“A Look into the Lives of Women in Community Romania” in The Lazy Historian
- A Look into the Lives of Women in Communist Romania published 6 February 2021 in the Lazy Historian.
Romanian women during the 1960’s at the time when my literary heroine, Mica, in Gift of Diamonds, was growing up in Transylvania, were “existentialist” women. Many of them were well educated, for all schools and universities in Romania were free. They were also very western in their tastes: dancing to Rock and Roll and the Beatles, speaking French, German or Russia, and dreaming of visiting the city where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote their books.
But the Romanian women could not travel outside of Romania – they were locked down behind an Iron Curtain. Yet, they had something that no woman had, be it in Paris or London or New York. They were already emancipated. Communism disallowed gender inequality. Women were educated equally to their men to build up the country. They were studying and working long hours just like their brothers. Girls and boys, women and men, were being prepared for the future.
In their free choices to follow their passions, women were given equal opportunities as their male colleagues. They were “existentialists” before the students of 1968 joined their men to demonstrate for equality and gender rights.
My four protagonists in Transylvanian Trilogy were educated in fields that America had stigmatized women with unwritten quotas. Mica, in Gift of Diamonds, was training to be a dancer and future choreographer. Anca, in Love Odyssey, was educated as a physician specializing in infectious diseases. Marina, in Treasure Seekers, became a chemist and Cristina, a fashion designer. These four friends growing up in their small town of Spera-meaning hope—were Poets of their Lives. As teenage girls, hiking together in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, they already knew they would create a new life for themselves in a different country. They had been educated and encouraged to compete in a man’s world, and they did. They overcame obstacles and created for themselves a life of free choices with the possibilities of success and satisfaction.
But it was not only my female literary creations who achieved. Real women in Romania during the 1960’s were already attaining praise on the global stage:
Queen Elena, who defied Fascism and the German occupation of her country, protected Jews overtly and fed thousands of starving children in her home. Nadia Comaneci was training to become the first world-known gymnast and show that a fourteen-year-old girl could win five Olympic gold medals within days and go on to win a total of nine medals.
Dr Ana Aslan, biologist and physician, was greeting the rich and famous like John Kennedy and Mao Tse-tung, at her clinic in Bucharest for doses of Gerovital H3. This was her magic formula known as a “fountain of youth” to delay aging and keep them strong in power. Angela Gheorghiu was already singing her Opera arias. Famous athletes were practicing their tennis, high jumps, ping pong, track and field. Actresses, singers, musicians, artists … and the list went on for Romanian women.
It is only in hindsight that my imaginary heroines of Transylvania Trilogy realized they had attained a very important freedom in their town of Spera. They were free to become Poets of Their Lives.
“The Consequential Fate of the Bucharest Jews in Romania” published in The J
- The Consequential Fate Of The Bucharest Jews In Romania published 3 February 2021 in The J
Even Adolph Eichmann had warned General Antonescu he was “too cruel and sloppy with his Jews.”
Anti-Semitism had always been part of Romanian culture long before the war, but it was in 1927 with the establishment of the Iron Guard, Romania’s fascist party, in which their practices publicly centered on eliminating all Jews in Romania by torture and death squads.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, reflecting on the treatment of the Bucharest Jews during this time, I realize that this part of history may not be well known. I feel it is important to revisit the facts. In my forthcoming novel, Gift of Diamonds, a survival story beginning in 1960s Romania, where Communism was rampant, I intersperse the evils of Communism with Fascism. Both heinous forms of government used similar horrors of destroying people with torture and death squads. In Romania, it began with Fascism.
King Carol ll, the royal-dictator (1930-1940) included in his government, fascist practices, beginning by signing a law that was influenced by the Nuremberg racist protocols that defined who was to be considered Jewish. He tightened his dictatorship against Jews until 1940 when he was forced to abdicate and left for Portugal with his Jewish mistress, Magda Lupescu. General Ion Antonescu eagerly took power in September 1940, formed an alliance with the Iron Guard and tightened restrictions on the Jews.
One year later, he destroyed the organization after a heinous act in January 1941: the Iron Guard had lists of rich Jews and hunted them in their homes. They tortured them until they signed over their houses and properties. Then they shot them in the forest. Others were taken to Bucharest’s slaughterhouse, where they were hung on butcher’s hooks, still alive to be tortured more. Their bellies were cut open and their entrails hung around their necks. Their dead bodies were hanged on hooks with a sign under each body, “Kosher meat.”
