Testimonies by LIVIU BERIS and ALEXANDRU ELIAS
This material is the transcript of a discussion with Holocaust survivors Liviu Beris and Alexandru Elias during the conference/workshop Nationalism, Fascism and the Holocaust in Romanian History – A Critical Approach, organized by Third Generation Buchenwald during October 16-20 in Bucharest. Liviu Beris was evicted from Herta, his hometown, at the age of 13 and deported to Moghilev concentration camp in Transnistria/Pridnestrovie. Today he is the president of the Association of Romanian Jews Victims of the Holocaust. Alexandru Elias was deported to Tirgu-Jiu labor camp in 1942, at the age of 16, for his political activity. He was a member of the left-wing Zionist organization Hașomer Hațair, an organization which militated for a bi-national (Jewish-Arab) state in Palestine.
[…] On July 5, 1941, Romanian troops entered Herta. Someone came and told my father that the Romanian troops are on the outskirts of the city. My father, who had fought in the Romanian army, told me “come on, let’s greet our men! We won’t be deported to Siberia!” On the way, about 20 Romanians and eight Jews joined. We got to the outskirts, where the Romanian avant-garde was stationed. A grumpy captain, instead of saying “good day”, asked us: “Which of you are Jews? Over to this side!” The second order was to take off our shoes. We all obeyed, and when we got up, we saw a group of soldiers pointing their guns at us. One of the Romanians who had come with us saw what was going on and jumped in front of the guns, pleading desperately: “What are you doing captain? These people suffered alongside us!” The other Romanians also shielded us from the weapons, so the captain couldn’t give the order to fire. This is how I survived. They gave us the order to leave and we left barefoot. To this day, I still consider July 5, 1941, as my second birthday. This was the first contact I had with the troops during the war against the Soviets. After about 3 days, all Jews in Herta had been arrested, taken to different synagogues and guarded. I can’t remember what I was eating during those days, but I do remember it was horribly difficult to get any water. On the third day, the so-called new local authorities – appointed by the Gendarmerie – arrived and started calling out names. They took the people they’d called out, some 132 of them, and I found out they were executed without any trial. Afterwards, we were set free from the synagogues, returned to our homes and obviously found them plundered. […]
There is a difference between the oppression of innocent people for the “crime” of being born Jewish and my experience. The things I’d like to talk to you about happened when I wasn’t yet 17. I turned 17 in Antonescu’s prisons. Now I’m just a few months shy of my 90th birthday. It was 1942, roughly a year after the Antonescu regime declared war on the Soviet Union as an ally of Hitler and of Nazism. The Jews were persecuted on all fronts, pupils, students, intellectuals, all had been removed from schools and universities. I was studying then at one of the most high-brow high-schools in Bucharest, Gheorghe Lazar. My great-grandfather had been a teacher there. In 1941, I, his grandson, was expelled from this high-school for being of Jewish origin. My father and my grandfather had fought in the Romanian army, they fought for the national ideal. There was no reason to discriminate against us, other than the fact that we were Jews, which is something that does not and should not be a reason for anybody. I’m telling you this so that you understand why I and other young people were so angry with what was happening. […]
None of us saw any other ways to fight Antonescu’s regime than by joining the Communist movement or by immigrating to Palestine, the historical homeland of the Jews. I saw the latter as the only viable solution and so I joined the left-wing Zionist organization Hașomer Hațair. A group of young people from this organization continued to pursue minor actions, which stood no chance of succeding, but they did it with the desire to assert their human dignity, to fight injustice. We discussed the opportunity of forming self-defense guards during our group meetings. But we were too young and immature and nothing materialized. But 3 members from the Communist Youth had joined the organization and these 3 youngsters labeled banknotes with anti-fascist slogans like „Down with Hitler and Antonescu!”, „We want peace” and others of the sort. These banknotes were iercepted by the secret police. Starting from the three Communist members, the investigation uncovered a list with the members of our organization. This is how the trial began, this is how the three were arrested and how ore than 20 youngsters aged 12 to 20-something were also arrested. The three were sentenced to death and executed, although they were underaged. The 12 year-old girl was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but pardoned after one year. I got 20 years hard labor, out of which I served 3 – I was released when Romania switched sides in Augu st 1944. Very few of the people involved in the trial stayed in the country, most of them left in 1947-48 to Israel. Those of us who stayed were responsive to the anti-fascist and social justice rhetoric of the Communist Party. In the eyes of the millions of Jews who sacrificed themselves in the Holocaust, the Zionist approach seemed like the only solution for the Jewish people.[…]