Romanian Jews bid farewell to an era with the death of leader, Aurel Vainer

BUCHAREST (JTA) – Aurel Vainer, a former leader of Romania’s Jewish community who, as the only Jewish member of Parliament, befriended colleagues of all political persuasions, has died.

Dozens of Romanian Jews on Tuesday defied fear of the COVID-19 wave ravaging their Eastern European country to pay their latest tribute to Vainer, who died Sunday at the age of 89. The former head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania was buried with military honors. and the main politicians present at the Jewish Philanthropy Cemetery in Bucharest.

In addition to leading the Jews of Romania, Vainer also served three terms in the Romanian parliament, where he established warm relations with all political parties. He was a friend of Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a vociferous anti-Semite and court poet of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who became the leader of the Romanian nationalist right.

“He knew the anti-Semitic persecution and the hatred of those around him,” David Saranga, Israel’s ambassador to Romania, said at the funeral. “Yet despite all the suffering, he chose to live a life in the spirit of love.”

The seventh son of a modest but prosperous merchant family, Vainer was born in the Stefanesti shtetl, northeastern Romania, in 1932, when the number of Jews living within the country’s borders was approaching 800,000. It survived the horrors of the 20th century and experienced first-hand the dramatic demographic decline of a community whose numbers exceed 10,000 today.

A view of the Romanian Holocaust Memorial, unveiled in 2009 (credit: DAGMAR GESTER / ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES)

“With his death, we bid farewell to an era,” Gilbert Saim, a prominent member of the community who helps lead services at the Choral Temple in Bucharest, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Vainer’s introduction to state anti-Semitism came when he was 9 years old, when he witnessed the visit of a brutally anti-Semitic Iron Guard commando, who was then part of the government and had come to inform his father of the immediate confiscation of all their assets, in application of the so-called romanization laws.

“It fell apart,” Vainer recalled in an interview a year ago. His mother took over the reins of the household and the children began to work to help with the money. Despite all the difficulties, he offered everyone a good education, which later allowed his youngest son to have a successful career as an economist under communism.

With the advent of democracy in 1990, Vainer’s connections and professional experience allowed him to work as vice president of the Romanian Chamber of Commerce. In 2004, when he was 73 years old and ready to retire, he was elected representative of the Romanian Jews in Parliament. A year later, he was elected director of the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities, a position he held until his retirement last year.

The Jewish community he had been appointed to lead was totally different from the vibrant one he had known as a child. About half of the Jews living in pre-war Romania had been killed by German, Romanian, or Hungarian forces. Fleeing new forms of state-ordered discrimination, repression, and poverty under communism, the overwhelming majority of the survivors, including Vainer’s brothers, subsequently emigrated to Israel, the United States, or Western Europe.

“I was the only Zionist in the family, and I am the only one who has not made aliyah,” Vainer said in the interview last year. His dream of moving to the Jewish homeland was thwarted by both politics and chance. When he was 12, maybe 13, a member of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Dror Habonim, he joined a kibbutz established on the Romanian Black Sea coast to train before emigration.

“We were living a collective life at the same time as we unloaded wood from the ships in the port,” Vainer said. When a ship bound for Israel finally arrived, a group of anti-Zionist Jews from the Jewish Democratic Committee, a puppet organization of the communist regime, used their influence to get on board. Vainer and his enthusiastic comrades remained ashore. Soon after, the communist authorities prohibited Jewish emigration that would last for several years.

“I accepted my fate,” he said decades later of his fate.

As head of the Romanian Jews, Vainer was in charge of an aging and shrinking community of just 10,000 people, but also 86 synagogues and more than 850 cemeteries, often scattered throughout remote villages where Jewish life ceased to exist ago. long time.

“That is to say, very few people and great obligations,” he said in hindsight about the mission that he had proposed.

Wielding his charisma and diplomacy, Vainer incorporated international Jewish organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee and appealed to the Romanian state to finance the renovation of several synagogues and cemeteries, many of which were in an advanced state of disrepair or on the brink of failure. deterioration. collapse.

“There are many examples: the Choral Temple in Bucharest, the synagogues in Oradea and Timisoara,” Vainer said of the most iconic monuments restored during his tenure. “They are the best evidence that Romanian Jews have contributed greatly to the heritage of the country.”

He also presided over the partial transformation of the synagogue buildings into Jewish cultural centers that increasingly cater to non-Jewish Romanians, which has become an imperative to keep infrastructure in use in those parts of the country where Jewish communities disappeared. .

Champion of dialogue and forgiveness, Vainer was an inveterate optimist who always chose to see the bright side of people and things. In 2020, during the commemoration of the 1941 Bucharest pogrom, he advocated caution by observing the disappointing results of a study on perceptions of Jews. He said the polls would be worth examining, but highlighted the fact that more and more non-Jewish Romanians were attending events like the ceremony he was speaking at, which, in his opinion, was a sign of how anti-Semitism is fading. in significant segments of Romanian. society.

He maintained excellent relations with the German minority in Romania and the successive German ambassadors in Bucharest. In recent years, Vainer repeatedly condemned comments by various Social Democratic Party leaders who called Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis a Nazi due to his German origins.

Ovidiu Gant, who represents the German minority in Romania’s parliament and was Vainer’s colleague in the Minority Parliamentary Group for more than a decade, said at the funeral that he was “deeply impressed” by the way Vainer, as a survivor of the Holocaust, showed sympathy for Germans in Romania.

“The German minority is deeply grateful to him for the unique way he defended us when we were subjected to rude public attacks,” Gant said.

In one of his last public appearances, Vainer and his successor at the head of the community, Silviu Vexler, expressed concern about the recent entry into the Romanian Parliament of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, known as AUR. The right-wing populist party won 9% of the vote in the December 2020 elections. Some of its leaders have praised historical anti-Semitic figures and members of the government of Marshal Ion Antonescu, who led several massacres of Jews during World War II. , prompting condemnation from the Israeli embassy and civil society leaders. AUR leader George Simion attended Vainer’s funeral on Tuesday.

Since last year, the leaders of Romania’s Jewish community have denounced a resurgence of old anti-Semitic prejudices – such as blaming the Jews for the Soviet takeover – in public discourse, after Vexler defended a law that would exclude to the former fascists for compensation for being persecuted. by the communist regime.

When asked in last year’s interview about anti-Semitism in Romania, Vainer cautioned against hype. “For example, some cemeteries have been vandalized recently, and surely there are some extremist elements within any society; but in general, you can safely sleep in a Jewish cemetery, “he said.

“There are deviations, yes, but we should not make this the end of the world or say that there is fierce anti-Semitism in Romania,” concluded Vainer.

Speaking about the future of Romanian Jews, Vainer was realistic. “The number of Jews is in continuous decline, and demographic laws have the last word, but there will always be a nucleus that will always act to preserve what we have had and all that it means.”

Vainer, who had no children, is survived by his second wife, Anette Vainer. One of his Israeli nephews attended the funeral.

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