The history of Jewish ransom is a long one, stretching back to the time of Chazal who made special enactments to keep the practice from getting out of hand. During the first decades of its existence, the State of Israel continued the tradition, not balking at shelling out greenbacks to bring Jews to its shores. Rates depended on the market. During the late 40s and early 50s,Israel paidHungary $1,000 per Jewish emigrant, while Bulgarian Jews were released for a bargain rate of $50 to $350. Between 1956 and 1961,Israel bribed Moroccan authorities to let Jews emigrate viaSpain, and in 1971Israel paid Saddam Hussein a million dollars for the release of 1,246 Jews. But the longest lasting and costliest deal of all wasIsrael’s ransom ofRomania’s Jews that lasted from soon after the end of World War II until the execution of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989.
The Transnistria Failure
Jews never had an idyllic existence in Romania. Even in 1878, when the nations of Europerecognized the independence of Romaniaon condition that all its citizens, including Jews, receive equal rights, Romaniaskirted the issue by the simple measure of claiming its Jews were not citizens. Each Jew must be naturalized on an individual basis before receiving rights. This, of course, was a slow process. Between 1866 and 1904, only 2,000 Jews were naturalized in the whole country. On the other hand, when it came to military service, all male residents of the country were required to serve, whether citizens or not.
In 1937, radical anti-Semites took power and deprived Romanian Jews of any rights they may have possessed. During the war, about 70,000 Romanian Jews were exiled to Transnistria where thousands starved to death. By late 1942, aware that Nazi victory was far from certain, Romaniawas amenable to agreeing to the emigration of the Transnistria Jews to Palestinefor a price. At the time, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews (CJA) based in New York placed an ad in The New York Times of February 16, 1943, advertising the demonic sale: “For sale to Humanity, 70,000 Jews, Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 apiece.Romania is tired of killing Jews. It has killed 100,000 in two years.Romania will give Jews away practically for nothing. Seventy thousand Jews are waiting in Romanian concentration camps:Romania will give these Jews to the Four Freedoms [Allies] for 20,000 Lei ($50) apiece. This sum covers all transportation expenses… AttentionAmerica, the great Romanian bargain is for this month only.” German antagonism to the plan and British reluctance to allow them entry intoPalestine killed whatever chances the scheme had. This complicated tragedy deserves its own article.
Later in the war, fearing the consequences of almost certain defeat, Romaniabegan releasing Jews. From September 6, 1940, to August 13, 1944, seventeen ships carrying 4,987 Jews sailed from Romanian ports. These included the ill-fated Struma that was torpedoed by a Russian submarine leaving 762 dead and one survivor, and the Mefkura, whose shelling by a Soviet warship killed 374 Jews.
At least 350,000 Romanian Jews survived the Holocaust, the remnant of a prewar population of over 800,000. Except for three million Jews of the Soviet Union, this was the largest Jewish population in all of Europe. Terrified of imminent Soviet rule, masses tried to flee to Palestine. By 1949, Israelwas paying ransom for them, shelling out $100 a head for the 1,300 Jews who boarded the Transylvania and left forIsrael in 1950. Many more followed.
Israel Steals the Show
Unable to produce real wealth,Russiaand its satellites were always seeking opportunities to milk dollars from the west. During the 50s, under the Romanian dictator, Gheorghiu-Dej, the DGIE (Romanian secret service) began selling its Jews for ransom through the intermediary Henry Jacober, a compassionate Jewish Hungarian expatriate living inLondonwho had extensive business connections with the Romanian authorities. Hundreds of Romanians, Jewish and non-Jewish, gladly paid ransoms at the rate of $4,000 to $6,000.
“Jacober was approached at his address at55 Park LaneinLondonand given the name of a person to be ransomed,” it was reported. “He then gave the name a reference number, which was quoted in all correspondence, and took the details toBucharest. There the ransom fee was fixed by the Romanian intelligence directorate acting on Dej’s orders and communicated to Jacober, who on his return toBritaingave instructions to those paying the ransom to deposit the sum into Jacober’s account at the Credit Suisse Bank inLucerne,Switzerland. The monies were only paid over to the Romanian authorities after the ransomed person had arrived in the west.”
By the late 50s, the Romanians preferred to work with agricultural products instead of cash. Jacober would arrange the buying of livestock in theNetherlandsand sent it toRomaniain exchange for ransom victims.
