The Return of the Rhinoceros

Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist play “Rhinoceros” begins in a sleepy, unnamed provincial village where nothing of note ever happens. But after the inexplicable appearance of a rhinoceros raging through its streets, the unassuming villagers begin to metamorphose, one by one, into the very same brutish and unthinking beast.

The mass conversion of humans to rhinoceroses functions as a metaphor for the contagious rise of European fascism throughout the interbellum decades. Specifically, the play borrows from Ionesco’s own youth in Romania. There, the late 1920s and ’30s saw the emergence of the Iron Guard (also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael), one of the most violent and virulently anti-Semitic organizations in that part of Europe. Among its members, known as Legionnaires, were not only alienated peasants, street thugs and working-class poor people but also prominent intellectuals who enthusiastically endorsed mystical jingoism and xenophobic rage.

After the war, many of those scholars, who included the philosopher Emil Cioran and the historian Mircea Eliade (with whom my great-grandfather briefly shared a prison cell), fled Communism for the West, where they built new lives in cities like Paris and Chicago. They lived comfortably, enjoying worldwide fame for their scholarly contributions, but were never forced to explain why they had embraced the cancerous ideals of the Iron Guard.

Similarly, Romania has never fully wrestled with this unsavory chapter of history; the more immediate woes of Communism, dictatorship and the uneasy transition into capitalism swiftly relegated that era into a dustbin of irrelevant antiquity. Other Eastern and Central European countries have likewise done little to reckon with their nations’ contribution to the Holocaust. Poland’s recently passed Holocaust law is an unfortunate milestone in what appears to be a process of re-rhinocerization in the region.

My own family history is haunted by rhinoceroses. My maternal great-grandfather, who owned a small restaurant near the Gara de Nord train station in Bucharest, was a member of the Iron Guard

His specific function in the organization remains a mystery. My family insists that he only provided financial support and kept a safe distance from the group’s more heinous misdeeds. Whatever his involvement, it was enough to invite the ire of both the monarchist regime and later the Communist government. The first sentenced him to prison, the second to a Stalinist gulag.

Beginning in 1949, a huge project, envisioned by Stalin himself, to link the Black Sea with the Danube River through a navigable channel relied on prisoners from surrounding camps as its main labor force. Some of them were former members of the Iron Guard, seen by the Communists as traitors for their fascist sympathies. According to one estimate, up to 200,000 people perished as a result of overwork, malnutrition and tuberculosis while working on the project, christened the “Canal of Death.”

The Return of the RhinocerosMy great-grandfather survived 11 years of incarceration. After his release, he refused to discuss his experience. All we know is that he was forced to cut swamp reeds every day, suffered bouts of pneumonia and was occasionally tortured.

I never knew him. I do remember my great-grandmother. As a child, I would visit her once every month. She lived in Bucharest’s old city center, not far from the Opera House, on Virgiliu Street. She owned a tiny basement apartment inside a crumbling Art Deco building from the 1920s. To get inside, one had to pass through a cavernous garage where a terrifying Doberman charged unwitting trespassers. My great-grandmother’s place was a dim time capsule, full of relics: chipped porcelain figurines, timeworn portraits, plastic dolls my mother had played with. My great-grandmother made me crepes with sugar, and I ate them quietly while she and my grandmother discussed a constellation of incomprehensible matters.

Our matriarch was reticent in discussing her husband, especially his activities before the war and his time in prison. As a pesky 9-year-old, I once asked her why he’d gone to jail, but she pretended not to hear. Her silence was understandable: That time was a tender nexus of old hurt; after his prison sentence, the Communist regime forced her to file for divorce, threatening to blacklist her children if she refused.

The little information I could gather about my great-grandfather came from my grandmother, who predictably whitewashed the particulars of his imprisonment. When I was a boy, she told me he’d been sent to the camp simply because a “snitch” had overheard him disparaging “Communism” in the restaurant he owned.

This set him up in my mind as a heroic insurgent. But when I turned 14, the story was drastically revised. He was imprisoned not for righteous opposition but for his allegiance to the Iron Guard. “He gave them money before the war,” my grandmother told me then. “That was the extent of it.” When I pressed for more details — including the depth of his anti-Semitism — she couldn’t say: “I was a child. What did I know?” This is a familial refrain: No one knows, no one remembers.

