BUCHAREST, Romania — The graffiti in a northwestern town in Romania — ugly, obscene and anti-Semitic — was clearly meant to shock.
It was scrawled late Friday evening on the outside wall of the childhood home of a man who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and spent the rest of his life preaching against hate: Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
When the act of vandalism was discovered, it drew condemnation from Israel, and one lawmaker in Romania said it could be an important test of a new anti-Semitism law there.
Romanian police have begun an investigation and were analyzing images from surveillance camera footage in the area, authorities said. In a communiqué Saturday, the county council said that there were suspects.
The act of vandalism occurred months after Romania’s Parliament passed a law in June to prevent and combat episodes of anti-Semitism. The law imposes prison sentences of between three months and 10 years for those found guilty of promoting anti-Semitic ideas, concepts and doctrines in the public sphere, including the distribution of anti-Semitic materials and the creation of anti-Semitic organizations.
This built on an earlier law, passed in 2002, that made the public denial of the Holocaust punishable by up to five years in prison, with the same punishment for the dissemination, sale or manufacture of fascist, racist or xenophobic symbols.
“While Romania had legislation on preventing Holocaust denial or xenophobia, there was no distinct mention of anti-Semitism until now,” said Silviu Vexler, the member of Parliament who introduced the recent bill.
He said this recent episode could be an important test, “since it’s the first case to fall under the provisions of the law.”
Romania, which was allied with Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1944, had a prewar Jewish population of about 800,000. Today that number is thought to be fewer than 11,000. A 2004 report by an international commission led by Wiesel estimated that during the war years, 280,000 to 380,000 Jews died in Romania or in areas under its control.
In a statement Saturday, the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its regret over the vandalism at Wiesel’s childhood home, and condemned “any anti-Semitic gestures and any behavior or expression that promotes intolerance and xenophobia.”
Wiesel died in 2016 in Manhattan at the age of 87, and spent most of his adult life in the United States. He was born in Sighetu Marmatiei in 1928. At the age of 15, he was deported to Auschwitz, along with his family and other Jews from the area. His mother and youngest sister died in the camp.
Wiesel, who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II, wrote several dozen books on the Holocaust, including the memoir “Night,” which remained a best-seller decades after it was first published. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
In a statement published on the website of the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania, Alexandru Florian, the institute’s director general, described the graffiti as a “grotesque act.”
It “is not just an attack on Elie Wiesel’s memory,” he said, “but on all the victims of the Holocaust.”
Vexler, the lawmaker, said he believed that in the past a case like this would have been prosecuted under a statute for destruction of property, which was likely to have led to a fine. Under the new law, the culprits could receive stiffer punishment.
But Maximillian Marco Katz, the founding director of MCA Romania, the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, was not so confident that those responsible would be brought to justice.
“Besides the political declarations that we hear, especially in the international arena, actually on the ground we don’t see action being taken against anti-Semitism,” he said.
“Basically, each case we’ve brought to the attention of the prosecution in Romania has been dismissed. In Romania today, you have Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites that are speaking freely — and nothing is done against them.”
Cases took years, he added, even when people clearly violated the ban on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
This is not the first anti-Semitic episode in Romania in recent years. In April 2017, tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest were vandalized the night before Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the time, police said that they had identified three teenagers as responsible. According to Katz, however, there have been few or no repercussions.
“Police said at the time that the parents had been warned, and that’s it,” he said. “The whole issue was dropped and died.”
He was not raising his hopes, he said, about action in response to this latest act of anti-Semitic vandalism.
“I don’t believe they will be caught,” he said. “There is no video surveillance on the building, which is surprising. When you have a building like this, you know at some point in time it will become a target, so you take all the measures necessary.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Kit Gillet © 2018 The New York Times