One World Romania 2020. Adrian Cioflâncă discusses “The Exit of the Trains”

10 September, 2020

The Exit of the Trains had its national premiere two weeks ago, at the One World Romania film festival. Co-directed by Adrian Cioflâncă and Radu Jude, the film attempts at restoring the memory of 200 victims that lost their lives during the Iasi Pogrom, the most brutal singular incident of the Romanian Holocaust, where thousands of Jewish people lost their lives or were deported on the „death trains” between the 27th and 29th of June, 1941. Molded on a formal structure that is similar to the one used in The Dead Nation (2017), the film shows the photographic portraits of those killed in the Pogrom across its three hours of screentime, along with the (sometimes very few) biographical details that survive them; at times, intermissions feature the gruesome testimonies of those who survived deportation, culminating with a silent montage of the images shot during the massacre.

We discussed with historian and co-director Adrian Cioflâncă about the history of the Pogrom and his lengthy research on this topic, on how the ethics of a film can be reflected through its aesthetic choices, as well as about the very precarious general knowledge of this topic in Romanian society.

Adrian Cioflâncă
Adrian Cioflâncă.

To put things into context, I would first ask you about the event itself – the Iasi Pogrom. What precipitated this event, on a punctual basis, in the context of the Romanian Holocaust? What determined the magnitude of this terrible event?

The Iaşi Pogrom is the first large-scale mass murder during Operation Barbarossa. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union along with several of its allies, including Romania. The Iasi Pogrom occurred about a week after the outbreak of hostilities. Iasi was a front-line area, but it is important to know that the troops did not enter Bessarabia as early as the 22nd of June, they only attacked on the 2nd of July. So, at the time, all of them were present in Iasi – there was an agglomeration of Romanian and German troops, of intelligence services of all kinds, local police units and others that were prepared for Bessarabia, gendarmerie units… So there was a crowd of people in uniform in the city and things were not very clear in regards to the role of the police – namely, who was responsible for maintaining order in the city, which of the authorities present there was stronger, how the Germans were supposed to work in collaboration with the Romanians, and so on. The pogrom also arrived against a backdrop of agglomeration and a lack of coordination and organization.

In structural terms – you may imagine a graph with three main poles: we have the problem of anti-Semitism, we have the problem of anti-communism, which is resuscitated by the campaign against the Soviet Union, and we have the security dilemma – namely, that we have several authorities in an area that is 10-15 kilometers away from the front line, which were hysterical due to their fear of an attack behind the front-line, and, on top of that, the Romanian troops were very sensitive to the spread of rumors and diversions, and the Soviets knew how to use this.  Thus, the Iasi Pogrom is a combination of these trends and a central order – because General Antonescu, on the night between the 28th and the 29th of June, following the proliferation of rumors that the Jews were attacking the Romanian army, signaling targets from within the city to Soviet bombers and so on, ordered the deportation of the entire Jewish population of Iasi – which, logistically speaking, was unrealistic. Because we are talking about circa 45,000 people, and the Romanian state did not have either the logistical capacity, nor Germany’s experience in terms of deportations or the necessary amount of trains (most trains were being used to bring troops to the front area).

Under these conditions, this evacuation order turns into a manhunt in Iasi. We must understand that this outbreak of violence would not have been possible without the war and without the security dilemma which was caused by it, but also without this explosive combination with anti-communism. This campaign to recover the territories which Romania lost in 1940 to the USSR is grafted onto an anti-Semitic discourse that has a long tradition both in Romanian culture and in Romania’s political culture. And all of these tendencies also combine explosively with the fears that haunted people during the first weeks of the war – a mixture of fears compounded with an oversized optimism, because if you read the news that was coming out back then, the soldiers were told that everything would be resolved very quickly, that Germany is an unparalleled military force, that the Wehrmacht can defeat the Soviet Union in a Blitzkrieg, and so on. All of these created unrealistic expectations, and when the Romanian troops started to have problems (and they had from the very first days, because of the Soviet counterattacks), adding also the fear of a Soviet invasion of Iasi lurking around, all of these in combination allowed the authorities to seize the opportunity of triggering this mass violence against the Jews.

One thing that I noticed in the film is that the vast majority of the victims appear to be men. Was this a specific order on part of the authorities?

