To the Abattoir

Investigating the Legionary Rebellion of January 21-23, 1941
Published: 2011-10-13

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We were a band of desperate individuals in the heart of the Balkans. And we were doomed to fail; our failure was our only excuse. [Legiuna Archanghelul Mihail] was the only sign that our country could be anything but a fiction. It was a cruel movement, a mixture of pre-history and prophecy, mystique of prayer and the revolver, and it was persecuted by all authorities, and it wanted to be persecuted. It had been founded on ferocious ideas and it disappeared ferociously. Whoever between twenty and thirty does not subscribe to fanaticism, to rage, to madness is an imbecile. One is a liberal only by fatigue and a democrat by reason. - E.M. Cioran

In 1994 I applied for and received a small grant to travel to Slovenia to collaborate with the NSK group (Neue Slowenische Kunst). This art group, which had coalesced around the band Laibach a decade earlier during a period when it was banned, had just upped the ante on their collectivism by declaring themselves a “transglobal borderless state-in-time.” They had begun issuing passports and opening temporary pop-up NSK embassies wherever IRWIN (the NSK visual artists) were invited to exhibit their paintings and graphics. I’d proposed to design a set of tableware for NSK state occasions and had flown from Seattle to Ljubljana to work on that idea there. During the course of my stay I met a fetching Slovenian woman who was teaching children’s pottery classes at the ceramics studio where I ended up. Her name was Mihaela and her name plus the serendipitous purchase of a cheesy paperback exposé of Nazis in America precipitated a mania for Romania that preoccupied me for some years to come and ultimately led to a meeting in Bucharest with Catalin Z. Codreanu, the 90-year-old youngest brother of Corneliu Z. Codreanu, the charismatic founder of the Iron Guard.

Romania wasn’t on my radar in 1994-95. I was immersed in the post-Socialist nostalgia of NSK’s “retro-avant-gardism.” I knew nothing about the 20th-century history of Eastern Europe and even less about The Legion of the Archangel Michael and its Iron Guard paramilitaries. What little I did know was gleaned from the obtuse liner notes on a CD produced in 1996 by Boyd Rice entitled “Death’s Gladsome Wedding.” Not being a much of a martial-music fan, I thought the best thing about this reissue of original 1930s Legionary anthems was the Kaspar David Friedrich painting on the jewel-box cover. It must have been around this time that I read Wanted: The Search for Nazis in America by Howard Blum and became obsessed with the story of Archbishop Valerian Trifa, founder of ROEA, the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America in Grass Lake, Mich.

Chapter 2 of Blum’s 1977 true-crime potboiler, entitled “The Bishop and the Dentist” is a mawkish account of a Jewish Romanian-American dentist’s twenty-year letter-writing campaign to paint Bishop Trifa with the “Nazi war criminal” tar brush. Dr. Charles Kremer’s obsessive letters to US immigration officials, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, senators and congressmen eventually resulted in a government case against Trifa and his denaturalization in 1982. But Blum’s account of the flimsy hearsay evidence against Trifa ends before his deportation and death in exile in 1987. Information in the publication that same year of Securitate defector Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief, in which the author chronicles the Ceaucescu regime’s manufacturing of false evidence against Trifa to feed to American Jewish organizations in a successful bid to maintain Romania’s most-favored-nation trading status, was ignored by US Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators. Trifa could not be expelled just because he was a Legionary. He had to be made to look like a monster. Pacepa writes, “The framing of Trifa was a long process that followed to the letter the guidelines received from the KGB on how to go about such an operation.”

