Cornell University Press

Walking the Ground of Romania’s Holy War

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In summer 2018, toward the end of writing the initial draft of Romania’s Holy War: Soldiers, Motivation, and the Holocaust, I visited battlefields and Holocaust sites in Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine to gain a new perspective of the events about which I had researched. I also came across monuments that show just how much military history and Holocaust history remain segregated in the historiography of the Romanian Army in World War II.   

When both perspectives are combined it becomes clear that Romanian soldiers were in fact highly motivated by nationalism, religion, antisemitism, and anti-communism.

One of my first stops was the village of Stânca a few miles from the Prut River. On a hill nearby was a wooden cross affixed to a concrete base located where Roznovanu Manor had once stood. A plaque at the foot of the cross proclaimed, “In the memory of those fallen on the field of battle.” Below on another tablet on the base was the date 22 June 1941 and the words, “Soldiers, I order you; cross the Prut!” These were written by General Ion Antonescu, dictator of wartime Romania, who ordered the Romanian Army to join the invasion of the USSR and the Romanian Gendarmerie to “cleanse the terrain” of Jews in northern Bukovina and Bessarabia (which had fallen under Soviet occupation in 1940). Around the monument was more crosses – a symbolic cemetery for Romanian soldiers killed on the eastern front. However, on another hill across the valley is a marker of a mass grave of Jews murdered by Romanian soldiers on 27/28 June 1941. The remains of the Jews killed near Stânca were reinterred in the Jewish Cemetery in Iaşi joining the bodies of thousands of Jews murdered during a pogrom in the city on 28-30 June 1941. I had visited this mass grave covered by tiered concrete slabs the day before. Its inscription read, “For these, we mourn.” I arrived soon after the 77th anniversary of these events, so fresh wreaths still adored both memorials.   

This was the starkest contrast between two competing narratives about the Romanian Army that I saw during my trip. In Moldova, most of the monuments celebrated the Red Army as it “liberated” northern Bukovina and Bessarabia in 1944 except for around Ţiganca (location of an especially costly battle in 1941) where Romanian military cemeteries had recently been restored after decades of neglect. Memorials in towns and mass graves in Jewish cemeteries remembered the Holocaust, but usually indicated “fascists,” “Nazis,” or even “Germans” as the perpetrators – despite the fact it was overwhelmingly Romanian soldiers and gendarmes who committed these crimes. This was again true in Ukraine, even in Odessa where the Romanian Army carried out a terrible massacre of Jews on 22-24 October 1941.  

Once we understand that military history cannot be separated from Holocaust history, and vice versa, it becomes clear why Romanian soldiers continued to fight even after the tide of war turned against them.

The conventional wisdom argues that the Romanian Army was a reluctant member of the Axis because it lacked powerful ideological motivation to fight beyond the interwar borders of Romania. Military historians argue Romanian soldiers fought for God and country against the threat of communism. Holocaust historians emphasize hatred of Jews in the ranks. When both perspectives are combined it becomes clear that Romanian soldiers were in fact highly motivated by nationalism, religion, antisemitism, and anti-communism. Romania’s Holy War explains why Romania became the most important ally of Nazi Germany on the eastern front – both on the front against the USSR and in the rear targeting Jews and partisans.  

Coincidently, when Axis forces managed to halt the Soviet advance into Romania in spring 1944, Stânca Roznovanu was on the front line. As German troops fought from trenches, Soviet artillery destroyed the manor. Outlines of trenches and craters remain visible on the hill. Elsewhere Romanian soldiers continued to fight to defend their homes from Soviet retribution for crimes the Romanian Army had committed alongside the German Army in the Soviet Union. Only when the Red Army broke through did Romania finally abandon the Axis on 23 August 1944. Once we understand that military history cannot be separated from Holocaust history, and vice versa, it becomes clear why Romanian soldiers continued to fight even after the tide of war turned against them.  

*Featured photo: Depicts the “wooden cross affixed to a concrete base located where Roznovanu Manor had once stood.”

Cover image of Romania’s Holy War.
Read more about this book.

Grant T. Harward is a US Army Medical Department Historian, a former Fulbright Scholar, and a former Research Fellow at the Mandel Center of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


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