Geopolitics

A Quarter-Century Late, "Romanian Nuremberg" Finally Begins

A full 25 years after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal commandant of a labor camp for political prisoners is finally being tried for alleged atrocities.

A screen shot image of Visinescu last year
A screen shot image of Visinescu last year
Alexandre Lévy

BUCHAREST — Born in 1925, Alexandru Visinescu lived a quiet, remorseless and very comfortable life until last year. The former commandant of the Ramnicu Sarat forced labor camp in eastern Romania was enjoying the equivalent of a $1,700 monthly pension, eight times more than the minimum pension paid to most Romanians of his age.

It was a pension he believed he definitely deserved because he did nothing more than "follow orders" at the camp where political opponents to the Communist regime were detained. Researchers from the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) beg to differ.

After a first, failed attempt to bring him to court, last year IICCMER leaked the story of the abuses Visinescu and more than 30 of his then-colleagues committed: tortures, summary executions, food and sleep deprivation, beatings, exposure to the cold, etc. The list is so long and terrifying that the justice system spent a good time of time pondering how the crimes should be classified. "Genocide" or "crimes against humanity?" Then, encouraged by public opinion, the justice machine ignited.

Visinescu has the dubious distinction of topping this "list of 35" criminals. His trial, which some are already dubbing the "Romanian Nuremberg," began last month, 25 years after the fall of repressive Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, and almost 50 years after the atrocities for which he is being tried. After Visinescu appeared in court, the case was adjourned until October 22.

Ceausescu in a 1982 speech in Moscow. Photo: Wikipedia

Visinescu, who just turned 89, is accused of having established an "extermination regime" in Ramnicu Sarat, which he commanded between 1956 and 1963. At least 14 inmates died in that camp, which was nicknamed "the hell of silence."

"These criminals were left in peace on purpose, and most of them died in their beds," Octav Bjoza, director of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Romania, says of those accused of the violence and torture of camp inmates. "Now at least some of their crimes are being brought to light. And that's important."

Very few of their victims, however, will experience the satisfaction of seeing these people called to the witness box. Of the 600,000 political opponents jailed between 1945 and 1989, almost 100,000 died in the camps. Some 10,000 were summarily executed, their bodies buried in the wilderness. Those who escaped the "meat-crushing machine" of the Securitate, Communist Romania's secret police agency, are now either very old and weak, or dead.

Still living to testify

Except for Valentin Cristea, an 84-year-old man who will certainly rise against the former commander in court to tell of the conditions of his detention, of his fellow inmates' hunger strikes and the daily deprivations and humiliations. A former engineer, convicted of "divulging state secrets," Cristea spent seven years there before he was freed. He knows he is lucky, very lucky indeed, to still be alive.

"I wish Romanians only saw in this trial an act of justice, of a free and independent justice, though it arrives 20 years too late," says Andrei Muraru, who headed IICCMER between 2012 and 2014. This young historian born in 1982 doesn't blow his own horn, but it is thanks to him and the IICCMER revelations that this trial is happening at all, and it could be the first of many.

Concerning the identity of the others in the "list of 35," Muraru limits himself to saying that they are only employees of the Directorate of Romanian Prisons who committed "crimes and abuses for political reasons."

But the second name on the list is well-known in Romania. It's Ion Ficior, 85, who headed the labor camp of Periprava, a village in the Danube Delta, between 1958 and 1963. He is accused of killing 103 people.

Romanian journalists confront Visinescu last year. YouTube

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