After surviving one of the worst Holocaust pogroms which began exactly 70 years ago in Romania's east, Leizer Finchelstein still wonders how ordinary folk could turn into mass murderers. About 15,000 Jews out of the 45,000 living in the city of Iasi were brutally killed in the summer of 1941. In only a few days between June 28 and July 6, they were forced out of their homes, executed on the streets or forcibly crammed into "death trains", where only a small number survived, according to a report by an international commission of historians headed by Nobel Prize for Peace Elie Wiesel. Huge concrete mass graves scattered in the green hills surrounding Iasi are the silent reminders of the massacre. "The Iasi pogrom is a turning point because Romanian authorities with some participation from the German authorities killed Jews on the streets of the city, in front of the neighbours, friends and acquaintances of those Jews", recounts Paul Shapiro, director of the Centre for advanced Holocaust studies at the US Holocaust memorial museum. "This sent a strong message to the Nazis and to other perpetrators who were just figuring out at that point in time how to commit mass murder", he adds. The "method" tried during the Iasi pogrom was then copied accross Eastern Europe, from Russia to Ukraine and Poland. Shapiro like Finchelstein and dozens of Jews from Israel whose relatives died in the pogrom gathered this week in Iasi to officially mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Finchelstein, a tall and lively 88-year retired carpenter, has never missed a single commemoration. "I had only read about pogroms. Before, I had no clue of what it really meant. I think no one can imagine how terrible it is", he told AFP in an interview. Finchelstein was 17 when he, his parents and eight brothers and sisters were forced out of their house by Romanian soldiers. While walking to the police headquarters where most of the arrested Jews were rounded up, "I saw lots of bodies in the streets of Iasi, lots of blood in the gutter", he recalls. After several hours at the police headquarters, where Jews were beaten and killed by dozens, Finchelstein and hundred of others were taken to the station and forcibly crammed into train cars. "Doors were locked from the outside, all small windows and cracks were sealed. We had no air, no water and the heat was unbearable", he recalls.
"People died like flies. You would see someone standing and then a minute afterwards he was dead". To try and survive, people drank their urine or sweat pressed out of their shirt. Finchelstein was taken out the train in Podu Iloaiei, a village 20 kilometers from Iasi. "We were not human beings anymore. It was like we were coming out of Dante's hell", he says. The survivors were forced to bury those who died in the train in mass graves dug hastily in the Jewish cemetery. About 1,200 Jews rest here. Finchelstein was put in a camp but managed to earn his living by working for a local Christian Orthodox carpenter. In November 1941, he returned to Iasi. But within months he was sent to a forced labour camp in Bessarabia. "When I came back to Iasi after the war, a doctor would not have needed any equipment to make an X-ray. He could directly see my ribs. I had just skin and bones", Finchelstein says. Despite all he went through, he still keeps up hope. "Hope should be the last to die. If I had lost hope, I would not be here." Finchelstein stayed in Iasi after the war while his brothers and sisters moved to Israel. He lived through decades of Communist dictatorship and saw the return to democracy in 1989. After all these years, he still wonders: "how could ordinary people turn into such mass murderers?"