In the first two weeks of the war, it’s quite clear that the Romanian authorities were in their first phase in terms of how they treated the Jewish population. Namely, in the case of Bessarabian or Bukovinian Jews, who had been under Soviet rule between 1940 and 1941, entire families were killed, and we have proof of several massacres of this type that were committed on the territory of Romania, at Stanca Roznovanu (where three mass graves were opened in 1945, which contained 311 victims, a third of whom were children, and which also contained the remains of women and elderly citizens), and some three kilometers away, in Popricani (where, in 2010, we discovered a mass grave with 36 victims, which had remains of children, women, and men, both mature and old). A mass grave was also discovered there in 2019 by the Wiesel Institute, which had the remains of 25 victims.

In the case of the Iasi Pogrom, the initial procedure (which was based on the German know-how) stated that only men of military age should be targeted – for them to be taken hostage, deported, or even killed, if they were suspects. About 40 women and many children also died, because they had remained by their husbands or fathers in the courtyard of the police station or in other places where the Jews had been gathered. The Pogrom practically causes a male depopulation of the city of Iasi.

What we showed in the film is that violence and the effects of violence do not stop after the killing of a given number of people. Our film illustrates the suffering of women – widows, mothers whose sons are murdered – because, in the patriarchal society that characterized Romania back then, the maintenance of the family and the main source of household income came from male labor. However, after the killing of the men in Jewish families, women were exposed to poverty and abuse by authorities. They found themselves in a very difficult situation, having to raise their children in miserable conditions.

This is noticeable in the film – it’s almost like a kind of collective feminine wail. Here, I noticed that there is a certain type of recurring document in the testimonies that make up the portraits of those presented in the film: documents that seem to be the only written object that attests to the lives of these people, which show that a given person had either been killed in Iasi or was put on the death trains. What can you tell us about those documents?

I’d start by giving you some technical details about how we worked because it’s important. Ours is a work focused on the history of the Holocaust and the Iasi Pogrom that has spanned over the last ten years, and most of the time it was devoted to building a database from which information about people and about various moments that were part of the Holocaust can be extracted. That meant massive digitization, extensive document indexing, and so on. The idea was that, for example, if I were looking for a name, I could find the information in minutes or go into more elaborate searches. The second thing to know is that, until now, only a series of portraits of the victims of the Iasi Pogrom was known – which included only photos with the names of the people attached. But in most cases, we did not know what truly happened to those people during the Pogrom.

In 2016, with the help of a friend who has since passed away, Gheorghe Samoilă, I found an album on eBay that had been published in the 1970s by an Israeli association. The authors had collected photos from the victims’ families and printed them in this album, which had a very small circulation – there are only a few extant copies in the world. I have a friend from Canada who also has a copy. Starting from this album and using the database, I tried to find out more about the lives and deaths of each person in the album. We were not always successful, and this is another reason for reflection that we emphasize in the film because some portraits are rendered without any kind of story attached to them (so, the photo appears on the screen, along with the person’s name, but nothing else). In other cases, we found the information in detail.

The reason for reflection is as follows – that sometimes, once a mass murder occurs, the names of the people that were killed are erased altogether. It is said that in the Iasi Pogrom somewhere between 10 and 14 thousand people were killed, perhaps less. But at this very moment, personally, I have the names of only 3,000 people. So out of a few thousand victims, the names of only 3,000 have been preserved, and, out of these, we only have the portraits of around 600 of them. Out of these 600 portraits, for the film, we were able to reconstruct the information in the case of around 200 victims. So these figures are indicative of the kind of catastrophe that a mass murder truly entrails, in addition to the physical suffering and annihilation that it produces. It’s this total destruction of the memory of some people, both their visual memory and their names and biographies. Sometimes we can only learn about someone’s death from a simple bureaucratic formula. That is why we kept the bureaucratic language that surfaces in certain documents, it was to expose what happens to us after death, sometimes – that all that remains from a man’s life is a phrase written on a typewriter for a bureaucratic dossier. And that is somehow horrifying. That is why it’s important to preserve our memory on as many channels as possible.

This film is about the victims. We’re doing what we still can, by using the powers of cinema and historical research, in a project such as this.

Indeed, the central (and singular) perspective of the film is that of the victims – and in some cases, that of the very few survivors of the death trains and the tortures that followed. When you worked with Radu Jude on the conceptual stage of the film, did you already decide at that point that you will focus exclusively on this perspective, by using these photos?

