Film urges Romanians to acknowledge Holocaust role

Director Florin Iepan says his new documentary on the execution of thousands of Jews in Odessa, Ukraine -- one of the worst World War II massacres -- is a plea for his fellow Romanians to acknowledge their role in the Holocaust.

"Odessa", a 55-minute documentary, "is a protest against the authorities' lack of reaction to this episode... probably the grimmest in Romania's history," Iepan told the audience after the film's premiere this week in Bucharest during the One World Romania documentary festival.

"We live in a vulnerable society. Intolerance, hatred or xenophobia can still flare up" unless Romanians assume their past, he told AFP.

Alternating poignant accounts and ironic comments, the documentary puts under the spotlight the 1941 massacre of 22,500 Ukrainian Jews by Romanian troops, in retaliation for the blowing up of the Romanian army's headquarters in Odessa.

Around 100 Romanian and Soviet soldiers were killed in the blast, which pro-Nazi marshal Ion Antonescu blamed on the Jewish community.

On October 23, 1941, thousands of Jewish civilians -- men, women and children -- were driven into a dozen warehouses on the outskirts of Odessa and burnt alive.

Those who managed to escape were gunned down.

"I recall the thousands of women marching in column, in deep silence," towards their death, said a Romanian witness, aged seven at the time.

He added it was only much later that he realised "where that persistent stench of burnt flesh came from."

Passed over by Romanian textbooks, this tragic episode prompted Iepan to embark on a long journey trying to raise awareness about the horrors of the Holocaust.

Romania for a long time denied having participated in the mass killing and deportation of Jews during World War II and many Romanians still consider Antonescu a national hero.

Between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews died in Romania and the territories under its control during Antonescu's regime, according to an international historians' commission headed by Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel.

Iepan, 44, said he only learnt about this in 2006 when he was commissioned by public television to do a short documentary on Antonescu.

The marshal featured on a list of 100 "great Romanians" drawn up as part of a TV programme.

Antonescu finally came in sixth, but rumours have circulated that the poll was manipulated to avoid the programme crowning a war criminal.

Iepan had a priceless companion along part of his journey -- the last known survivor of the Odessa massacre.

Mikhail Zaslavski, 86, lost his mother, three sisters, a brother and an aunt in the carnage.

Decades after the war, he still faces animosity from some in Romania.

During a seminar on Romania's ex-king Michael attended by historians, Zaslavski was not allowed to take the floor, while Iepan was accused of disturbing the meeting.

Former centre-right president Emil Constantinescu avoided shaking the survivor's hand and several politicians refused requests by Iepan to talk about the mass execution.

"I think that 70 years after the massacre, a top Romanian official should go to Odessa and apologise to the last survivor and to the Jewish community, and tell them that today's Romania is different from Antonescu's," Iepan said.

"This may be a merely formal gesture but it would nevertheless open a much-needed debate."