Dispatches from Europe: Prague, Moscow, Romania, Belgium

August 14, 2002


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach the following:

1. "Jewish quarter evacuated in Prague as flood waters rise, Israel to give aid" (Israel Radio, August 14, 2002).

2. "Romania probes suspected Jewish mass grave" (Reuters, August 13, 2002). This new discovery in northeast Romania is important. Although many details of the 1941 atrocities (carried out by the Romanians not the Germans, and then concealed by the postwar communist regime), have been revealed since the overthrow of communism, many Romanians still refuse to believe that their troops killed Jews in World War Two.

3. "Jews look back on 1952 atrocity" (The Moscow Times, August 13, 2002). The 50th anniversary of Stalin's infamous execution of leading Soviet Jews on Aug. 12, 1952, is commemorated in Moscow. Among those tried and executed were several prominent Yiddish writers, including the poet Yitzhak Feffer and the novelist David Bergelson.

4. "Belgium's fears of anti-Semitism and extremism come out of the closet" (Ha'aretz, August 13, 2002). The recent attack on the Brussels chief rabbi, a number of shootings against synagogues, and the murder of an elderly Moroccan couple, has led the Belgian king, Albert II, to publicly condemn anti-Semitism and racism for the first time.



Jewish quarter evacuated in Prague as flood waters rise, Israel to give aid
Israel radio
August 14, 2002

As flood waters continue to rise in the Czech capital of Prague, authorities have ordered the evacuation of the old city including the historic Jewish quarter. Israel has announced that it is offering the Czech Republic aid in the wake of the severe flooding. Israel Radio reported that the Foreign Ministry would evaluate the needs of the republic before deciding on the nature of the aid. So far 200,000 people have been evacuated from their homes and the damage is estimated at $2 billion.



Romania probes suspected Jewish mass grave
August 13, 2002

Romanian authorities on Monday began excavating a site in the northeast of the country suspected of holding the bodies of Jews massacred during World War Two.

"We will dig trenches and send any findings to specialized forensic laboratories," vice-prefect Valentin Soroceanu told Reuters by telephone from the village of Popricani, near the city of Iasi. Thousands of Jews perished in the Iasi region in 1941 after the Romanian government allied itself with Nazi Germany.

The decision to launch the investigation came after a local newspaper printed the accounts of several Popricani villagers who said they had witnessed the mass killing of Jews in a forest near the village in 1941. "I saw when they were ordered to dig their own graves. Men, women, children... they were digging and crying. They were all machine-gunned," an elderly villager told Iasi television last week.

Although many details of the 1941 atrocities, concealed by the former communist rulers, have been revealed since the overthrow of communism some 13 years ago, many Romanians refuse to believe that troops killed Jews in World War Two.

The first victims were shot dead in July 1941 in Iasi when Romanian fascists, under the rule of military dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu, killed 12,000 Jews in northeastern Romania.

Scores of Jews were loaded onto overcrowded cattle trucks and traveled aimlessly around Romania for days while the authorities discussed their fate. Hundreds died from starvation and thirst.

"So far, we have found only cartridge cases. It's true that this site was also the scene of heavy fighting between the Russians and Germans in 1945. But we continue the investigations," archaeologist Silviu Sanie, a leader of the Iasi Jewish community and a member of the Popricani investigating team, told Reuters.

Antonescu sent 150,000 Jews to Nazi death camps, but some Romanians still revere him as a hero for fighting back the Russian army to regain Romanian territories lost to the Soviets. Communists executed Antonescu as a war criminal in 1946, but after the 1989 fall of communism, his statue was displayed in several cities.

The leftist government led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, pushing Romania's bid to join NATO and the European Union, banned fascist symbols, including Antonescu statues. However, reports in the local media suggested some resistance among local mayors to the new legislation.



Jews look back on 1952 atrocity
The Moscow Times
August 13, 2002

Marking the 50th anniversary of one of the last spasms of Stalinist terror, members of the Jewish community gathered in a Moscow synagogue Monday to reflect on the improvement of their condition in Russia over the past half-century and to warn that anti-Semitism still plagues the country.

The ceremony commemorated the Aug. 12, 1952, execution of 13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the basement of Lubyanka, the infamous headquarters of the Soviet secret police.

Although the number of victims was small in comparison with the tens of millions of people estimated to have died under Stalin, the killings are seen as an especially shocking demonstration of how the system had become debased by paranoia and bloodlust.

The committee had once been an important propaganda tool for Stalin in the fight against the Nazis and the Soviet Union allowed some of its members to travel to the United States for fund-raising events.

But after Russian Jews were electrified by the creation of Israel in 1948, Stalin began to see the group as a potential threat to his grasp on power and members were arrested and tried in secret. Among those tried and executed were several prominent Yiddish writers, including poet Yitzhak Feffer and novelist David Bergelson.

