The town of Cernăuţi, Bukovina is exactly the kind of diverse border town where the most brutal acts of genocide took place. Now known as Chernivtsi and part of modern Ukraine, the town had already changed hands between Austria-Hungary, Romania, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and back to Romania in the first four decades of the 20th Century. When war broke out, the town was a cosmopolitan mix of Jews, Romanians, Germans and Ukrainians, with Jews making up 28% of the population.
Alongside Popovici’s fierce patriotism was a respect for all of Romania’s minority groups.
After the town was recaptured by Romanian and German troops in 1941, Traian Popovici was appointed Mayor. He was an unlikely candidate for the resistance: he admitted to having been an early admirer of the fascist Antonescu, writing in his post-war memoir Confession of Conscience: “I believed in the myth of the strong man, of the honest, energetic, and well-meaning leader who could save a damaged country.”
Yet alongside Popovici’s fierce patriotism was a respect for all of Romania’s minority groups and an aversion to cruelty. Having realised that Antonescu was a brutal antisemite, he was reluctant to take the commission of mayor in the newly conquered city, but was informed that refusal would be considered sabotage.
Once in post, he waged a quiet campaign of bureaucratic resistance against the ever increasing brutality of the regime, using diplomatic obfuscation to delay wherever possible
the implementation of antisemitic laws and deportations. When ordered to build a ghetto for the Jewish population, he framed his objections on aesthetic grounds, persuading the regional governor that barbed wire and wooden boards would be unattractive. When pressure increased, he fabricated a need to study how ghettos were operated and delayed starting work until he had first travelled to Germany to witness them in operation, a trip he was in no hurry to take.
Popovici’s insistence on continuing to hear petitions and support his Jewish constituents soon attracted hostile attention. His enemies dubbed him the “jidovitul”, or “turned-Jewish”, while a local fascist newspaper referred to Jews as the “People of Traian”. Yet in his memoirs he was keen to acknowledge that his efforts to obstruct anti-Jewish policies would not have been possible without the support of others on the town council, who shared his disquiet. Jewish families continued to receive pensions long after such payments had been cancelled everywhere else; Jewish families who could no longer pay rent due to crushing economic sanctions were not evicted from their homes.
These delaying tactics could only last so long, however, and by October the Jewish population were being prepared for deportation into occupied Ukraine, a precursor to extermination. At a meeting to discuss the technicalities of the deportations, Popovici managed to persuade the regime that Jewish people working in certain professions should be spared:
"I demanded protection for the highly educated Jews and those who practiced the beautiful arts. I demanded consideration for those who served the people, retirees, officers, wounded veterans. I demanded that the masters of all industrial branches should be kept. I also demanded, in service of humanity, an exception for physicians. I demanded for the purpose of rebuilding, to spare the engineers and architects. I asked that in the name of intelligence and civilization, judges and lawyers be spared."
19,000 were saved by so-called ‘Popovici Permits’
He was granted permission to draw up a list of 200 people who belonged to these categories. But for reasons that remain unclear to this day, Ion Antonescu himself was somehow persuaded that Popovici should be allowed to exempt up to 20,000 people from deportation. Over 90,000 Jews were deported to Transnistria from the region of Bukovina, the majority of whom never returned. The 19,000 saved by the so-called ‘Popovici Permits’, though less than half of the Jewish population of Cernauti, make up the vast majority of survivors from the region, and Popovici was honoured as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for his efforts.