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 régime, 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.