"We have a task. Those of you living today do everything so that such a tragedy cannot be repeated," prominent rabbi Adolf Shayevich said at the opening of the memorial ceremony. "You all very well remember the system that broke and destroyed its children."

Israeli Ambassador Nathan Meron chose to reflect with melancholy satisfaction on how Russia now has close relations with the Israel that the Kremlin once feared. "It is very sad that they [committee members] were not living to see... the establishment of diplomatic relations between the state of Israel and the new Russia," Meron said, and went on to praise improvements for Jews in Russia. "The life of the Jewish community in today's Russia is free, without limits," he said.

However, some speakers bitterly noted recent indications of resurgent anti-Semitism in Russia, drawing attention to the appearance of anti-Semitic flyers at some bus shelters and to the case this year when a woman was injured when removing an explosives-rigged anti-Jewish sign placed along a highway.

Yevgeniya Albats, a prominent journalist, said Russia's Jews must fight against such eruptions of prejudice, saying that previous oppressions were encouraged by Jews' failure to fight back. "It was because we were silent. It was our fault," she said.

The ceremony ended with a performance by singer Mark Aizkovich, who has written songs based on the poems of some of the writers killed 50 years ago. Smiling broadly, he urged the gathering of about 150 people to remember the joy the authors brought their readers, but got only some hesitant hand-clapping to lively passages before attendees began drifting out.



Belgium's fears of anti-Semitism and extremism come out of the closet
By Sharon Sadeh
August 13, 2002

The Belgian establishment is worried. The recent steep rise in attacks on Jews, including a December 2001 attack on the Brussels chief rabbi and a number of recent shootings against synagogues across the country, along with increasing hostility toward Muslims, have not only stained the country's image and strained its diplomatic relationships, but have also exposed the incompetence of the country's authorities.

King Albert II used the July 21 National Day celebrations to publicly address this phenomenon for the first time. In his speech to the nation, the king talked about the wave of racism sweeping Europe and Belgium, specifically mentioning the murder of an elderly Moroccan couple in Brussels by right-wing extremists.

"Other communities are suffering from the increasing phenomenon of intolerance, such as attacks on synagogues in the country," the king said. He added that it would be "inconceivable that they [perpetrators] would try and bring the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East to us."

Even if the king refrained from explicitly mentioning the Jewish community, which numbers about 30,000-35,000, Israeli representatives were satisfied that the Belgians finally said publicly what had been discussed behind closed doors or at events organized by the Jewish community: that cracks in the country's social fabric were becoming noticeable, and that the Jews were victims of anti-Semitism linked to political motives, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Top Israeli diplomats, however, said that in the absence of any vigorous campaign to limit incitement to violence against Jews, it is doubtful that things will improve.

"The Western European governments condemned the attacks on Jews in a weak and feeble manner," said Harry Kney-Tal, Israel's ambassador to the European Communities. "They know that these acts are carried out in the vast majority of cases by elements in the Muslim minority, but they fear that by pointing an accusing finger, they will contradict their policy of neutrality, as well as probably be interpreted as taking a stand or choosing a side," he said.

Diplomatic sources said that the Middle East conflict has become an internal political issue, and a number of parties have decided to support anti-Israel legislation in the hope that it will "score them points" with the 500,000-strong Muslim community when the fall election campaign begins.

This also led the Belgian government to support a new bill that will practically ensure that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be tried by Brussels for his alleged role in the Sabra and Chatilla massacres.

Diplomatic and electoral interests are not the only reasons preventing the Belgian authorities from taking action against individuals inciting against Jews and against extreme Muslim groups such as the Al Aqsa association, which raises money for Hamas in a number of European countries. International treaties signed by Brussels, such as the Schengen Treaty, which removes internal border controls between member states, makes the surveillance and location of suspected terrorists more difficult. In meetings between Belgian and Israeli officials, it emerged that Brussels also lacks a body to oversee the work of dozens of law enforcement and security organizations spread out through the country's four levels of power: federal, regional, provincial and municipal.

Belgium, like many other European countries, is trying to understand the roots of the Muslim organizations' radicalization. The Belgian parliament probed extremist Islam and prepared a secret report, parts of which were leaked to the media. According to the report, the government's current handling of the issue is insufficient, and senior EU sources believe that Belgium, like other Western European nations, is not prepared to deal with a mass terror attack.

The heads of the Brussels-based CEJI (European Jewish Information Center) asked the Council of the EU four months ago to restrain Arab countries who participated in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the Barcelona Process) meetings, which Israel also attended.

A top EU official told Ha'aretz that the organization has no intention of conditioning the financial aid given to Arab states and governments where incitement against Israel and Jews is rife to the Arab authorities taking concrete steps to stop this.

"I don't think that tying our aid to a particular line is likely to be productive," he said. "We cannot control the press, and I don't see how you could do so in practical terms. We try by cooperating with those countries to steer them toward more open and liberal attitudes, but that doesn't mean that we should dictate to them what line to take."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.