Descendants of Jews killed during the Iasi pogrom in Romania joined survivors Tuesday in ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of one of the single worst Holocaust atrocities.
At the Iasi Synagogue, Romania's oldest, mourners inaugurated an obelisk as a monument to thousands killed on the orders of the then pro-Nazi regime led by Ion Antonescu, with the complicity of German troops.
"Nobody, nowhere can find an excuse nor a justification for what happened in Iasi", Romanian President Traian Basescu said in a message.
Between 13,000 and 15,000 Romanian Jews out of 45,000 living in the city of Iasi at the time, were murdered on the streets and asphyxiated in "death trains" between June 28 and July 6, 1941, according to historians.
"The Iasi pogrom as well as the tragedy of the Holocaust as a whole is a shocking chapter of Romania's history and should force us to assume our responsibilities for the serious errors committed in the past", said Basescu.
Jewish community members look at memorial stone (Photo: AFP)
Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for advanced studies at the Holocaust museum in Washington told an audience in Iasi this had been "one of the most infuriating massacres" committed during World War II.
"The Iasi pogrom is very important in the history of the Holocaust. It is a mass killing that takes place in the view of the public," Shapiro told AFP.
"So this established for the Romanians and for the Germans as well the fact that it was possible to murder people in front of their neighbors."
The method was later used elsewhere in Eastern Europe during World War II, from Ukraine to Belarus, he said.
"I do not think anyone can imagine the horror of what happened," Leizer Finchelstein, 88, one of the few survivor of the pogrom told AFP. He was 17 when he was forced out of his home.
"I saw lots of bodies in the streets of Iasi, lots of blood in the gutter," he said.
Finchelstein was crammed with hundreds of others into a train carriage. Doors were locked from the outside, all small windows and cracks were sealed and the summer heat was unbearable.
"People died like flies."
Finally, Finchelstein was carried out of the train in a village 20 kilometres from Iasi, Podu Iloaiei. There he had to bury those who had died.
"It is such a sad feeling to see this pastoral landscape, so beautiful, and then to see the mass graves where our relatives are buried", Naomy Almog, a retired Israeli teacher told AFP. She came especially for the ceremonies as her two uncles died in the pogrom.
"In these mass graves, people rest without name. For decades, Romania did not recognise fully the extent of the tragic events in Iasi," added Alexandru Florian, director of the Elie Wiesel Institute for the Holocaust in Romania.
Calling for "eternal vigilance", the American ambassador to Romania, Mark Gitenstein, said "every infringement of liberty" could contribute to a climate of violence in the long term.
Between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died in the Holocaust in Romania and territories under its control, according to an international commission of historians headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, himself a Romanian-born Jew.