Antisemitism ravaged the Jewish population throughout the country, especially in areas outside the capital as in Bukovina, a territory previously owned by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and in Bessarabia, acquired from Russia, as well as in Moldavia and sections of Transylvania. All Romanian Jews received rights of citizenship in 1923, but in 1940, that citizenship was taken away from all Jews except those living in Bucharest.
The Jews residing outside the capital were persecuted, rounded up and forced into death trains. Genocide was the goal. Those who survived were sent to Transnistria, a camp where typhus and starvation slaughtered more than 200,000, including 50,000 children.
Strangely, the Bucharest Jews were spared. Their population of 100,000 were not forced to wear yellow Jewish stars, or to live in ghettos, or to be deported. The question is – who protected them?
Paradoxically, it was General Ion Antonescu, himself, with assistance from Romania’s Chief Rabbi, Alexandru Safran, and the respected president of the Jewish communities, Wilhelm Filderman, with the Queen mother of Romania, Elena. Why did Antonescu, the fascist dictator, get involved to help?
Antonescu was aware that after losses on the Eastern Front in the battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943), when he had allied his army to the Germans, that the Axis power could lose the war. At this time, Antonescu had in place the intention of stripping the Bucharest Jews of their citizenship and deporting them to camps. But Queen Elena and her son, King Mihai (Michael), intervened and organized formidable resistance against the dictator. Rabbi Safran and Filderman joined forces with the Royal family.
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Antonescu was a rabid, violent anti-Semite. Even Adolph Eichmann had warned Antonescu that he was being “too cruel and sloppy with his Jews.” And yet, he didn’t want to appear to the outside world as being a monster.
Consequently, he met regularly with Queen Elena and Rabbi Safran to discuss which Jews on their list should be spared. The Queen had warned the fascist leader that she was determined, “If the Romanian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, she would march next to them.” It was at this time that Antonescu realized the tide of war was turning against Germany, and that the Bucharest Jews could represent for him an insurance policy in case of a post-war trial for “crimes against humanity.” The Bucharest Jews, alive, could serve as collateral for his own survival.
In addition to a judicial justification, Antonescu began negotiating a financial deal without either Hitler or Eichmann ever knowing – to sell the Bucharest Jews and send them to Palestine. But the British, who controlled Palestine at that time, didn’t want to upset the Arabs. Even though Ben-Gurion, the leader of Israel, wanted the Bucharest Jews to build up the new country, the British told Antonescu, no. They called it a slave trade, unethical to sell people.
Antonescu persisted in trying. He had another idea, a business concept to trade and sell human lives: Jews for exit visas. His plan was to extort cash from American and world Jewish organizations for the sale of Romanian Jews. Such a scheme could simultaneously placate his government officials by their receiving from exiting Jews, a windfall of abandoned homes, gold, paintings, jobs, and businesses.
A key figure in this market was Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, under President Roosevelt. Since 1934, he was the only Jew in Roosevelt’s cabinet and was active in bringing to the president various rescue plans to stop the annihilation of European Jews. Despite criticism about a slave trade extortion plan, the committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, a Zionist organization in New York, with the help of Morgenthau, placed an ad in The New York Times on February 16, 1943 saying, “For sale to Humanity, 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a piece.”
There was no interest. No potential buyer came forward. And President Roosevelt hesitated to push the plan forward. It was an election year and not a popular idea. The rescue plan fell through, and with it the lives of 70,000 souls and thousands of children.
During the deportation of survivors of a July 1941 pogrom in Iasi to Calarasi or Podul Iloaei, Romanians halt a train to throw off the bodies of those who had died on the way. (Photo: encyclopedia.ushmm.org)
Morgenthau, tirelessly negotiated with Antonescu, while stalling for an end to the war. As negotiations continued, on August 23,1944 King Mihai, residing in the Royal Palace in Bucharest, organized a coup d’état against General Antonescu, who had been imprisoned by the king. In the process, the king and his new government declared war on the Axis powers and asked the Romanian Army not to resist the Red Army.
One week later, on August 31, 1944, the Soviets entered the capital. An armistice was signed with Moscow on September 12, 1944, and the Soviet occupation remained in Romania. Two years later, on June 1, 1946 in Bucharest, Antonescu was executed by a military firing squad for war crimes. He had been responsible for the death of 300,000-380,000 Romanian Jews during the war.