Initially, we wanted to make a story about the victims and their abusers, but that would have made the film much longer. Secondly, we found that it would be immoral to alternate between the photographs of the victims and those of the aggressors, of the war criminals that led to their demise. Thirdly, some of the photos that exist of the aggressors were taken in prison, after they were arrested by the communist state and some were depicted in very humiliating positions, so we did not want to participate in this kind of degradation of the human being by the use of our means, even if we were to discuss criminals. Fourth, to have a detailed sketch of the portrait of a murderer, the resources that are necessary for such an approach imply the need for portraits that are somewhat more elaborate, and that would have been very difficult to do in the film. Moreover, we did not want to reprise not even a bit of the incriminating rhetoric that was used in communist judicial documents.

All these things, put together, made Radu Jude and I realize that we should give up on this part. The film is very long anyway, it’s three hours long. On the other hand, in the case of the story of the victims, we decided not to make a selection of the stories, because these people had already been selected once by the aggressors. Sometimes, the historian and the director find themselves in this demiurgic position, and they can choose which story deserves to live on and which doesn’t. So we have made the decision (in ethical terms) to maintain all of the portraits for which we managed to find documentary illustration, for which we found the proof of life and death in the documents. After all, the film is long, but you can’t help but notice that it’s only about 200 people out of a few thousand. Only that takes three hours, even if sometimes it’s just a single sentence about a person that runs for just 30 seconds. From the level of the Romanian state to the level of public intellectuals, if we engaged into pleading for justice for the victims, for the preservation of their memory and aiming for a certain type of reparations, I think it is important to at least have the courage and patience of gazing at it, at least in this case.

I would like to make an observation here – our film changes the status of the gaze in this situation because, in discussions surrounding the Holocaust, the act of gazing has a bad reputation. To gaze is to stand by in a passive stance and to be somehow complicit, perhaps even a voyeur. This is a critique that Susan Sontag and other intellectuals have pointed out. Well, people also tend to forget that Susan Sontag withdrew this critique in Regarding the Pain of Others, its first iteration appearing, in fact, in On Photography, where she admits that the viewer is not the prisoner of the photographer’s conceptual apparatus, they are not an extension of the torturer and no one forces them to look at the scene using the same regard that the criminal had when they took the photograph. On the contrary – and this is what our film is proposing – we can change the status of gazing, because gazing is a form of patience, in this case, a form of courage, of reparation towards the victims. I think that looking at the story of these people who died as innocents for three hours is not much.

You raised an aspect that I also wanted to discuss – that of the intersection between aesthetics (or, more broadly, of directorial choices) and ethics. As we know from the history of cinema, from the very beginning, ever since the question of the representation of the Holocaust in cinema was brought into discussion – let us recall, for example, the dilemmas that Alain Resnais faced when he directed Nuit et Brouillard – this event has long been considered (and still is) to be unrepresentable. In this key, I would like to ask you about your specific choices in this film, surrounding this border between ethics and aesthetics.

First of all, we avoided the temptation of docudrama and any other kind of way of imitating the past – or what we believe the past to have been like. This is one reason why the actors who read the documents – and there were both professional and non-professional actors, in this case – weren’t asked to act a role or to appear dramatic, to extract emotion from the viewer. Also, we didn’t want a Jewish or Moldovan accent to be imitated in the film, because it would have just been a stereotype of what we think an accent would have sounded like in that case, and you can’t do a reconstitution on an individual level anyway, because we don’t know how the people in question were speaking in real life. That would have been an illusion – to try to imitate and romanticize the way that people spoke back then.

On the one hand, and that’s not something that I will hide – some directorial interventions were made to dedramatize the presentation. Every time we noticed that an actor was using a more declarative style of reading, we tried to bring the reader back to a more natural, neutral tone. We avoided this exorcism of emotion, and on the other hand, we did not want our film to soften the impact of the stories, because unfortunately, in Romania the most widely-seen films about the Holocaust are commercial movies, so there are some wrong expectations on some parts. Namely, either to have a panoramic and awe-inspiring perspective, from which you can only extract certain images or to choose a case study that would have a story with a happy ending. Our frame is neither making things too soft, nor too harsh, at the same time. We tried to keep as close as possible to the tone of the documents and to the way a historian (or any reader) feels when they read these documents. We didn’t make any efforts to impress the viewer, but we also didn’t make any efforts to spare them, to accommodate their fatigue or sensitivity.