Two other books published after Trifa’s death shed additional light on the diplomatic and political ramifications of the “war criminal” persecutions and the goals they ultimately served. However, it was Gerald Bobango’s Religion and Politics: Bishop Valerian Trifa and His Times, written while he was still alive, that woke me up to Jewish exceptionalism in postwar Romanian historiography and ignited a desire to travel there. Gerald Bobango was one of Trifa’s lawyers. His book about this case is a seminal one in my life in that it ultimately led to my breaking ranks with the Gramscian slow march through the schools and institutions most Western artists have been in Leftist lockstep with since V-E Day. It initiated an abiding interest in Romanian interbellic history and introduced me to the circle of gifted young intellectuals who committed themselves to Corneliu Z. Codreanu’s autochthonic struggle. It also led me into Holocaust revisionism. Prior to reading Bobango I didn’t think much about WWII history or politics in general. I’d been preoccupied with the study of Eastern mysticism since the late sixties, and although I had been baptized in the Anglican Church, Christianity held no real interest for me until I began immersing myself in the tragic history of the Iron Guard.

In 2001 I returned to Slovenia via India where I’d gone to document the Maha Kumbha Mela in Allahabad. Between my first and third visits to Ljubljana I’d become hopelessly infatuated with a Slovenian potter and mildly conversant in the history of the Legionary Movement. Prior trips were related to art projects, but that year I returned to put the moves on Mihaela and visit Romania. My mission of the heart was a failure, but it remains the bittersweet memory of a lifetime because though I didn’t get the girl I discovered the charms of Bucharest and met “The Captain’s” brother. That encounter was an intersection with history. I was the first American he’d ever met and probably the last. He and his wife Rodica were already in their 90s and both would be dead by the time I returned to Bucharest in 2005 to search for a document I failed to find and now suspect may not exist.

Central to my research into Legionary history are the events of January 21-23, 1941, usually referred to as “the Legionary revolt of 1941” or “the Bucharest pogrom.” During these three days, we are told, the Legionaries attempted take control of the Romanian Legionary State from Marshal Ion Antonescu, with whom they were sharing power. The rebellion was actually a coup d’état begun by Antonescu when he began relieving Legionary functionaries of their various posts in city governments across the country with no warning. Bucharest’s Legionary bureaucrats and police force refused to abandon their positions and street fighting broke out.

During the resulting clash with the army the Jewish section of the city was ransacked. We have been told marauding Legionaries butchered 200 Jews in the municipal abattoir and left their bodies hanging on meathooks. In other parts of the city Jews were rounded up, robbed, raped, and tortured to death in a frenzy of looting and rapine. There are photos of the aftermath of the “revolt” and newspaper clippings attesting to all manner of depravity, but accounts of the events aren’t trustworthy and the story of the Bucharest abattoir has done more to bring disgrace on Romania’s populist Legionary Movement than any other event in the twenty-year history of its struggles with local police prefectures, the monarchy, and the army.

Wildly varying versions of this legend are repeated in most histories of the Holocaust and Romania in WWII. Evidence presented in the case against Archbishop Trifa included the text of a speech he delivered in his capacity as a Christian student leader to a group of university students on January 19. Supposedly it was an incitement to the violence which erupted the following day.

Corneliu Z. Codreanu

Corneliu Z. Codreanu

From what little I’ve been able to learn about his life, Corneliu Z. Codreanu was never a Legionary, but he was jailed after the war as a political liability and languished in Communist prisons while his academically trained artist wife did what she could to feed the family. I asked him a number of questions, including his opinion on the story of the abattoir, but his answers were in Romanian and I’ve yet to get these translated. At the time my translator told me he didn’t believe it. Everyone who has bothered to look into it agrees it’s a slander, but I doubt Mr. Codreanu knew that an American foreign correspondent named Leigh White, working for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, was the first person to report the story. White wasn’t in Bucharest when the fighting broke out. He filed his eyewitness account of the unrest from Sofia, Bulgaria, and was back in Bucharest before it was over.

Robert St. John, also an American correspondent and an associate of White’s, picked it up and sent it to the Associated Press. White, if he ever existed, died in 1952. Other than an author’s credit for a book entitled The Long Balkan Night, no information about him exists. St. John dined out on the story of the Bucharest pogrom for the rest of his very long life. In a version videotaped for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum before he died, the 200 Jews are made to crawl up a cattle ramp and clubbed to death by Iron Guards before being butchered Kosher style and stamped “Fit for Human Consumption.”