The irony of history is that the Russians saved the Bucharest Jews. In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember the horrific numbers:
In 1930, Romania had a Jewish population of 725,000-750,000.
In 1945, 290,000-360,000 Jews had survived.
In 1940 there were 95,072 Jews living in Bucharest.
In 1945 there were 100,000-150,000 Jews living in Bucharest, which included Jews from other sections of the country who had sought safety in the capital.
Other works: World Affairs in Foreign Films
World Affairs in Foreign Films by Roberta Seret
Teaching Global Education to Students
World Affairs in Foreign Films offers teachers and students of middle school the opportunity to experience foreign cultures through the power of film.
Students are visual learners and film has the power to capture their imagination and take them to places that they have never known before. Seeing is believing, and to be transported into the middle of a foreign country as it is presently and then to discuss it, enhances visual stimuli, analysis, retention and comprehension.
Through Dr. Seret’s methodology of using film, students are introduced to 9 lenses of inter-related, multi-disciplinary academic perspectives: World History; Geography; Economics; Civics, Citizenship and Government; World literature; Media Studies; Creative writing /Critical thinking/ Philosophy; Art; and Technology.
In addition, her pedagogical methodology also works well digitally. Dr. Seret have created and implemented FILMeds ©, a new digital approach using the screen/ computer to teach students about international events. This approach is used in conjunction with accompanying film chapters in the textbook. FILMeds is a digital, multi-disciplinary video using film clips and images to analyze an award-winning film from a representative country through inter-related perspectives: geography, history, Human Rights, politics, and Media Studies. Questions for discussion are incorporated in the video and serve as a guide for the teacher. The screening of FILMeds catapults group discussion and communication using global issues, which are reinforced with activities and information from the corresponding film chapter in the text. Students can access the FILMeds on their own – at home, in the classroom, in the library – and hone their technology skills.
GIFT OF DIAMONDS
FEBRUARY 17, 2021 The following is an exclusive excerpt from Gift of Diamonds, by Roberta Seret. After seventeen-year-old Mica’s parents are arrested by the Romanian secret police, she escapes to America with the family’s diamonds. Which might be cursed.
I escaped Romania in the middle of the night, by bike, on February 2, 1965. It was the moment when the country was locked in a communist prison. I was seventeen years old then. Now, twenty- four years later, in the diplomatic and political frost of 1989, with the beginning of freedom, I’m returning. As I walk through customs at Bucharest’s Otopeni airport with my American pass‐ port held tightly in my hand, I feel a strange sensation: memory is pulling me back to a lost time.I see my seventeen-year-old self in front of me, leading me into the labyrinth of youth. She takes my hand and warns me of pitfalls while I enter a world I may have forgotten. She’s cute, smiling, spunky, full of life. One would say she had been very much loved by her parents.
I follow her, admiring her short black hair cropped straight around her oval face, highlighting her high cheekbones and hazel eyes, with a small pointy chin and full lips. She’s of medium height, fragile like porcelain on the outside, but more resilient than she realizes inside. She’s dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and tight black leggings, wearing high black leather boots and covered with an Elizabethan-style coat that closes with a belt wrapped twice around her thin frame. She leads me to a customs desk where I present my papers to an officer without any communication other than his indifferent stare. I understand that his silence, inherited from the communist era, still lingers. I look around me. There’s only one electric bulb for the entire room and its 40 watts flicker. The wind blows through a broken windowpane, letting in a winter chill. The airport is empty except for several policemen carrying machine guns. I watch them: smooth-skinned boys, dressed up as soldiers.
Other Works: FILMeds
What are FILMeds?
- FILMeds consist of several film clips and scenes woven together in a digital video format.
- FILMeds are a digital companion to the multi-disciplinary book World Affairs in Foreign Films by Roberta Seret (McFarland Publishers).
- FILMeds include lessons in geography, history, government and human rights that offer an introduction to global hot-spots.
- FILMeds include questions to stimulate classroom and group discussions about a country’s geopolitical position.
To view a FILMed sample on YouTube, please click here:
Other Works – Film Reviews:
- “Film Review: Hannah Arendt and Crimes Against Humanity,” Journal of International Criminal Justice(Oxford U. Press), March 2014, Film Review: Hannah Arendt and Crimes Against Humanity.”
- Oxford University Press Blog, Contributing film reviewer, 6 Film Reviews, June 2014 to present: