz after 65 years.)
Rumors about a mass grave in the Vulturi forest had been circulating for years; when a similar grave was found near Iasi in 1945, it led to a trial that ended with several top military commanders being sentenced to jail. After persuading Enache to show him the exact location of the Vulturi grave, local historian Adrian Cioflinca organized a team of people from Romania's Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust to start excavating the site last month. They uncovered the remains of 16 bodies — including the skeletons of children, a lady's shoe and Romanian-army bullets from 1939 — but have since called a halt to the dig while they wait for rabbis to bless the site.
Now 86, Enache is a bit wobbly on his legs, but his eyes are still clear blue, and his memory of what happened that day in 1941 is fresh. He describes how he was grabbed by a couple of Romanian soldiers who said, "You are a Jew! Come with us." They arrived at a series of deep graves where the civilians were made to sit down, 10 at a time, and then shot. Others were ordered into the grave to arrange the bodies so more victims could be thrown in. The killings continued all day, but Enache managed to convince his captors that he was a local, an Orthodox Christian, and when this was confirmed by the local forester, he was released. (See pictures of Adolf Hitler's rise to power.)
The Vulturi forester who saved Enache died in 1945, but his daughter still lives nearby. Sitting in her kitchen, Lucia Baltaru describes what she remembers from 1941, when she was 6 years old. "We used to go and play at the grave," she says. "There was a thin layer of soil over the grave, and when we played, the bodies would move around. I think there are thousands of bodies buried there."
The site is currently sealed off by the Romanian police, who are guarding the bones and artifacts still on the site, and both journalists and the public are forbidden access. Outside the forest, an old couple had walked up from a nearby village to look at the grave. Ioan Aftanase was 7 years old in 1941 and vividly remembers columns of civilians being marched through the village. "They were in a terrible state," he says. "They were obviously hungry and thirsty and were being marched to their deaths. It was a terrible thing to do." During Romania's communist regime, it was dangerous to talk about the country's role in the Holocaust, and as a result, says Aftanase, "the young people today in the village have no idea about what happened in this forest." (See a brief history of World War II movies.)
Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born survivor of Auschwitz, has described Romania's approach to the Holocaust as "ambivalent." Anti-Semitism was virulent in the country from the mid–19th century to the end of World War II. In 2004, President Ion Iliescu apologized for Romania's role in the Holocaust, saying in a speech before the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, "The Holocaust was one of those serious historical issues which was avoided both during the communist period and after 1990."
According to the 1930 Census, there were 759,000 Jews in Romania before World War II. Historians estimate that 280,000 to 380,000 were killed by Romanian forces during the war, mainly in the areas of Moldova and Ukraine they occupied as part of the German thrust into the Soviet Union. Today there are fewer than 10,000 Jews living in Romania.
The communist regime, which was in power in Romania from 1945 to 1989, developed a strong nationalistic streak which, according to Holocaust historian Radu Ioanid, "tried to dilute or completely deny the responsibility of Romanians in the slaughter of the Jews, placing all the blame on the Germans." The education system has changed little since the fall of communism, and many Romanians still believe that their country's role in the Holocaust was minimal. (See a TIME cover story on the Holocaust.)
This ambivalence is reflected in the Romanian media coverage of the latest mass-grave discovery. The country's main private TV channels are skeptical, basing their reports on a statement by the chief prosecutor in Iasi, Cornelia Prisacaru, who said, "At this moment we don't know if these are civilian or military bodies. Or could they be Russian or German soldiers? The front line was in that area during World War II. We can't confirm that they are Jews." But such comments make no sense to the investigators who found so many civilian items in the grave — or to Vasile Enache, who still remembers being dragged off to the killing ground on the assumption that he was a Jew.
Time: O groapă comună reînvie fantomele trecutului României legat de Holocaust
Descoperirea unei gropi comune în pădurea Vulturi, din apropiere de Iaşi ar putea ajuta România "să se confrunte cu una dintre cele mai negre perioade din istoria sa", după aproape 70 de ani în care rolul ţării în Holocaust a fost minimizat, scrie Time, în ediţia electronică de vineri.
Time: O groapă comună reînvie fantomele trecutului României legat de Holocaust
Zvonurile privind groapa comună din pădurea Vulturi, din comuna Popricani, circulă de mai mulţi ani, subliniază revista americană Time, într-un articol intitulat "O groapă comună reînvie fantomele trecutului României legat de Holocaust". Aceasta citează un cioban, Vasile Enache, ce susţine că a asistat, în pădurea Vulturi, la o parte din "pogromul de la Iaşi" din 1941, soldat cu moartea a aproximativ 14.000 de evrei.
După ce l-a convins pe Enache să îi arate exact locul acesteia, istoricul local Adrian Cioflinca a organizat săpături, luna trecută, împreună cu o echipă de la Institutul Naţional Elie Wiesel, în urma cărora au fost descoperite rămăşiţele a 16 cadavre, inclusiv schelete de copii, un pantof de damă şi gloanţe ale armatei române datând din 1939.
Ciobanul, care în prezent are 86 de ani, povesteşte cum a fost luat de doi soldaţi români, care însoţeau un grup de civili, şi dus în pădure, unde fuseseră săpate mai multe gropi. Unii dintre civili au fost obligaţi să se aşeze câte zece în aceste gropi, după care au fost împuşcaţi. Altora li s-a ordonat apoi să intre în gropi şi să aşeze cadavrele, astfel încât să încapă cât mai multe victime. Uciderea lor a continuat pe tot parcursul zilei, dar Enache a fost eliberat după ce a reuşit să îi convingă pe soldaţi că este localnic, creştin-ortodox, fapt confirmat de un pădurar.
Zona este acum înconjurată de poliţia română, iar accesul publicului şi al jurnaliştilor este interzis, precizează Time.
Ioan Aftanase, care avea şapte ani în 1941, îşi aminteşte coloanele de civili care erau escortaţi prin sat. "Erau într-o stare îngrozitoare", afirmă el pentru revista americană. "Era evident că le era foame şi sete şi erau duşi către moarte. A fost un lucru groaznic", povesteşte el. În timpul regimului comunist, era periculos să vorbeşti despre rolul ţării în Holocaust şi, ca urmare, susţine Aftanase, "tinerii de astăzi, din sat, nu au nicio idee despre ce s-a întâmplat în această pădure".
Elie Wiesel, un supravieţuitor al lagărului de la Auschwitz născut în România, a descris atitudinea ţării faţă de Holocaust drept "ambivalentă". Această ambivalenţă, subliniază Time, se reflectă şi în modul în care presa din România a relatat despre descoperirea acestei gropi comune. Principalele posturi de televiziune private din ţară sunt sceptice, bazându-şi informaţiile pe declaraţia procurorului-şef din Iaşi, care a afirmat că în acest moment "nu se ştie dacă aceste cadavre sunt ale unor civili sau militari", conchide revista americană.