I got tangentially involved in the graphics for Dan Ghetu’s alternative music project “Codreanu: The Centenary of a Martyr.” This was an elegantly packaged 2-CD anthology of contemporary nationalist neo-folk, gothic, and industrial music subsidized by The Cultural Foundation Professor George Manu. It included posters, postcards and a booklet of essays on Corneliu Z. Codreanu by Julius Evola, Kadmon (Gerhard Petak), Joseph K. and Robert Horwáth. It also included a bibliography and a list of sources in Romania and Germany for accurate historical information on the Legionary Movement.

Ghetu assembled an impressive variety of bands. So much so that his project became unwieldy and didn’t get released until a year after Codreanu’s 100th birthday. Besides all the musicians involved, he roped in just about every reactionary at that time who had ever posted anything favorable about Codreanu and the Iron Guard on the Internet in English.

I attempted to get this project more widely distributed through a small rock-music label in the U.S. but its intellectual/historical heft was more than they could handle and the negotiations fell through. When I returned to Bucharest in 2004 Dan Ghetu met me at my hotel. I was back looking for a morgue report cited as proof of the slaughter at the Bucharest abattoir. He helped me contact the historian in whose book this citation appears, and then he disappeared.

Without turning this account into a dizzying litany of texts and footnotes to contextualize the significance of what I was searching for, I’ll just say that Dan helped me track down Prof. Dinu C. Giurescu, whose history of Romania in WWII was where I first ran across the report. When I called from my hotel room, Prof. Giurescu told me the source of his citation was another historian named Lya Benjamin and he suggested I contact her.

The reason I believe this report is unique is because it’s a Romanian government document, not a Jewish one. Its provenance is key to sorting out the history of the Legionary rebellion, and obtaining a copy of it was my sole reason for returning to Romania. Inquiries sent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem were to no avail. The Romanian scholars at both institutions were confounded by the citation, so I took Prof. Giurescu’s advice and made an appointment with the person who purportedly discovered the report to ask for a copy from her.

The Tailor’s Synagogue is no longer in use, but an appointment to tour it can be arranged. This is where I met with Ms. Benjamin, who offered to email me the names of those killed at the abattoir published in her book, but declined to provide me with a copy of the original report from the Medico-Legal Institute Mina Minivici, which her list is based on. When I presented her with the SSI archive identification information cited in Giurescu’s book and pressed her for the document instead, she pointed to a wall of filing cabinets in her office and asked, “How do you expect me to find it again in all that?” Lya Benjamin was right out of Central Casting. She looked and spoke like Borat’s grandmother.

The Tailor’s Synagogue is an old and melancholy monument to a century of Jewish suffering and sorrows, and so was she. I couldn’t bring myself to ask any more of this tiny clutch of widow’s weeds, so I thanked her and left. Back at the hotel I called Dinu Giurescu again to ask if he recalled what she had given him—copies of pages from yet another book about the Holocaust, or a document from the Romanian Intelligence Service archive? He got short with me. "I know the difference!" he said, "But I can't recall what Lya Benjamin gave me. That was seven years ago."

Ion Coja is a professor of history at the University of Bucharest. In 2003 he took a 90-year-old Romanian Air Force veteran named Darasteanu I. Constantin to a notary where he testified before three other witnesses that while on a mission to pick up pork bellies he saw bodies at the abattoir, but they were dead Legionaries, not Jews. Coja is a nationalist regularly singled out for reprobation by the Jewish community and the Romania desk at Radio Free Europe. He was running for Mayor of Bucharest while I was there and lost by a landslide. He told me he believes some Legionaries’ bodies were seen at the abattoir, but his eyewitness doesn't remember how many. A retired professor of veterinary medicine I also spoke with named Dr. Radu Iftimovici, on the other hand, has written that Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg spread the story of the slaughter in two postwar books despite the fact that a statement signed by the employees of the abattoir denying anyone had been killed there appeared in the national newspaper Universul in February of 1941. He speculates that some Jews may have been killed somewhere nearby and brought to the abattoir in a truck.