When Israeli operatives heard of Jacober’s activities, they determined to grab it for themselves, sending the Israeli agent, Shaike Dan, to point out to Jacober that it might be risky to his health to continue except as a proxy of the new Jewish state. Another agent, Shaul Avigor, was certainIsraelwould never stoop to paying ransom and demanded that the issue be discussed at the highest levels, with none other than David Ben Gurion himself. Shaike described what happened next:
“Ben Gurion listened patiently to Shaul, who spoke about extortion and heard me speak about another opening leading to the immigration of Jews toIsrael. In the end, he said: ‘What Shaike is proposing is very grave… But in Shaike’s words I hear fervor, vision, and belief it will succeed, and I authorize him to act to the best of his understanding.’ Shaul was astounded by Ben Gurion’s reaction and simply did not believe his ears.”
Russia’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, approved the Romanian deal withIsrael’s Mossad and during the subsequent six years, Western firms used Israeli money to build modern farms for pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens, and turkeys to the value of millions of dollars a year.
“By the end of 1964, the [Romanian] Ministry of the Interior had become the largest meat producer inRomania,” a head ofRomania’s secret service wrote. “It owned chicken farms, turkey farms, and pig farms producing tens-of-thousands of animals a year, several cattle farms, and other farms with some 100,000 head of sheep – all with automated slaughterhouses, refrigerated storehouses, and packing plants. To transport the packaged meat it also had aTIR[Europen International Road] fleet of refrigerated Mercedes trucks. In early 1965, a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes factory was added to the ministry’s food line.” The luxury products of these farms were not forRomania’s masses but strictly for export to the west where they generated income of up to $10 million a year. The cash was kept in a secret account accessible only to the President, Gheorghiu-Dej.
Germany Climbs Aboard
Between 1958 and 1965, the year Dej died, 107,540 Romanian Jews immigrated toIsrael, an average of about 13,500 Jews a year. Dej’s successor, Nicolae Ceausescu, initially stopped the trade in Jews in deference to complaints from Arab states, although he retained diplomatic ties withIsraeland was not one of the signers of the infamous United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. Rather, he was sitting on the fence.
But by 1969 he determined to forge economic independence fromMoscowand for that he needed Western dollars, the more the merrier, and better relations with the West.Israelcould help with both. In addition, sending its Jews away would serve Ceausescu’s interest of achieving a racially pureRomania. He did things his own way, getting rid of the middle man, Jacober, and demanding that payment no longer be delivered as livestock, but as cold cash, each Jew fetching his price according to age, education, profession, and family status. The general price was $2,500, and later $3,300 a head.
Dan Shaike began monthly meetings with General Gheorghe Marcu of the Romanian secret service at Romanian embassies inWest Germany,AustriaandSwitzerland. Marcu would bring lists of Jews approved for emigration and Dan brought suitcases of American dollars. The secret protocols were renewed about every seven years. The operation ran smoothly enough except on one occasion when Marcu misplaced a suitcase holding a million dollars in ransom money. Fortunately for his neck, the suitcase was located a few days later atZurichairport.
In addition to direct ransom payments,Israelalso secured interest free loans for Ceausescu by the simple expedient of taking the interest payments on herself, and helped with the buying of military hardware and technological expertise.
Israeldid not have a monopoly in the ransom business. In 1967, when there were already more ethnic Germans inRomaniathan Jews,Romaniamade a similar arrangement withWest Germany, leading Ceausescu to say that “Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities.” AUSreport noted that “despite Ceausescu’s opposition to emigration, [Romania’s] ethnic German population dropped sharply. In 1967 when diplomatic relations withWest Germanywere established, roughly 60,000 ethnic Germans requested permission to emigrate. By 1978, some 80,000 had departed forWest Germany.”
In May 1987, the Romanian minister for foreign affairs Adrian Severin, apologized toGermanyfor “deporting tens of thousands of ethnic Germans to labor camps during Communist rule or selling them by demanding cash from theBonngovernment for emigration permits.”Israelhas never received an apology for the simple reason that neither country ever officially admitted the sale of Romanian Jews.
In 1983, Ceausescu agreed to a fresh agreement for the annual departure of at least 1,500 Jews at $3,300 dollars a head. A new deal made in 1988 continued until December 1989 when Ceausescu and his wife were executed, andRomania’s new leaders terminated Ceausescu’s lucrative deal. It is estimated that during the years of his rule between 1968 and 1989, Ceausescu sold 40,577 Jews toIsraelfor $112,498,800. A deal even Pharaoh never thought of.
(Credit: Radu Ioanid. The Ransom of the Jews: The Story of Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005.)