But the crimes of the Iron Guard are well documented. Their place in Holocaust history is cemented by the Legionnaires’ revolt in January 1941. Caught in a power struggle with the government, the group organized a militarized uprising in an effort to reclaim control, including a pogrom. Over three days of terror in Bucharest, the Iron Guard looted Jewish shops, set fire to synagogues and randomly seized Jews and dragged them to the snow-draped Jilava forest, where they were shot.

The most sadistic episode occurred in a slaughterhouse. Some 60 Jews were taken to the abattoir and, according to the American ambassador Franklin Mott Gunther — who toured the slaughterhouse shortly after the revolt was suppressed — hanged from meat hooks and skinned alive. The bodies were labeled “kosher meat.” One of the victims was a 5-year-old girl.

Romania’s involvement in the Holocaust extends far beyond this episode (the Iasi pogrom of 1941 claimed at least 13,000 lives, and under Marshal Ion Antonescu’s watch countless Jewish families were sent to die in the labor camps of Transnistria). But the events in Bucharest stand out in the nation’s long litany of Holocaust offenses.

I cannot say where my ancestor fits into all of this. My great-grandfather’s liability remains forever nebulous. Even if his input was strictly monetary, those nights of bloodletting embody the bitter fruits of his contribution. Such ghoulish affairs should never slip into forgetfulness, but in our family they do. For the sake of cohesion, it’s better not to poke around.

I learned of these events in college, long after my family had emigrated to the United States. A vast majority of the accounts I unearthed were written in English by foreign historians. In the Romanian media, very little was available, very little was discussed. It became clear that reticence about this period was not limited to my family but extended, like an obscuring mist, to the nation as a whole: “No one remembers, no one knows” is a collective refrain.

Nowadays, a new and warped narrative has emerged from this national amnesia, one that glorifies Legionnaires as martyrs who perished attempting to liberate their country (some former Iron Guard loyalists helped sustain an armed resistance against the Communist takeover after the war). Because the ills of Communist autocracy are more familiar, resistance to it can easily be given a patina of heroism. Even the president of Romania has carelessly decorated former Legionnaires as patriots.

Meanwhile, the country’s aging intelligentsia continues to fetishize the intellectuals of the interwar years without scrutinizing their support for the Legionary movement and the inexcusable virulence of their anti-Semitism.

Ghosts of old rhinoceroses have recently emerged in other countries as well. The Hungarian government, in a bid to re-elect Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has dug up familiar anti-Semitic tropes for a statewide campaign attacking the philanthropist and businessman George Soros, one of Eastern Europe’s favorite boogeymen.

Likewise, in 2010 Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine at the time, bestowed a Hero of Ukraine award on Stepan Bandera, a leader of an ultranationalist movement whose military wing was responsible for the Volhynian genocide in 1943. (The award was revoked a year later by Mr. Yushchenko’s successor, Viktor F. Yanukovych.) In early 2014, ultranationalists carried placards with Mr. Bandera’s image through Kiev’s streets, recasting the war criminal as a nationalist martyr.

Now Poland’s Law and Justice party has made it illegal to hold Poland in any way accountable for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. All blame, they insist, rests solely on the Third Reich. But the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom was committed by Poles, not the SS. A frank discussion of episodes like these now seems more difficult than ever.

The problem is that much of East-Central Europe lacks the will to confront its past moral failings. Throughout the past century, there has been little time to wrestle with history. These Europeans have been too busy putting out fires, struggling to navigate both economic reform and some of the biggest upheavals of modern times. Behind its thin cloak of democracy, not yet 30 years old, the region nurses traumas that have yet to be treated. The Holocaust is only one of them.

Poland’s recent legislation illustrates the urgency of reckoning with these old scabs. Without an extensive examination of history, the region is doomed to keep moving reactively between authoritarian extremes. Today, after decades of enduring the far left’s excesses, it is swinging back to where it was in the 1930s.

The solution is to look backward. Only an exorcism of past sins will slow this pendular trend. And reckoning must come from within, not by European Union strong-arming. Otherwise, without honest self-assessment, without public accountability, people will forget, and the rhinoceros, brutish and unthinking, will soon find its way back.

Valer Popa is a writer in Chicago.

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