‘What Was Happening to the People in This Country Was Awful’

The Fellowship  |  September 6, 2017

Black and white image of a woman dressed in fur walking alongside a young boy in a suit.
What Was Happening to the People in This Country Was Awful'

Elena, Queen Mother of Romania

Life: May 2, 1896 – November 28, 1982

Why you should know her: The Queen Mother of Romania during World War II, Elena saved the lives of thousands of Jews, many of them orphaned children headed to certain death.

Born in Athens as Princess of both Greece and Denmark, Elena married Romania’s future king in 1921. Their son Michael was crowned in 1940, though General Ion Antonescu took control of the country, for which he would be tried and executed after the war was over.

In the summer of 1941, many of Romania’s Jews were deported. The country’s chief rabbi, Dr. Alexander Safran, and the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nicodem, appealed for these anti-Semitic actions to end, but nothing would persuade Antonescu to stop his Nazi-aligned persecution of the Jews.

Nicodem then pleaded directly to Queen Mother Elena, who was deeply moved by news of the deportations. She, in turn, spoke to Antonescu; the deportations continued, but some were saved, including the famed Jewish writer and historian, Barbu Lazareanu.

As 1941 ended and the deportation and murder of Jews continued, Rabbi Safran again asked for Elena’s help. Elena persuaded the acting prime minister, Mihai Antonescu (no relation to Ion), to allow food, clothing, and medical aid to be sent to the deported Jews who were still alive and living in ghettos or concentration camps. This help saved thousands of lives.

Elena also worked to prevent the deportation of the Jews from Romania’s Old Kingdom. Because of Elena’s efforts, Adolf Eichmann’s Nazi ringleader in Romania wrote: “The Queen Mother told the King that what was happening to the people in this country was awful, that she can no longer stand this…”

Because of this determination on Queen Mother Elena’s part, many deported Jews were allowed to return home in 1943 and 1944, including thousands of orphans. The orphans’ return was delayed by six months, thanks to the evil Eichmann’s intent to murder them, but Elena’s efforts proved successful.

For the thousands of Jewish lives she saved, Queen Mother Elena was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1993.