Death Train Victims Deserve Recognition

Expanding the pension program to include Iasi survivors will do more than just ensure a small financial compensation.

To mark the 76th anniversary of the Iasi Pogrom, the Jewish community of Iasi (pronounced “Yosh”), a city in Eastern Romania, paid tribute to the more than 13,400 Jewish victims who were massacred in the days between June 28 and June 30th, 1941. Those who survived the violent pogrom were either packed onto train cars where most suffocated and died, sent to labor camps, or forced to live in a subsection of Iasi, where they lost their property, were starved, and were regularly beaten and humiliated.

This past June on the anniversary of the Iasi Pogrom, media called attention to the need for compensation for Iasi survivors. In our recent negotiations, the German government also recognized the need to provide compensation to the Iasi survivors. Why is it so important to attain this level of recognition more than 75 years later?  Understanding past crimes against humanity – as horrific as they may be – is an important part of restoring some of the dignity that was taken from so many.

At the beginning of 1941, approximately half of the 100,000 residents of Iasi were Jewish.  Iasi was under the rule of anti-Semitic Romanian dictator, Marshal Ion Antonescu. With plans to invade the Soviet Union, the Jews on the Soviet border were considered a security threat for Nazi forces. Jointly, the Romanian and German armies pressured the Romanian government to address the threat by removing the Jews from Eastern Romania.  

On June 28 and 29 of that year, within days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Romanian authorities, along with the German soldiers, staged an infamous pogrom against the Jewish population of Iasi. Jewish men were ordered to appear at the police station.  On their way, they were shot dead in the streets, bludgeoned with clubs and other weapons, and brutally beaten in the courtyard at police headquarters by Romanian soldiers, police and German SS.  Jewish homes and businesses were looted, and many of those hiding in homes and basements were forced out into the streets, informed on by their neighbors and supporters of the anti-Semitic movement.

On June 30, those who survived the massacre at police headquarters were forced into two trains. Train cars intended to hold 35-40 people were packed with 80-150 Jewish men (including some women and children), many suffering from injuries sustained in the pogrom. The “death trains” as they became known, were supposedly bound for two cities in Southern Romania. In reality, these were “trains to nowhere,” each on a horrifying journey.  The captors nailed shut the ventilation slats and shot those who tried to find water during periodic stops.  The town of Targu Frumos, normally an hour-long ride from Iasi, took nearly 17 hours to reach via an intentionally drawn out route through a half dozen towns and cities. The few times the train doors were opened during the journey was only to let the dead spill out. Of the 4,402 who boarded the two trains, more than 2,100 were killed through heat, exhaustion, suffocation, dehydration and madness.

Those who survived, mostly younger men, were forced to drag the bodies of their fathers, uncles and other loved ones to nearby fields and Jewish cemeteries. There, they were forced to dig pits and toss the bodies into mass graves, where they were subsequently doused with flammable liquid and set on fire.

The experience of the pogrom and “death trains” left the remaining Jewish population terrified.  Nearly every able-bodied man was killed or sent to a work camp to perform slave labor, leaving most families in Iasi without a male protector or bread winner.

On August 6, 1941, an ordinance was issued by the military commander of Iasi, for Jews in certain sections to evacuate their homes, under penalty of death.  Those driven out had to find accommodations in synagogues and with families in designated neighborhoods.  A curfew had already been imposed on Jews, their movements were further restricted, and they were prohibited from entering a number of public areas and buildings or leaving the city without a permit.

While there were no physical walls, the area occupied by the Jewish community in Iasi had been turned into an open ghetto ― overcrowded, deprived of food, adequate water and medical care. The inhabitants could not leave their designated area, and over time lost their properties and businesses. This is how they lived until the Romanian government was overthrown in 1944.

The need for some measure of justice for those who suffered during the Holocaust has been recognized by the German government. Over the last 66 years the criteria for survivor compensation has expanded greatly to include those who suffered in hiding, those enclosed in ghettos, and even those who were held as prisoners in open ghettos.

Following the anniversary of the Iasi Pogrom, and in the wake of recent negotiations with the German government, it is important to recognize those who survived the death trains and survived in Iasi. Expanding the pension program to include Iasi survivors will do more than just ensure a small financial compensation. It will provide them with some of the dignity stolen from them in their youth as they live out their final years.