The Australian Jewish Times (January 5, 1990)

The stories Romania’s Chief Rabbi Moshe Rosen has to tell, many of which he may now be free to publish for the first time, represent one of the great dramas of post-war Jewish life in Europe. With the death of Nicolae Ceausescu and the emergence of democratic forces in the Romanian revolution, Rabbi Rosen is more than ever at the center of the action in his community in Bucharest. He is warning that the Iron Guard's fascism of the ’40s may re-emerge in the upheaval that has followed the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime (see The Jerusalem Post's report in this issue) and has called for Jews everywhere to support and strengthen the democratic elements. Coming from Rosen, a man who spent his lifetime walking a tightrope to save Jewish lives and protect his community, who has been hailed as a giant of his people as well as being criticized for being too openly supportive of communism and Ceausescu, the warnings cannot be dismissed. For four decades, he was both the spiritual and lay leader of Romanian Jewry, which, at the end of World War II, had lost 400,000 of its 800,000 pre-war population. Through the ’50s, Rabbi Rosen kept his community together and was able to persuade the Romanian communist leadership to allow a limited form of religious and cultural expression.

Then, starting in 1961, even before Ceausescu took over, Rabbi Rosen presided over the regulated emigration of 300,000 Romanian Jews to Israel. This was one of the most successful of all aliyot; the vast majority of Romanian Jews have stayed on in Israel, and they and their children have made an enormous contribution to Israeli society. At the same time, those Romanian Jews who stayed behind, at least until recent years when the community dwindled to some 20,000, mostly elderly, succeeded in doing what no other East European Jewish community in the communist bloc could manage. They maintained their basic religious and cultural identity.

Just three years ago, as part of a visiting World Jewish Congress delegation, I sat completely surprised and deeply moved by the concert of Hebrew and Yiddish music and theater presented by the young Jews of Bucharest. The night before, on Erev Shabbat, the main shul in Bucharest was crowded, as it was every Friday night. Many of the young people had been there. The standard of their concert on Motzei Shabbat was higher than almost anything you would expect to encounter outside Israel, even from much larger communities. The commitment of those youngsters, nearly all of whom were waiting for the day they could leave for Israel, was inspirational. Rabbi Rosen watched over all this with sorrowful pride; sad that the remnants of the community were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the necessary infrastructure of an active Jewish life, proud that so many had gone to Israel with a strong religious and Zionist foundation.

There was, of course, a price for all this. And in more ways than one. The Israeli press has reported in recent days what was known but not publicly discussed at leadership levels in a number of Jewish organizations; Israel and international Jewish agencies had paid for every Jew that left Romania. What has been a much more guarded secret was that, according to the press reports, it was $9,700 in cash for every exit visa, or well over $2 billion over 30 years, and that of this Ceausescu himself ended up with $75 million.

The other price was that paid by Rabbi Rosen and the Romanian Jewish community. In return for Jews being allowed to leave and to live as Jews without being persecuted as they were in the Soviet Union, Rabbi Rosen and his community agreed to become lobbyists for the Romanian government in the West, particularly in the United States, and in international Jewish forums. It also meant that, with one or two outstanding exceptions, they steered clear of political dissent at home. Rabbi Rosen was a member of the Romanian parliament, often defended Romanian "socialism" in his travels, and played a key role in the United States in obtaining most-favored nation status and trade credits for Bucharest. Indeed, Rabbi Rosen was one of the Romanian dictator’s best ambassadors.

Until the last two or three years when Ceausescu began the systematic destruction of the villages and stepped-up persecution of the Hungarian ethnic groups, Ceausescu was seen as an independent progressive among the rest of the hard-line Soviet bloc. In the ’70s and early ’80s, Ceausescu’s relatively good treatment of the Jews, even though his human rights record in other areas was poor, was such a contrast to Moscow’s, and his maintenance of diplomatic relations with Israel was so unusual in the communist world, that it stood him in good stead with many American opinion-makers.

In recent days, Rabbi Rosen has defended his role in contributing to Ceausescu’s acceptance in the West by arguing that he was not a friend of the late president, that he had not seen him for the last three years, and that he had done what he had because it was "good for all Romania, not just Ceausescu, and also good for the Jews." It may sound like too much of an apology. But before the armchair critics leap to judgment, I believe they should consider the profound religious and human dilemmas Rabbi Rosen faced. If they do, I believe they might agree that history will regard Rabbi Rosen kindly. To begin with, he did not leave Romania, even though he could have done so many times, but stayed with his community through difficult and dangerous years. Furthermore, he was never an apologist in the style of those Soviet Jews who joined the anti-Zionist committees or turned against their own people and justified every anti-Semitic excess by the Stalinists. He spoke out on behalf of his own people, often to the displeasure of Ceausescu and his comrades, and when the full story is told, it will show that he took considerable risks by constantly pressing Ceausescu to deliver on his promises. While he certainly supported the Ceausescu regime in general terms, he was always careful, at least in the public statements I can recall, not to justify the Romanian government’s mistreatment of dissenters, Christians, or other faiths or minorities. In closed conferences, he did not hide his criticism or hold back on his views about the injustices of Romania. But, even there over and over he insisted that Romania was not the Soviet Union, that it was possible for Judaism and other faiths to reach a modus vivendi with communist governments, and that while Israel was the only long-term alternative, every effort had to be made in the short term to ensure Jewish continuity.

Above all, what drove Rabbi Rosen, and what led him to make the compromises and deals that he did, was the saving of Jewish lives. Quite literally. It was not just a matter of ensuring that Jews were able to attend synagogues or study Hebrew. He had survived the extinction of every second Jew in Romania by the Nazis, he had seen how the Romanian Iron Guards were ready to kill the rest, and he understood how communist dictatorships could make them their scapegoats. Others may have reached a different conclusion on how to live with a Ceausescu or his predecessors. But, as Pirke Avot tells us, "Do not judge a man until you have been in his place." Rabbi Rosen has occupied quite a place.