Bucharest Diary: Roma­ni­a’s Jour­ney from Dark­ness to Light

  • Review
By – March 4, 2019

The vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­can ambas­sadors are drawn from the ranks of For­eign Ser­vice offi­cers, who have ben­e­fit­ed from spe­cial­ized edu­ca­tion and years of expe­ri­ence. Alfred H. Moses, the Unit­ed States ambas­sador to Roma­nia from 1994 to 1997, trav­eled a dif­fer­ent route.

Pri­or to his appoint­ment, Moses was a Wash­ing­ton, D.C. lawyer and the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee. He had vis­it­ed Roma­nia sev­er­al times, and had high-lev­el gov­ern­ment con­tacts as well as close rela­tion­ships with lead­ers of the Roman­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Once he became ambas­sador he was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in help­ing Romania’s large Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, which had been per­se­cut­ed first under the fas­cists, and then, after the end of World War II, under the Communists.

In this high­ly read­able mem­oir, Ambas­sador Moses is faced with the need to explain the com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry of the Balka­ns to read­ers whose knowl­edge of the region may not be exten­sive. He begins with a brief tuto­r­i­al on the devel­op­ment of Roma­nia and the fate of its Jews as bor­ders and alliances changed — from the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire, through two world wars and the dis­so­lu­tion of the Sovi­et regime, to the dawn of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. He shares keen insights into the regimes of pres­i­dents Ceaușes­cu, Ili­es­cu, and Con­stan­ti­nes­cu, exam­in­ing their rela­tion­ships with lead­ers of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and with the Unit­ed States.

While he dis­cuss­es a num­ber of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al issues — includ­ing ter­ror­ism, cur­ren­cy forgery, and busi­ness deal­ings with com­pa­nies rang­ing from Boe­ing to McDonald’s — Moses also shares per­son­al obser­va­tions about the many famous and not-so-famous peo­ple he encoun­tered. These include pres­i­dents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton, Ilie Năs­tase (who became his ten­nis dou­bles part­ner), Richard Hol­brooke and Kati Mar­ton, var­i­ous mem­bers of Con­gress, mil­i­tary brass, and Roman­ian politi­cians. While not a pro­fes­sion­al diplo­mat, Moses express­es him­self diplo­mat­i­cal­ly when nec­es­sary and with an insider’s good humor when appropriate.

As much as he clear­ly enjoyed his two years as Amer­i­can ambas­sador to Roma­nia, Mr. Moses also faced, and often resolved, some seri­ous prob­lems. Through a series of high­ly cre­ative and some­times unortho­dox nego­ti­a­tions involv­ing both the Unit­ed States and Israel, Mr. Moses made it pos­si­ble for sev­er­al thou­sand Jews to emi­grate to Israel. Sim­i­lar­ly, he con­vinced Roman­ian author­i­ties that syn­a­gogues should be dena­tion­al­ized and returned to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. In addi­tion, Moses worked to estab­lish clos­er rela­tions between Roman­ian and Jew­ish cul­tur­al, med­ical, and sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions in Israel and Amer­i­ca. On a per­son­al lev­el, Moses’s wife Car­ol was ill with can­cer dur­ing most of his tenure, requir­ing her to remain in Wash­ing­ton for treat­ment and neces­si­tat­ing him to vir­tu­al­ly com­mute” on a month­ly basis between there and Bucharest.

Moses con­cludes his mem­oir by say­ing, I had the good for­tune to be … more than a wit­ness to his­to­ry. In a brief moment in a far­away coun­try, I helped make it.” And we, his read­ers, are invit­ed along for the ride.

Peter L. Roth­holz head­ed his own Man­hat­tan-based pub­lic rela­tions agency and taught at the Busi­ness and Lib­er­al Arts (BALA) pro­gram at Queens Col­lege. He lives in East Hamp­ton, NY and San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Jew­ish publications.

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