Obituary: Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen

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The Independent Online
Moses Rosen, rabbi: born Moinesti, Moldavia 9 July 1912; Chief Rabbi of Romania 1948-94; married; died 6 May 1994.

MOSES ROSEN was one of the most colourful, controversial, and long-lived Jewish figures in post- Holocaust Eastern Europe. Elected Chief Rabbi of Romania in 1948 under communist auspices, Rosen for decades walked a delicate political tightrope, trading off fawning public servility to the regime for religious and community rights for Jews in Romania. It was a testament to his tenacity and skill that he never really lost his balance.

Indeed, despite his links with the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Rosen retained both his position and the support of his community and world Jewry after Ceausescu's bloody overthrow in 1989. The rights he won included the right to emigrate, and Rosen oversaw an exodus of almost biblical proportions that took nearly 400,000 Romanian Jews to new lives in Israel and elsewhere. In addition, he won concessions that allowed synagogues to function and the Jewish aid organisation the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to operate in a way that enabled the Jews who remained in Romania to lead a dignified Jewish life.

Rosen's critics reviled him as a lackey of Ceausescu who kept silent about the excesses and corruption of the regime and helped maintain the fiction that Ceausescu was charting an independent course for his people. Rosen was, for example, a key player in helping Romania win Most Favoured Nation trade status from the United States.

But his supporters, who included most of Romania's Jews, regarded him as a saviour who used every trick in the book to help his people - including the incentive that the Israeli government paid Ceausescu, or provided other economic benefits, in exchange for the immigrants.

Rosen categorically rejected criticism and repeatedly maintained that the only way he could benefit the Jews was by working with Ceausescu. He would, he said more than once, have made a pact with the devil to help Romania's Jews. 'My only sin has been to help my people,' he told me in 1991, seated in a throne-like chair during a conversation in his book-lined office in Bucharest.

I first met Rosen in the bitterly cold December of 1978, when I travelled with him on the annual pilgrimage that he made during the eight-day Chanukah holiday to Jewish communities scattered around Romania. For years, often accompanied by local Jewish youth choirs or foreign dignitaries, he would travel at Chanukah from synagogue to community hall to synagogue, visiting a good proportion of the remnant Jewish population in Romania. (Half of the 800,000 Jews who lived in pre-war Romania died in the Holocaust and almost all those who survived emigrated. The Jewish population in Romania today officially numbers about 14,000, most of them over 60.)

Rosen would pray with them, talk to them, have a kosher festive meal, move on to the next community. People would huddle close in their heavy winter overcoats and astrakhan hats; the youth choirs would sing, puffs of steam coming from their mouths. Chanukah candles would be lit and flicker in the cold. Young people, most of whom expected to leave for Israel as soon as they finished their studies, would dance the Hora.

In the six days I travelled with him we visited 19 Jewish communities in all parts of the country, including the small town in northern Romania from which my own grandparents had come. I alternated riding with Rosen in his sleek, chauffeur-driven black limousine and sitting with an accompanying Israeli radio crew in their van. I was warned how to behave in Ceausescu's Romania: 'Whisper,' I was told, 'they listen to everything.'

Rosen had a large head and face, with sombre sunken eyes that did not always look straight at you when he talked, broad features and an over-sized goatee beard. He was a short, rotund man (in old age, the top of his trousers appeared to be just under his armpits), but he acted larger than life and was object of a personality cult he did nothing to dispel.

Referred to as 'His Eminence' by Romanian Jews, he was an authoritarian leader who on official occasions wore black and purple robes, a purple head-dress and a big Star of David pendant. His word, among his people, was law. His picture was hung in community offices; a section of the Jewish museum in Bucharest was dedicated to his doings; and the Jewish newspaper the Journal of the Romanian Jews (which Rosen founded in the mid- Fifties) was full of news about his activities.

Rosen was born in Moinesti, Moldavia, in north-eastern Romania, and grew up in Falticeni where his father was a respected rabbi. He received a law degree in the 1930s before becoming a rabbi himself. Leftist leaning in his youth, he was elected Chief Rabbi in 1948 with the support of the communists. He served as a member of parliament from 1957 and became president of the Jewish Community Organisation in 1964, giving him both spiritual and secular leadership in Jewish life. In the 1970s, as unofficial goodwill ambassador for Romania in Washington, he began forging close links with leading western Jews and international Jewish organisations.

In the bizarre, looking-glass world of Ceausescu's Romania, Rosen's flamboyance and air of self-importance and power were a clear asset, but his imperious style prompted rumblings of discontent, particularly among young Jews and intellectuals after the fall of the communists. The Journal of the Romanian Jews won the sarcastic nickname 'Rosenblatt' ('Rosen page').

Following Ceausescu's overthrow, Rosen became increasingly outspoken against the rise of anti-Semitism in Romania, and he himself became the target of vitriolic attacks in the nationalist media. After receiving death threats, he took on a bodyguard who went with him everywhere. Increasingly, too, he urged all of Romania's remaining Jews to emigrate before it was too late. 'I advise every Jew who can do it to go to Israel,' he told me.

Nowhere in post-war Europe, communist or otherwise, was the life and welfare of the Jewish community so identified with and dependent upon its leader as in Romania. In the end, looking back at Rosen's life and career, it seems clear that his sin was not that of co- operating with the Ceausescu regime in order to help Romania's Jews during the dark decades of communism. It was, rather, that after nearly 50 years at the absolute helm of his community he - apparently deliberately - failed to groom a successor to take over when he died.