Still from The Exit of the Trains.
Still from The Exit of the Trains.

At the same time, concerning the last part of the film – the one in which photos that were taken during the Pogrom are shown onscreen – I realize that it was a very sensitive decision and that it was taken with a great deal of consideration. But I also wanted to ask you about this part: how did you conclude that it is necessary in this form, without dialogue or any kind of audio comment, thus shown in absolute silence?

The first part of the film is dedicated to the diversity and multi-faceted nature of violence – because we show that, although we are talking about mass murder, we must refuse the temptation to believe that everyone’s life had ended in the same way and that the stories of all those who died are similar. We tried to show this wide array of situations of violence. But, on the other hand, we refused any kind of meta-narrative or synthesis of the event, by offering a more general image through these photographs. Plus, there’s a given explicit nature of those images, but, if you’re coming to them after witnessing the illustration of individual cases, you can judge those photos more clearly, by understanding that the people in those pictures, strewn in stacks of corpses, were some of the individuals that you’ve just seen. And this cancels or at least diminishes the anonymizing effect that a picture of a pile of corpses has.

You worked with Radu Jude on The Dead Nation (2017) and on I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018) as a historical consultant. It’s a role that isn’t discussed a lot in the Romanian public discourse about cinema and very few contemporary filmmakers turn to historical consultants if we were to take a look at post-1989 cinema. I wanted to ask you about what this role entails – especially considering that you collaborated with Radu Jude on topics that require a great deal of delicacy in terms of representation. That is if one aims for a just and ethical representation.

I’ve seen other directors work on historical subjects, and I’ve also seen how much time they devote to research – some of them work with limited budgets and are trying to redirect their budgets to some other departments of the production. They solve their research by reading a couple of books and by letting their imagination interfere with the historical document, and the result is a given product. What is interesting about Radu Jude is that – not only does he retain his aesthetic intuition and experimental way of rethinking certain formal aspects of cinema, but he also values historical expertise and expertise in general, since he is a very serious reader of scientific literature himself. I agree that when you embark on a project that lasts a year or two, you may not have the time to reinvent everything and to be able to do a type of work that someone else has been doing for their entire career, that you would be able to replace a type of knowledge only with an individual effort.

Radu turned to this kind of knowledge by working with Constanta Vintila-Ghitulescu, who is a remarkable historian, and by working with me in recent years in regards to research. It was a position in which I was generally passive – I was responsible for the historical documentation of I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians. Here, I was given a slightly larger role when it came to discussing the format and content of the film. I would say that I was not so much a co-director, but rather a co-author of this film, which has a special form, and that I had a say on its content and I participated in the discussions on its form. Indeed, this is a different form of knowledge for me, but just as Radu or another director cannot build their historical expertise very quickly, I am not under the illusion that I have become a director overnight, just because this film was well received.

Going back to the subject of the film – I know that this question has been asked before, but I would also like to ask you about the very poor common knowledge that we have in Romania about the Romanian Holocaust. In the Romanian education system, there is no emphasis at all on Romania’s participation in the Holocaust, but rather, kids are only taught about the German Holocaust. What do you think determines this and what can be done in this regard? Radu Jude’s recent films have managed to reopen debates on some enormous historical traumas – and here I am also referring to the topic of Roma slavery. What can be done to achieve a greater social awareness on these sides of our history?

As I have said in the past, the main role in the resuscitation of certain topics of debate on delicate historical phenomena, over the past few years, was played by artists. They dared to do it. I would say that this is a first argument that explains the absence of these subjects in the historiographical debates in Romania, to a large extent: it is simply a lack of courage. Secondly, we are also talking about a very long nationalist tradition in local historiography, which has determined some of these faults. Thirdly, what should be known is that we lost some decades in catching up on these topics – during the communist period, the subject was taboo and the archives were closed. The topic of the Holocaust was reserved for certain ideologized historians, who blamed Germany, and so this is the impression that remained for those who are part of the older generations, namely that the Germans are the main culprits.