Matatias Carp is the final authority on the Holocaust in Romania. Historians cite this Jewish lawyer's 1946-47 book, Cartea Neagre (The Black Book), to verify all accounts of wartime depredations against the country’s Jewish minority. Carp claimed 11 Jews were taken to the abattoir from the police prefecture where 9 were killed and 2 got away. He quotes a Military Prosecutor named I. N. Vladescu who stated in a newspaper article that the entrails of some bodies had been wrapped around their necks like neckties. Carp was hired by the community to draw up an accounting of the Jewish loss of life and property during the turbulence in Bucharest and throughout Romania during the war years to present a case for reparations to Marshal Antonescu and at Nuremberg.

If we can believe him when he states as fact that the Romanian Army was greasing their wagon wheels with the blood of murdered Jews in Bessarabia, then it's not such a stretch to accept his extra-morbid version of the abattoir story. His death toll there is 191 victims short of the one provided by the American foreign correspondents who originally gave the legend its legs. I'm surprised neither Prof. Coja or Dr. Iftomivici or anyone else I met in Bucharest during my second trip there ever bothered to search for the SRI file I went looking for. If it exists, it should corroborate Matatias Carp’s and Lya Benjamin’s lists. It should also match one that appeared in the September 1941 issue of The Record, a monthly news bulletin published by The United Roumanian Jews of America. When I asked Lya Benjamin where the morgue was, she told me a visit there would be a waste of time because the records had been destroyed in an earthquake. If there’s no report at the Consiliul National pentru Studiera Arhivelor Securitatii, where she claims she found it, then the debate about the abbatoir will continue indefinitely.

I left Bucharest empty-handed. Lya Benjamin’s assistant didn’t send me the list of victims published in Evreii din Romania intre annii 1940-1944 on the following Monday as promised, and it wasn’t until a month after I returned home and a flurry of emails later that I finally received scans of the relevant pages in her book. The ethnicity of each name identified on this list of the dead found throughout the city during the three days of anarchy indicates that nearly as many gentiles lost their lives in the “Bucharest pogrom” as Jews. Of the 212 victims listed, 120 are identified as Jewish and 11 of these are listed as found at the abattoir along with one German. Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, citing German and American sources, supports figures of 630 dead and 400 disappeared in the “Bucharest pogrom,” which was neither a pogrom nor a revolt. It was a clash between the Legionaries refusing to leave their posts in various offices throughout the city and the Romanian army which had been sent in to flush them out.

Stability in Romania was a preoccupation of the authorities in Berlin who were planning on Romanian oil for “Operation Barbarossa.” After a meeting with Hitler on January 14, 1941, Marshal Antonescu returned and dissolved the short-lived National Legionary State, and Romania entered the war five months later. Jews died during the resulting coup d’état, but so did many Legionaries, soldiers, and other citizens. No one agrees on how many, but figures for the Jewish lives lost were determined by fiat in 2009, and laws were passed in Romania to discourage revisionists. A few months after I returned from my trip there I received a letter of permission to search for “Intelligence Service Archive, Penal Fond File 4010, Vol. 60, pp 133-139” from a C.N.S.A.S. official. This is the morgue report that confounds the experts. Someday I’d like to see it.

Seattle, 13 October 2011

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Charles Krafft
Title: To the Abattoir, Investigating the Legionary Rebellion of January 21-23, 1941
Sources: Smith’s Report, no. 190, March 2012, pp. 7-11
Published: 2011-10-13
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 7, 2015, 10:20 a.m.
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