Another reason is that this subject is delicate in terms of identity and psychology. It’s delicate in terms of identity because it’s complicated to admit that your grandfather or forefathers, that belonged to a nation from which you claim your heritage, had participated in such unimaginable atrocities and mass murder. Especially because Romanians were taught history in these nationalistic and protochronist traditions, which invite you to speak about your own identity only in terms of praise. The psychological reason is that we are talking about violence, of a kind that has a violent effect on your perception, your senses, and your usual conceptual tools. As you said, the Holocaust is very difficult to represent and it’s very difficult to put it into a traditional conceptual apparatus – this is also why the word ‘Holocaust’ was invented, along with the term ‘genocide’. Taking all of these things into account, it’s clear that a change of perception will take time.

There’s also another reason at play. There has been a resurgence of extremism and radicalism in Romanian political culture. There is a given temptation of radicalism in the context of a political and economic crisis, not to mention the difficult times that we are living through right now, with the pandemic and everything that is going on. And I think that we should expect even worse times. If we’re too optimistic, we’ll just be even more surprised. 

Besides, we are also talking about a huge number of documents. In 1948, there was a trial in which 100 or so war criminals were tried, criminals who had participated in the Iasi Pogrom. The documentation for this case is 120 volumes long and has about 45,000 pages, and is kept at the National Council for Studying the Securitate Archives. Just imagine that is only one out of 50 lawsuits in which war criminals were tried. When people started writing books about the Iasi Pogrom, they only knew about this one, but there were 50 trials that were smaller in size, but that added at least another 50,000 pages of documents to the table. And these things must be read, systematized, and filtered with the rigor of a specialist. And that is something that takes time.

On the other hand, I cannot help but notice – since you mentioned extremism – that incident which took place last year, when historian Mihai Demetriade publicly discusses certain things that he discovered in the Secret Police archives about the Pitesti Experiment, flatly stating that a significant portion of the torturers that acted in those prisons had been Legionnaires of the Iron Guard. As a result of these statements, he received death threats – not just him, but also the moderator of the show in which he spoke about these discoveries, which are, after all, historical and scientific. What does an incident like this tell us about the climate we are living in right now and, and about our unwillingness to discuss uncomfortable aspects of our history, which contradict the perennial narrative that Romanians were only the victims of various imperial powers throughout their history?

Interestingly, in addition to the fact that Mihai Demetriade’s article was written quite some time ago, the subject had already been discussed in the summer school of the Institute for the Study of Jewish History in Romania, in Cristian, where Mihai was our guest, and we had very good debates on this subject. It’s a topic we’ve been discussing for quite a few years. I have the same kind of approach. Mihai’s discovery is not that the torturers were Legionnaires – because this was already known. What was important to note was that the legionary ethos and a certain type of practice, a cult of violence entered into a kind of infernal chemistry with the mechanisms of communist repression, thus exacerbating the distribution of violence in Pitesti prison. That was the discussion.

The fact that this reaction came later is a matter of political-cultural context, and it’s also related to how certain nationalist and conservative organizations have mobilized [to attack Mihai Demetriade]. Many of these were also amongst those that campaigned in favor of the Family Referendum. That shows just how intellectual bullying works and what harm it can do. Because Mihai was subjected to a symbolic lynching campaign against which society does have certain means to defend itself against, because there were several public calls and articles in Mihai’s favor, there were debates. On the other hand, I know from personal discussions with him that he was extremely affected – directly so – by this whole campaign and that, in a way, the damage has already been done. 

I’m just going to give an example. Legionnaires who fled the country after the January 1941 rebellion were held in some labor camps in Germany, and most of them were held in Rostock. There, they were divided into two camps, and some of the Legionnaires were torturing the others, due to a psychosis caused by the rumor of a plot against [Iron Guard leader] Horia Sima’s life, or that the special intelligence services had recruited some of those that were targeted by the acts of torture. They used abominable methods of torture, which were also used in Pitesti, as we will later be able to discover – the functioning of a pseudo-investigation of a sort and of an internal court of the Legionnaires. These are elements that pertain to the radical culture and the cult of violence of the Legionnaires, which all compound into the hellish torments that took place at the Pitesti penitentiary. That’s what Mihai said, and all of this can be supported with very clear documents.

What I have added to this discussion – but the material isn’t yet ready for publication – is that some of the Legionnaires who participated in the tortures that took place in the Pitesti penitentiary had also participated in the Iasi Pogrom. Oftentimes, those who deal with the history of communism have this Adamic approach – the point at which they begin writing the biographies of certain people and history starts in 1945, but these people had a history before that moment. It’s important to know it, to understand their behavior. It’s important to know what they did during the war, what their political preferences were, and whether they were radical activists or not.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.